Rosh Hashanah – The Shofar



Rosh Hashanah (השנה ראש) is the Jewish New Year which occurs on the 1st of Tishrei (biblically) and continues on the 2nd of Tishrei (rabbinically) even in the land of Israel. This article will focus on the following motifs of this holiday using the pardes method of exposition (i.e. literal meaning, exegesis, allusions, and secrets of the Torah), drawn from the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar with associated commentaries:

  1. Blowing of the shofar – שופר תקיעת.
  2. Type of shofar – קרן vs. שופר.

Literal Meaning – פשט

The written Torah is very brief about this holiday providing only 8 verses about this holiday (i.e. Leviticus 23:24-25 and Numbers 29:1-6) most of which deal with sacrificial offerings in the temple. The written Torah does not specifically address the Day of Judgment or returning to Hashem but tersely mentions the requirement to blow an instrument תרועה. The Torah does not specify the instrument or the method of blowing. In addition as Moses reviewed the laws in Deuteronomy he did not directly mention this holiday.

At this point the reader may ask, “Why did the Torah provide such scant details of the shofar?” The following sections will address this question and provide several insights.   

Exegesis – דרש 

Source for Shofar

As mentioned above the Torah did not specify the instrument for blowing on Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) specifically asks, “From where do we derive that the blasts of Rosh Hashanah must be sounded with a shofar?” The Talmud answers that we derive this law by comparing it to the laws of the Jubilee year, implying that there is not a direct reference to the shofar of Rosh Hashanah. Leviticus 25:9 specifies that a shofar must be sounded on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year to indicate that the Hebrew servants are set free and land in Israel is returned to its original owners (ibid.10). However what is the link between Rosh Hashanah and the Jubilee Year? The Talmud answers that this is derived by an apparent redundancy in verse 9 where Yom Kippur is defined as the 10th day of the 7th month. However this fact, Yom Kippur occurring on the 7th month, is known from an earlier verse in Leviticus, namely (Ibid. 23:27),”On the 10th day of the 7th month is the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), a holy convocation for you (the Israelites).”  Hence the Talmud concludes that all blowing on the 7th month must be done with a shofar. This technique of comparing similar and apparent redundant phrases is called in Hebrew a שוה גזרה, which is the second rule of the thirteen rules of Torah interpretation listed by Rabbi Yishmael. This technique may only be applied by a rabbi of the time of the Talmud or earlier who has received this teaching as a direct tradition from Moses at Sinai.

The reader may remark that this derivation is somewhat obscure and ask, “Why did the Torah not simply mention the shofar for Rosh Hashanah or clearly state that the laws of the Jubilee and Rosh Hashanah are similar?” In the author’s opinion the answer lies with a Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 29:4) which quotes the following verse (Psalms 89:16), “ Fortunate is the people (Israelites) that know the sounding of the shofar, Hashem, may they walk (or because they walk) in the light of Your(divine) countenance.” The Midrash then asks, “Do not the nations have elaborate orchestras with many wind instruments, they surely know how to perform.” The answer is that they do not know the specific rules of the shofar (i.e. what type of instrument and number of blasts) and therefore cannot attain divine grace through this sounding on the Day of Judgment. It is interesting to note that the previous verse actually mentions judgment, “Righteousness and judgment are the basis of Your (divine) throne; kindness and truth come before Your countenance.”

Method of Blowing

The Torah identifies two terms for shofar blasts as shown below. This table provides the English transliteration of the terms, the actual Hebrew word, definition of the term, and first verse in the Torah containing the actual term or a derivative form.

TekiahתקיעהLong blastNumbers 10:5
TeruahתרועהSmaller blastsLeviticus 23:24

In addition to these two terms, the Talmud (ibid.) specifies that the shofar must be sounded according to these rules:

  1. Each teruah must be preceded and followed by a tekiah for a set of three sounds.
  2. Each set must be repeated 3 times for a total of 9 sounds as shown in the following table.

The reader may ask, “How are these rules derived from the Torah since there is no specific mention of these rules in the Torah?” The Talmud (ibid.) asks and answers this question through a detailed derivation from Leviticus 25:9. The verse begins, “You shall sound the shofar with a blast of teruah.” In this verse the word for sound, in Hebrew והעברת, means you shall cause to pass through (using the conversive past tense to indicate future tense), which the Talmud interprets as a blast without interruption (i.e. tekiah). Since the word for sounding והעברת, appears before the word teruah we know that a teruah is preceded by a tekiah. Similarly the verse ends, “You shall sound the shofar throughout your land.” In this phrase the word for sound is תעבירו which literally means you shall cause to pass through (in the direct future tense). The Talmud also interprets this sound as a blast without interruption (i.e. tekiah). Since the word for sounding תעבירו occurs after the word teruah we know that a teruah is followed by a tekiah. Hence we see the derivation of rule 1 based upon the opening and closing phrases of Leviticus 25:9.

