The Shofar's Question

The sound of the ram's horn asks: "What are you doing here?"

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Reprinted with permission from The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year, published by Aviv Press.

"And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out, and stood in the entrance to the cave. And behold there came to him a voice and said: 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'" (1 Kings 19:12-13)

One of my colleagues had the custom of holding up his shofar to show that it was in the shape of a question mark. I often blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but mine would have to be twisted considerably before it would look the same. Still, I agree that the shofar presents a question.shofar on a red background

This is true even at the most basic level. If one strikes the keyboard of a piano, it produces a note. But if one blows into the shofar--even though one has some skill and has blown successfully on a dozen previous occasions--there is always a doubt. Responding to the atmosphere in the synagogue, or the spirit of the service, or some hidden facet of the blower's state of being, the shofar may simply refuse to produce any sound at all. There is always a mystery, always a question.

Hearing the Sound

To whom is this question addressed? Jewish law provides a clear answer. Everyone has to hear the sound of the shofar. The very blessing that the blower recites tells us that the commandment is not to make, but to listen to, the sound. Just to overhear it is not enough. If one passes a building and happens to catch the sound of the notes, that is not considered proper listening. There has to be a partnership between blower and hearer, a shared attentiveness. For the shofar addresses each person individually Its question cannot be heard by proxy or by the outer ear only; we have to lis­ten to it in the fullness of our own being.

What is the shofar's question? There is an important clue in the story of Elijah, who journeyed for 40 days to reach the mountain of the Lord and entered the very same cave where God was revealed to Moses. There he heard the terrifying sounds of earthquakes, fire, and thunder. But they left him unmoved; he remained in his cave. When, however, he heard the voice of fine silence, he was struck by awe and understood that this was a summons he had to answer. Covering his face with his mantle, he came out to confront the ultimate question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

That same sound of fine silence is likened in the liturgy to the voice of the shofar, as it says: "The great shofar will be blown, and the voice of fine silence will be heard." So the question of the shofar is simply: What are we doing here, you and I? It is addressed to each of us and pursues us all our lives.

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Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg serves as rabbi of New North London Synagogue. His other publications include Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith and Values and The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement.