Shofar so Good

Blowing a shofar on "Rosh Hashanah" Source: WikiCommons; Jonathunder

Blowing a shofar on “Rosh Hashanah”
Source: WikiCommons; Jonathunder

I think the sound of the shofar is beautiful. I love what it has come to represent – Jews (even the least observant amongst us) gathering for the High Holidays. But I have actually never heard the sound of the shofar during my synagogue’s high holiday services. 34 years and counting!

And I hope that never changes.

Quite simply, Karaites generally maintain that there is no commandment to blow the shofar on the High Holidays. [1.]

Let’s look at the first of the High Holidays, which the Torah calls Yom Teruah but most people refer to as Rosh Hashanah. [2.] By way of background, Rabbanite Jews blow the shofar on their Rosh Hashanah based on, among other reasons, a connection the Talmud makes between the holiday and the ram (or goat) that God sent for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac. [3.]

The Torah does not actually tell us the purpose of Yom Teruah. And the Yom Teruah passages make no connection to the Binding of Isaac. But Yom Teruah‘s proximity to Yom Kippur (considered the holiest day of the year) and Sukkot (one of the three haggim) suggests that Yom Teruah is to be a day of awakening prior to these two important holidays.

The phrase “Yom Teruah” is generally translated by Karaites as “Day of Shouting,” as in shouting in prayer.  (See, e.g., Joshua 6:5; Psalms 47:2.; Psalms 100:1.) But the word “teruah” may also refer to a trumpeting sound. (See Numbers 10:5-6.) So it is conceivable that Yom Teruah is intended to be celebrated by the sound of the shofar [3].

Karaites historically (and today), though, generally do not think this is the most natural reading of the text. By way of just one illustration, unlike Yom Teruah, elsewhere in the Tanakh we are commanded to make a “teruah” specifically with a shofar. (See Leviticus 25:9 (discussing the Year of Jubilee).)

One verse in Psalms mentions sounding the shofar on all new moon days, which Yom Teruah is, and also on the full moons of the haggim. (See Psalms 81:4.) [4.] Karaites generally interpret this verse a reference to the historic use of the shofar to announce these (and other) important Jewish calendrical events. That verse does not use the word teruah, and, in any event,  is not the reason Rabbanites blow the shofar on their Rosh Hashanah.

Today, I’m often asked whether it is “okay” for Karaites to wear tefillin or blow a shofar on Yom Teruah, even though the Torah does not command this. I won’t here express any opinion as to whether it is halakhically okay. But I note that movements do not survive by adopting the customs and traditions of other movements – especially of majority movements.

In my opinion, the greatest threat to Karaism is the desire of many Karaites to harmonize with Rabbinic tradition. While the Rabbinic tradition is rich and beautiful, it just isn’t the Karaite tradition. I wrote about this previously when I wondered whether Karaite Judaism would even survive another generation.

I wish everyone an awakening Day of Shouting.

*   *   *

[1] The word “shofar” refers to horn of an animal, usually a ram or goat. In Assyrian, the word “shapparu” refers to a wild goat. For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume that when the Tanakh speaks of a “shofar,” it actually intends to convey the horn of an animal, rather than a generic horn or trumpet.

[2] “Rosh Hashanah” is often referred to as the Jewish New Year, but it actually falls on the first day of the Seventh Month of the Hebrew Calendar. Perhaps, I’ll discuss this in a future post.

[3] See Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a. According to the Talmud, the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah was that of a goat. Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:3.

[4] Perhaps in the future we can discuss whether Karaites may derive their laws (as opposed to traditions and customs), from Prophets and Writings, as opposed to the Torah.


Filed under Holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Shofar, Yom Teruah

24 Responses to Shofar so Good

  1. Zvi

    On the on hand, Tehillim 81:4 does exhort to sound a shofar on all new moon days. OTOH it calls to blow the shofar a little _before_ Hag haMasot and Hag haSukkot, because the “Keseh” (full moon) is seen on the 14th day of a month and not the 15th, approximately 14.5 days after the conjunction (when the moon crescent is totally unseen). The conjunction occurs some 12-22 hours before the first light of the new moon crescent. Thus, the Keseh is the day before each aforementioned Hag.

  2. Gabriel Moskovitz

    “Keseh” is taken to mean the state of being covered or hidden, meaning that the Shofar is to be sounded on the day when the Moon is hidden which only occurs on Rosh Hashanah (first day of Lunar Cycle) and not on the Festivals which occur in mid cycle when the moon is full.

    • Hi Gabriel, while your opinion is possible, the verse makes a clear connection between “keseh” and “chag” two of the three chagim are on full moons, so I think that it is more likely that keseh refers to the full moon.

