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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Blowing the Shofar

Blowing the Shofar, Together

We have the custom to blow the shofar throughout the month of Elul as a preparation for Rosh HaShanah. The shofar comes to wake us up but also to gather us together in order that we can return to God together.
Dedicated to the memory of
Hana Bat Haim
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Preparations for Rosh HaShanah
The month of Elul is not a festival, neither does it contain any specific festival, yet it is still a very special month. It is the month before Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and as such it is the last month of the year. In this capacity it is an opportunity to prepare for this important day. Rosh HaShanah is the Day of Judgement. The entire world is judged and the fate of all people is decided for the coming year. (See Rosh HaShanah 1:2)

Rosh HaShanah is a very serious day and one that we use to introspect and to improve ourselves. The same can be said of the month of Elul as well. We do not want to come to the great day of Rosh HaShanah unprepared and not ready. Therefore we have a month to get ready, to spend time thinking about how we can be better people. Elul is such an opportunity.

There are two customs that relate to this theme. Some communities have the custom to recite special prayers for the entire month of Elul. These are called Selichot, prayers that ask for forgiveness from God. They are recited early in the morning before the regular Shacharit prayer. Other communities have the custom to recite these prayers only the week preceding Rosh HaShanah. Almost all communities have the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul. (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 581:1)

The reason that these prayers are recited is to put us in the serious mood of this time of the year. The same can be said of the custom of blowing the shofar. The Rambam wrote "even though blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a written obligation [without a reason being given], there is a hint of a reason. It is as though it [the shofar] says ‘Wake up sleepers from your slumber, look at your ways and repent and remember your Creator’" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).

The Rambam explains that the shofar is an alarm clock that girds us to awake and examine ourselves. We are in a spiritual sleep, unaware of the consequences of our actions. We do not take the time to think whether what we are doing is right or wrong. Rather, we tend just to live our lives without investing too much effort in considering our purpose and position in life.

The shofar comes along to wake us up. Do not sleep any more. The time has come to acknowledge God and our relationship with Him. This is the day that we need to consider our actions and improve them where necessary. Wake up, wake up and return to God.

In the same vein we also blow the shofar during the month of Elul. This is the first alarm call that lets us know that the major wake-up call is coming very soon. If you wait for the last minute then it will be too late. Start to introspect already during Elul, prepare yourself for Rosh HaShanah.

The rabbis said that the letters Elul are an acronym for the verse "I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me" (Shir HaShirim 6:3). This is a time when God turns to us and we are in a better position to turn back to Him. This is the optimum time for repentance and return. If so, we must use this time as best as possible. That is why we blow the shofar, to awaken us to repent already from Elul.

Moshe, Sinai and the Shofar
It is interesting to note that there is a Midrash that gives another reason entirely why we blow the shofar during the month of Elul. The Midrash describes the events surrounding Moshe’s breaking the first set of tablets and his ascent for a second time to receive the second set of tablets1.

"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha said that Moshe was on the mountain for forty days, reading Torah during the day and learning the Oral Law at night. After forty days he took the tablets and descended to the camp. On the seventeenth of Tamuz he broke the tablets and then stayed in the camp for another forty days until he had burnt the Golden Calf and ground it up and killed all those who kissed the Calf. He ripped the idolatry out from Israel. He arranged every tribe in its place and on the 1st of Elul God told Moshe to ascend the mountain. A shofar was blown throughout the camp to tell the people that Moshe was going up the mountain and that they should not be mistaken again with the sin of the Golden Calf. God ascended in those blasts of the shofar, as it says ‘God went up in the blast, the Lord in the sound of the shofar’ (Tehilim 47:6).

Therefore the rabbis established the law that every year we blow the shofar on the first day of Elul" (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 46).

The Tur adds that the custom was to blow not only on the 1st of Elul but also on each day of the month of Elul in order that the people repent. (See Tur, Orach Chayim 581) It makes sense that the shofar was blown throughout the month of Elul as the reason was to remind the people not to sin again. This was relevant not only on the first day that Moshe left them, but even more so on the subsequent days. The first time that Moshe ascend Har Sinai all went well until the penultimate day. So the shofar was blown for the entire time that Moshe was on the mountain; the 1st of Elul and the whole of the month of Elul as well.

This Midrash gives a different perspective on the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul. The reason is not only to awaken us to return before Rosh HaShanah, but it is also connected to the events of receiving the Torah. The shofar was blown when Moshe ascended the mountain and for the whole month of Elul. In the same way we also blow the shofar during Elul.

