In 2008, in my first book on Maimonides called “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind,” I described how ancient Jews had a totally different idea why they were blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana. Here is some of what I wrote.
The Shofar Scares Satan and Keeps Him at Arm’s Length
It is absolutely certain that both the spiritual leaders of Jewry and the majority of uneducated Jews before, during and after the talmudic period believed that the shofar, the ram’s horn, was blown on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah to confuse Satan and his demonic cohorts. The widely held belief was that the blowing of the shofar would stop Satan from approaching God at a crucial moment, keeping him from indicting Jews for past misdeeds in a heavenly judicial proceeding in which God decides the future of each Jew.
People are people first and Jews only second. Demons played a part in individual’s lives since ancient times – present when they were awake or asleep, at joyous and sad occasions. And since they saw demons stalking around them, the people were convinced, as J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, that, “It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” The frightful term “nightmare,” for example, is derived from the ancient Saxon word mara, which means “demon.”
Thus, it is no surprise that the Jewish masses believed in demons until the era of the enlightenment in the nineteenth century and that this mistaken notion affected and twisted their understanding of Jewish holidays and their behavior on these days. It should also surprise no one that the rabbis, who assumed the duty of weaning their congregants from superstition toward a true understanding of Judaism, were frequently unsuccessful, especially when the irrational conception held by their coreligionists was accepted by virtually all of their non-Jewish neighbors.
Many of these rabbis, felt compelled to allow the practice of the Jewish religion as the masses understood it, even though the rituals were wrong-headed. These rabbis attempted to rationalize and elevate the superstitious observances by giving them a Jewish explanation and coloring. The use of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is an example of this phenomenon.
What is Yom Teruah?
Scripture proclaims a Yom Teruah, literally a “Day of Shouting” in Numbers 29:1. It takes place on the first day of the seventh month.
Arguably, the original significance of this special day was simply that it was the first day of the seventh month. The seventh day is the Sabbath that recalls that there is a God, that God created the world and that God communicated the divine will and commands (when God informed the Israelites that God ceased creating on the Sabbath day and that they must therefore also rest on this day). The number seven is repeated frequently in Jewish practices to remind Jews of these three fundamental ideas. The day was also called Yom Zikaron Teruah in Leviticus 23:24, the “Day of Remembering Through Shouting.” “Remembering” what? Remembering the significance of seven.
Why is the Day Called Rosh Hashanah?
The Bible does not indicate a date when the year begins. The Talmud records two opinions on the subject. One position is that it is the first day of the month of spring, the first month Nissan, the same month in which the holiday of Passover occurs. This is the month that the Torah calls the “first of the months” in Exodus 12:1 because it recalls the Exodus from Egypt. The second idea, which became the accepted view, is that the year begins on the first day of the fall, in the seventh month Tishrei. More specifically, this opinion states that the sixth day of creation, the day on which humans were created, was the first day of Tishrei, and that the new year begins with this sixth day of creation. Once this non-biblical idea – that the first of Tishrei is the beginning of the new year – was accepted by Jews, Yom Teruah gained the name Rosh Hashanah, “New Year,” in the popular mind, although it retains its biblical name Yom Teruah in the holiday prayer book.
Was the Shofar Blown on Yom Teruah?
One of the most significant ceremonies during Rosh Hashanahis the blowing of the shofar one hundred times during the synagogue services. Yet most people do not realize that there is no scriptural verse requiring that the shofar be blown on this day. Searching for some biblical source, Midrash Sifra refers to Leviticus 25:9, which states that on the Jubilee year, once in forty-nine years, the Israelites are commanded: ta’aviru shofar,“sound the shofar,” on the “tenth day of the seventh month on Yom Kippur.” The Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34a, in contrast, derives the requirement from the obscure verse in Psalms 81:4, “Blow the shofar vachodesh [meaning, “during the month” or “on the new moon”] bakeseh [a word that is given various interpretations, including “when it [the moon] is hidden”], l’yom chageinu [which could mean: “to proclaim a day of holiday”].”
