In Temple times, the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish year was known simply as zikaron, a ‘memorial’ (Leviticus 23: 24); ‘yom t’ru’ah, ‘a day of blasting’ (Numbers 29:1) – from the Hebrew root, Reish Vav Ayin, meaning to ‘raise a shout (of alarm)’, or ‘give a blast’. It was only centuries later that the rabbis referred to this day as the New Year for years – Rosh Ha-Shanah (Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1). So, from its very inception, yom t’ru’ah was a summons, ushering in a period of repentance, culminating on the tenth day of the seventh month, in what the Torah calls Yom ha-Kippurim (Lev. 23:27)
To this day, the blasts of the shofar, the ram’s horn, constitute the centre-piece of the observance of Rosh Ha-Shanah. And the shofar is not simply blown. At the end of the Torah service, and in three sets during the Musaf (Additional) service – Malchuyyot, ‘Sovereignty’, Zichronot, ‘Remembrances’, and Shofarot, ‘Shofar blasts’ – the congregation is summoned to attention with a pattern of blasts: T’ki’ah, sh’varim-t’ru’ah, t’ki’ah, t’ki’ah, sh’varim, t’ki’ah, t’ki’ah, t’ru’ah, t’ki’ah – culminating in a t’ki’ah g’dolah, a ‘great t’ki’ah’.
As the blessing preceding the shofar blowing puts it, we are commanded lishmo’a kol shofar, ‘to listen to the voice of the shofar’. According to Maimonides, ‘the voice of the shofar’ is proclaiming: ‘Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep!….. Examine your deeds, and turn to God in repentance’ (Mishneh Torah, ‘Laws of Repentance’, Hilchot T’shuvah, 3:4). But what do we make of the different sounds? Commentators have provided various explanations. This year, I suggest we might reflect on the following way of ‘listening’ to the blasts:
T’ki’ah – a straightforward blast: The clear voice of global crises – economic, political and ecological – demanding a response from all of us, not just from those in positions of power.
T’ru’ah – nine short blasts: The anguished groans of the persecuted and the marginalised, the hungry, the homeless, and the destitute – pleading with us to open our hearts and our hands.
Sh’varim – three ‘broken’ blasts: The complex message that although it is not for us to complete the work, neither are we free to desist from it (Mishnah Avot 2:16), and that even a ‘third party’ – those who are neither the perpetrators nor the victimised – are called to do what we can to contribute to tikkun olam, the repair of the world.
Sh’varim-T’ru’ah – the combination only serves to reinforce the sense of urgency.
T’ki’ah G’dolah – the ‘great t’ki’ah’: And, if not now, when? (Mishnah Avot 1:14)
May the many voices of the shofar reach us all and summon us to act – Shanah Tovah!