The Deeper Meaning of the Curved Shofar

At the beginning of his book Paradoxes, Max Nordau describes a childhood experience. As a child, he would play a certain game with his friends. One of the friends would scribble some points, lines, and random shapes on a piece of paper. Another would try to connect the dots, lines and shapes to make a picture of something. Nordau related that one of his friends had a special talent: almost instantly, he would turn the dots and lines into a roaring lion, a cow grazing on grass, or objects from outer space. His drawings were always drawn quickly, and always displayed his amazing talent.

The underlying message behind this story is that our lives are also a collection of dots, lines and shapes. The question is how will we view these objects, and the picture we create out of them depends largely on our individual perspective, creativity, personality and past experiences.

The Shofar – Straight or Curved?

Curved ShofarimIn Tractate Rosh Hashana, we read of a dispute about which shofar we are to use on Rosh Hashanah. It appears as part of a general discussion of the subject, in the context of public fast days and the jubilee year (the yovel). In the Mishnah, the Tanna Kama postulates that the shofar used on Rosh Hashanah is made of the simple (straight) horn of a female mountain goat.

In contrast, according to the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, mentioned in the Mishna and a Braita, we blow the horn of a ram, which is curved. The Gemara expands on the source of the dispute and the rationale used by each side. According to the Gemara, the Tanna Kama bases himself on the principle of “simplicity is best”, while Rabbi Yehuda bases himself on the principle of “the more bent over a man is, the better”. In other words, according to the Tanna Kama, a person should stand simply before the Almighty. He should stand as he is.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, believes that a person should be hunched over, with his face toward the ground, as if he were poor and destitute. The Halachic distinction between simple and curved shofars does not stem from the interpretation of verses or syllogism. Tosafot explicitly states the following: “Does the verse mention the words “straight” or “curved”? It merely states “You shall pass the [sound of the] Shofar” regarding Yovel…”.

Based on the verses, you would have no reason to prefer one over the other. Any shofar is a [kosher] shofar. The dispute is only concerned with the position we take on how a person should stand before his creator on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar symbolizes and exemplifies the way we stand. This “posture” is clearly not referring to bodily motions or expressions, but rather about the posture of the human spirit and the tone of his or her conversation with the Almighty. Therefore, our sages disagreed about how a person should stand before his or her creator on the Day of Judgment, and indeed, on every day of the year. The dispute over the shofar is only a marginal expression of a larger issue.

How Should Man Approach God?

Rashi, in his commentary on Tractate Rosh Hashana, explains that we can deduce the option of standing hunched over from a verse in the Book of Kings: “… and my eyes and heart will be there…” The verse appears as part of a promise made by God to King Solomon regarding the construction of the Temple. God says that His “heart and eyes will be there.” Rashi attributes the rationale for standing upright to a verse in the Book of Lamentations (chapter 3, verse 41): “Let us lift our hearts to our hands, to God in heaven.” The simple understanding of these verses is that, according to the Book of Kings, the Almighty is present in the land and in the Temple, and as such, we should bend over to see his face, while the verse in Lamentations states that the Almighty is in the heavens, and we infer from this that we should stand upright so that we can look straight up to the heavens.

However, if we take a closer look at these verses, we discover that Solomon was, in fact, pleading to the Almighty, beseeching Him to make the Divine Presence rest on the house he had built for Him. Although King Solomon had just completed a uplifting chapter of his life – in which he built the House of God! Solomon finds himself in the position of one who is trying to convince the Almighty to accept his offering, or one who fears that his offering will be rejected.

The verse in Lamentations describes an entirely different type of general posture. “Why should a living man complain? A man for his sins / Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to the Almighty / Let us lift up our hearts to our hands, to God in heaven / We have rebelled and have been disobedient; You have not forgiven.” These verses describe a conversation between man and God. However, man is described here as sinful. It is a sinful man that is having a conversation with the Almighty, not someone with impressive spiritual achievements, like King Solomon.

Still, rather paradoxically and in contrast to the case of King Solomon, the person in front of us is standing and claiming that human beings, by their very nature, are clearly sinners who fail. Yet the failing sinner also does teshuvah, repentance. From his perspective, this is the point at which the conversation ends. A person washes his hands and raises them simply toward the sky, saying “my hands are clean – I’ve done my part”. Now, it is up to the Almighty to keep His part of the deal and forgive. This is a simple demand, not a supplication or a prayer (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yehuda, Mesechta D’Pascha, chapter 1).

From this we can infer that even a sinner can be confident and composed, while someone who is complete and has kept as many commandments as the number of seeds in a pomegranate can feel helpless and hopeless. It all depends on our perspective and our point of view.

How We Connect the Dots, Lines, and Shapes

This point of view is derived from the connection of points, lines and shapes into a picture. It is a conscious spiritual decision that we can all make. It is a straight line connecting Rabbi Yehuda’s view of a curved shofar to the way we perceive ourselves, our lives and our own views and consciousness. This applies not only to how we stand before the Almighty, or in how we specifically relate to the Day of Judgment; it also affects how we live our lives, how happy we are, and whether we can be thankful for the good things we have. The choice should be to see the good, to see our successes, and to be able to calmly accept our failures and understand that they are a part of life. It is about looking straight ahead, growing, and going forward.

Moreover, thought is what determines reality, and perhaps, thought is what creates it. A person who falls on the street can remember how it felt, but that person can also remember being thrusted ahead and going forward quicker. Our iniquities can become our virtues through the power of thought and by perceiving things completely differently.

“Rabbi Abahu said: why do we blow a ram’s horn? The Almighty said: blow a ram’s horn before Me, so that I can remember the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and I will go up to you as if you bound yourself before Me.”

Ultimately, the halachic ruling of blowing a ram’s horn, as Rabbi Yehuda suggested, undergoes a “conversion” process, and it expresses a decision to tell man’s story in a particular way, and not in any other way, in a particular historical context and at a very particular point of time. The curved shofar symbolizes not just feelings of inferiority, but also good deeds – if not our own, then the ones done by our forefathers. That would be enough to make us feel that we are coming before Him as of right, and not on sufferance. To this, the Almighty responds that “I am coming up to you as if you had bound yourself before Me.”

Shana Tova, and may you be inscribed the Book of Life!

Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky is the head of the Beit Midrash for Women’s Leadership at Beit Morasha, teaching Talmud and Halacha, and holds a doctorate in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. A popular public speaker, she has published many articles on Jewish scholarship, Biblical commentary, and Halacha. She is also a member of the Beit Hillel Executive Committee.


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