Pinchas: Shofar Sounds

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Pinchas, which has in its
latter section may commandments related to the Jewish calendar. Many
of these mitzvot are connected to the priestly rituals and thus no
longer operative but a few still are, including one which will be
familiar to many reading this:

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall
observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You
shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 29:1)

Seventh month, first day. . . hmm- sounds like Rosh Hashana, and this
verse is indeed one of the sources of the commandment to blow the
shofar on the New Year. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:24.) The textual
wrinkle is that our verse, above, doesn’t actually mention shofar- it
says that this day will be a “yom teruah,” or “day of horn-sounds,” as
it were. To connect “teruah” (a sounding of the horn) to “shofar” (the
kind of horn we use on Rosh Hashana), the rabbis rely on another
verse, Vayikrah 25:9, in which the two words appear together in
relation to the “Yovel” [Jubilee] year, in which servants are
released, debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original

So right away shofar has positive associations: freedom, redemption,
justice. Another very interesting insight comes from Sefer HaHinnuch
(a medieval textbook of the commandments, which I’m paraphrasing a
bit), which points out that the shofar is a commandment based on a
particular physical object, but which has a spiritual purpose, that of
“arousing” or “awakening” [me’orer] a human being. Since human beings
are physical, embodied beings, we need a physical, tangible object to
awaken us, like soldiers being aroused for war by the sounding of

Sefer HaHinnuch goes on to say that we should be stirred up or
awakened on Rosh Hashana for the purpose of asking forgiveness for our
misdeeds and mercy from the Holy One. The shofar sound called “teruah”
is especially good for this because it’s “broken,” that is, a series
of short, quick sounds, “broken” like the broken heart of one who is
trying to do t’shuvah, or returning.

I think this insight is an important one: as humans, we are not
ethereal spiritual beings. If so, prayer and study itself might be
enough for Rosh Hashana. Everything we do is in our bodies- all our
acts of compassion and charity and caring and the baser deeds as well.
So we take a physical object- the shofar- and use it to speak to the
heart, thus integrating the senses and desires of the body with our
emotions and aspirations. It’s not one or the other, because we are
never spiritual beings without embodied existence. It’s always both
together, body and spirit, mind and heart, as one, always returning.

Shabbat Shalom,


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