Gathering the People
One of the commentators on the Tur explains the reason that the shofar was blown at that time. He suggests that the shofar was blown in order to gather the people together. (See Bach ad loc.) But if that was the only reason then it would be sufficient to announce this public gathering in another manner. It could have been declared publicly that the gathering was to take place. The shofar was not an essential method of gathering the people.

Therefore, he explains, the Midrash suggests a deeper meaning behind the shofar. This it draws from the verse "God went up in the blast, the Lord in the sound of the shofar". From here it deduced that "God ascended in those blasts of the shofar".

The shofar was significant in that it both gathered the people of Israel and also elevated the Divine spirit through the blasts. We find other sources that tell us of blasts that were used to gather the people together. "Make two silver trumpets and they will be used in order to assemble the people and as a sign for the camps to travel. If you blow both of them, the entire community shall gather at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting" (Bemidbar 10:2-3). In this source the instrument used was a trumpet. This was effective in gathering the people. But the shofar had the added advantage in that it caused a Divine elevation as well.

We can now begin to understand the poem that Rav Kook wrote for the month of Elul. "The preparation for collective repentance is the voice of the shofar, that gathers together the entire camp."

The shofar precedes Rosh HaShanah because the shofar gathers the people together. This is a preparation for repentance and return, but not a regular individual repentance. Rather, Rav Kook writes of a collective return. The word in Hebrew "klali" may also be translated as ‘general’. In this context we could explain that the shofar awakens us to return to God, in the same way that the Rambam described. The shofar urges us to wake up and return to God. This is general teshuvah.

We could also translate "klali" as collective, and this is the way that we have translated it here. Rav Kook alludes here to a different type of return to God. Not the return of the individual as an individual. Rather, the return of the individual as part of the return of the collective, the community.

Collective Return
The Mishnah describes the judgement of Rosh HaShanah in the following way. "On Rosh HaShanah the entire world comes before Him like a herd" (Rosh HaShanah 1:2). The Gemara offers various opinions as to precisely what this means. One opinion is that it refers to flocks of sheep, the other is that it refers to soldiers. (See Rosh HaShanah 18a)

Rashi explains the first meaning thus: "like sheep that are counted in ordered to be tithed. They leave in single file from the pen through a narrow entrance that only allows one sheep to pass at a time" (Rashi ad loc.). The sheep needed to be counted individually and walked from the sheep pen in single file, one at a time. The soldiers needed to be counted and walked in a line, one at a time.

The Gemara then continues "They are all reviewed in one inspection". This seems to be a contradiction to the previous discussion about the sheep and the soldiers. If each individual comes before God separate from his and her fellows, then how can they all be reviewed together.

The answer to this is that we are judged as individuals but we can only relate to God through the collective, through Am Yisrael. We must stand before God on our own individual strengths and weaknesses. But we can only hope for Divine forgiveness when we are connected to the collective. We can only turn to Him together with the rest of the nation.

We say in our prayers "Bless us our Father, all of us together." Each person has assets and flaws; when we come alone we are vulnerable and open ourselves up to close inspection. But when we come as a part of the whole we are viewed as such. We complement each other and form a perfect cohesive unit called the Jewish people.

We come to God as sheep, as an army. Each sheep is different, but ten sheep together form a group that can be tithed. The army is comprised of different individuals who together form a cohesive body called the army. The army must have different branches and each has their own task. The army could not survive if one of the units was dysfunctional, nor could it survive if one of the units decided to change their task and do someone else’s. Each is different, each is essential, together they create a large well oiled machine.

So it is with the Jewish people. Each person has their own task, that only they can perform effectively. Together the individual tasks form the collective, the nation. We must come to God as individuals, but also as part of the people.

This is essential for us to return to God. We need to fuse together and serve God not only as individuals, but as a community, and as a nation. Therefore before Rosh HaShanah we start to blow the shofar. Not only to wake us up, but to bind us together as a people.

The Midrash already taught us that when Moshe wanted to gather the people he blew the shofar. This was to bind the people together and to unite them in their Divine service. This blast of the shofar not only bound the nation. God Himself was elevated by the sounds of the shofar. "God went up in the blast, the Lord in the sound of the shofar". God was elevated by His people coming together to serve Him.

This is the message of Elul and this is our task during this month. When we listen to the blasts of the shofar we are called to unite in Divine service. This is the ultimate preparation for Rosh HaShanah.

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Rabbi Gideon Weitzman is the Head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with the Halacha. He studied for many years in Yeshivat Beit El and teaches in various educational institutions.

This essay is taken from his second book, "In Those Days, At This Time - Essays on the Festivals Based on the Philosophy of Rav Kook." The book is available in bookstores or directly from the author. Contact him at rabbiw@growingjewish.com

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