    • The word Keseh has absolutely nothing to do with being hidden. Keseh, like its Ugaritic [yrh ks’], Phoenician [כסא], Syriac [kesa], Arabic [kus’], and Akkadian [kuse’u] cognates means the full moon. In Phoenician (i.e., Canaanite, virtually the same language as Hebrew) there is even the personal name עבדכסא “servant of the full moon” and in Akkadian Kuse’u is also the name of the headdress of the moon god at the time of the full moon. No Haggim occur at the conjunction, but two of the three (Hagh HaMassot and Hagh HaSukkot) occur on the 15th day after the sighting of the new moon, i.e., just half a day after the full moon.

      • Gabriel Moskovitz

        I beg to differ. The word keseh has everything to do with being covered or hidden. Let us deal with the Hebrew spelling, Kaf, Samech Hei, (כּסה) which Avraham Even Shoshan in his Concordance of the Bible translates as העלים , הסתיר which, of course, translates unambiguously to hidden, concealed or averted. The word in its exact spelling is used in Proverbs 12:23 and Proverbs 12:16.
        Proverbs 12:23 states אדם ערום כּסה דעת which can only be translated as “the cunning man conceals knowledge” and has no meaning if כּסה means full moon. Similarly, Proverbs 12:16 states וכּסה קלון ערום which translates as the cunning man conceals his shame. Again a full moon context is meaningless.
        Your final comment that “no Haggim occur at the conjunction” is certainly true for Pesach and Succot because the Torah clearly states their occurrence on the 15th day of their respective months, however, the Torah also clearly states that what we refer to as Rosh Hashana or, if you prefer Yom Teruah, occurs on the first day of the seventh month, precisely the morning after the New Moon which was previously hidden has now appeared.

        • Obviously, you understand of Semitic languages leaves a lot to be desired. You are confusing the root of Keseh (which derives from the proto-Semitic K-S-’) with the root of the verb to cover (which derives from the proto-Semitic root K-S-Y). You make the same nonsensical mistake that the Rabbanites do when they ignore the basis of language and say absurd things like “the mother of Yiftah was called a Zonah because she sold Mezonot”, which completely ignores what the rest of the context says and the fact that the word Zonah is the feminine active participle of the Qal form of the verbal root Zayin-Nun-He (which is derived from the proto-Semitic root Z-N-Y), while Mazon is from the root Zayin-Waw-Nun, whose feminine active participle in the Qal form is Zanah.

          Yom Teru‘ah is NOT a Hagh. It is a Mo‘ed, just as Shabbat is a Mo‘ed and Yom HaKippurim is a Mo‘ed and every Rosh Hodesh is a Mo‘ed, but they are NOT Haggim. There are only three Haggim: Hagh HaMassot, Hagh, HaShavu‘ot, and Hagh HaSukkot. A Hagh is a pilgrimage festival, it is NOT just any holy day. What the verse in Tehillim is clearly saying is to announce the coming new moon with the blast of a Shofar and at the full moon the coming Hagh.

          • For what it is worth, Stong’s concordance also differentiates between the words that appear in Psalms 81 and Proverbs 12.

          • Relying on Strong’s for accurate Hebrew is like relying on Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell for accurate science. If you want scholarly explanation of Hebrew words and their relationship to other Semitic languages, it is much better to refer to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, the original lexicon of Gesenius, the revised Gesenius by Brown, Driver, Briggs, instead of a work whose main objective is to prove the divinity of Jesus.

          • Haha. I will check those concordances out! Thank you.

            On Wed, Aug 28, 2013 at 2:11 PM, A Blue Thread

          • Gabriel Moskovitz

            I was afraid that this discussion would quickly deteriorate to name calling. Lets rise above the fray, stick to the facts, and let other readers discern for themselves whose arguments are more cogent. Isn’t this the Karaite way?
            I merely pointed out that the Hebrew Bible uses כּסה twice outside of Psalms and they are found in Proverbs as my earlier reply indicates. I showed how those two instances translate to mean “conceal” or “hide”. Please tell me how those two instances can be reconciled with the “full moon” translation.
            Furthermore, lets examine Psalms 81 verse 4. The verse tells us to sound the Shofar בּכּסה ליום חגינו which I argue means on the “concealment of our Festival Day”, that is, the day when the moon is concealed. This verse tells me that the Psalmist is saying, ” Sound the Shofar on the day of moon concealment which occurs only on the end of month/start of new month, which refers to Yom Teruah or Rosh Hashana. You say it refers to the full moon. How am I to understand the context of the verse i.e. blowing a Shofar on the full moon which occurs in middle of the month? See also Targum Onkelos who translates this specifically as the beginning of the month of Tishrei (the seventh month) precisely when Yom Teruah occurs. I do agree with you that most often, the word חג is associated with the Pilgrimage Festivals but this is not exclusive and can also mean other holy days, see for example Exodus 32:5 where Aaron, during the Golden Calf incident proclaims it as a חג. Also Jereboam (Kings I 12:32) proclaims a חג. in the 8th month, obviously not a Pilgrimage Festival to the Jerusalem Temple.
            The Septuagint seems to split the difference between our two points of view by translating the Psalm 81 verse as “Blow the trumpet at the New Moon, at the full moon, on our feast day”.
            Anyway, have a festive Yom Teruah!