The lack of any clear mandate to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and the reliance on somewhat speculative and tentative unrelated verses highlights the non-biblical origin of the practice and suggests that the blowing of the shofar on this day was started by the masses and was later justified by the rabbis using the two cited verses.
The Ancient Use of the Shofar
Anthropologists and other social scientists have recognized that ancient people used a shocking sound like the shofar blast to attract or repel. Sir James G. Frazer (1854–1941), in his Golden Bough, in the chapter on “The Scapegoat,” states that primitive people usually sounded loud noises on New Year’s Day to expel demons; today’s noisemaking on New Year’s Day is a relic of this ancient practice. It seems likely that this was also the original purpose for the shofar blasts; surprisingly, this is the view of the Talmud.
The Talmud Relates the Shofar-Blowing to Satan
The original reason for blowing the shofar on the New Year, to frighten and expel satanic forces that may persuade an influenceable God that the Jew acted improperly and should be punished and perhaps even killed during the upcoming year, is explicitly reported in the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b. The Talmud states that the shofar is blown “to confound Satan” and to prevent him from approaching God and accusing Jewish people of past misdeeds.
Long after the practice of shofar blowing began, the Talmud mentions that there are two series of synagogue shofar blowings, one during the Amidah – or standing – prayer and one before it. One of these series – the rabbis differ as to which one – is an integral part of the way that Rosh Hashanah came to be understood, while the other, the more ancient practice, the Talmud says, is designed to confuse Satan.
One series reflects a more advanced spiritual concept of the shofar. The other retains the ancient primitive superstitious fear of demons and the notion that Satan is involved in divine judgments and has the power to influence God’s decision about the future of a Jew’s life and that humans, in turn, have the somewhat supernatural ability to confuse Satan, a heavenly being, and restrain him from carrying out his diabolical scheme to harm Jews.
The Superstitious Origin Recognized in Many Sources
This notion is present not only in the Talmud but also in various legal codes and commentaries, such as Nathan ben Jechiel’s Arukh (1035–1106) and David Abudarham’s book on prayer Perush haberakhot v’hatefilot (fourteenth century).
The Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 105b, and Rashi’s commentary to Rosh Hashanah 28a repeat that the shofar was used to scare demons and upset their plans. The talmudic rabbis question whether a Jew fulfills his obligation to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah if he blows it only to confound or repel demons. Curiously, the Talmud answers that the obligation to blow the shofar is fulfilled.
Maimonides’ Recognition That No Rational Basis for Using the Shofar Exists
In his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7, Maimonides rationalizes the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. He writes that it is a way of calling the people to awaken from their slumbers, search their deeds and change their ways. Yet he admits that he knows no reason why the ram’s horn, and not another instrument, was chosen to perform this act.
How Did Other Rabbis Interpret the Use of the Shofar?
Other rabbis had additional ideas. These rabbis point out that the Bible states that the shofar was sounded to announce the inauguration of kings, as inII Samuel 15:10 and I Kings 1:34, 39. Thus, the Rosh Hashanah shofar blowing is a proclamation or recognition of divine rule.
Furthermore, these rabbis note that Scripture records that the shofar is used to warn people of danger, as in Hosea 5:8 and 8:1. Thus, the shofar soundings also warn people of the danger of improper self-destructive conduct.
They also cite verses such as II Samuel 6:15, where the shofar is blown when David returns the captured ark to Jerusalem with great joy. They refer to Psalms 150:3 where the psalmist states that it is used to praise God. They suggest that Jews blow the shofar one hundred times because this count corresponds to the number of berakhot (blessings) that the rabbis encouraged Jews to recite daily.
Thus, few Jews today think that the shofar is sounded to confuse demons. They understand that the shofar reminds its listener to live a proper life, of the joy of the holiday, praising God, and filling the world with blessings.