By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
Some memories stay with you forever. My yeshiva taught Breslov Hassidut and most of the students went to Uman, Ukraine to spend Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, praying at the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Around 30,000 Jewish men show up in Uman every year for a week of intense prayer. The culmination, of course, is the morning prayer of the holiday, held in an enormous hall built for that purpose and used only once a year.
I remember waiting expectantly for the blowing of the shofar, ram’s horn, but when the time came I was disappointed. A frail old man shambled towards the raised platform at the center of the hall and put a tiny ram’s horn to his lips. For such a grand occasion, I had expected a vigorous young man with a long and impressive shofar.
But when he finally blew the shofar I began to cry. Despite the size of the hall, the voice of the shofar sounded clear. I heard every nuance of its wavering note.
‘If I could hear my soul crying, that’s what it would sound like,’ I thought.
The Temple service included silver horns. Precious metals were not hard to come by in the Temple. So, why did God command us to blow a simple ram’s horn as part of the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) prayer service? Wouldn’t a more expensive and impressive instrument make a greater impression.
While silver makes for a nicer horn, it is also associated with wealth. A ram’s horn, on the other hand, is almost worthless. It is not made of valuable material and it cannot even be eaten. It therefore symbolizes purity and sincerity. The music it creates is pure in intention. The noise that it makes it music at its most basic level, intended to awaken the soul and inspire a sense of awe and repentance in the listener.
Indeed, the cry of the shofar is the central aspect of Rosh Hashana. But the shofar is also the call announcing the Messiah. On Rosh Hashana we blow the shofar to announce that God is King, a central theme of the day. Similarly, in the end of days the shofar will be blown for the same reason.
God ascends midst acclamation; the LORD, to the blasts of the horn (Psalm 47:6)
The Psalm uses the name E-lohim for God, the first name of God written in the Bible. As the name of the Creator, it represents the aspect of God associated with nature and judgment. The seven days of creation represent a completion of a natural cycle, also expressed in the seven days before circumcision.
The name E–lohim is mentioned seven times in Psalm 47. In this way, David is hinting that when the complete pre-Messiah cycle of human history is complete, all of humanity will recognize the kingdom of God.
Psalm 47 is recited seven times before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana, bringing the total number of times that the name E-lohim is repeated to 49. The Zohar, a foundational work of Jewish mystical thought, teaches there are 50 levels of purity and impurity. The 50th level of impurity is so deep that there can be no return. The Zohar explains that over the years of enslavement, the Jews in Egypt had reached the 49th level of impurity, one level away from irredeemable oblivion. It is for that reason the Jews had to leave Egypt in haste, before they were contaminated any further. Repeating the name E-lohim 49 times has the power to bring up even the lowest Jew to the highest level of purity.
Similarly, the sound of the shofar has the power to awaken and inspire us to take the necessary steps to bring about the our redemption, both personal and communal. This is the goal of the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana as well as the final shofar announcing the arrival of the Messiah. May Psalm 47, as well as the sounds of the shofar, inspire us to recognize God’s sovereignty in this world and encourage us to strive for greater levels of purity and repentance.