The Talmud (ibid.) derives the second rule of three sets by noting that the word תרועה is mentioned 3 times in reference to the shofar blowing, twice for Rosh Hashanah (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1) and once for the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:9). The reader may object to this derivation by observing that the word תרועה is also mentioned 3 times in reference to the blowing of the silver trumpets (Numbers 10:5 – once and 10:6 twice) to summon the assembly and prepare the camps to journey (ibid 10:2). However these three times may not be combined with those of the shofar to make a total of 6 sets because the contexts are different:

  1. Shofar vs. trumpet.
  2. 7th month vs. specific conditions (i.e. distress – war, epidemic, or drought; Sabbath and festive days in the Temple).

Type of Notes

In addition to the basic set of 3*3 blasts the Talmud (ibid.) debates the nature of the teruah and concludes that there are the following variations:

EnglishHebrewNumber of NotesSignificance
Shevarim and  Teruahתרועה – שברים3 + 9Groaning and Wailing

As shown in the table, the teruah consists of 9 notes. However the implementation varies between the Ashkenazi and Sephardim customs. According to the Ashkenazi custom the teruah consists of 9 staccato notes corresponding to a wailing sound (Orach Chaim 590:3). However the Middle Eastern Sephardim blow a continuous wavering sound (with 9 successive modulations) like a siren to correspond to the wailing sound (Tur ibid.). By contrast the shevarim (literally broken sound) consists of 3 longer blasts corresponding to a groaning sound. The third variation combines both sounds. The reader may ask, for sake of consistency why is there not a fourth variation, namely teruah and then shevarim? The Talmud (ibid. 34a) asks this exact question and explains that the shofar blowing follows human reaction to a calamity first groaning and then wailing but not the reverse. 

The halachic codifiers dispute the nature of these variations. Is it custom, meaning that any of the three variations are valid and we blow according to all three variations simply to standardize the prayer service? Or is it a doubt, caused by the many years in exile, meaning some of the variations may not be valid in Halacha and therefore we have to blow according to all of these variations?  Rav Sherira Gaon (10th century authority in Halacha in Babylon) and his son Rav Hai Gaon ruled according to the former opinion. Maimonides in the Laws of Shofar 3:2 ruled according to the latter opinion.

Sets of Notes

In any event, the current practice is to blow all of the variations using the 3*3 method as shown in the above table (ibid. 590:2) resulting in a total of 30 notes (12+9+9). Hence every time the word, תרועה appears in the above table we apply תרועה – שברים, שברים, or תרועה resulting in the following three sets of blowing.

Shevarim and Teruah together – Set 1 (12 notes)

תקיעהתרועה – שבריםתקיעה
תקיעהתרועה – שבריםתקיעה
תקיעהתרועה – שבריםתקיעה

Shevarim alone – Set 2 (9 notes)


Teruah alone – Set 3 (9 notes)


Duration of Notes

Neither the written nor the oral Torah specify the time duration for each type of sound. Rather the Halacha (ibid. 590:3) defines the duration in relative terms. The following table lists the name of the sounds in English and Hebrew, number of notes, duration of each note (where applicable), and total duration. The tekiah is a long blast which should be equal to or greater than the duration of middle blasts for each of the three different sets. The long tekiah applies to the set where shevarim and teruah are blown together. The short tekiah applies to the sets where shevarim and teruah are blown alone. Shevarim consists of three blasts, where each blast is 3 time units, for a total duration of 9 time units. Teruah consists of 9 short blasts where each blast is a single time unit for a total of 9 time units. Some authorities allow 3 blasts for teruah but the standard practice is 9 (ibid). The halachic decisors debate whether one is allowed to blow more than 3 notes for each shevarim or 9 notes for each teruah or one must keep the limit at 3 and 9 respectively. The MIshnah Berurah (590:11) allows a person to exceed the limit of 3 for shevarim but prefers to keep the limit at 3. By contrast the Aruch Hashulchan (590:6) allows a person to exceed both limits of 3 and 9. They both agree that one should not blow less than 3 sounds each for shevarim and teruah. As mentioned above the time unit is not specified in Halacha but is typically between 0.15 – 0.4 seconds. In addition the duration of each note of the shevarim must be greater than each note of teruah and less than the straight blast of tekiah or in mathematical terms:  Teruah < Shevraim < Tekiah.

