When archaeologists excavated at the base of the Temple Mount they discovered something remarkable. They exposed a stone that had once sat at the upper southwest corner of the structure, which was thrown to the ground by the Romans when they destroyed the second Temple. The large stone, a replica of which sits in the location where it was found while the original is in the Israel Museum, bears an amazing inscription. It states,
“to the place of trumpeting to distinguish (between the sacred and the profane)”
It is believed to have been a directional sign indicating where the priest, who sounded the Shofar each week to announce the arrival of Shabbat, was to stand.
With the arrival of Rosh Hashanah next week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the shofar. Its connection to Rosh Hashanah goes back to the Book of Leviticus where we read,
…In the seventh month, on the first of the month, there shall be a sabbath for you, a remembrance with shofar blasts, a holy convocation. (Leviticus 16:24)
(SIDE NOTE: Because Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat this year, many congregations will not sound the shofar on the first day. This boundary was initially established to avoid the possibility that the ba’al tekiah—the sounder of the shofar—might forget to bring the shofar to the synagogue before Shabbat begins and need to carry it to services thereby breaking the Shabbat prohibition against carrying items on the sabbath. As is our congregation’s custom, we WILL be sounding the shofar.)
The history of the shofar actually precedes the establishment of Rosh Hashanah. For example, in the Book of Exodus, the blast of the shofar acknowledges God’s presence in the midst of the community. Later, the shofar announced the arrival of the Jubilee year to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (This inscription can be found on the Liberty Bell.)
For much of antiquity, the shofar was used for an entirely different purpose. It was a call to arms.
In the Book of Joshua, the shofar was sounded just before the walls of Jericho came tumbling down and to call the Israelites to battle against the Moabites. And in the Book of Jeremiah, it warned the people of approaching danger so they could find safety in the walls of a nearby fortified city before enemies arrived.
The transformation of the shofar from a call to battle to a communal announcement of Shabbat to what it is today—a call to conscience—is rather striking. The very thing that was once used to rally the community at a time when people were divided and fighting is now used in the service of healing and rebuilding connection, as it calls on each of us to do the emotional and spiritual work of healing the wounds we may have caused.
Thus, that which once reflected the divisions among people now calls on each of us to work to heal those divisions.
In a world that seems to thrive on focusing on all that divides us, the shofar has become a reminder that we need not remain stuck in the errors of the past. Its sound says, “Healing old wounds and divisions is possible. But before that can happen you need to wake up, pay attention, and do the work required for such healing.”
I am grateful that, once again, David Leit will serve as our ba’al tekiah. When he sounds the shofar next week I invite you to close your eyes and simply listen. Take the sound in. Let it shake you. And then, having heard the call, take the time to do the work to fulfill its promise that healing and change are always possible.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen