When Christians blow the shofar, it’s a wake-up call for Jews
(September 16, 2022 / JNS) They were blowing the shofar, but it wasn’t Rosh Hashanah.
On January 5, 2021, the sound of the ram’s horn echoed through the streets of Washington, DC, as participants in the Jericho March surrounded the capital during a re-enactment of Joshua’s siege on the ancient city. For Jewish observers, it was a puzzling scene. “Are you going to do the shevarim as well?” a reporter asked a puffy-cheeked protester, referring to the rhythmic blowing pattern used in Jewish tradition. He received a blank stare in return.
But for Robert Weinger, a master shofar blower who lives in Israel, the connection was obvious. For years, most visitors to his shofar center in the Judean Desert have been evangelical Christians. Seeking to follow in the footsteps of the ancient Israelites, they brought back shofars to use in church meetings and on special occasions.
Weinger, who is Jewish, has come to see himself as something of an ambassador for the instrument. “We are the people of the book, but we don’t read our own book,” he told JNS. “Historically, the shofar was used as a call to battle, an alarm, a cry of victory. There is a mystery behind the shofar. It brings heaven down to earth.
The appropriation of the shofar by Christian groups – and certainly its use in political contexts – is controversial, to say the least. Yet, at a time when many Jews associate the shofar with a few uncomfortable hours spent in the synagogue once a year, it is also a wake-up call to re-examine the extraordinary and paradoxical role the shofar has played in history. Jewish…a story that continues to reverberate in Jewish practice today.
The first blow of the shofar in the Bible is supernatural: at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jews are gathered and hear the sound of the shofar, presumably from the mouth of God himself. But for nomadic groups like the ancient Israelites, it was a familiar sound.
Shepherds have long used animal horns to call their flocks and communicate with each other, says Jonathan Friedmann, professor of Jewish music history at the California Academy for Jewish Religion and editor of Qol Tamid: The Shofar in Ritual, History and Culture. “Because the horn was relatively easy to shape and did not require great musical skill, it was, in many ways, a ‘people’s instrument’. There is an etymological connection between the Hebrew term for “shepherd”, roehand the term we identify with the sounds of the shofar, you ruah.”
The sound of a “broken explosion”
The Bible elevates the shofar to the rank of the sacred: Leviticus proclaims the first day of the seventh month – Rosh Hashanah –Yom you ruah, a “day of explosions”. On Yom Kippur, every 49 years, the Jubilee is ushered in with the sound of a “broken explosion”. (In the Jewish Diaspora, this practice is commemorated by blowing the shofar at the end of all Yom Kippur service.) In the Temple, priests sounded the shofars to mark the new moon and as part of the regular musical service of the Levites.
Yet the shofar never lost its status as an “instrument of the people”.
Even in Temple times, it was used to warn of impending danger, to mark the beginning of Shabbat (before the advent of clocks) and to crown a new king – a practice preserved in modern Israel when a new president is sworn in. was used in war. In the Book of Judges, Gideon and his 300-man army intimidate the much larger Midianites with primitive pyrotechnics accompanied by shofar blasts. Perhaps most famously, at the command of God and under the direction of Joshua, the walls of Jericho crumbled to the sound of seven shofars.
After the destruction of the Temple, the role of the shofar gradually diminished. Prayer and ritual replaced sacrificial service, and new technologies made non-ritual shofar sounds obsolete. But the sages succeeded in making room for the instrument in post-Temple Judaism. “In order to preserve a biblical anchor for the New Year, the sages decided that the shofar was not really a musical instrument, which could not be played on holy days, and instead enforced its use,” says Friedmann.
Soon the horn was making an appearance once a year on Rosh Hashanah.
The various purposes of the shofar have not been lost, however. Instead, they imbued the Jewish New Year with spiritual significance: the use of a sheep’s horn, the rabbis explained, was a reference to the binding of Isaac, when Abraham sacrificed a ram to the place of his son, arousing the eternal mercy of God for the Jews. people. (While other animal horns may be used, cow horns are prohibited, as they evoke the Sin of the Golden Calf.)
Rosh Hashanah also became the day when, with the blast of the shofar, the Jewish people crown God as their king. And the Talmud tells that the shofar is a powerful weapon in the battle with “the Accuser” – also known as Satan – the spiritual force that seeks to harm the Jews.
Charged with such history and significance, it is no wonder that in modern times the shofar has become a symbol of Jewish identity and continuity, blown at Auschwitz at the end of World War II and the liberated Western Wall in 1967. It is also not surprising that this powerful symbol attracts other groups. But if its uses have been diverse and sometimes contradictory, the shofar is essentially and irrevocably Jewish, and it will remain so until the day when an era of eternal peace and justice begins, with – as the prophet Isaiah recounts – the blowing a ram’s horn.