At this time of the year I am always troubled by the fact that all Jews “know” there is a mitzvah to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
I have searched and asked rabbis, and cannot find the word “shofar” in the Torah in reference to Rosh Hashanah. That strikes me as odd, and I would appreciate an explanation.
Your question is a great one, and, in truth, you will indeed never find the word “shofar” in reference to Rosh Hashanah. What’s more, you will also never find the phrase “Rosh Hashanah” in the Torah either!
This fact is just one of myriad examples of how beholden all Jews are to the Oral Tradition explained to Moses at Sinai and passed down orally until finally codified in the Mishnah and Talmud, which we have discussed at length on other occasions.
What the Torah says is “… in the seventh month, on the first of the month, there shall be a rest day for you, a remembrance of teruah, a holy convocation.” (Leviticus 23:25) It says further, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, there shall be a holy convocation for you, you shall do no laborious work; it shall be a day of teruah for you.” (Numbers 29:1)
The Talmud explains that the first day of the seventh month, the Jewish month of Tishrei, is Rosh Hashanah. It is the seventh rather than the first month, as we Jews count our months from Passover, which is the month of our birth, rather than from Tishrei, which is the month of the creation of the world.
“Teruah” has various meanings in Hebrew, such as to cry out. In this case it means a day of “blowing,” the blowing of an instrument. What precisely does that mean? There are many wind instruments in an orchestra. The Torah itself at times uses this term to refer to blowing a trumpet.
In this case the Oral Tradition, as recorded in the Talmud, explains that the Torah is referring to a ram’s horn, better known as a shofar.
There are multiple lessons we learn from the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah. One is a reminder of the ram offered in place of Isaac, whose dedication and self-sacrifice remains a tremendous merit for the Jewish people until today and reminds us to be dedicated Jews. Another is the revelation of God at Mount Sinai, which was accompanied by the blast of a Heavenly shofar. This reminds us to be dedicated to the Torah and its study. Still another is the great shofar blast which will usher in the Messianic times. It reminds us to remain faithful through our often painful, trying exile in order to merit the eventual redemption.
The word “teruah” also means an awakening, because the shofar “awakens” us to these ideals. It also contains the root reyah, which means beloved, to remind us how much God loves us and desires to rekindle our love for Him upon hearing the shofar.
The word “shofar” comes from the Hebrew root shafeir, which means “to improve.” The call of the shofar is an “annual wake-up call” to improve our actions and become better Jews and people throughout the year.
May the shofar blast penetrate our hearts, minds and souls to begin the new year with a renewed sense of commitment and love for our rich heritage and a deeper feeling of connection to the Al-mighty.