This article originally appeared in Destiny, Melbourne

The Sounds of Sinai*

It was Saadiah Ga'on who provided us with what is probably the most exhaustive enumeration of themes and associations that are evoked by the shofar. His catalogue of ten reasons for sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is familiar to many of us by virtue of its inclusion in many companions and commentaries to the festival prayer book. However, it would appear that not all the items in his Top Ten list are of equal consequence; some of them have acquired a more central position than others in the popular Jewish consciousness.

The most familiar association is probably with the ram that was substituted for Isaac in the story of the "binding of Isaac," a motif that inspires so much of the festival liturgy. We also hear frequent mentions of how the shofar blasts awaken us from our moral lethargy and of their resemblance to the sound contrite sobbing. On the other hand, some other items on Saadiah's list--such as the associations with prophecy, the destruction of the Temple and the future resurrection--are mentioned only peripherally, if at all, in the prayers and sermons of the New Year season.

The third theme on Saadiah's list is the revelation at Mount Sinai that was accompanied by "the voice of the shofar exceeding loud." Saadiah comments briefly that "we should accept upon ourselves what our ancestors accepted upon themselves: 'we will do, and we will hear.'" This is undoubtedly a worthy sentiment, but not one that has an obvious relevance to Rosh Hashanah; and it is hard to escape the impression that it might have been included in the list as padding in order to round the total up to ten.

And yet a survey of Jewish commentators and thinkers over the ages reveals that a surprising number of them regarded the evocation of the giving of the Torah as the main theme of Rosh Hashanah.

This was certainly the case for Philo of Alexandria, the first-century Jewish philosopher who left us a magnificent collection of allegorical expositions of the Torah in Greek.

In his treatise "On the Special Laws" Philo refers to Rosh Hashanah as "the festival of the sacred moon" (because it occurs on the new moon) or the "true feast of trumpets ." He proposes two reasons why the Torah commanded us to sound the shofar during the Temple service, one that is of specific relevance to Jews and one that is of more universal significance.

The Jewish reason is to recall the revelation at Mount Sinai whose momentous importance was underscored by the sounding of a mighty shofar from the heavens. The shofar's universal symbolism, on the other hand, lies in its associations with warfare, conflict, destruction and assaults against nature. "For this reason the law has named this festival after an instrument of war, in order to express the fitting gratitude to God as the bestower of peace who has abolished all disorder in cities, and in all parts of the universe."

It might appear rather startling that Philo does not speak at all about what we would now regard as Rosh Hashanah's most important motifs: judgment, repentance and contrition. We should however bear in mind that none of those themes are actually mentioned in the Torah in connection with the holiday. And for that matter, Shavu'ot--which came to be celebrated as the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai--is not identified as such in the Bible, so that it is not unreasonable to see Philo assigning that theme to Rosh Hashanah.

Nevertheless, the affinity between the shofar and the giving of the Torah was pivotal for some later Jewish thinkers as well.

In his philosophical classic Sefer Ha-'Iqqarim [the Book of Fundamental Principles], the fifteenth-century Spanish thinker Rabbi Joseph Albo argued that the main teachings of Jewish theology can be reduced to three basic doctrines: (1) that God exists, (2) that he reveals himself to his creatures, and (3) that he treats us justly, eventually rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked.

The central themes of the Rosh Hashanah Additional [Musaf] Service correspond to those three concepts: Malkhuyyot enthrones the Almighty as the sovereign of the universe, Zikhronot tells of the divine judgment, and Shofarot attests to our faith in the divine revelation of the Torah. It is therefore eminently appropriate, says Albo, that the Shofarot segment of the liturgy opens with the words "You were revealed in the cloud of your glory upon your holy people to speak unto them, from the heavens you sounded your voice." He traces a trajectory that extends from the revelation at Sinai--which was confined to the nation of Israel--to the revelation in the messianic future that will be received by all of humanity. The connection between those two events is expressed in the prophet Zechariah's vision that at the time of the future revelation "the Lord God shall blow the shofar."

As for the more widespread tradition that sees the principal purpose of the shofar in the evocation of the sacrifice of Isaac, Albo acknowledges that he has read about such an interpretation, but he rejects it outright, pointing out that the binding of Isaac is not mentioned at all in the text of the Shofarot segment of the liturgy, but only in the Zikhronot. Albo insists that this is no more than a peripheral, technical matter whose sole function is to teach that a ram's horn (rather than that of another animal) is the preferred one for performing the ritual; however, it is not the real source or reason for the command to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

Centuries later, the relevance of Sinai to the theme of judgement on Rosh Hashanah was illustrated in a poignant parable by the great Hasidic master Levi Isaac of Berdichev.

The Berdichever told the tale of a king who lost his way in a forest, but found that none of the rustic locals knew enough about the lifestyles of the rich and famous to guide him back home to his palace. At length, a wise man appeared who was able to escort the king back to his residence. In appreciation, the king appointed the man to a high office, clothing him in precious robes and consigning his old commoner's garments to storage. Eventually the wise man committed an offense against the monarch and as he was about to be sentenced, he submitted a final desperate request: that he be permitted to wear the discarded old clothing that he had worn during their first encounter in the forest. The king consented, and the sight of the man dressed in those old garments evoked memories of those gracious earlier times. This moved him to deal mercifully with his subject and to restore him to his high office.

This parable poignantly illustrates the role of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as it was conceived by Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev. As we all stand trembling before the omniscient judge and supreme king of the universe, none of us can expect to be exonerated on the basis of our own merits. However, like those discarded garments in the story, the sound of the shofar summons up the memory of the halcyon days of the relationship between God and Israel, when our ancestors were unique among the nations of the world in their willingness to joyfully accept the Torah and thereby proclaim God as our sovereign and allow his holiness to penetrate into the world.

Rabbi Levi Isaac summarized the tale's lesson in stirring words:

"For this reason we sound the shofar and dress ourselves in the same clothing that we wore when the Torah was given, when we received the Torah and with the shofar we crowned him as our king, as it is written 'And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him by a voice."

However we may choose to understand the purpose of the shofar, is it not amazing to reflect how the foremost Jewish thinkers of diverse ages and places continued to grapple with the sublime message that was sounded so long ago at Mount Sinai!

Let us all hope that, inspired by the shofar's reverberations, we may all become worthy to hear the answering voice to all our most cherished prayers for the coming year.

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For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • Destiny: Quarterly Magazine of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Melbourne, Australia, Issue 14 (Tishrei - Nisan 5771 / September 2010 - April 2011), p. 8.
  • For further reading:
    • Bettan, Israel. "The Sermons of Isaac Arama." Hebrew Union College Annual 12 (1937): 583-634.
    • Hoenig, Sidney B. "Origins of the Rosh Hashanah Liturgy." The Jewish Quarterly Review 57. New Series (1967): 312-331.
    • Lewinski, Yom-Tov, ed. Sefer Ha-Mo'adim. Vol. 1. 8 vols. Tel Aviv: Dvir for the Oneg Shabbat (Ohel Shem) Society, 1956.
    • Wilensky, Sarah Heller. The Philosophy of Isaac Arama in the Framework of Philonic Philosophy. Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik and Dvir, 1956.