EnglishHebrewDurationNumberTotal Duration
Tekiah – Longתקיעה18118
Tekiah – Shortתקיעה919

Blowing in the Amidah

The rabbis of the great assembly established the practice of adding three themes (i.e. Hashem’s  kingdom, remembrance, and Shofarot – revelation) to the Rosh Hashanah prayer (amidah) and blowing the shofar at these blessings (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 32a and b). A separate article will discuss the meaning and application of these blessings. However the Talmud did not specify the exact number and type of blasts for each blessing or whether or not the blowing of the shofar occurs in the silent prayer in addition to the blowing in the repetition of this prayer. As a result there are different customs to implement this shofar blessing each with a rationale. The reader may ask, “How could there be such a difference in practice since all Israelites share the same Torah and Talmud?” The answer is that these details were not specified in the Torah or in the Talmud and were left to the discretion of the different communities.

For example the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 592:1 specifies three approaches to blowing at these blessings as shown in the following table. The table lists the blessings, methods of Rav Karo (author of Shulchan Aruch), method of Rav Moses Isserles (Rema) primary Ashkenazi commentator on Shulchan Aruch, and the number of times the set is blown once for a symbolic unit or 3 times for a full set.

BlessingRav Karo – Method 1Rav Karo – Method 2Rema
Hashem’s KingdomSet 1 – onceSet 1 – 3 timesSet 1 – once
RemembranceSet 2 – onceSet 2 – 3 timesSet 1 – once
Shofarot – RevelationSet 3 – onceSet 3 – 3 timesSet 1 – once

However the current practice follows the opinion of the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz a prominent rabbi and mystic who lived during the 16th and 17th century in central Europe and later settled in Israel), who ruled as follows for a total of 30 notes:

BlessingShelahNumber of Notes
Hashem’s KingdomSet 1,2, and 3 – once10
RemembranceSet 1,2, and 3 – once10
Shofarot – RevelationSet 1,2, and 3 – once10

This method has the advantage of consistency (i.e. each blowing is the same for all three blessings) and covers the three different opinions of teruah (i.e. shevarim – teruah, shevarim, and teruah).

There is also a dispute among the halachic codifiers of the propriety of blowing the shofar in the silent (actually undertone) prayer. The Mishnah Berurah (definitive commentary on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of the 19th and 20th century) holds that one should not blow the shofar in this prayer because this may confuse the congregation (Mishna Berurah 592:1). In addition since each individual prays at a different pace the blowing may occur in the middle of a blessing and not at the end where it should be as in the repetition of this prayer. However the Sephardim follow the ruling of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (famed Kabbalist of the 16th century and considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah) to blow the shofar in this prayer to combine the divine energy of the individual prayer with the divine protection afforded by the shofar.     

100 Shofar Blasts

In addition to the shofar blasts in the prayer, there is a custom to blow more blasts after the prayer to reach a total of 100 notes as shown in the following table. This custom is not mentioned in the Talmud or in Shulchan Aruch but is cited by Mishnah Berurah (596:2) in the name of the Shelah. This custom is mentioned by the medieval commentators and codifiers, Tosafot Rosh Hashanah 33b and the Tur Shulchan Aruch (592), as a stringent ruling. The rationale for this custom is also a matter of dispute with the following approaches:

  1. Sisera’s mother
  2. Binding of Isaac and Death of Sarah.

Sisera’s Mother

The Arukh written by Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel (11th century scholar of Rome) explains this custom in terms of the wailing of the mother of Sisera (Judges 5:28), “Through the window (החלון) she peered and through the lattice Sisera’s mother wailed (ותיבב); why has he (her son) delayed its coming?” The gematria of החלון is 99 and using the inclusive property of gematria (כולל עם) where the word itself, in addition to its letters, is included as one leads to the number of 100 (i.e. 99+1). In addition the word for wailing ותיבב uses the root יבב which is the same expression that Targum Onkelos (Aramaic translation of the Torah) uses in Leviticus 23:24 for the word teruah for the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (i.e.  תרועה in Hebrew translates to יבבא in Aramaic). In fact the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 33b similarly links the sound of the teruah to the wailing of Sisera’s mother. Hence we have an indication of 100 blasts of the shofar. In addition a Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Judges 4:3), tells us that indeed she cried (or sighed) 100 times. At this point the reader may ask the following questions:

  1. What does the mother of Sisera have to do with Rosh Hashanah?
  2.  Is there another reason for this custom?

Admittedly the reason for this custom needs additional explanation with many attempts to explain the analogy of Sisera’s mother to an Israelite on Rosh Hashanah.

