Rabbi Ruben Gober
One of the three main berachos (blessings) of the Tefilas Musaf (literally, added prayer) on Rosh Hashana is Shofaros, literally “horns of rams”, referring to the ram’s horn which we use in our mitzvah to blow shofar on this day. Generally, the Tefilas Musaf expresses the essential themes of the holiday. For example, on Pesach we mention that it is the time of our redemption and on Shavuos we mention that it is the time of our having received the Torah. The question then becomes: why do we mention the shofar in our tefila? It is true that there is a commandment to do a certain activity with it on this day, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it must be mentioned as an essential theme of the day. Proof of this would be the mitzvah of Lulav—on Succos we are commanded to pick up the Lulav with other objects, but we don’t mention this mitzvah in our tefila. What is it about shofar that makes it an essential theme of Rosh Hashana?
Even a cursory reading of the text of the bracha raises a few questions. Firstly, the bracha begins by talking about G-d’s Revealing Himself at Mt. Sinai to Bnai Yisrael and how the Shofar was used to create fear in the nation. As the first verse quoted says “…and the voice of the shofar was very strong and the entire nation that was in the camp trembled.” Also in the third verse “And the nation saw…the voice of the shofar…and the nation saw and moved and stood from a distance.” Clearly the images of trembling and moving to a distance create an association of fear with the Shofar. On a factual level, we can relate to this; hearing a loud, thunderous blast of noise can certainly put people into a state of fear and panic. The question is, though, why was it important that the people be in a state of fear at the time of G-d’s Revelation?
Furthermore, the next verses quoted from Psalms express how the Shofar was used as a means of praising G-d. This seems to be contradictory to the previous function of Shofar; whereas first the shofar was used to instill fear in people and express the concept of distance from G-d, now its used as a means of praising G-d, which implies some type of positive expression of our relationship with Him. How do we resolve these seemingly inconsistent ideas of shofar?
When we look at the verses quoted from the Neviim (prophets) in the bracha, we notice yet another application of the shofar. All the verses express the fact that shofar will be sounded as a prelude to the future redemption and the coming of the Messiah. One must ask why shofar must introduce the redemption. In addition, how does this fit with the previous functions and themes of shofar?
Lets start with the beginning of the blessing. As we mentioned above, the first three verses quoted show that shofar took part in producing a state of fear in the people at Sinai. The shofar produces a blasting, thunderous noise that can scare a person, making him feel insecure about the future. This is really the meaning of fear, to feel insecure and unsure about what will happen next. Apparently, this state of insecurity was integral to the event at Sinai, but we need to understand why.
A common notion in the world is that a ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experience is one of feeling close to G-d. The person feels some sense of security in what he views as a personal encounter with Him. Often we may hear people speak of how they feel G-d is with them, or that they feel safe with G-d. The common religious man feels that G-d is with him in everything he does and because of that he is not worried about his future.
The Torah, with the description of the event of Sinai, teaches us that such a notion is impossible. Sinai was the ultimate ‘experience with G-d’ where G-d revealed Himself and communicated directly with man. If any religious experience could be imagined, this was it. Yet, the Torah emphasizes that throughout the event, man felt scared and distant from G-d. Why? Because in Judaism, an encounter with G-d is an opportunity to gain insight into the world and G-d’s Wisdom that otherwise would not be known to man. The goal of Sinai wasn’t for man to ‘experience G-d’; it was for man to gain knowledge of G-d and the correct way of life in this world. However, in gaining such knowledge and perceiving G-d, His Greatness and Wisdom must naturally overawe man. As King David says in Psalms (8:5), “What is man that You remember him?” When man gains insight into the existence of G-d, he must be overawed by how Great this Existence is and how removed He is from ourselves. The encounter with G-d and gain in knowledge was not an ends to itself, which provided man with a sense of emotional security and comfort; it could only allow for a feeling of insecurity that result from the awareness of his own limited and insignificant existence relative to this Perfect Existence. (At Sinai, G-d did give the Jewish nation a means to achieve true security, that of living in line with G-d’s Will and relating to his Divine Providence on this world. As the verse in Psalms says, “Blessed is the man that takes security in G-d”; our knowledge of G-d is our only source of security.)
