Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is considered a day for introspection and repentance. It is one of the High Holy Days, the most sacred days on the Jewish calendar. But strangely, the Bible tells us very little about this day. Here is the full description of this festival, mentioned only twice in the Torah:
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.’” – Leviticus 23:23-25
On the first day of the seventh month hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. It is a day for you to sound the trumpets. – Numbers 29:1
Despite the English translations, the word trumpet – shofar – never appears in these verses. The Hebrew word used, teru’ah, only means “blast.” In other words, teru’ah is not the name of the instrument, the horn or shofar. It is the word for the act of blowing or of the sound made by the blowing. The only thing the Bible tells us about this festival is that it is a day of teru’ah – trumpet blasts. No other information is given. So how did we come to see this as a sacred day of introspection, repentance, and judgement before God? Why do we call it the New Year?
The blowing of the shofar is the central ritual of the Rosh Hashanah synagogue service. During the service, one hundred sounds are blown which are divided into sets of three different sounds. These sets are repeated numerous times during the course of the service.
The three sounds are:
Tekiah – a long straight blast, usually lasting 3 or 4 seconds.
Shevarim – a three-part broken blast; a kind of “toot-toot-toot”
Teru’ah – a rapid-fire broken blast of at least 9 very short sounds in quick succession; almost like machine gun fire.
The sets that make up the 100 shofar blasts are arranged in three different ways.
- Tekiah – Shevarim – Teru’ah – Tekiah (4 shofar sounds)
- Tekiah – Shevarim – Tekiah (3 shofar sounds)
- Tekiah – Teru’ah – Tekiah (3 shofar sounds)
Every set begins and ends with the longer straight sound, tekiah. The “broken” sounds are in between. This setup contains a deep message for any person of faith. To understand this message, we must turn to the Bible and read very carefully.
The Day of Broken Sounds
The Hebrew word teru’ah, the word the Bible uses to describe this festival, actually means “broken trumpet blasts.” The root of this Hebrew word means “broken into pieces” or “unsteady.” The Jewish sages living over 2000 years ago were not sure whether these blasts should be broken into very short rapid-fire sounds or should be slightly longer, like the sound of a person sobbing. They decided that both sounds should be made to cover the two possible meanings of this word. The shevarim sound and the teru’ah sound are these two sounds. Put simply, shevarim and teru’ah are two different types of teru’ah – broken blasts.
The word tekiah also means “trumpet blast,” but it refers to a long, unbroken blast. Both these words appear in the Bible, as we will see in detail soon.
To sum up, Rosh Hashanah is referred to in the Bible as a day for sounding the shofar with teru’ah – “broken blasts.” To understand what this means, we must look carefully at another Biblical passage.
Sounds of crisis & Sounds of peace
In Numbers 10, God commanded Moses to make two silver trumpets. These trumpets were not shofars – ram’s horns. But in the instructions for their use both Hebrew words for “trumpet blast,” tekiah and teru’ah are used. To make it easier to follow, I will translate tekiah as “long blast” and teru’ah as “broken blast.”
When a broken blast is sounded, the tribes camping on the east are to set out. At the sounding of a second broken blast, the camps on the south are to set out. The broken blast will be the signal for setting out. To gather the assembly, blow a long blast, but not a broken blast. The sons of Aaron, the priests, are to blow the trumpets. This is to be a lasting ordinance for you and the generations to come. When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a broken blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the Lord your God and rescued from your enemies. Also, at your times of rejoicing—your appointed festivals and New Moon feasts—you are to sound a long blast over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God. – Numbers 10:5-10
Notice how each type of blast is used. The broken blasts signaled that the people were setting out to travel or going into battle. The long blasts were to gather the assembly and for times of rejoicing and festivals.
We see from this that the teru’ah – the broken blast – signifies times of struggle and transition. It is a sound of brokenness, crying, and instability. Tekiah, on the other hand, is a solid and steady sound. This is the sound of gathering, of peace, of festivities. But why then, would a festival be called a day of teru’ah. Didn’t we just read in Numbers 10 that the festivals are a time for tekiah – the long blasts?
The answer to this question reveals the deepest meaning of Rosh Hashanah. I mentioned earlier every shofar “set” on Rosh Hashanah begins and ends with tekiah. The shevarim and teru’ah – the broken blasts – are always in between the tekiahs.
Tekiah, teruah, tekiah: From Adam to the End
God created humanity in a state of perfection. He created a pure and perfect world. Tekiah. Humanity then fell into sin. Tragedies and evil entered the world. Much was broken. It is this broken world that we live in. Teru’ah. As faithful servants of God, it is our mission to fix the world. As people of faith, we know that one day, humanity will return to a state of purity and perfection. The perfect Kingdom of God awaits us. Tekiah.
It is not surprising that tekiah, the symbol of the perfect world, is used by Isaiah to describe the great day of redemption in the End Times.
And in that day a great trumpet will sound – tekiah. Those who were perishing in Assyria and those who were exiled in Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem. – Isaiah 27:13
Tekiah, teru’ah, teki’ah – perfection, brokenness, perfection again. This is the story of humanity and the story of each of us as individuals. We enter the world pure and free of sin. As we mature, we have plans and dreams. Our deepest desire is to be the best version of ourselves. Tekiah. But life brings struggle. We go through seasons when we feel shaky and broken. Teru’ah. But God gives us the opportunity to draw close to Him, to repent, and to start over. We begin again with new hope and new dreams. Tekiah.
Rosh Hashanah is the New Year because it is a day when we are called to reconnect with our original purpose, the original purpose of creation. The shofar reminds us of the perfect world that God created, the brokenness we are called to repair, and the perfect end that awaits in the future. Tekiah, teru’ah, tekiah.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.