Is there any significance to the different sounds blown by the shofar on Rosh Hashanah?
The Torah states in reference to Rosh Hashanah, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, there shall be a holy convocation unto you; you shall do no laborious work, it shall be a day of teruah for you” (Numbers 29:1). Teruah, which means to cry out, is interpreted by our sages to mean crying out with a shofar, or the horn of a ram. This is the source of blowing a shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The Talmud presents a debate as to the nature of this teruah. One opinion is that it is a slightly drawn-out sound of crying, like when one is crying out of pain, called a shevarim, or broken blast. The other opines that it is like when one draws in their breath in the midst of a cry, which is a series of short staccato blasts. This we refer to as a teruah. Since this debate remains unresolved, the Talmudic ruling is that we should do both: We do a series of the combination of both the shevarim and teruah combined, then a set of only the shevarim, and finally a set with only the teruah.
The Talmud further derives from a verse that every teruah needs a tekiah, or long, straight blast, before and after it. The set of tekiah-teruah-tekiah — long, short and long — comprises a set of shofar blowings. This sounds complicated, but it’s actually quite simple once you get the principle.
In short: Tekiah is the long blast, shevarim is the broken blast, teruah is the staccato blast.
The Zohar reveals that there are deeper Kabbalistic meanings to each of these varied blasts of the shofar. It alludes to the crying sound of the shofar, saying that when that cry is emitted from the Jews down in the physical world, a great cry emanates from the upper, spiritual worlds. To get a bit of insight in the meaning of the Zohar, we need to understand why the shofar blast is a type of “wail”; what is it that we are crying about?
The answer is that Rosh Hashanah is the first of 10 days of teshuvah, or return, leading to Yom Kippur when the Jews complete their return, or repentance, to God and return to their own inner greatness. The cry is that of the soul, when faced by its many wrongdoings and misdeeds over the past year. When it is faced by the reality of the distance between itself and the Al-mighty, the soul utters a cry.
The shofar, which can have no mouthpiece, is simply the sound of the breath vibrating in the ram’s horn. The breath reflects God’s breathing the soul into man; the soul expresses itself by the breath. The soul, awoken by the shofar blast, emits a wail of pain over its distance from God due to its many mistakes. That wail, the cry of true teshuvah, evokes a cry of compassion by our Father in Heaven.
A great 16th-century Kabbalist known as the Shelah Hakadosh gives the following insight: The Torah says the tekiah, a straight blast, corresponds to the verse that God created man “straight,” pure, untainted by sin. We blow that first, to focus on who we truly are and our potential. We sometimes “break” ourselves, our straightness, by our misdeeds; hence we blow a shever, a broken blast. When one fully realizes their shortcomings they cry out to God, the crying out of teshuvah, hence the teruah or short sounds of wailing. After teshuvah one’s sins are forgiven, and the person returns back to the pristine state they began; we therefore end the set with a final tekiah, signifying that we’ve returned back to our “straightness,” our prior greatness.
The tekiah was blown at times of simcha or joy. For this reason the tekiah, or long blast, is sounded before and after the shorter blasts. We need to begin with simcha and the recognition of how great we are as Jews, and for all the wonderful mitzvos we’ve had the opportunity to fulfill. This includes the fact that we are of those who are in the synagogue and listening to the shofar! Then, after feeling the remorse over our distance from God caused by our shortcomings, we again sound the blast of joy over the fact that we had feelings of repentance and have indeed shortened the distance between us!
May we truly embody these important lessons of the shofar. Sincere wishes for a joyous, healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year to all the readers and all of Klal Yisrael!