(Based on a class given on the 15th of Elul, 5775)
Blowing the Shofar During the Month of Elul
The Torah tells us to blow the shofar on the first day of the month of Tishrei—on Rosh Hashanah. But we actually start blowing the shofar a month earlier, on the first day of the month of Elul. We blow the shofar a third time
The rituals relating to Rosh Hashanah are covered in the two main sources of halachah, the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch begin with a discussion of the custom (and the customs of the Jewish people are rendered as “Torah”) to blow the shofar every morning in the month of Elul. The first thing he mentions is the midrash that on the first day of Elul, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai for the third time—following God’s command, “Havayah spoke to Moses, ‘Come to Me up the mountain and be there’” (וַיֹּאמֶר הוי' אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וֶהְיֵה שָׁם). The midrash continues that when God said, “Come to Me up the mountain” (the midrash quotes only these three words from the verse), they blew the shofar and a herald passed through the camp, and the proclamation was made that once again consisted of only three words, “Moses went up to the mountain” (מֹשֶׁה עָלָה לָהָר).
What was achieved by the blowing of the shofar, the herald, and the proclamation was that the people knew that Moses had ascended the mountain and understood that they should be very careful not to fall into the sin that had happened the first time he went up, when they strayed and ended up worshipping the Golden Calf. It was thanks to the sound of this shofar blowing—later referred to as “the shofar of the wilderness”—at the beginning of the final forty days, that the people, from the 1st of Elul until Yom Kippur, were careful of their conduct, watched over themselves, repented, and were careful not to fall into the sin that they had sinned initially. The midrash continues (and the Tur continues to quote) that,
The Holy Blessed One was exalted with that shofar as it is said, “God has ascended with a tru’ah [blow of the shofar]” (עָלָה אֱ-לֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה).
“Moses ascended the mountain” and “God has ascended with a tru’ah”
The midrash and subsequently the Tur only mention the first half of the verse from Psalms, “God has ascended with a tru’ah [blow of the shofar]” (עָלָה אֱ-לֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה), but do not make mention of the second half, “Havayah with the sound of the shofar” (הוי' בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר). Now, if “God has ascended with a tru’ah” refers to the shofar blown on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of Elul, then the first impression we get is that there is some association between Moses and God. Because God tells Moses to come up the mountain, the shofar is blown, and Psalms describes this as “God has ascended with a tru’ah [blow of the shofar].” We know that Moses is referred to as the “man of God” (אִישׁ הָאֱ-לֹהִים), so we have a possible explanation for the association. Still, we must ponder how this relates to our preparation throughout the month of Elul for the High Holy Days.
The Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur
Now, let’s explain the second half of the verse: Chasidic teachings always explain that the two halves of the verse reflect a dynamic of “run and return” (רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב), which can also be described as “an ascent and then a drawing down.” (הַעֲלָאָה וְהַמְשָׁכָה). First “God has ascended with a tru’ah” describing the “run” or the ascent, and then there comes the “return” and drawing down of Godliness through the verse’s second half, “Havayah [is drawn down] by the sound of the shofar.”
Since the first half describes Moses’ ascent (and God’s ascent) in Elul (a custom), then we must conclude that the second half refers to the actual mitzvah, the requirement to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and also on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee (50th) year, which we commemorate every year by blowing the shofar one last time at the very end of Yom Kippur. The Jubilee blow is also described as the freedom blow. Moses was on the mountain for the last 40 days; when he ascended they blew the shofar, and when he descended with the second Tablets, with the “renewed” Torah—called the Torah of Ba’alei Teshuvah, those who have returned to God—they apparently blew the shofar once again, a blow whose essence is captured in the second half of the verse, “Havayah by the sound of the shofar".
A word of explanation regarding the blowing of the shofar on Yom Kippur. Regarding Rosh Hashanah, we are accustomed to say that, “the commandment particular to this day is the shofar,” but there is no such commandment related to Yom Kippur; only in the Jubilee year—once every 50 years—every individual must blow the shofar. Indeed, the special light of the Jubilee year illuminates every Yom Kippur (hence a long blow is sounded at the end of the day), but the commandment from the Torah is on Rosh Hashanah. So to conclude this point, from the initial blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are already drawing down the energy and sound of the shofar that relates to the second half of the verse, “Havayah [is drawn down] by the sound of the shofar.”
