Regarding the Shofar
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Regarding the Shofar
Regarding the shofar, let’s engage our imaginations together.
The lights go down. The show is about to start. Suddenly, a familiar yet bizarre sound comes from the back of the theater, almost like a trumpet but still distinct. Then as the stage lights come up, an actor starts to sing. During an intense and emotional musical worship service, there is a lull, practically a holy silence, as people examine their hearts in the presence of the living God. Then, someone in the crowd seizing the moment lifts an animal horn to their lips and releases an alien-sounding blast. The shofar has made its appearance.
This trumpet made from the horn of either a ram or a kudu—has become increasingly common in many Christian circles.
Those are some of the questions I’m going to begin to answer.
A primary task of doing biblical theology well is attempting to understand a given subject’s meaning for its original audience. Regarding the shofar, this goal is challenging but not entirely impossible. Let us start by considering the kind of horn it is. Though contemporary artisans typically use the longer, twisted Kudu horns, in the biblical era, they utilized rams’ horns. By the time of the writing of the Mishnah, all animal horns (excluding those of a bull) were permitted: “All Shofars are permitted except those made from a bull.” The rabbinic commentary on the use of the ram’s horn is fascinating. Namely, the horn of a ram signifies the binding of Isaac. Conversely, we don’t use the horn of a bull because of the horrific incident with the Golden Calf. Hence, the shofar could have provoked an ancient Israelite to contemplate the themes of obedience, covenant, faith, and sacrifice embedded in the story of the binding of Isaac.
The shofar is an instrument of encounter and remembrance.
The first time we read of the “sound of the shofar” in the Bible is during the Sinai event: “In the morning of the third day, there was thundering and lightning, a thick cloud on the mountain, and the blast of an exceedingly loud shofar. All the people in the camp trembled… When the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him with a thunderous sound” (Exodus 19:16-17). Once again, in this account, we can perceive the thematic layers of covenant and God reaching into the world to affect His people, only this time, the theophany occurred on a national level.
The shofar is as an instrument of war.
“Seven kohanim will carry seven shofarot of rams’ horns before the ark. Then on the seventh day you are to circle the city seven times while the kohanim blow the shofarot.” –Joshua 6:4
We see this again in the book of Judges, “When the three columns blew the shofarot and broke the pitchers, they held the torches in their left hands and the shofarot in their right hands to blow, and they shouted, ‘A sword for Adonai and for Gideon!’ Each one stood in his place around the camp, and then the entire army ran, shouting as they fled.” –Judges 7:20-21
Though sound can be a powerful tool, it cannot shatter walls or drive whole armies into an irrational frenzy. Yet, in both of these passages, something else—something mysteriously spiritual—is at work.
The Rabbis have interpreted that second reference interestingly: that the sound of the shofar drives back unclean spiritual forces and breaks their hold on people and objects. These phenomena, they go on to say, are why we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and during the daily prayers of repentance. They say that shofar drives “the Satan” and the “Evil Inclination” away long enough for the person to make true repentance. Now, consider that the blowing of the shofar and recitation of Psalm 91 make up the body of the Jewish exorcism liturgy. This idea of linking exorcism, in at least a minor sense, with repentance also finds its way into early Christian Baptism liturgies.
The shofar, then, is a tool of great potential power. There is nothing quite like it for disturbing a good worship service. However, used with discernment and discretion, it can also be a potent spiritual tool. The horn, by itself, obviously is just a horn. Owning one or a thousand of these ancient horns will do nothing for you. The same is true of simply blowing the shofar. In the natural, the shofar will do little more than make noise. However, there is a rich tapestry of meaning in the Scripture relevant to this ancient instrument. As we appropriate these insights by faith, we can imbue the shofar and its sound with spiritual potency. In this context, the shofar can, in some real sense, become like other spiritual tools or “weapons” at our disposal (such as prayer, Scripture, praise, etc.). The shofar blast is only ever as effective as the spiritual sincerity and integrity of the one using it.
With this in mind, we should consider all of the profoundly meaningful things that a shofar blast can evoke as we hear it:
After all, these are essentially the very things we want to connect with on some level whenever we approach God in prayer.
The shofar connects us to these expressions of God’s goodness in our lives.
In closing, I’d like to suggest a spiritual exercise. Long before you lug your shofar to your worship service, use it in your “prayer closet” during times of personal, private prayer. First, take your shofar and think briefly about all of its meaning. Then, blow the shofar and enter into your time of prayer. Then as your prayer time goes on, if you notice that your mind drifts or you feel disconnected in some way, meditate briefly on those meanings again and blow the shofar to restore your spiritual focus. Implemented with faith and sincere intention, this will be a transformative experience.
More from Rabbi Jason Sobel: Feast of Trumpets and the Shofar of Rosh Hashanah
1 Kudu is a species of antelope either Tragelaphus strepsiceros or Tragelaphus imberbis
2 Mishnah Rosh Hashana 3:2 translation my own.
3 Arbaah Turim, Orach Chaim 586:1
4 Beit Yosef 586:1
5 Shaar HaKavanot Drush HaShofar
6 Siddur HaYireh Volume 1 (483)
7 Siddur HaYireh Volume 4 (139)
8 Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 69.
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