          • Zvi

            Fine, Qanai’s arguments are more cogent. And you seem a bit too influenced by the Rabbinic viewpoint as borne out by your contention that the word can also mean other holy days, and your reasoning is quite faulty, since it is invalid to infer from Pilgrimage-Feasts established by humans upon their vagaries that holy days not determined by YHWH as Hagim (plural) can be defined as Hagim in point of fact.

            Have a terrific Yom Teru`ah!

          • Yes! I agree have a festive Mo’ed, and also let’s keep the debate classy.

          • Zvi

            Concerning the new moon, the verse in Tehillim effectively exhorts to sound a shofar when the new moon is sightied

  3. Tehila

    Shawn, doesn’t the Torah specify ‘silver trumpets’ instead of a shofar?

  4. eleanor7000

    IMO there isn’t a commandment to blow a shofar at any time, except for the proclamation of the jubilee.

    Psalm 81 names a shofar along with other instruments with which to give praise: the harp and lyre. It’s just saying, let’s be festive.

    And Psalms aren’t commandments in any case.

  5. This is an interesting and provocative post, Shawn. I appreciate your interest in the plain meaning of the text, and there is undoubtedly a secret here somewhere. However, in this case you may be the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.

    Rabbanite Jews blow the shofar on their Rosh Hashanah based on, among other reasons, a connection the Talmud makes between the holiday and the ram (or goat) that God sent for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac.

    This borders on misleading. You acknowledge in your post that the term teruah can mean blowing a horn, and does so in the other contexts in which it is used in the Pentateuch. This would seem to the be the obvious starting point for the Rabbanite tradition, not the Binding of Isaac.

    The phrase “Yom Teruah” is generally translated by Karaites as “Day of Shouting,” as in shouting in prayer. (See, e.g., Joshua 6:5; Psalms 47:2.; Psalms 100:1.)

    Teruah may mean ‘shouting’ in some contexts, but rarely if ever do any of those contexts involve prayer. Based on its use throughout the Bible, teruah appears to mean loud noise, be it by instrument or shouting masses. Prayer is neither necessary nor sufficient for the use of the term. Do Karaites make an exceptional amount of noise during the Rosh Hashana service? If not, shofar blowing would seem to be closer to the plain meaning of the text.

    Karaites historically (and today), though, generally do not think [blowing shofar] is the most natural reading of the text. By way of just one illustration, unlike Yom Teruah, elsewhere in the Tanakh we are commanded to make a “teruah” specifically with a shofar. (See Leviticus 25:9 (discussing the Year of Jubilee).)

    This is an extremely weak sort of ‘proof’. Just because it doesn’t say shofar explicitly, doesn’t mean the word cannot be implicit. After all, the word teruah appears without the ‘shofar’ modifier in Numbers 10:6, where the horns are implied by the context. Come to think of it, wherever the word teruah appears in the Pentateuch, it seems to be talking about a horn, and it does say to blow it on the joyous Jubilee. I would therefore consider such verses as evidence in favor of the Rabbanites, rather than proofs against them. Personally, I try to see with eyes unclouded by traditions one way or the other.

    On that note, and literary quibbling aside, happy Rosh Hashana! May it be a year of fresh insights for all.

    • I don’t consider any of this quibbling. These are all good points and welcome additions. Just note that there is only so much I can address in what are designed to be short (and general non-halakhic) posts. So, I usually cannot address all the relevant arguments (on either side) and almost always have to paint in generalities.

      May the Moadim of the Seventh Month greet you well.


    I understand the desire not to be swallowed up by our larger fellow jews, but it seems to me that the announcement of the coming Holiday (Yom Kippur) is the most important point. We will sound the Shofar, not in obligation to the Rabbinites tradition, but in anouncement of the solemn day approaching.

    May Yah bless all on this solemn Moad

    • You should always do what your (Scripture-based) conviction compels you to do. The blog is not intended to direct halakha. Rather it seeks to lay out the issues. By the way, might I suggest that you blow the shofar on every new moon? There is more of a historical and biblical basis for that practice and it could be a cool “Karaite” thing for you to do.

  7. Pingback: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Teruah, and the Shofar: By the Numbers | A Blue Thread

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