Last week, in honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg uploaded a video of him blowing a ram's horn known as a shofar on Facebook (where else?), along with the message, "Shana tova and a sweet new year!" Not every Jewish family keeps a shofar around the house, but everyone who's planning to attend a service for Yom Kippur, the religious bookend to Rosh Hashanah this week, will certainly hear its unmistakable sound.
And that sound is integral to understanding the overall significance and role of the shofar in these holiday celebrations. Rabbi Yonah Hain, of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, describes the shofar as a "wordless ritual," and adds that it represents both "a profound call of pride" and a "wailing cry of nervousness."
"It can represent two diametrically opposite things simultaneously," he explains, to the point that the symbolic purpose it serves during Rosh Hashanah is very different to its purpose during Yom Kippur.
On one hand, the triumphant sound of the shofar makes frequent appearances during Rosh Hashanah services and applies to the joyous celebrations that are associated with this holiday. "We’re hoping that we’ve been blessed with goodness for the year to come," Rabbi Hain says. "We have confidence in the hope for justice in the world." The use of the shofar heightens this sense of excitement and optimism for the new year.
Meanwhile, when the shofar is blown at the end of Yom Kippur services (Rabbi Hain says this is the one time it's used during Yom Kippur), it adds to the already solemn tone of the holiday, in which observers may fast or abstain from indulgences for the day. Here, "it represents an anxiety and trepidation about the uncertainty [of the new year]," Rabbi Hain explains. It might not sound completely despairing to all, but it can serve as a reminder that nervousness is natural when new things (like the Jewish new year) begin.
There's a section of the Torah that's read during Rosh Hashanah that tells the story of Abraham's decision to ultimately sacrifice a ram instead of his son, Isaac, for God. This is the root of the shofar, a hollowed-out ram's horn, as a symbol for these holidays, both of which touch upon how each Jewish person individually practices and commits themselves to their faith. That's why, outside of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it's unlikely that you'll hear the sound of a shofar during another Jewish holiday or a regular service, Rabbi Hain says. But, at this time of year, it's a deeply evocative sound and symbol that permeates the observances of these two Jewish holidays.
Here's to hoping that Zuckerberg makes his shofar video an annual thing.