What is the meaning of the Shofar's blast?
Over the years I have encountered dozens and dozens of answers. Saadia Gaon, the 10th century head of the great rabbinic academy in Sura, actually gives ten separate authoritative meanings! In my estimation, the more answers we have to a question, the less we really know.
That said there is wisdom in these many answers, and each year we can discover something new. Today, I'd like share an interpretation that comes from the 16th century kabbalistic rabbi Isaac Horowitz, and I really love his teaching. Rabbi Horowitz observes that the shofar calls begin and end with a tekiah - a single whole blast. In the middle are the shevarim and teruah calls, both blasts broken into several separate notes. Rabbi Horowitz writes:
The theme of Rosh HaShanah: We begin whole. Along the path of life we become broken (through pain, mistakes, loss, failure, illness, weakness, etc). The end is whole - we will be whole again. There is hope. (Shnei Luchot HaBrit - the Two Tablets of the Covenant)
This is the purpose of the High Holy Days - to renew ourselves, to make ourselves whole again, and to learn from our past so that in the year to come, with God's help, will be better than the year that has passed. The final blast, the tekiah gedolah, is a single long note often held for as long as the shofar blower is able to sustain it. For me, this is a reminder that every little break we repair leads us one step closer to the messianic age, - the entire world as God envisioned it should be, unbroken and whole again.
Rabbi Netaniel Cadle offered a very different but equally intriguing explanation during our Selichot panel discussion. He observed that the shofar is really nothing special. It is the horn of an animal, either a ram or any other kosher animal except for bovines. We hollow it out and that's really it. Yet when we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah we experience holiness. Rabbi Cadle sees this (and also the Torah itself which is really nothing more than animal skin and ink from vegetable products) as emblematic of our ability to take anything in the world and make it holy. The blast of the shofar is a reminder to us of what we can do, and inspires us to build more holiness into this world.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras