The Meaning of the Shofar Cries

Written by Rabbi Hyim Shafner on . Posted in Op-Ed

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, will soon be upon us, and many will fulfill the once-a-year commandment of hearing the sound of the Shofar.

There are primarily two shofar sounds: the tekiah, a long unbroken sound, and the teruah, a series of shorter sounds. The tekiah sound is also blown at times other than Rosh Hashanah. It is blown on Yovel (the Jubilee year) to declare freedom throughout the Land of Israel, and as a battle call in war. The tekiah is a declaration, a public address system.

On Rosh Hashanah, though, the main sound of the shofar, the Torah writes, is the teruah, the shorter staccato series of sounds. The Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah tells us that the teruah blast mirrors the sound of crying.

What is the purpose of this crying teruah blast for Rosh Hashanah? The Torah says (Leviticus 23:24) that it is zicharon, memory. But what are we to remember through the cry of the teruah, and how does the shofar help us do that?

Some of the psychological literature on crying explains that crying results from changes in, and losses of, intimate relationships, and that many people report feeling less sad after crying. Though the relationship they were lamenting has not returned, their crying is a kind of catharsis, a shedding of armor, allowing deeper emotions and true feelings to emerge into awareness. In crying we become vulnerable, more ourselves, more exposed, and more real. True crying is a moment in which we are genuine and present.

Memory is an essential part of crying. Without memory there is no loss. No feelings of regret for the past and of hope for the future.

The shofar sound, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy relates, recalls the shofar at Mount Sinai when the Jews first received the Torah and became a covenantal nation. This moment, according to the midrash was like a wedding where the Jewish people became “married” to G-d.

Weddings are the most photographed and remembered moments. From no other event is cake preserved for years to come only to recall the moment, dresses preserved, and videos watched. But weddings, as ours with G-d at Mount Sinai, are only one day. A wedding’s function, in memory, is to remember how the relationship can be, the intimacy and joy that was possible in the past and can be again for the future. It is the memory of our relationships with G-d and with others that I think is recalled in the raw present through the cry of the shofar.

Memory itself is an intellectual act, but crying over a memory, which is the nature of the teruah’s sound, helps us not only remember the past but make those memories present and real.

The great Chasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger said that the main work of the High Holidays is shoring up our relationships between us and others and between us and G-d. It is the shofar’s cry that reminds us of what we are missing and how close those relationships can really be. Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays are indeed about judgment, repentance, and forgiveness, but are also a tool to reestablish our intimate relationships with G-d and with others.

My family and I just moved to Washington, D.C., from St. Louis. So far, the welcome from all sectors of the Jewish community of Greater Washington has been warm and genuine. I look forward to getting to know the whole community and to engage with you, together as a community, in the holy work of invigorating and uniting the Jewish people.

This year, may the cry of the shofar truly unite us, heal our relationships with G-d and others, and bring redemption to our people and the world.

By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

 Rabbi Hyim Shafner is the new rabbi of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C.