In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in challenging times. There’s the war in Ukraine, the collapse of crypto, a spike in antisemitism, and myriad other reasons to feel gloomy about the present and downright terrified about the future. So wouldn’t it be nice, amid all of this anxiety, to have a reminder that God cares enough about us to cry from time to time?
This is the meaning of one of the most mysterious words in the Torah, one that involves a tradition we practice every year, that of blowing the shofar. What does it all mean? Let’s read carefully.
In this week’s Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), which depicts the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, we find the Israelites assembled before Hashem at the base of the mountain, and read that the people “saw” thunder, lightning, and the voice of the shofar.
וְכָל-הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת-הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת-הַלַּפִּידִם, וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, וְאֶת-הָהָר, עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ, וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק
Vechol-ha’am ro’im et-hakolot ve’et-halapidim, ve’et kol hashofar, ve’et-hahar, ’ashan Vayar ha’am vayanu’u, vaya’amdu merahok
All the people saw the voices [thunder], and the torches [lightning], and the voice of the shofar, and the mountain [shrouded in] smoke, and the people saw it and trembled, and stood from afar.
[Exodus 20:15 (JPS) 20:18 (KJV)]
If we understand that “the voices” (hakolot) refers to thunder, “the torches” (halapidim) refers to lightning, and “smoke” (ashan) is just that, we might then wonder, coming as it did from high above, from atop the mountain itself, what was “the voice of the shofar” (kol hashofar)? Was it the sound of an actual shofar? Or was “the voice of the shofar”—a shofar-like sound, rather than an actual horn?
We know that “the voice of the shofar” was not the Torah itself, given by Hashem earlier in the text as devarim, or words. Nor was it the thunder, lightning, or smoke that the people also “saw.” Rather, we might imagine it to be a voice that sounded like a shofar, sounds that the people could see, coming from Hashem atop the mountain.
Here, for some insight, we go to the words of the medieval sage Saadia Gaon, who presented 10 reasons for blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The third of these is to “remind us of our standing at Mount Sinai … and the sound of the very loud shofar [as] we accepted upon ourselves [the laws].” It is here that we find ourselves pondering the word teruah (תְּרוּעָה), the meaning of which might lead to an understanding of the shofar-like sound the Israelites “saw” on that day.
In the Torah, in prayer, and in conversation, Rosh Hashanah, you may recall, is referred to as Yom Teruah, the word teruah (תְּרוּעָה) being the name of one of the sounds produced in the ritual blowing of the shofar (the other two being tekiah and shevarim). And it is not just “one” of the sounds, but the most important of them. In the Shofarot Service, the part of the service dedicated to the blowing of the shofar, we read:
אֲנִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כִּי אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵֽעַ קוֹל שׁוֹפָר וּמַאֲזִין תְּרוּעָה
Ani Hashem Eloheychem ki atah shomey’a kol shofar uma’azin teruah
I am Hashem Your God, and so you will hear the voice of the shofar and listen to the teruah
[Machzor Rosh Hashanah Ashkenaz, First Day Musaf, Shofarot]
But why name the holiday for this shofar sound and not the others? Why is it not also Yom Tekiah or Yom Shevarim?
To answer this question, we need to examine the word teruah in the Hebrew Bible, in the Talmud, and in other commentary. If we do, we’ll discover the baffling fact that teruah is not the actual sound of a shofar itself. Rather, these sources teach us, teruah is a term for the particular shofar sound the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai heard—and saw. It’s a historical reference, not a technical description.
The significance of this difference becomes clearer when studying the word’s appearances in sources. The word teruah appears very few (15) times throughout the entire Hebrew Bible—twice in Leviticus (23:24 and 25:9), four times in Numbers (10:5-6 and 29:1), once in Joshua (6:5), four times in Samuel I (4:5-6), three times in Psalms (27:6, 89:16, and 150:5), and once in Job (8:21). While the word sometimes seems to refer to a sound made by a shofar, in most of the other instances it either refers to the shouting of men or is somewhat unclear in its meaning.
For instance, in Joshua 6:5 and Job 8:21, the word teruah and its associated verb yariy’u describe a shouting sound.
עַד-יְמַלֵּה שְׂחוֹק פִּיךָ; וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ תְרוּעָה
Ad-yimaleh s’hok picha; usfateycha teruah
Until he fills your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouting
(כְּשָׁמְעֲכֶם) אֶת-קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר, יָרִיעוּ כָל-הָעָם, תְּרוּעָה גְדוֹלָה; וְנָפְלָה חוֹמַת הָעִיר
K’sham’achem et-kol hashofar, yariy’u kol-ha’am, teruah gedolah; v’naflah humat ha’iyr
When you hear the shofar’s voice, all the people will shout a great shout; and city’s walls will fall
Elsewhere in the text, we find phrases such as zichron teruah, or remembrance of teruah; or yod’ay teruah, or those who know teruah; or zivhay teruah, or the sacrifices of teruah. In these cases, the meaning is not entirely clear and we might wonder what teruah refers to, but it also appears to refer to something more than the mere sound of a shofar or trumpet.
