This Year, Remember the Importance of the Shofar
The shofar has long been a popular symbol of Judaism thanks to its usage on the High Holidays. But the shofar was once associated not only with prayer, but as a rallying cry of freedom.
This notion is manifest in Jewish liturgy. The 10th benediction of the daily amidah begins with T’ka bshofar gadol l’cherutenu — “sound a great shofar for our liberty.” Similarly, the portion of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service dedicated to the shofar’s meaning, known as shofarot, lists several scriptural sources of the ram horn’s link with freedom, including, “when the banner of redemption is raised on the mountains –you will see it; and when a shofar will be sounded, you will hear it.”
How did a ram’s horn come to embody the Jewish view of freedom? The Hebrew Bible created the liberty horn in three ways.
First, it did so through the Jubilee year, the semi-centennial event where all slaves and debts were released. The Jubilee — or yovel — commenced with a shofar blast, which was so central a ritual that yovel literally means horn.
Second, is the shofar’s military and messianic messaging. For example, Joshua’s army toppled the walls of Jericho with the roar of the shofar, which became a common feature of Israelite warfare. Furthermore, based on prophetic verses, traditional Judaism believes that the Messianic Age will be heralded with shofar blasts. In fact, my childhood synagogue hangs a ram’s horn and oil jug in the main sanctuary to announce and anoint the Messiah should he travel through Scarsdale, New York, on his way to the Holy Land.
The shofar in early Jewish history was like the fife and drum in colonial America — the clarion call to grab your weapon and muster a defense of endangered liberties. Absalom whipped up popular anger against King David because he claimed that the monarch had centralized control, robbing the people of justice. To signal the launch of his coup, Absalom told his men: “As soon as you hear the sound of the shofar, then you shall say: ‘Absalom is king in Hebron.”
After Absalom’s defeat, the northern tribes were still in rebellious spirit; King David, they thought, usurped too much power, threatening their ancient liberties. Sheba the Benjamite launched an armed revolt, “blew a shofar and declared, ‘We have no portion of David, neither have we an inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O’ Israel.’” Hearing the horn, the masses rallied to Sheba’s cause and attacked Davidic targets.
Likewise, when Israel liberated Jerusalem from Jordanian control in 1967, the IDF’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren triumphantly blew the shofar at the Western Wall, in what became an iconic moment.
Third, the shofar is the wake-up call to repentance, a reminder that we stand under Divine judgement. Humanity is endowed with free will. By accepting God’s sovereignty and hearkening to the commandments, we unshackle ourselves from reliance on man, and from vices that enslave us. “Freedom through the Law” is the Talmudic dictum.
These three typologies of the shofar are profoundly connected, which can be seen in the fact that it is on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the Jubilee year is declared with a shofar blare. The Jubilee frees the slave — but for what? Yom Kippur exhorts us to use that freedom for virtuous living, what George Washington called “liberty without licentiousness.”
It is no wonder, then, that the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, is emblazoned with the verse from Leviticus commanding the Jubilee: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.”
America got it right. Like Judaism, it sought to couple freedom of action with moral obligation. John Adams warned that American freedom rested on the foundation of “a moral and religious people.” In contrast, the French Revolution, while professing political liberty, denounced religious practice.
When the Liberty Bell first sounded in 1751, an onlooker wrote that “it rang as if it meant something.” Indeed it does. The shofar means something, and something similar, too.
This High Holiday season, we should connect with the penetrating demands of the simple ram’s horn and answer the charge of its shrill blasts. The confessions and supplications during services demonstrate that we are held accountable for all our actions. In other words, we are free.
“Fortunate is the people that understand the call of shofar.” (Ps.89:16)
Joshua Blustein is a Jewish and pro-Israel activist, and a student at the University of Chicago Law School.