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Sep 27, 2016

Riddle of Rosh Hashanah

The Torah commands us to blow the shofar on the Feast of Trumpets as a memorial, but it does not tell us what the blowing of the shofar memorializes!

On the first day of the seventh month is a Biblical Festival commonly known as the Feast of Trumpets. In Judaism it is typically called Rosh haShannah which means, "Head of the Year." Neither the name of the festival or the meaning of the festival are made explicitly clear in the Torah. The symbolism of the festival is something of a mystery, a sort of Torah riddle begging to be solved. The Torah grants us only two sparse verses to explain the festival:

"In the seventh month, on first day of the month, it will be for you a Sabbath, a trumpet blast memorial, a sacred assembly. All regular work you shall not do, and you shall cause to be brought near to the LORD an offering made by fire." (Leviticus 23:23,24)

In the above passage, the Torah commands us to blow the shofar on the Feast of Trumpets as a memorial, but it does not tell us what the blowing of the shofar memorializes! The other Biblical Festivals are explained in greater detail. Leviticus 23 explicitly tells us that Pesach is a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot is an agricultural festival, the Yom Kippur is a purification ceremony, and Sukkot is both a harvest festival and a memorial of Israel's wilderness experience. But when the same chapter comes to speak of the first day of the seventh month, we find only a few vague details. No explanations or deeper meanings are divulged.

From the above passage we do learn that a trumpet is to be blown as a remembrance on this day. The Hebrew says that this particular day will be a "trumpet blast memorial." In order to keep the mitzvah of making a "trumpet blast memorial", the shofar (ram's horn trumpet) is blown 100 times in synagogues throughout the prayer services of the day. But what is the trumpet blast memorial a memorial of?

The Sages offered various attempts to explain the Festival. By searching through the Scriptures for references to shofars and trumpets blasts, a plethora of different remembrances were suggested. Other meanings attached to the festival were handed on from generation to generation through the oral tradition. The early medieval sage, Rav Saadiah Gaon codified these various explanations of the Feast of Trumpets and listed them. According to Rav Saadiah Gaon, there are ten primary remembrances for which the shofar is blown on Rosh haShannah (Goodman, 1992). Each of these remembrances highlights a unique aspect of the festival. Each remembrance is a key facet to the holiday and its accompanying prayer service.

The Ten Remembrances

1. CORONATION: In the Scriptures, the shofar is sounded at the coronation of a king. The blast of the shofar announces the newly crowned King and proclaims his ascent to sovereignty. We see this well illustrated in the coronation contest for David's throne (1 Kings 1:39). Psalm 47:5 and 98:6 also illustrate the shofar blast as a coronation acclamation. Thus the shofar blast of Rosh haShannah might be construed to be a proclamation of coronation, specifically, the coronation of the King of the Universe. According to ancient Jewish tradition, the first day of the seventh month is the yearly anniversary of God's completion of creation. As such, it is also the New Year's Day of the Biblical Calendar. This New Year's Day aspect is reflected in the festival's common Hebrew name: Rosh haShannah. Rosh haShannah, as previously mentioned, means, "Head of the Year." The first day of the seventh month then marks and remembers the anniversary of the completion of creation as well as the day that God became King over that new creation. Therefore, sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the coronation of the King of the Universe, and it symbolizes our acceptance of God as King.

2. REPENTANCE: Rosh haShannah marks the beginning of a ten day countdown to the Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). Because the Yom Kippur is judgment day, the shofar is sounded as a reminder that judgment is very near and the time for repentance is short.

In Temple times, the priesthood sounded three trumpet blasts every morning to announce the opening of the Temple gates (Edersheim, 1992). So too, it is believed, that the first shofar blasts of the Feast of Trumpets announce the opening of the gates of Heaven. This is traditional Rosh haShannah image is fully employed in Revelation 4:1 when the Apostle looks and sees a door standing open in heaven and then hears a voice like a shofar say, "Come up here . . ."

In this tradition, the gates of Heaven are opened to receive our prayers of repentance and remain open until the conclusion of the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement service is concluded with one long shofar blast which announces that the gates of heaven have closed and judgment is complete. Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the need to repent before judgment is made.

3. SINAI: When God descended onto Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, a heavenly shofar sounded loud and long. The sound of the shofar at Sinai was one of the miraculous signs that accompanied the giving of the Torah and the invitation to covenant. Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the day at Mount Sinai when Israel accepted her covenant with God: the Torah.

4. WARNING: In ancient Israel, a watchman blew a shofar to sound an alarm when danger was approaching, much the way civil defense sirens are used in our modern world. When the Israelite heard the sound of the shofar, he knew to take warning of some imminent danger. Ezekiel employs this image by comparing the words of the prophets to the sound of the shofar warning. Ezekiel says, "The listener who heard the voice of the shofar and did not taking warning, and a sword came and took him, his blood will be on his own head." (Ezekiel 33:4, see also Jeremiah 4:19-21). That is to say, "If a person heard the words of the prophet but did not take warning from them, it will be his own fault when the trouble comes." Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the need to take warning from the words of the prophets.

