Elul / Rosh Hashanah
The Mystical Tug of the Shofar
This Rosh Hashanah, we will once again gaze spellbound as the
man in the prayer shawl (tallis) and white robe (kittel) raises the shofar
to his lips and sends its exquisite sounds into our minds, our hearts, our
very bones. Why do we tremble when the stillness in the synagogue is
suddenly punctured by the piercing pitch of the shofar blasts? What do
those sounds mean to us? Why do we find them so deeply moving yet
so utterly mysterious?
The Sages, based on the words of the Prophets, describe the
sound of the shofar as a call to repentance. If so, why is the shofar
sounded at night at the close of Yom Kippur when there is as yet no
need for a new call to repentance? Clearly, the sound of the shofar also
signals an outburst of joyous confidence that our Yom Kippur prayers
were accepted favorably. But this is in itself puzzling. How does one
sound serve both as a call to repentance and a cry of joy?
The Kabbalists explain that the sounds of the shofar transcend all
verbal expression. Human speech is constrained by the limitations of a
person’s ability to enunciate words, to find expressive words in his
vocabulary, to arrange his words in a form that will accurately reflect
and articulate his thoughts. But some thoughts and feelings are too
exalted to find expression through such limited means. The yearning of
the Jewish soul to come close to G-d, to cleave to the Divine, is so
intensely spiritual that mere human speech is inadequate to give it
expression. The sound of the shofar, however, connects with this inner
yearning and gives it expression. It is the sound of the immortal soul
crying out to its Creator in an ecstasy of love, devotion and yearning. It
is the sound that breaks the barriers of mere words and embraces
myriad spiritual expressions - from the most abject remorse to the most
We find a similar concept in one of the ten forms of prayer
identified by the Sages. It is called naakah, a groan. The Torah tells us
that when the Jewish people were subjected to the cruelest slave labor
by the Egyptians, they groaned in the agony of their distress. “And G-d
heard their groans” and responded to them. The commentators point
out that when the Jewish people directed their groans towards G-d it
was one of the most eloquent forms of prayer imaginable. No
sentences. No words. No entreaty. Just a cry from the depths of the
heart and the soul, the cry of the children of G-d torn from the warm
embrace of their Father in Heaven. Prayer in its purest form.
In the same vein, the sounds of the shofar are the expressions of
the soul in the purest form. They encompass all sort of thoughts and
emotions that are too sublimely spiritual to be clothed in human speech.
The call to repentance, the exuberant joy of Yom Kippur night, the
mysterious tremble of spiritual longing in the soul of every Jew when he
hears the shofar, all these and countless others find expression in the
sounds of the shofar.
As we listen to the shofar this Rosh Hashanah, and as we feel the
mystical tug of its poignant sounds, let us recognize that the neshamah
within each of us is crying out to our Creator with an eloquence beyond
words. Let us capture these sounds and these feelings in the innermost
chambers of our hearts and carry them with us throughout the entire
year. Undoubtedly, this will assure us of a sweet and wonderful year.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.