Blowing Shofar in the Month of Elul

Rabbi Dr, Darrel Ginsberg

This coming week is Rosh Chodesh Elul, and with it comes the introduction of the minhag of blowing the shofar on a daily basis until Rosh Hashana. The source for this minhag merits analysis, and its evolution over the years is quite fascinating. 

The Source

For most poskim, the origin for this minhag lies in a midrash found in Pirkei Di-Rabbi Elazar (46). As is well known, the decision to build the golden calf emerged from a miscalculation as to the conclusion of Moshe’s time on Mt. Sinai. Moshe returned from the mountain and broke the luchos on the 17th of Tammuz. It was forty days later that the following took place (using Tur’s interpretation, OC 581):

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, God said to him ‘Come up to Me on the mountain’, and the [sound of the] shofar was heard throughout the camp, [announcing] “Moshe had gone up the mountain’, so that they would not err again [pursuing] after idolatry, and God was ‘lifted’ through this blowing of the shofar, as it says (Tehilim 47:6) ‘God rises up at [the blowing of] the shofar’.

This led to Chazal instituting that the shofar would be blown on Rosh Chodesh Elul. 

The implication from this midrash is that the reason the shofar was blown was to clarify to Bnai Yisrel that this was the first day of Moshe’s re-ascension onto Mt. Sinai - if they knew without a doubt which was Day 1, they would not repeat the same “mistake.” However, it is clear through studying the incident of the golden calf that there was a deeper issue surrounding this tragic event, namely, Bnai Yisrael’s connection to idolatry. The miscalculation was a front of sorts, an excuse and distorted justification in committing the heinous act. If so, why would blowing the shofar ensure their avoidance of idolatry? If the idolatrous emotions existed still, blowing the shofar to correctly count the number of days would merely remove the justification symptom - but the idolatrous problem could still emerge!

The problem surrounding the golden calf centered on Bnai Yisrael’s inability to place their security in God – as is so often the source for idolatry. The idolatrous emotions guide man to search through the physical world for security – a pursuit that has no end and no possibility of fulfillment. The purpose of the shofar, then, had to be more than removing the justification – the midrash says it would prevent them from returning to idolatry. The fate of the nation hung in the balance, Moshe’s tefila (prayer) to God, and God’s response, seeming to determine whether they would continue on their mission or be wiped out. However, to think that Moshe’s tefila alone would decide this outcome would be incorrect.  The sound of the shofar was a sign that the next forty days were their opportunity to engage in teshuva- repentance. The situation at that moment was nearly identical to the first ascent by Moshe - same time frame, same place, nearly identical event. Clearly, God’s intent was to put Bnai Yisrael in this same situation with the opportunity for teshuva available. To simply sit back and rely on Moshe would not cut it - they had to analyze themselves, understand their defects, and, ultimately, completely place their security in God. 

Much like this occasion was set aside for Bnai Yisrael to engage in teshuva, so too we engage in this process as well and the shofar being blown on Rosh Chodesh Elul signifies the commencement of this time.

Which day of Rosh Chodesh? 

With an explanation of the minhag in place, the halachic issues begin to emerge. One question has to do with which day of Rosh Chodesh Elul is the one to initiate this minhag (Rosh Chodesh Elul is always two days: the 29th Av and the 1st of Elul). If one were to count forty days, culminating with Yom Kippur, the shofar would need to be blown on the last day of Av, which would be the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul. In fact, many poskim (see Magen Avraham OC 581:2) maintained that we should begin blowing shofar on the first day of the two-day Rosh Chodesh. Yet, today it is virtually unheard of to blow shofar on 29 Av - instead, everyone starts on 1 Elul. The Magen Avraham explains that those who start on the second day of Rosh Chodesh maintain that the idea is to have thirty days of shofar blowing. Therefore, starting on 1 Elul, excluding Erev Rosh Hashana (when we do not blow shofar), and including the two days of Rosh Hashana itself, one would have thirty days of shofar (how this serves to work with the midrash is difficult to understand). The Magen Avraham concludes that one should indeed start blowing shofar on the second day of Rosh Chodesh, but for a different reason that is based on a conclusion reached by Tosafos (Bava Kama 82a “Kidei Shelo…”). Tosafos concludes that the month of Elul, when Moshe re-ascended the mountain, was a full thirty days (something that cannot happen after the time of Ezra) – and if the shofar was blown on the first day of Elul there could be forty days until Yom Kippur. Since the second day of Rosh Chodesh was the day that the shofar was blown, we have no right to change the minhag and the importance shifts from the actual amount of “forty days” to the overall designation of a significant period of time leading to Yom Kippur.

How Often? 

Another evolution in this minhag occurred with the increase in the amount of times we blow shofar throughout the month of Elul. The Rosh (Rosh Hashana 14) writes that the shofar is blown every day of the month of Elul, rather than only on the first day of the month (as implied in the midrash), and this is agreed upon by nearly all poskim. Why the shift? One possibility (as expressed by a friend of mine) is that during the time of Moshe’s ascent, Bnai Yisrael were facing extinction. As a result, they only needed that one blast to motivate them. This is not the norm, though, and as a result, having a constant reminder of the importance of this time is crucial in the lead up to the Yomim Noraim. 

There is also a question as to how many times daily the shofar should be blown. The Tur (OC 581) writes that the minhag was to blow shofar both morning and evening, and the Chaye Adam (1748-1820) reported that this minhag was still followed by some. While it is true that it is almost unheard of today to blow the shofar twice a day, there is an interesting halachic scenario that results from this variation. The question was posed to R’ Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC 4:21) regarding if one did not hear shofar after shacharis, would he be obligated to make it up later at mincha. He writes that since there is a definitive source for blowing shofar at the end of the day, a person should try and blow shofar at the time of mincha, giving the twice-a-day shofar position some practical importance.