The High Holy Days are just around the corner, so I want to change topics.
It is the sound of the shofar that gets my attention. My friend, Yussel may be the best player I have ever known. All the suffering of the ages found expression in the plaintive cry of his shofar sounds. When the Torah commands us to “hear the sound of the shofar,” it is his playing that echoes in my mind.
Most people I know are more concerned about the shofar sound than they are about how it is made. I have known people to use trumpets and bugles, even conch shells, in place of a shofar. Yes, they know that it is called a ram’s horn. For various reasons the alternatives have drawn them away; some for ease of playing, some for the quality of the sound. Regardless, their main concern has been the ability to get the sound right.
Two mishnahs from chapter 3 of Rosh HaShannah focus on the material of the shofar more than the sound. The first mishnah (26a) states “All shofars are kosher except for those from a cow because that is called a horn.” A linguistic discussion follows on the distinction between a shofar and a horn. A page later (26b) the next mishnah sharpens the focus a bit more. The anonymous voice of the Mishnah declares that “the shofar from Rosh HaShannah [in contrast to other occasions] comes from an antelope and is straight.” Later in the mishnah Rabbi Judah disagrees and argues that “the shofar for Rosh Hashannah comes from rams,” without comment on whether it should be straight or curved. Rabbi Levi, in the gemara, immediately adds that “the shofar for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur should be curved.” The material, the particular kind and shape of the horn becomes key in this discussion.
What is going on? The material does not noticeably affect the tenor of the notes that are heard. The sounds produced by a long, twisty Yemenite shofar are deeper and more resonant than those from a short, straight Ashkenazi one. I presume a blindfolded listener might detect the difference if a trumpet or conch shell were substituted. But the differences are small. And if the reason for sounding the shofar is as Maimonides says: “Awake from your slumber, and rouse yourselves from your lethargy. Scrutinize your deeds and return in repentance…” (Mahzor Hadash, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, The Prayer Book Press, 1978, pg. 242), then surely the material of the horn should not matter. It is the sound, the hearing of the call, which breaks through our conscience.
Moreover there is nothing intrinsically different about one kind of horn and another. The gemara does try to differentiate the cow’s horn from all others. Abaye argues (26a) that a cow’s horn grows in layers, meaning it appears as if it were several horns nested one inside the other. Since the command is to sound a shofar, not many shofarot, the cow is excluded. But that is quickly dismissed. Rabbi Yosi already rejected such facile distinctions in the mishnah when he said: “All shofarot are called horns.” A horn is a horn is a horn.
But perhaps not. Maimonides offers a clear, rational explanation for the inchoate sound of the shofar. It is, after all, merely sound. If you heard the call in a different place, at a different time, you may not accord it any meaning. It means what we say it means. By the same token our sages differentiated one horn from another. They found meaning in the material of the shofar itself, if only we understood the significance.
The ram our sages recall was snared by the bush on Mt. Moriah, awaiting Abraham and Isaac on the day of the akedah, when Abraham bound Isaac on the altar. Rabbi Joshua, according to one midrash, taught that “an angel brought [the ram] from the Garden of Eden, where he had been grazing beneath the tree of life.” The ram had been there since “twilight at the end of the six days of creation,” waiting for just this moment. (The Book of Legends, Bialik & Ravnitzky, trans. William G. Braude, Schocken, 1992, pg 42) This ram epitomizes the purity of creation, the faithfulness of Abraham, and the suffering of Isaac. As we prepare for the Day of Atonement, these are the virtues we wish to embrace.
By contrast, the cow, or calf, recalls the nadir of our history. The Golden calf calls to mind the orgiastic celebration and the declaration that, “this is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 32:4). That event derailed our entry to the Holy Land by a generation. Not a memory we wish to dredge up as we prepare to ask for forgiveness.
In this particular discussion the sages only allude to these connections, they will get more explicit elsewhere. Here (26a) they are content to cite an anonymous teacher who argues that we avoid the cow’s horn because “the accuser [the Golden calf] cannot act as defender [as we do the work of repentance].”
The shofar, then, is no mere horn. The hearing required of us is not merely the sound, but the echo of our history. The Talmudic discussion that follows (what animal is proper as the source for a shofar, should a shofar be curved or straight) reveals that the medium is the message.
Why should this matter for us? I noted above that the sound of the shofar is merely sound. The horn is merely a horn. They have no intrinsic meaning. Rather, they are a symbolic language we inherit from earlier generations. These texts remind us to uncover the layers of that symbolic language so we can understand what lies underneath. For some the discovery of what lies under the surface may yield a precious legacy.
(c) 2009 Rabbi Louis Rieser