With this perspective, we may now return to our original questions. At Sinai, there was a danger that man could mistake the experience for a reason to have an emotional sense of security and not have to worry about himself. Man could falsely attribute this ‘close encounter’ with G-d to a sense of self-worth, so that he feels special and unique in the world because ‘G-d is with him’. The shofar was the response to this danger; it created a sense of fear and insecurity, showing that this encounter with G-d, in its own right, doesn’t provide any sense of security for man. It was an experience that was awesome and humiliating, making man feel insignificant and distant from this Ultimate Existence, so that he must feel insecure about himself. When man was confronted with the reality of G-d, the only Real and Independent Existence, there was no room for an emotional security that stems from an over-estimation of man’s own value, since.
Now we can see why the shofar was used as an instrument to praise G-d. In Judaism, praise of G-d doesn’t stem from a feeling of closeness with G-d or positive knowledge of G-d. It’s the opposite—we recognize that man’s praise of G-d falls way short of the Infinite Greatness of G-d due to man’s limited understanding of G-d. As the verse in Nechemiah (9:5) says “And He is Above all blessing and praise.” We praise G-d only because we recognize Him as deserving of all praise but not because the praise contains an accurate description of G-d. In every expression of praise towards G-d, we recognize this distance between man and G-d and how G-d is so great that man is nothing relative to Him. This is why Shofar is used as an instrument of praise; by using an instrument that causes fear and insecurity, we express how part and parcel of our praise of G-d is that we are distant from Him and are overawed by His Existence, so that we must feel insecure about our own self-worth when we talk of His Existence. (See the commentary of the Malbim, on the verse from Psalms 150:3 for support of this idea).
We are now in a position to explain why shofar will be used a prelude to the coming of the future redemption. When we look at the common notion of redemption and the coming of the Messiah, we find that most people look at this as a time in which people will have physical and emotional security. To most, it’s a time of ‘no worries’ where man will be able to exist with all his needs provided for him. He will be able to just sit back and relax, without a worry for what the future will bring. The Torah teaches just the opposite; the only goal and benefit of the time of redemption and the coming of the Messiah is that man will be able to gain knowledge of G-d. The Rambam in Hilchos Melachim (Chapter 12 Law 4) explains that the sages and prophets of the Jewish people desired the days of Messiah, not for its physical and emotional security per se, but for the ability they will have to be concerned only with the Torah and its wisdom and the pursuit of existence in the world to come. In Judaism, redemption is a time where recognition and knowledge of G-d will be disseminated throughout the world and all will gain insight in His Wisdom. Now we see why shofar is appropriate before the redemption— the correct state of mind in entering the time of the redemption is not one of looking towards emotional security but rather insecurity and fear about seeing the true value of one’s personal existence. At this time, mankind will be overawed by new knowledge of a Being and Greater Existence of which previously he had no knowledge. As a result, man will see that his existence is insignificant relative to that of G-d. The goal of this new period in mankind is not for man to feel comfortable with his own existence but rather to see that his own physical existence is worthless if not for his pursuit of knowledge of G-d, which the redemption will give him the optimal opportunity to do. This is what the Shofar teaches us as an introduction to the redemption. It expresses the idea of the proper perspective of this new era in time, namely that man will gain knowledge that will make him feel insecure with regards to his own personal existence.
With this concept of Shofar, we can see why Chazal, our sages, put it in the tefila. The mitzvah of Shofar on Rosh Hashana expresses an idea that is essential on this Day of Judgement. Chazal, in putting Shofaros into the tefila, are teaching us that man must reflect on where he stands in the world; not in the physical world but in the ‘real’ world, that of the metaphysical and philosophical world which contains the true ideas. The Shofar teaches us that as man stands before G-d to be judged, man must acknowledge that relative to G-d, man is small and must feel insecure about himself. It is only through pursuing G-d and His Wisdom that man can give his soul significance and in that manner warrant a favorable verdict that will allow him to continue this pursuit.