Background on Sisera

This section of the article will provide some background information to the cries of Sisera’ mother and the death of her son and then offer some explanations to this analogy. Sisera was the general of King Jabin of Hazor (Judges 5:7) who waged war against the Israelites. The prophetess Deborah advised the Israelites to trust in Hashem and wage war against Sisera (ibid. 6), even though some tribes feared that they did not possess the military prowess to defeat Sisera (ibid. 16). She further prophesized that the Israelites will be victorious (ibid. 7) but since Barak, the general of the Israelites, hesitated the final victory (i.e. killing of Sisera) will not be done by his army rather by a female civilian (ibid. 9) who will kill Sisera. Sisera’s mother was concerned when her son did not return from battle (ibid. 28) and began to cry. She had expected an easy victory with her son bringing back an abundance of spoils as reassured by her ladies (ibid. 29-30). In fact her fears were founded because Sisera’s army was defeated in battle (ibid. 21-22) and her son would die through the hands of Yael (ibid. 24-27).

Explanation of Analogy – Sisera’s mother
  1. By analogy on Rosh Hashanah, we should expect a favourable judgment and a sweet year like the victory of the Israelites. However we should not be overconfident like Sisera’s mother who was unsure of her son’s fate.  Hence the sounding of the shofar, especially the teruah, should remind us of the cries of Sisera’s mother and lead us to return to Hashem (תשובה) with a full heart. However the analogy is not complete, because the endings are quite different (i.e. death of Sisera vs. a good year).     
  2. Some suggest that when Sisera’s mother cried for her son, her heart-rending cries were so deeply felt that they were able to arouse Din (strict justice) against the Jewish people throughout the generations. This Din is offset by the 100 Shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah which arouse the Jewish people to repent (תשובה) from the depths of their hearts.
  3. It is common for a person to wail 100 times when the life of someone dear to him is at stake (whether the person wailing is Jewish or not). The 100 shofar blasts arouse a person to wail 100 times for his and his family’s well-being. In fact Leviticus Rabbah 27:7 states that a woman may wail up to 100 hundred times in childbirth because of the risk of dying through childbirth.

Binding of Isaac and Death of Sarah

Due to the difficulties in the above explanations, Rabbi David Abudraham (14th century commentator on synagogue liturgy) explains the reason for 100 shofar blasts (in his work popularly known as Sefer Abudraham page 72d) in terms of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) and his mother’s reaction to his binding (ibid. 23:2). Like the Pesikta Rabbati, a collection of Midrashic homilies complied in the 9th century, (Chapter 40) and Zohar (3:18a), Rabbi Abudraham holds that the binding of Isaac occurred on Rosh Hashanah and that Sarah wailed 100 times when she heard of his binding leading to her death. Hence we see the connection to 100 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah and the analogy of life vs. death on this Day of Judgment.

Numerology of 100

The author would like to add some word associations to this idea based upon the numerology of 100. These associations do not establish the custom rather they provide some insights to the selection of 100 blasts. Hashem’s sovereignty is one of themes of Rosh Hashanah and at least 10 verses are included in the prayers to reflect this theme. One of the biblical verses is Exodus 15:18, “Hashem shall reign for (ימלך – gematria 100) all eternity.”  Another verse with a word of Hashem’s kingdom, although not included in the mussaf prayer, is Psalms 5:3, “Hearken to the voice of my cry, my King (מלכי – gematria 100) and my G-d, for I will pray to You (divine).”  

Summary of 100 Notes

The following table lists the number of notes according to theAshkenazi and Sephardic customs and indicates the different times with respect to the amidah prayer where the shofar is blown. There are also different practices when the 40 or 10 (Ashkenazi or Sephardic customs respectively) are sounded after the mussaf prayer in the kaddish directly following the amidah or after the Aleinu prayer (Mishna Berurah 592:4).

