The Shofar on Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kipper and Succot
By Eli Kahan
Perhaps the most central figure of Rosh Hashannah is the shofar. In Jewish customs and traditions, the shofar on Rosh Hashannah has paramount importance. Why? What is the unique specialty of this less than musical instrument, that the long liturgy of Rosh Hashanah prayers center about this?
To understand the importance of the shofar, perhaps it is important also to understand what is the relevance of Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah is called the beginning of the New Year. In the Rosh Hashanah prayers we say that this is the day the world has been created. Yet we know that according to Jewish tradition that the world was created in six days, so how could this be THE day that the world was created?. Perhaps we should have a week to celebrate the week in which the world was created.
Rosh Hashanah is the day that the first man was created, which was on the six day of creation. The entire creation until this day, the world full of vegetation, was not considered complete, nor the world entire, with the addition of the entire animal kingdom was not considered complete either. Only with the addition of two things, man and the Sabbath, was the world considered complete.
Man was needed to be created in order to bring completion to the world. And the Sabbath was necessary in order for man to realize his own perfection through the observation of the God ordained rest.
Rosh Hashanah, then, is a recollection of that original creation, that man was created with an obligation to relate to God and accept upon himself God's dictates.
In days of old, before the advent of electricity, when a catastrophe came upon a town or village, the townsmen were called to assemble in the village square by the shofar's call. Like today's air raid sirens, the shofar was the special instrument through which the men were assembled. When the villagers heard the shofar being blown, they knew that some unknown catastrophe had occurred. Their hearts would tremble as they hurried to the village square. Was it an invasion by an enemy horde, was it a house on fire? No one could hear the shofar call, without anxiety arising in their hearts.
Today, we are far removed from the call of the shofar. When we hear the shofar being blown in the synagogue, instead of trembling from trepidation, we stand idly wondering what is it all about.
The call of the shofar comes to remind us to return to God. Remember that He created the world, remember that He sits in judgement over not just each individual, for on this day, the anniversary of the creation of man, He reviews his creation. Is it worthy? Is each individual worthy? Is mankind worthy? Shall they have a year of plenty, or perhaps a year of famine. Should they have a year of peace, or perhaps a year of war.
On Rosh Hashanah we all stand in front of God in judgement.
Did we acknowledge God in the world, did we acknowledge God in our life? Did we try to come closer to Him, or did we drift further away? Each person as an individual, and each nation as a group is judged.
Did we try in good faith to do as He requested from us, or did we fall under the desires of the heart. Rosh Hashanah is the time to return to God. This is the time that the sincere feelings in our heart are measured, and not the insincere expressions we utter with our mouths.
On Rosh Hashannah, we are judged in view of our relationship to God. Did we try to improve it? Did we try to come closer to God? Or did we backslide, did we get further distant from Him. This day is set aside for introspection. We look into our lives, our actions and relationships. Did we act in the manner prescribed by God? Or did we go against Him in our actions. Without a truthful inner reflection, we only mock this holy day. On Rosh Hashanah, we do a spiritual accounting.
The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is the period for much introspection. We must strive to improve. That we have admitted our lackings and errors, means little if we do not exert ourselves to improve. How can we come to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, if we have not tried to better ourselves?
This period in which we try to improve is important. It shows our sincerity and resolve, it reflects upon our deep acceptance of God as a major player in our life and our desire to make amends. With out this period how can we actually make any plead for atonement? With out showing the Judge that we accept upon ourselves His authority and righteousness, how can we ask for leniency in our decree? Only because we have done self reflection and true resolve, which manifests itself in changing our actions, can we enter a plea for mercy.
On Yom Kippur, the great day of atonement, we petition God Himself, to grant us a pardon. We have acted improperly in certain actions, we admit it. God, you are the merciful judge, You see the position and predicament that we have been placed in. Why did you put us in these positions? Have mercy upon us and grant us a year, in which we promise to utilize your blessings to come closer to You. And you know what? That is just what He wants.
The shofar comes to wake us up from our spiritual sleep. It takes something strong to wake up a sleeping man. (Take a shofar and blow it near the ear of your friend and see what happens! It makes an alarm clock look tame.)
So what does God, in his kindness do? He gives us the holiday of Succoth as if saying, you asked for mercy, you wanted to be closer to Me, you wanted to be more spiritual. Go dwell with Me. Leave your comfortable house and move out into a Succa, He tells us. There we shall see your resolve and dedication.
May you, together with all mankind, have a year of plenty, a year of peace and health, and a year of getting closer to God.
from the September, 1999 High holiday Edition of the Jewish Magazine