The Radiance of Moses' Face
Rosh Hashanah marks the thirty-first day that Moses was on the mountain (on his third ascent), still learning and still receiving the Torah. But it must be said that something internally began to change from the first day of that year on which Moses was on the mountain. He already felt that he was beginning to descend to earth. What might this mean? We can explain it as a change in the Torah he was learning—it became more practical. However, it took ten days until he actually descended and reached the ground. This was on Yom Kippur when he came down with the second set of Tablets before our eyes.
What else changed when Moses descended on Yom Kippur? What was the primary innovation the third time Moses was on the mountain? We already mentioned the second set of Tablets. But the main novelty was the radiance of Moses’ face, so much so that the people were afraid to approach him. He had a wholly Divine appearance.
This Divine phenomenon together with the fear of approaching him when he descended from the mountain on Yom Kippur, suggests that he was no longer just “the man of God” (אִישׁ הָאֱ-לֹהִים); surpassing even the Zohar’s interpretation that “man of God” means that he was not the “husband,” as it were of the Divine Presence, the Shechinah. Rather, this Divine radiance on his face indicates that he had attained the level described by the phrase, “the face of the Sovereign God,” about which the Zohar says, that it alludes to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who also had a radiant face like Moses.
This warrants interpreting the entire verse as alluding to Moses. When Moses ascended the mountain, he is associated with Elokim, “God [Elokim] has ascended with a tru’ah [blow of the shofar].” And when he descends from the mountain, he is already associated with God’s essential Name, Havayah, “Havayah [is drawn down] by the sound of the shofar,” and this appears in the form of his Divine radiance. This brings us to another meaning of the word “shofar.”
Normally, shofar (שׁוֹפָר) is understood to be the horn of an animal that is hollowed out and can be used for blowing like a trumpet. However, in Aramaic shofar is cognate with the word for “face” (שׁוּפְרֵיהּ). An important reference to this Aramaic word is found in the Talmudic statement, “The face of Jacob resembles the face of Adam” (שׁוּפְרֵיהּ דְּיַעֲקֹב מֵעֵין שׁוּפְרֵיהּ דְּאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן). Beyond that, the inner essence of our patriarch Jacob is Moses; as the Zohar states, “Moses from within and Jacob on the outside.”
The Shofar Sound Changes Direction
There is a famous linguistic allusion to the 40 days from the 30th of Av (which is the first day of the new moon of Elul) until Yom Kippur—the third set of 40 days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai. It is found in the final letters of the well-known phrase whose initials spell “Elul” (אֱלוּל), “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me” (אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי). The final letters are four letters yud (יייי), whose sum is 40. But note that the final word, “for me” (לִי), as a whole, also equals 40. What that means is that the final 10 days—from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—encompass all 40 days. In fact, the letter lamed (ל) in “me” (לִי) corresponds to the first thirty days—the 30 days in Elul—and the yud (י) in the word corresponds to the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. The sages teach us that the word “for me” indicates an eternal and unchanging reality both in this world and in the next. So, from the moment the final 10 days begin, when the congregation of Israel declares that the Beloved, i.e., the Almighty, is “for me,” it reflects God essence being drawn down to us, entering and penetrating us. From having been in a state of ascent (“God [Elokim] has ascended with a tru’ah [blow of the shofar]”), Godliness now switches directions and begins to descend.
On the 29th day of Elul, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we do not blow the shofar and the change in direction is also hinted at by the interruption of the shofar blowing on this last day of Elul. Just as the vitality of the past year fades on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and a new vitality descends on the Universe—a new revelation of Godliness that has never seen before, as written in the Tanya. The fact that we do not blow the shofar on this day suggests that there should be a difference between the shofar blasts of the ascent and the shofar blasts that draw God’s essence down.
In general, every Biblical commandment is meant to draw light down, i.e., to bring about a revelation of Godliness into mundane reality. That is why the Hebrew word for “commandment,” mitzvah, literally means connection and unity, because a mitzvah connects the Holy Blessed One with the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. The unification and connection created draw down abundant blessings into the world. This begins on Rosh Hashanah and continues until Yom Kippur, until the essence of the shofar of the Jubilee year, which we blow every year at the end of Yom Kippur.
. (מנהג ישראל תורה)
. Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 46:2.
. Exodus 24:12.
. Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 10:10.
. Exodus 23:17.
. Zohar 2:38a.
. Bava Metzia 84a.
. Tikkunei Zohar 13.
. Vayikra Rabbah 2:2.