PrayerAshkenazi CustomSephardic Custom

To summarize this extensive discussion on the blowing of the shofar the author would like to make the following points:

  1. The codifiers of the Halacha attempt to perform the commandments and thereby serve Hashem in an optimal fashion taking into account many factors.
  2. There may be more than one way to serve Hashem and therefore there are different customs among many communities.
  3. The different customs may not violate any principles or jurisprudence of the written or oral law and therefore codifiers of Halacha must be expert in these domains before ruling on these matters. (It goes without saying that these codifiers must be observant themselves and recognized for their scholarship and piety.)

Type of shofar

Although the Torah commands the blowing of a shofar on the Jubilee year and through derivation on Rosh Hashanah, the Torah does not specify the parameters for a valid shofar. However the Talmud identifies the characteristics of the shofar, as follows:

  1. Must be a naturally hollow horn (Rosh Hashanah 26a).
  2. Must be called shofar in scripture (שופר) (ibid. 26a).
  3. Preferably bent (or curved) (ibid. 26b).
  4. Best way, a ram’s horn (ibid. 16a).

Hollow horn

The shofar must come from a hollow horn as the word shofar (שופר) is derived from the Hebrew word (שפופרת) which means tube (Ran on Rosh Hashanah 6a). (The Ran whose full name is Rabbi Nissim of Gerona was an influential Talmudist and authority on Jewish law of the 14th century who lived in Spain). A valid horn for a shofar is a shell formed from keratin that sheathes a bony protrusion on the animal’s skull. When the bone is removed the hollow shell remains which is then cleaned and used for the shofar. A solid horn is invalid for a shofar since this type of horn is exclusively called קרן in scripture. By contrast a hollow horn may be called either שופר or קרן in scripture. In addition to the legal definition of shofar, the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 29:6) explains that the hollow shofar represents a conduit to receive the divine blessing without impediment. Therefore a man made hollowing of the shofar would not reflect this unimpeded divine blessing.

Must be called shofar

In addition to the requirement of hollow, the horn must also be called shofar (שופר) in scripture which produces the following anomaly. The horns of a bull or cow are in fact hollow but are nevertheless disqualified as a shofar because they are not called shofar (שופר), rather they are classified as קרן. In addition to this technical reason the Talmud (ibid. 26a) provides the following addition reasons for the disqualification of these horns:

  1. A hollow horn from the bovine family would remind the Israelites of the sin of the golden calf and therefore is not appropriate for this Day of Judgment. Although the Torah commands that bulls be offered in the temple on Rosh Hashanah (Numbers 28:11 and 29:2), the Talmud (ibid.) explains that restriction of not using bovine animals only applies to services performed within the sanctuary building. By contrast these bulls were offered on the outdoor altar in the temple complex. Although the shofar is blown outside the temple, the Talmud (ibid.) considers this blowing as significant as an offering in the Holy of Holies.
  2. The bovine horn grows in different sections from year to year and appears as a shofar within a shofar and is therefore not valid.  

Curved horn

The shofar should be preferably bent (curved) to indicate that one’s heart should be bent (subdued) to Hashem on this Day of Judgment (ibid. 26b). In addition, Rashi explains this bending physically, meaning that one should pray face down. Since the animal horn used for a shofar can be naturally bent or straight this characteristic is preferable but not essential.

 Ram’s horn

The best choice for a shofar is a ram’s horn which commemorates the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:9-12) and the substitution of the ram for Isaac (ibid. 13). From a secular viewpoint a ram is a male sheep aged over 12 months, whereas any sheep under the age of 12 months is called a lamb. Female sheep are called ewes. From the Torah viewpoint a ram is a male sheep aged over 13 months (Mishna Parah 1:3). Since the choice of a ram’s horn is not mandated from the Torah even the horn of a sheep (male or female) fulfills the requirement of remembrance of the binding of Isaac (Mishnah Berurah 586:2). However the ram still remains the best choice for a shofar (ibid.).

The following table summarizes the above discussion showing the preference in shofar type (i.e. animal and form) and the source for the law in Talmud Rosh Hashanah.

Best -המובחר מןRamBent (Curved)16a, 26b
Outset – לכתחלהValid animalBent (Curved)26b
After the fact – בדיעבדValid animalStraight26a

Hints and allusions – רמז

Generally the Torah does not provide reasons for the mitzvoth, rather the commandments are observed as a direct instruction from Hashem. Even in the cases where the Torah provides an apparent reason for a mitzvah, this reason is more related to a moral teaching rather than an exact reason for the mitzvah. However throughout the ages many commentators have attempted to provide some degree of rationale for the mitzvoth.

