During the Hebrew month of Elul, which begins this week, it is customary for pious Jews to rise before dawn to recite Selichot. These are special penitential prayers asking God for forgiveness in order to spiritually prepare oneself for the upcoming New Year (“Rosh Hashanah”). One of the highlights of the Jewish New Year season is the daily sounding of the ram’s horn, known in Hebrew as a shofar (שופר). In recent years, the sounding of the shofar has also become a common part of Evangelical Christian worship. What is the meaning of all this horn blowing?
The blowing of the ram’s horn (shofar) during the month of Elul has its origins in one of the most famous stories in the Hebrew Bible: Joshua’s conquest of the city of Jericho. Before conquering the city, Joshua’s army marched around the mighty walls of Jericho for seven days. Fewer of us recall that they did so with a shofar. Let us have a look at the opening verses of the story:
Now Jericho was shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in. The Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers. You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. Thus you shall do for six days, with seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and all the people shall charge straight ahead.”
There is much to discuss in this fascinating story, for example: is there a difference between a ram’s horn (shofar) and a trumpet (yovel) or are these two names for the same instrument? Evidently, they are one and the same. But an even more basic question is: why sound a musical instrument at all? Is this a battle or a concert?
In the period of the Bible, the shofar was frequently used as a clarion call on the battlefield. This can be seen for example in the many battles fought during the period of the Judges: “When Ehud arrived, he sounded the shofar in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head” (Judges 3:27). But it also had a secondary, religious function as a musical accompaniment to the sacrifices in the Temple. For example, the final psalm in the Book of Psalms describes the array of instruments used as part of the priestly worship:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with shofar sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150)
At Jericho, Joshua fused these two functions: military and religious. His use of the shofar demonstrates that the military victory is dependent on the will of God, not on the power of his men. This dual role is encapsulated perfectly in Numbers 10:9-10, which specifies the two different situations (wartime and festivals) when the shofar is sounded:
When you go to war in your land against the adversary who oppresses you, you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, so that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be saved from your enemies. Also on your days of rejoicing, at your appointed festivals, and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over your sacrifices of well-being; they shall serve as a reminder on your behalf before the Lord your God: I am the Lord your God.
Similarly, as Jews get ready for the New Year, they sound the shofar each day of Elul to beseech God for support in the difficult spiritual battle that lies ahead.
The shofar is also one of the most frequently found artistic motifs in the mosaic floors of ancient synagogues. For example, the mosaic floor of the 4th century synagogue at Hammat Tiberias contains a depiction of the Jerusalem Temple, which includes a shofar on the lower right hand side of both candelabra.
Similarly, the 6th century synagogue at Jericho pictured below contains three ritual objects: a palm frond (lulav), a candelabrum (menorah) and a ram’s horn (shofar). It also contains an inscription with three Hebrew words: Shalom al Yisrael (שלום על ישראל) which means “peace upon Israel”.
We can imagine that the 6th century Jews who worshiped in this synagogue were particularly aware of the dual significance of the shofar, for they were living in Jericho: the precise location where Joshua fought his famous battle. This makes the inscription wishing for peace all the more weighty.
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