By Rabbi Avraham Peretz Friedman
At first glance, blowing a shofar does not seem like the most meaningful way to mark what is, perhaps, the most introspective and solemn day of the year. On Rosh Hashanah we recall the creation of the world, and we engage in some heavy-duty soul-searching: we re-evaluate our lives, our priorities, and our place in God’s universe and plan. On this day the world is judged. Shouldn’t there be some more meaningful way to commemorate this day than to blow a ram’s horn? Why does the Torah choose, among all other lofty possibilities, to characterize this day as a “day of blowing”?
We find a very interesting precedent for this activity of blowing on Rosh Hashanah, and examination of this precedent may just explain why this act is, in fact, the most profound and appropriate symbolism one could find to characterize this most meaningful of days.
There was an act of “blowing” on the very first Rosh Hashanah which, our rabbis tell us, was on the sixth day of Creation. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 29:1) teaches that Rosh Hashanah commemorates not the first day of Creation, but rather the sixth day, the day on which the first human beings were created. The Creation of the universe actually took place six days earlier, on what corresponds to our 25th day of Elul.
This difference is significant: When the Torah designates the first day of Tishrei (corresponding to the sixth day of Creation) as Rosh Hashanah rather than Elul 25 (the anniversary of the first day), the implication is clear: Humankind is the purpose of Creation. There is nothing to celebrate or commemorate in the creation of a universe until there are humans in that universe to give everything meaning and purpose. Once the Almighty created the first human beings, the universe was invested with a purpose — to provide the stage on which people could choose to exercise their free will to serve the Creator.
How does the Torah describe the creation of the first humans? When the Torah recounts the creation of other life forms, it uses language such as “let the waters bring forth…” and “let the earth bring forth…” (Bereishit 1:20 and 1:24). In contrast, when the Torah describes the creation of the first humans, it tells us that “God blew into the human a breath of life” (Bereishit 2:7). Why the difference in terminology? What new or additional information is contained in the expression “and God blew”?
The Zohar explains the reason for this change in language in its succinct, somewhat cryptic observation that “when one blows, one blows from within”.* In other words, placing life into animals, it seems, was a “superficial” operation; but when the Creator “blew” into the first humans the breath of life, so to speak, it was not something “external” or “superficial” to Him.** The human soul is (if we may say such a thing) a piece of the Almighty, and as such, every human being partakes of the essence of the Divine.
We blow, then, on Rosh Hashanah, to experience the truth of the Zohar’s teaching that when one blows, one blows from deep down, from the very essence of oneself. The Torah, in using the symbolic imagery of “and God blew,” dramatizes the lesson that the human soul is as intrinsically Godly in origin as our breath is intrinsic to ourselves.
The Torah, time and again, never misses an opportunity to give us an awareness of our own greatness, the infinite potential greatness of each and every human being. On Rosh Hashanah, we are commanded to blow to remind ourselves of this great truth, the fact that gives meaning to all the rest of what we do in our service to God.
We all know that on Rosh Hashanah we declare the sovereignty — the incomparable, unfathomable majesty — of God. But Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, observed that Rosh Hashanah has another dimension to it as well: it is also the festival that celebrates the greatness, the infinite grandeur and nobility of every human being — and we can suggest that this re-enactment of the blowing at the moment of creation of the first human beings reminds us of this fact. Furthermore, it reminds us that God gave each of us a Godly soul when He “blew” the breath of life into each of us. If we are to engage in introspection on this day, if we are to re-evaluate what role we play in God’s universe and plan, we must do so with this most fundamental truth ever before our eyes. With this in mind, we realize that it is not too difficult for us to keep God’s mitzvot and behave in a holy, Godly way; it is not artificial for us to attempt to lead lives of sanctity. On the contrary, this act of blowing reminds us we were designed for this role, and we were given the resources we need to live lives of loyalty to God and His Torah. Only with the clear recognition of our inherent greatness — indeed, of the inherent greatness of each and every human being — can we properly engage in cheshbon hanefesh, true soul-searching.
This might, incidentally, explain why the Written Torah only mentions the “blowing” part of the day, without any additional explication of what instrument is to be used: the act of blowing is what is significant — our focus is on the very act of blowing itself, as a mashal for the creation of the first humans.
What role, then, does the shofar play? Blowing without a shofar doesn’t produce anything significant — the sound that results is not very compelling. The medium of the shofar converts breath into a piercing, magnificent sound. We can suggest, then, that the presence of the shofar communicates an additional insight: Just as breath without a shofar produces no significant sound, so, too, a neshamah (a soul), without a person to use it in the service of God, produces nothing in this world.
We humans have the great privilege of being partners with the Almighty in the creation of the world in which we live. We are never simply passive receivers in God’s Plan. On the contrary, whatever the arena of our activities, we must be partners with the Creator in perfecting the world around us. Our job, then, is to take the soul that the Almighty placed within us and use it to accomplish great things in this world. We, like the shofar, must take the breath which has been put into us and use it to produce something stirring, something majestic. Indeed, the rabbis (see Midrash Tehillim to Tehillim 81:4) note that the word shofar comes from the Hebrew word l’shifer which means “to improve” or “to beautify.” And that’s exactly our job description: to take the soul that has been given to us and refine and elevate it along with the world around us.
And why, specifically, do we prefer a ram’s horn over other permissible types of horns?
Using a ram’s horn as the shofar of choice addresses the “how” of our service to God, by addressing the manner in which we are to do our work during our time in this world. The ram’s horn recalls a pivotal moment in human history — Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac) — when two people demonstrated their willingness to transcend themselves, and every human instinct they had, in the ultimate sacrifice for God. These giants of the human spirit stood firm in their loyalty to the Almighty, and no cost, no effort, no sacrifice was too great for them. Our Mothers (Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah) and Fathers (Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov) possessed this capability and readiness to transcend themselves and offer themselves completely in the service of God, and they bequeathed this strength to us, their children. We need only tap into this great potential we have within ourselves. If we succeed, we, like the shofar we blow on Rosh Hashanah, will have taken a little bit of breath and converted it, via loyalty to God, into something truly majestic.
A musmach of RIETS, Yeshiva University, Rabbi Avraham Peretz (Cary) Friedman is the executive director of The Jewish Learning Experience in Durham, North Carolina and rabbi at Duke University. He is the author of Table for Two (Targum Press, 1992) and Marital Intimacy (Jason Aronson, 1996).
* See Rabbi Chaim Dov Chavel’s reference to Sefer Hakaneh in Ramban Al Hatorah (Breishit 2:7).
** We are hampered in our primitive language and concepts, for the Almighty is Unique, Indivisible, and without any form, and no corporeal concepts apply to Him in any way. Our descriptions of Him and His creation of the first humans through the activity of “blowing” are, of course, metaphorical.