5. TEMPLE: In the Ancient Near East, the shofar was blown as a battle cry during sieges and assaults. When the soldiers heard the shofar, they knew to initiate the attack. The prophets invoke the battle cry of the shofar as they repeatedly warn of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. For a good example of this at work consider the following passage:

"I have heard the sound of the shofar; I have heard the battle cry. Disaster follows disaster; the whole land lies in ruins. In an instant my tents are destroyed, my shelter in a moment. How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the shofar?" (Jeremiah 4:19-21)

Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple and a reminder to pray for its rebuilding.

6. THE BINDING OF ISAAC: A shofar trumpet is made from the horn of a ram. The most famous ram in the Torah is the ram of Genesis 22 which was sacrificed in Isaac's stead. Perhaps that is one reason that the Torah reading for the second day of the Feast of Trumpets is Genesis 22. The prayers of the Feast of Trumpets are filled with references to this story. The binding of Isaac is a central theme of the festival liturgies. As the congregation prays for forgiveness, they appeal to God for mercy and grace on the merit of the binding of Isaac.

Therefore, we find many prayers like the following one in the Festival of Trumpets prayer book.

"Remember for us, LORD, our God, the covenant, the kindness, and the oath that You swore to our father Abraham on Mount Moriah. Let there appear before You the Binding, when Abraham, our father, bound Isaac, his son, upon the altar . . . so may Your mercy suppress Your anger from upon us . . . and may you mercifully remember today the binding of Isaac for the sake of his offspring. Blessed are You, LORD, Who remembers the covenant." (Scherman, Nosson and Zlotowitz, 1985).

In the Talmud the question is asked, "Why do we sound the shofar on the Feast of Trumpets?" It is answered, "Because God said: 'I will thereby recall in your favor the Binding of Isaac and regard it as though you yourselves were bound before me.'" (Rosh haShannah 16a)

The following midrash further ties the relationship between the Feast of Trumpets and the binding of Isaac.

'After he had bound his son, Abraham then said: "You promised me seed through Isaac, yet when You commanded me to sacrifice him I restrained my most natural emotional instincts, and did not hesitate. So, too, when my descendants sin and thereby become oppressed, may you remember this binding. May it be considered before You as if Isaac's ashes were gathered upon the altar and his blood was sprinkled upon the altar, and may you forgive their sin." God answered him on that day on which God would judge all [that is The Feast of Trumpets], that if future generations wish Him to recall for them the merit of the binding of Isaac and forgive them, they should sound the shofar. "What is the shofar?" asked Abraham. "Turn around and see it," God answered. Thereupon Abraham looked up, and behold a ram!' (Scherman, Nosson and Zlotowitz, 1994).

Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the binding of Isaac and a prayer for mercy on the merit of a sacrificed son.

7. FEAR: As stated above, the ancient Israelite watchman blew a shofar to sound an alarm when danger was approaching a city. When the city inhabitants heard the sound of the shofar, they were frightened of what unknown danger might be about to befall them. Amos employs this image of the fear inspired by the shofar blast when he says, "If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble?" (Amos 3:6).

The danger which approaches on Rosh haShannah is God himself as he readies the heavenly court for judgment. In Jewish observance, the intervening days between the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement are called the "Awesome Days." They are to be days of intense soul searching and repentance and even fear as we prepare to enter the presence of the judge of all creation. Amos reminds us to fear the judgment of God as we would tremble at the sound of the watchman's shofar.

Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance to fear God.

8. JUDGMENT: The prophet Zephaniah reminds us that the "day of the shofar" is a day of wrath, darkness, gloom and alarm. Indeed, it is the Day of the LORD (Zephaniah 1:14-16). According to the Feast of Trumpets traditions, the heavenly court is convened on the Feast of Trumpets.

Because the Feast of Trumpets is the Torah New Year's Day (that is the anniversary of the completion of creation) it is also the end of the heavenly fiscal year. As at the end of our calendar year, New Years Day is the day when the ledgers must be settled. On the Feast of Trumpets, the books of judgment are opened and all the deeds of each person are reviewed by the heavenly court for judgment. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, everyone's name will be written and sealed for final judgment in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. This imagery is reflected in Revelation 20:12-15 where John sees the ultimate and final Day of Judgment. On the Day of Judgment, Yom Kippur, the righteous are written in the Book of Life. The wicked are written in the Book of Death. The intervening days between Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur are traditionally regarded as prime-time to sway the heavenly court's decision through serious prayer, repentance and acts of charity.

