Shofar History

Shofar: Its Place in the Holy Temple

Arthur L. Finkle

First mentioned in Exodus 19:16 at the Mt. Sinai, to proclaim the awesomeness of the Ten Commandments, the Shofar became an instrument accompanying sacrifices in the Tabernacle and then the First and Second Temples.  As the sacrificial cult progressed, the Shofar and two Silver trumpets accompanied some of the rites to enhance their solemnity.

However, on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, usually the first new moon in September), the Priests sounded two Shofars and one Trumpet. (See Chofetz Chaim, Mishnah Berurah 586 et seq.) Another differing source indicates that, although normally the trumpet plays the long notes and a Shofar sounds the short notes. On Rosh Hashanah, however, the trumpet takes the short notes; the Shofar, long notes.  See Rosh Hashanah 33b.  Either way, the Shofar accompanied the special sacrifices on Rosh Hashanah, the holiday designated as “Yom Teruah” (”A day of blowing”; Num. 29:1). The Shofar also proclaimed the Jubilee Year on Yom Kippur (Lev. 25:9–10). The special year freed property to its original owners, forgave debts and gave freedom to slaves, among other things.

 The ancients also used it to accompany other musical instruments (Ps. 98:6); in processionals (Josh. 6:4ff.); as a signal (Josh. 6:12ff., II Sam. 15:10); as a call to war (Judg. 3:27); and to induce fear (Amos 3:6).

At a later period, the Rabbi’s ruled that a congregation used a ram’s horn, recalling the binding of Isaac for whose sacrifice a ram was substituted. (RH 16a; see Gen. 22:13). The Rabbi’s also preferred  a curved Shofar, symbolizing humankind’s bowing in submission to God’s will (Rosh Hashanah 26b)

Although Hebrew Scripture is silent on the reason a Shofar specifically accompanies holy events. The Rabbi’s gave their oral interpretations.  Saadiah Gaon (see Abudraham ha-Shalem, ed. S. Krauser (1959), 269–70) states:

1.  Trumpets are sounded at a coronation and God is hailed as King on this day.

2.  The Shofar heralds the beginning of the penitential season (from Rosh Hashanah to the Day of Atonement).

3.  The Torah was given on Sinai accompanied by blasts of the Shofar.

4.  The prophets compare their message to the sound of the Shofar.

5.  The conquering armies that destroyed the Temple sounded trumpet blasts.

6.  The ram was substituted for Isaac.

7.  The prophet asks: “Shall the horn be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:6).

8.  The prophet Zephaniah speaks of the great “day of the Lord” (Judgment Day) as a “day of the horn and alarm” (Zeph. 1:14, 16).

9.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of the great Shofar which will herald the messianic age (Isa. 27:13).

10.              The Shofar will be sounded at the resurrection.

Maimonides writes:

Awake from your slumbers, ye who have fallen asleep in life, and reflect on your deeds. Remember your Creator. Be not of those who miss reality in the pursuit of shadows, and waste their years in seeking after vain things which neither profit nor save. Look well to your souls and improve your character. Forsake each of you his evil ways and thoughts.” (Yad, Teshuvah 3:4)
In addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Priests of the sacrificial cult used the Shofar for the water libation for Sukkot (Succah 48b);; for the  Additional Offerings of Shabbat: (Rosh Hashanah 31a); For the bringing of the Pesach Offering (Pesachim 64a, 95a, 95b; Succah 54a-b): and for the bringing of First Fruits (festival of Shavuot) (Lev 23:9-14; (Succah 47b)

In all fairness, there are other interpretations of the use of the trumpet and the Shofar by distinguishing “Short and Long Blasts.” Judah Zoldah of Bar Ilan University indicates:

From the verse in Psalms (98:6) it becomes clear that we are to sound trumpets and a Shofar before the Lord when we are commanded to sound short blasts and not long ones: “With trumpets and the blast of the horn [Shofar] raise a shout before the Lord, the king” (Ps. 98:6). Hence we can answer the question we posed above: On joyous occasions and festivals, as well as new moon days, when the Torah commands long blasts to be sounded to accompany the sacrificial service, and not short ones, then there is no need for an accompanying Shofar, but only trumpets. The same applies for all the joyous occasions associated with the construction and dedication of the Temple, as well as with the assembly of Haqhel (the assembly of the people at the end of shemitta, the sabbatical year.)


Short blasts connotes remembrance (Num 10:9), such as on Rosh Hashanah and on occasions where there is an aggressor on your land (lev23, 24)

The other occasion for the Shofar is to announce the Jubilee Year.

On the Jubilee year we are commanded to sound short blasts, as it is written, “you shall have the horn sounded [teru'ah=in short blasts] throughout your land” (Lev. 25:9); but the Halakha does not state that whoever does so in the Temple must add trumpets to the horn in order to satisfy the verse in Psalms. This is because the purpose of the horn on the Jubilee year is to announce the liberation of slaves, and not to be remembered before the Lord. As Maimonides wrote in Sefer ha-Mitzvot (pos. command 137): “The long blast on Rosh ha-Shanah is for remembrance before the Lord, and this [on the Jubilee] is to release the slaves.”



The critical difference between Mr. Zoldah’s and mine. My approach bases its interpretation on the Hebrew Scriptures and interpreted by the Rabbi’s, many of whom had teachers and/or relatives who knew what transpired in the Temple. For example, the reason for the moderating shevarim and the Teruah notes is a compromise between two Tannaim whose recollection was different. However, that there was a particular note form the Shofar was established.

For example, the Shulchan Aruch indicates that the Tekiah note is held for a count of nine. There was no doubt about the Tekiah note.  However, the Shulchan Aruch expresses doubt among the Sages as to what the Teruah sound was.  Some Sages aver that is was a staccato (sharp broken notes); others, broken (shaver) notes. (See Mishnah Berurah 33b)

On the other hand, Mr. Zoldah bases his claim that the Shofar was not used as extensively because of his unique interpretation of biblical interpretations of what a long and short Shofar sound was. He did not pursue his research in the Mishnah or the Talmud. He did not seek witnesses or those who memorized the oral tradition (the Sages).

Accordingly, the witness provided the rationale behind the Shofar’s use in the Holy Temple.

See Additional Resources

  • C. Adler: ‘The Shofar, its Use and Origin’, Smithsonian Annual Report (1892
  • S. Y. Agnon: Days of Awe (New York, 1948)
  • A.L. Finkle, An Easy Guide to Sounding the Shofar, (Los Angelis, 2006
  • S. Hofman: Miqra’ey Musica (Tel-Aviv, 1974)
  • Sendrey: Music in Ancient Israel (New York, 1969)
  • S. Zalman of Ladi: Shulhan Arukh shel haRav (Vilna, 1905)


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