The idea that teruah means more, and is more significant, than a blast of a shofar or trumpet can be distilled from the fact that the language already has a word for this: tekiah, or a trumpet sound, and its corresponding verb litkoah, to sound a trumpet. If teruah specifically refers to “the voice of the shofar” that was seen at Sinai, a shofar-like sound rather than the sound of an actual horn, then the teruah we listen to on Rosh Hashanah can be understood as commemorating and remembering that sound and the events that it accompanied. In the same way that a violin can be played in a manner that evokes a person’s weeping, the teruah sounded on a shofar at Rosh Hashanah evokes and emulates what was heard from Hashem at Mount Sinai.
This insight is made even stronger by the fact that the Shofarot Service includes a prayer that asks Hashem to “understand, listen to, notice, and pay attention to the voice of our sounding [of the shofar]”:
מֵבִין וּמַאֲזִין מַבִּיט וּמַקְשִׁיב לְקוֹל תְּקִיעָתֵֽנוּ
meyvin, uma’azin mabit, umakshiv l’kol t’kiy’atenu’
understand, and listen to, look at, and pay attention to the voices of our sounding [of the shofar]
It makes little sense to ask that Hashem understand and listen to our blasts of a trumpet unless the sounds of the shofar are themselves intended to mean something—or to remind us of another sound that meant something. Listening to them as opposed to merely hearing them suggests that one is listening for their meaning. Recall from above that we are commanded in the Shofarot Service to “hear” (shomey’a שׁוֹמֵֽעַ) the shofar, but to “listen to” (ma’azin מַאֲזִין) the teruah. Indeed, in the Shofarot Service, teruah is preceded and followed by tekiah:
TEKIAH TERUAH TEKIAH
We hear a tekiah, which gets our attention. We listen to a teruah, to remember or commemorate the teruah at Mount Sinai. And then we hear another tekiah.
So, precisely what is the shofar sound which we call teruah intended to recall? We have a hint of this in the Musaf prayers for Rosh Hashanah, where Hashem is praised as one who listens to [ma’azinמַאֲזִין ] our cries [tz’akah צְעָקָה]:
מֶֽלֶךְ עֶלְיוֹן. הַמְדַבֵּר בִּצְדָקָה. הַלּוֹבֵשׁ צְדָקָה. הַמַּאֲזִין צְעָקָה
Melech ‘elyon. Hamedaber bitzedakah. Halovesh tzedakah. Hama’azin tz’akah.
Exalted king. Who speaks with righteousness. Who wears righteousness. Who listens to [our] cries.
We can understand this as evoking Hashem’s hearing our cries in Egypt, as Deuteronomy tells it:
וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ
Vanitz’ak el-Hashem Elohay Avoteynu; vayishma’ Hashem et-kolenu
And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice
So, if Hashem listened to our cries, perhaps the Israelites, at Mount Sinai, listened to His.
It should be understood at this juncture that teruah comes in two varieties. One is broken up into nine short staccato notes and is called teruah in the prayer book. The other is a succession of three longer notes and is referred to as shevarim. Keep in mind that shevarim is a concocted word, made up just to distinguish between styles of teruah. Since there was disagreement on which one was the correct teruah, the tradition is to sound them both. And perhaps they are indeed both correct, but express different things.
The Rambam, drawing on the Talmudic text, comes to exactly this conclusion. He describes the teruah as possibly combining the sound of “wailing [resembling that] with which the women cry when they moan”—this would be the teruah of nine short staccato notes—along with the sound of “sighs which a person who is distressed about a major matter will release repeatedly”—this would be the shevarim of three longer notes.
It is here where we come to an understanding of the meaning of Hashem’s teruah, which we remember, commemorate, and try to replicate through the shofar every Rosh Hashanah. Wailing, as represented by the nine-note teruah, often signals sorrow and lamentation over events past, and sighing, as represented by the three-note shevarim, can be understood as worry over things and events to come. Through the teruah—both versions—we can listen to Hashem’s cries lamenting the suffering of his people in times past alongside his sighs of worry over their future trials and tests. In this way, the teruah signals to us with each blast that Hashem has cared for us since the very beginning and, like any parent, loves and worries about our future. There’s some comfort in that.
Stanley Dubinsky is a Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. Rabbi Hesh Epstein is the (founding) Executive Director of Chabad Lubavitch of South Carolina and oversees the Chabad-Aleph House Synagogue in Columbia, S.C.