Christian and Jewish denominations all over the world sound a shofar for religious reasons. While a shofar has traditionally been Semitic, there’s growing interest to use the sacred horn especially in Christian congregations.
It was not until the Temple era that the musical instrument came about. The word shofar came from the Assyrian word shapparu – a name given to a wild goat of family: ibex.
For more than two millennia, the shofar’s original form has remained unchanged. The ancient musical instrument remains as relevant today as it was in the past. Shofar blast is noisy, resembling a whelping whale or dolphin. But the strange sound is significant in that it arouses your spirit in readiness for atonement and repentance.
The book of Amos 3:6 says: “The shofar has the quality to stir the hearts and to inspire love, as it is written: ‘Shall a shofar be blown in a city and people not tremble’”.
The sounding of a shofar announces Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It also marks the beginning of Sabbath. Rosh Hashanah is also referred to as Yom Teruah, because shofar is blown during the day.
But shofar blowing isn’t limited to religious occasions, it played a significant role in secular events in the Bible such as crowning a king, raising armies, fighting wars and announcing victories. Today, the secular role of shofar isn’t apparent as in the past. One of the most significant events when shofar was blasted was in 1967 when Jerusalem was reassembled.
Why Blow the Shofar?
The Bible mentions the shofar 72 times, more than any other musical instrument. No one else other than the Priests and Levites blew the sacred horn. Ram’s horn shofar sound was heard during historic events in the bible:
- To announce the New Moon (Psalms 81:4)
- To call upon and drive different species of plants and animals into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chronicles 15:28; 2 Samuel 6:15)
- To mark the start of a New Year in a religious calendar (Numbers 29:1)
- To announce the salvation (Leviticus 25:9)
In Mishnah (an ancient law book derived from the Torah), shofar was blown to:
- Prepare pilgrims for the Feast of the Tabernacle (Hullin 1:7)
- Pour libation to appease spirits (R.H. 4:9)
- Mark a closing ceremony – Havdalah (Hullin 1:7)
The Priests and Levites blew the sacred horn to mark secular events of historic significance in the bible:
- Ceremony to crown anointed kings (1 Kings 1:34; 2 Kings 1:13; 2 Samuel 5:10)
- War cry to raise an army, charge, pursue enemies and announce victory (Judges 6:4; Ezekiel 33: 3-6; Numbers 10:9; Jeremiah 4:5)
Why use Ram’s Horn to Make a Shofar?
You can make your own shofar by carving a cavity inside a horn of a domestic animal but a bovine for religious and historical reasons. The Mishnah (R.H. 3:2) mentions how Israelites sinned against God by making and worshipping a calf’s idol made of gold.
The Ashkenazi Jews use ram’s horn, because it reminds them of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac. It’s only after God’s intervention did Abraham caught a ram and sacrificed it. The practice of making a shofar from a horn of an ibex or a mountain goat is common among the Sephardim Jews in Africa, Arabia and Turkey.
You must carve the shofar such that it’s curved. Only when a spirit is curved is it ready to acknowledge its sins and return to God. While you may decorate or overlay the external walls of a shofar with gold or carved designs, you may not do so for the inner walls. Paints and decorations can change the shofar sound, making it sound unnatural. Besides, they can block the mouthpiece.
Just as your fingerprints are unique, so is a shofar, because no one animal is same as another. And so, shofars vary in shape and width.
The Significance of Shofar Blowing During Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is synonymous with a day, which commemorates the sounding of a shofar (Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1). The shofar must be blown during the first day of a religious year – Rosh Hashanah. The Rabbinic teachings say we shouldn’t blow a shofar during Sabbath (Shabbat). From day one of Elul month through to day 28, shofar is sounded. A day before Rosh Hashanah, day 29 of Elul, shofar blowing isn’t permitted.
And so, if Rosh Hashanah and Sabbath coincide, then shofar isn’t blown but remembered. It’s a matter of remembering shofar sound in your day’s prayers, not sounding the musical instrument.
When to Sound a Shofar
There are five occasions, which necessitate shofar blowing:
- During the month of Elul
- During the third part of the Mussaf service
- After Haftarah recital during a service to blow a shofar on two occasions of mornings during Rosh Hashanah
- During sound the instrument 100 times to conclude the Mussaf service
- At the conclusion of Yom Kippur
Shofar isn’t sounded during the Sabbath (Shabbat) simply because we’ve had an entire month doing it, and we’re confident that God would have rewritten our names in the book of life for the next religious year by the day 28 of Elul month. God’s prosecutor won’t judge you if your name is present in the book of life. In a way, sounding a shofar during the first 28 days of Elul month makes fool of the prosecuting angel.
Shofar blowing intends to outwit God’s prosecutor, because the sound arouses our spirits, bending them in preparation for reunification with God. A bent spirit is humble, and is willing to feel remorseful about transgressions of the past. This humility is in and on itself enough for God to be satisfied that we’re willing to live according to His commandments, sparing us from the judgment of the Golden Calf era.