From man’s viewpoint

In particular Maimonides, in his Laws of Returning to Hashem 3:4, explains a rationale for the mitzvah of shofar as follows,” Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree (הכתוב גזרת), it contains an allusion (רמז). It is as if the shofar’s call is saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep… Inspect your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year… look to your souls, improve your ways and deeds, and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.” In effect the shofar is a wakeup call to turn from (excessive) physicality to spirituality through the study of the Torah and performing the mitzvoth, both between man to Hashem and man to man, especially during the 10 days of returning to Hashem.

 In a similar vein the prophet Ezekiel (33:2-5) considers the shofar as a warning call of an impending enemy, blown by a hired watchman. The person who fails to heed the call is responsible for his own suffering. By analogy the shofar warns a person to return to Hashem during these 10 days and avoid the enemy of sin. The watchman could be represented by a rabbi or teacher who guides his congregation or students to follow the ways of Hashem. The verses read as follows:

2 –  “Son of man, speak to the members of your people and say to them: When I bring armed attackers upon a land, and the people of the land take one man from among themselves and appoint him for them as a lookout.”

3 – “He sees the army coming upon the land, sounds the shofar, and warns the people.”

4 – “Whoever hears the sound of the shofar and does not take heed, and the army comes and takes him, his blood will be upon his own head.”

5 – “He heard the sound of the shofar and did not take heed; his blood will be upon him, for had he taken heed, he would have saved his life.”

Admittedly these verses are a harsh warning about the enemy of man (i.e. sin). However Hashem is filled with mercy and does not judge according to the letter of the law, as the Psalmist says (130:3), “If You (divine) would preserve iniquities, who would survive?” Nevertheless the analogy teaches that all should make an effort to return to Hashem during this time, each according to his way.

The prophet Amos focuses on the actual sound of the shofar to remind and inspire a person to return to Hashem as described in the following verses from Chapter 3:

6 – “Will a shofar be sounded in the city and the people not quake? Will there be a punishment in the city, if Hashem has not done it?

7 – “For the Hashem does nothing unless He has revealed His secret to His servants, the prophets.”

These verses teach that the shofar serves as a clarion call, teaching that nothing in this world occurs without the knowledge of Hashem. In addition the shofar warns of an impending enemy, by analogy this enemy is represented by sin, drawing man away from Hashem. Although, in the present, we do not have prophets to warn us, the sages are the servants of Hashem and advise us to return to Hashem during these 10 days (Rosh Hashanah 18a).

Meaning of Shofar

Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 29:7 also notes that the word shofar (שופר) shares the same letters as the verb (שפר) which means to improve or beautify oneself. Hence the Midrash concludes that on Rosh Hashanah one should strive to improve one’s actions between man and man and man to Hashem. In addition this Midrash notes that the shape of the shofar, narrow at the blowing end and much wider at the end were the sound emerges, teaches us that man must make an effort in difficult situations (i.e. narrow end) and then Hashem will respond with bounty (i.e. wide end) both physically and spiritually. The distinction between narrow and wide ends of the shofar also applies in Halacha. The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 586:12 rules that if one reversed the ends by enlarging the narrow end shrinking the wide end the shofar is invalid. In addition if one blew at the wide end of a regular shofar the blowing is also invalid (ibid. 586:12 Rema and 590:9).  

From Hashem’s viewpoint

When attempting to find rationales for mitzvoth one must consider the mitzvah both from the effect on man and the corresponding will of Hashem. The understanding of the will of Hashem will be discussed in section, Secrets of the Torah based upon the Zohar.


This section of the article will examine the mitzvah of the shofar through an historical context (i.e. past, present, and future) following the direction of Leviticus Rabbah 29:10.


Creation of World

Hashem created Adam on Rosh Hashanah and consequently became the recognized sovereign of the world (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 8a, 10b, and 27a). We blow the shofar since it is customary to sound the trumpets at the coronation of a king.

Binding of Isaac

This Midrash focuses on the binding of Isaac as the historical source for the mitzvah of shofar, interpreting Genesis 22:13 through the allusion method. The verse states, “Abraham raised his eyes and behold a ram which was caught in the thicket by its horns.” In the literal sense the ram is caught in the thicket. However through allusion the Midrash understands that the ram represents the Israelites and the thicket refers to entanglement with sin or persecution by foreign nations. The horns of the ram allude to the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah.    

Revelation at Sinai

Hashem revealed himself to the Israelites on Mount Sinai when giving the Torah amidst the sounds of a shofar (Exodus 19:16, 19:19, and 20:15). In fact these three verses are mentioned in the mussaf prayers of Rosh Hashanah in the section of the shofar blasts. It is interesting to note that the first mention of the word shofar in the Torah occurs in this section linking the shofar to commitment to Torah and divine revelation. In these verses the word shofar (שפר) is written without the letter vav (ו), perhaps indicating that the Israelites were not fully ready to accept the Torah, especially in regard to their stumbling at the Golden Calf. By contrast in Leviticus 25:9 the word shofar is written in full (שופר).  Although not mentioned in this Midrash, the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 19:19 states that the shofar is a propitious sign for the Israelites. This sign implies that the shofar is a herald call to return to Hashem especially at the Day of Judgment.    

Battle of Jericho

Chapter 6 of the book of Joshua describes the battle of Jericho where Hashem commanded the Israelites, through Joshua, to circle the city once each day for six days (ibid. 3) with seven priests each blowing one shofar before the ark (ibid. 4). Hashem further commanded that on the seventh day the men shall encircle the city seven times and the priests shall blow the shofar (ibid. 4).In the next verse Hashem told Joshua that on the seventh day when the priests blow a long blast all the people shall shout and the walls of the city shall fall and so it happened (ibid. 20). This incident teaches that the shofar is a symbol of military victory for the Israelites with divine assistance, implying that the shofar is also a symbol for the battle against the physical (potentially evil) inclinations הרע יצר of a person.      


The Talmud Rosh Hashanah 18a expounds on the verse in Isaiah 55:6, “Seek Hashem when He (divine) can be found; call Him (divine) when He (divine) is near” which implies that there are times when Hashem is not near and does not answer. Clearly Hashem is always available and therefore the Talmud asks, “When is Hashem near?” The Talmud answers, “The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (inclusive).” Since Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the coronation of Hashem as the king, these 10 days by analogy, correspond to a new king granting clemency to his subjects. In addition, as mentioned above, the shofar reminds the Israelites to return to Hashem in these days and obtain a favourable judgment for the coming year.    


The shofar has several connections to the messianic era as mentioned in the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and expounded in the Midrash. For example Leviticus Rabbah 29:10, states that Hashem promised Abraham, just as Isaac was saved from sacrifice by substituting with a ram, so in the future the Israelites will be redeemed through the shofar (i.e. ram’s horn). The verse states (Zachariah 9:14), “And Hashem shall appear over them, and his arrows shall go forth like lightning. And Hashem shall sound the shofar, and He shall go with the whirlwinds of the south.” 

The shofar also reminds us of the following events in the messianic era:

  • Rebuilding of the Temple – Jeremiah 4:19-21, “My heart stirs within me. I cannot be silent, for you, my soul, have heard the sound of the shofar, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction has occurred, for the entire land has been plundered. How long will I see the standard, will I hear the sound of the shofar?” The prophet mourns the loss of the temple and the suffering of Israel. The shofar represents the might of the Babylonian army and its ensuing destruction. Hence when we hear the shofar we reflect on the past, return to Hashem, and anticipate the building of the Third Temple.     
  • Ingathering of the exiles – Isaiah 27:13, “And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be sounded, and those lost in the land of Assyria and those exiled in the land of Egypt shall come and they shall prostrate themselves before Hashem on the holy mount in Jerusalem.”
  • Great Day of Judgment – Zephaniah 1:14-16, “The great day of Hashem is near; it is near and hastens greatly, the sound of the day of Hashem, wherein the mighty man cries bitterly. That day is a day of wrath; a day of trouble and distress; a day of ruin and desolation; a day of darkness and gloom; a day of clouds and thick darkness. (It will be) a day of shofar and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers.”
  • Resurrection of the Dead – Isaiah 18:3, “All inhabitants of the world and dwellers of the earth (i.e. the dead who are buried in the earth), when a standard of the mountains is raised you shall see, and when a shofar is sounded you shall hear.”

It is interesting to note that verses Isaiah 18:3 and 27:13 as well as Zachariah 9:14 are included in the mussaf payer in the section of the shofar. In addition the daily amidah prayer contains a reference to Isaiah 27:13 in the 10th blessing as follows, “Sound the great shofar for our freedom and raise the banner to gather our exiles.”


Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, Talmudic scholar, philosopher, and inspiring leader of 10th century Jewry, enumerated ten allusions of the shofar. This listing appears in many High Holiday prayer books for education and inspiration. The following table lists these allusions, includes a citation in scripture or Talmud, and provides a page reference to this article where cited. The listing of these allusions, in this table, follows the order of past (i.e. historical reference), present (i.e. inspirational – return to Hashem), and future (i.e. messianic era).

AllusionSourcePage (s)
Creation of WorldRosh Hashanah 8a, 10b, and 27a15
Binding of IsaacGenesis 22:1315
Revelation at SinaiExodus 19:16 and 1915
Divine ClemencyIsaiah 55:616
Call to Return to HashemEzekiel 33:2-313
Inspiration to Return to HashemAmos 3:614
Pray for the Rebuilding of the TempleJeremiah 4:19-2116
Ingathering of the ExilesIsaiah 27:1316
Great Day of JudgmentZephaniah 1:14-1616
Resurrection of the DeadIsaiah 18:317

Secrets of Torah – סוד

The above rationale focuses on the affect of a shofar on a person’s psyche. However the reader could challenge this rationale by the following questions:

  • If the primary reason is to influence man to change his ways then why specifically a shofar, any wind instrument will suffice?
  • In addition why the specific order of three sets of blasts as explained above, any musical arrangement that is meaningful to the congregation could be used?

The answer to both of these questions is that in addition to the affect on man the mitzvoth have an effect in the heavens as well. Leviticus Rabbah 29:3 explains the effect in heaven by expounding the verse in Psalms 47:6, “The Lord (ם-י-ה-ל-א) shall be exalted with the teruah sound, Hashem (ה-ו-ה-י) with the sound of the shofar.” The former divine name implies strict justice while the latter name implies mercy. Hence this Midrash concludes by the proper blowing of the shofar (with the requisite returning to Hashem (תשובה) – Zohar 2:184a) Hashem will change his stance on this Day of Judgment from the strict letter of the law to one of mercy. In the literal terms of this Midrash, Hashem gets up from the throne of justice to a throne of mercy. The Zohar (ibid.) envisions the shofar blasts from earth breaking through the different screens in heaven en route to reaching Hashem. In addition the Zohar (3:18a) envisions the shevarim (literal meaning broken notes) having the intense power to break through the screens. In this manner the term shevarim does not only refer to the nature of the notes but also its power to reach the divine. Similarly the Zohar (ibid.) envisions teruah in terms of its breaking through the screens in a less intense manner as reflected in its name (i.e. wailing) and its staccato or warbling sound. Based upon these interpretations, the blowing of the shofar must precisely follow the prescribed manner as expounded by the oral law to complete this journey. One can use the analogy of a combination lock where only the specific numbers in the proper sequence will open the lock. The Zohar (3:99b) focuses on the set of three sounds and explains that each sound corresponds to one of the patriarchs and their associated characteristics as follows:

TekiahAbrahamKindness – חסד
TeruahIsaacJudgment – דין
TekiahJacobCompassion – רחמים

The Zohar explains that each sound reaches the respective patriarch who in turn influences strict divine judgment to kindness and compassion similar to the analogy of the Midrash involving the thrones. This process is repeated 3 times (of the first set) to strengthen the appeal for mercy and compassion (ibid. 100a). Others explain the repetition refers to the new set of blasts (i.e. tekiah, shevarim, and tekiah). The Zohar further explains (ibid. 100b) that the numerology of 3 (i.e. patriarchs and characteristics) also refers to the three classes of people that are judged on Rosh Hashanah (viz. righteous, intermediate, and wicked) as explained in Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b with its many commentaries. This topic will be analyzed in a separate article, “the Three Books”.   The Zohar concludes this discussion with the message that the sounding of the shofar with proper concentration (כוונה) and a sincere resolve to return to Hashem (תשובה) will result in a judgment tempered with kindness and compassion.


This article examined the mitzvah of shofar from different perspectives, from the literal meaning to the secrets of the Torah, from man’s perspective and to catch a glimpse of the mitzvah from Hashem’s viewpoint. Along these lines, Maimonides writes in the Laws of Temple Service (Misappropriation – Meilah 8:8), “It is fitting for everyman to reflect on and understand the commandments of the Holy Torah and to know their ultimate purpose according to one’s ability … and observe them and live through them.”  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *