By Ehud Ben Ami
We are all basically familiar with the custom that starting on the first of Elul, the shofar is blown in all the synagogues after the morning service. We know that our customs have been around for many years and have deep reasons, but this one custom is perhaps more interesting than most.
Most people if asked, will tell you that the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul is to awaken that spark inside our hearts to remind us to return once again to G-d, since Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgement, is coming up.
This is true, of course, but why should a shofar be blown? Could not something else be used, maybe banging on a pot or someone announcing in the synagogue that Rosh Hashanah is coming?. True, we blow a shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and so the shofar blowing in Elul does remind us of the shofar that is blown on Rosh Hashanah, but still, what is the reason that a shofar is blown? Why not blow also, or in its place, a trumpet or saxophone?
Actually, I was surprised to find that the origin of this custom dates back to over two thousand years ago. It is brought down in a book call the "Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer". This book is a collection of teachings that were compiled by none other than Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol, the teacher of Rabbi Akiva! Now that's pretty heavy!
In this book, Rabbi Eliezer quotes Rabbi Yehosua ben Korcha who explains that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (the first time) with the first tablets of the laws (the Ten Commandments) and he saw the Jews dancing around an idol, he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them. This was on the seventeenth of Tamuz.
During the next forty-day period he was occupied with executing all of those who engaged in idolatry and grinding the golden calf (which was the idol) into dust.
At the end of this forty-day period, which begins on the eighteenth of Tamuz and finishes on the last day of Av, the next day is the first of Elul. On this day, G-d said to Moses, ascend to the top of the mountain and blow a shofar throughout the camp. This was so that when Moses would ascend the mountain, the Jews would not make the horrible mistake and involve themselves in idolatry.
The teaching continues, that as the shofar was blown, G-d himself ascended to the mountain as it is written in Psalms (47:6) "G-d ascends with the shofar sound, the L-rd is with the shofar."
Therefore, concludes, the teaching of Rabbi Yehosua ben Korcha, each year on the first day of Elul we blow the shofar. We however, seeing a good thing, have extended it for the entire month, with the exclusion of the last day.
Now that we have gotten to the truth of the matter it certainly is nice and comfy to know that our customs and traditions have a few (?) good centuries of practice behind them. What we should know is that there is more than a deep intellectual concept behind this, but really an action, that brings us benefits, both in the physical world and in the spiritual world.
The teaching shows us how the shofar reminded the Jews that although Moses had ascended onto the mountain, that he would re-appear bringing us an ability to achieve even greater spiritual heights than we had reached before. It also warned us, that we would pay for our mis-deeds.
The shofar at that time in history was the chief instrument for alarming a population that a danger is impending. Like a siren today that is sounded to warn people to seek shelter or prepare for battle with the enemy, the shofar was used to awaken the population to an impending danger, such as an attack.
Prior to this time period, the shofar was used only to assemble the people for extremely important matters. All who would hear the shofar would immediately drop all of their mundane affairs and run to the center of the camp to see what was so important that the shofar was sounded.
When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, the shofar was sounded, this time instead of as a calling to assemble, to remind the people of the impending danger of inappropriate behavior. It worked, and Moses descended from Mount Sinai forty days later, which was the tenth of Tishre, the day that has become famous for forgiveness, Yom Kippur. In his hands he had the second tablets (of the Ten Commandments). The Jews, of course, rejoiced at seeing Moses this time.
We also today sound that very shofar, for time exists for us today, as it did then in history. On each day, the light of history shines into our lives. We are able to utilize the historic occasions to raise our level of service to G-d to a loftier level, and in doing so, we are elevating ourselves.
Elul is now the period of introspection. Examining ourselves for spots of idolatry. It is where we can begin again to serve G-d as we were created to do so.
from the September 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine