For crying out loud: Meaning behind the sounds of the shofar


In a few days, on the holiday of Rosh Hashana many of us will fulfill the once a year commandment of hearing the sound of the shofar. The mitzvah of the shofar, as reflected in the blessing we make upon it, is not to blow the shofar, but to hear its sound.

There are primarily two shofar sounds, the tekiah (one long sound) and the teruah (a series of shorter sounds). The tikiah is the main blast blown on the Yovel, the jubilee year, to declare freedom throughout the Land of Israel, and in a war to call the people to battle. It is a declaration, a public address system. But on Rosh Hashana the main sound of the shofar is the teruah, the shorter staccato series of sounds.

The Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashana tells us that this teruah blast is the sound of crying. We blow two versions of the teruah sound, three medium blasts (shevarim) and nine very short blasts because we are unsure what type of cry to mimic, a wailing cry (medium blasts) or a more staccato cry (short blasts) so we blow both on Rosh Hashana. All of these teruah blasts on Rosh Hashana are for one purpose, to express through the shofar horn, the sound of crying.

What is the purpose of this crying; this teruah blast? The Torah tells us (Lev. 23:24) that it is “zichron” — memory. But what are we to remember through the cry of the teruah and how does the crying shofar sound help us to remember?

The medical and psychological literature on crying tells us that crying results from changes in, and usually losses of, intimate interpersonal relationships. As Don Quixote once said, “He loves you well, who makes you weep.”

What purpose does crying serve? Many people facing the loss of such a relationship report feeling less sad after crying. Though the relationship they were lamenting has not changed their crying was a kind of catharsis, a shedding of armor allowing deeper emotions and true feelings to emerge into awareness.

Crying is a state that is quite vulnerable, one in which we become more ourselves — exposed and real. True crying is perhaps the most genuine of acts.

“Zichron,” or memory, is thus an essential part of crying. Without memory there is no change in relationship. Without memory things are only as they are. There can be no regret without memory, no hope for the relationship to be or have been other than it was. No feelings of loss for the past and no feeling of hope for the future.

Our shofar sound, the Rosh Hashana liturgy relates, also recalls two historical shofar blasts. That of the shofar at Mount Sinai when the Jews first received the Torah and became a godly nation, and the future shofar blast that will be sounded at the heralding of the Messiah. We first recall the shofar of the past, the memories of our most intimate moment of relationship with God, the moment of our wedding as a nation to God at Mount Sinai.

Weddings are the most photographed and remembered moments. From no other event is cake saved for years to come only to recall the past, dresses preserved and videos watched. But weddings, as ours with God at Mount Sinai, are only one day.

A wedding’s function in memory is to remember how the relationship can be, the intimacy that was possible in the past and can be again for the future. The intimate present of our relationship with God, facilitated by our memories of Mount Sinai in the past, will lead us hopefully to a deeper relationship in the future and ultimately the shofar of the Messiah.

Memory itself is an intellectual act, but crying along with memory, the teruah’s cry, helps us not only remember but for the memories to become real, to be emotionally overwhelming even in the present. To then relive and reestablish the relationship we remember, in the present and ultimately into the future.

Yes, Rosh Hashana is about judgment and forgiveness but only as a tool to reestablish our intimate relationship with the Infinite one, from the past, in the present, and hopefully with God’s help, into the future.

Shanah Tovah! A Sweet Year!

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.