Therefore, the sound of the shofar on the Feast of Trumpets is a remembrance of Judgment at the hands of heaven.

9. INGATHERING: Perhaps the most famous shofar reference out of all the prophets is Isaiah 27:13. "And it will be on that day when a great shofar will be blown, the perishing in the land of Assyria and the exiles in the land of Egypt will come, and they will worship before the LORD on the Holy Mountain in Jerusalem." This verse is a prophecy of the great Ingathering of all Israel. The Ingathering is to commence with the return of Messiah. It is anticipated and prayed for three times a day in the tenth blessing of the daily prayer.

"Sound the great shofar for our freedom, lift up a banner to gather us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, LORD, who gathers in the exiled of his people Israel."

Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the ultimate Ingathering of Israel.

10. RESURRECTION: The tenth and final reason Rav Saadiah Gaon gives for the blowing of the shofar on the Feast of Trumpets is to remember the resurrection of the dead. The Sages understood the words of Isaiah 18:3 to be a prophecy directed to the dead. "As a banner is lifted on the mountains, you will see, and as a shofar is sounded, you will hear." This was understood to mean that when the final shofar was blown, the dead would rise and see and hear again. The Jewish legends of the coming of Messiah include a great shofar blast which wakes up those sleeping in the dust. An Eighth Century midrash fills in the details of how this might be accomplished:

"And how does the Holy One, blessed be He, resuscitate the dead in the world to come? We are taught that the Holy One, blessed be He, takes in His hand a Great Shofar . . . and blows it, and its sound goes from one end of the world to the other. At the first blow the whole world shakes. At the second blow the dust breaks up. At the third blow their bones gather. At the fourth blow their members become warm. At the fifth blow their skins are stretched over them. At the sixth blow they become alive and stand up on their feet in their clothes . . ." (Patai, 1988).

The Apostle Paul concurs in 1 Corinthians 15:52. In that passage he explicitly states, "The shofar will sound, the dead will be raised."

Therefore, the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of the future resurrection of the dead.

Things to Come

In his letter to the believers at Collosae, Paul states that all of the Biblical Festivals are "shadows of things to come, the substance of Messiah." (Colossians 2:16,17). From the above list, it is obvious that Rosh haShannah speaks of things to come. The list of remembrances reads like a synopsis of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic expectation. The warning of impending judgment, the call to repentance, the fear of the Day of the LORD, the Ingathering of Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple, the final judgment, the resurrection of the dead and the coronation of the King are all familiar eschatological themes which both Jewish and Christian communities associate with the coming of Messiah. It is clear that the Festival is ripe with end-times implications.

In view of Paul's statement that the festivals are "shadows of things to come," and in view of the ways in which the Spring Festivals of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost received a Messianic fulfillment within the events of the first coming of Messiah, one can hardly be surprised to find that the Fall Festivals speak to Messiah's return. Yeshua himself invokes Rosh haShannah imagery when he says, "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great shofar and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other." (Matthew 24:30,31)

The Riddle is Solved

Perhaps the Sages have solved the riddle the first day of the seventh month for us. The shofar of Rosh haShannah is a remembrance of things yet to come. It is a memorial of things that have not happened yet. Only with God can something be remembered before it has occurred! Rosh haShannah remembers the future work of Messiah.

Perhaps it is the obscurity of the future which accounts for the Torah's silence regarding the festival's meaning. Rosh haShannah's final fulfillment is still shrouded in the future. If so, then the sound of the shofar on Rosh haShannah reminds us to listen for the sound of the Master's shofar.

When we hear the voice of the shofar this year we must let it speak to our souls and penetrate our hearts. The voice of the shofar is the voice of our Master.

Parts of this article in the magazine Bikkurei Tzion under the title "Yom Teruah, Ten Reasons for Blowing the Shofar."


Goodman, Phillip. 1992. Rav Se'adiah Gaon's 10 Remembrances. The Shavuot Anthology. Philadelphia - Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society.

Edersheim, Alfred. 1992. The Temple, Its Ministry and Services. Grand Rapids, MI. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Scherman, Nosson and Zlotowitz, Meir, ed. and trans. 1994. ArtScroll Tanach Series, Bereishis. Vol. 1(a). Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications Ltd.

Scherman, Nosson and Zlotowitz, Meir ed. and trans. 1985. The Complete ArtScroll Machzor, Rosh Hashanah. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications Ltd.

Patai, Raphael. 1988. The Messiah Texts. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Quote for today

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Psalm 32:8

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Kehilat Sar Shalom, generally referred to as "KSS" or "Sar Shalom," is a Messianic Jewish community dedicated to teaching and living out the Jewish foundations of our faith in the Messiah Yeshua. We strive to identify with our Jewish heritage through the celebration of God's Word - the Torah, its Feasts and instructions.