It is absolutely certain that both the spiritual leaders of Jewry and the masses of uneducated Jews (or at least the majority of these) before, during and after the talmudic period believed that the shofar, the ram’s horn, was blown on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah in order to confuse Satan and his demonic cohorts. The widely held belief was that the blowing of the shofar would stop Satan from approaching God at a crucial moment, keeping him from indicting Jews for past sins in a heavenly judicial proceeding in which God decides the future of each Jew.
People are people first and Jews only second. Demons played a part in individual’s lives since ancient times – present when they were awake or asleep, at joyous and sad occasions. And since they saw demons stalking around them, the people were convinced, as J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, that, “It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” The frightful term “nightmare,” for example, is derived from the ancient Saxon word mara, which means “demon.”
Thus, it is no surprise that the Jewish masses believed in demons until the era of the enlightenment in the nineteenth century and that this mistaken notion affected and twisted their understanding of Jewish holidays and their behavior on these days. It should also surprise no one that the rabbis, who assumed the duty of weaning their congregants from superstition toward a true understanding of Judaism, were frequently unsuccessful, especially when the irrational conception held by their coreligionists was accepted by virtually all of their non-Jewish neighbors.
Many of these rabbis, themselves human, were also affected by and accepted illogical, frequently heathenish opinions and nonsensical and useless customs. Other rabbis, who felt that these practices were based on falsehoods, felt compelled to allow the practice of the Jewish religion as the masses understood it, even though the rituals were wrong-headed. These rabbis attempted to rationalize and elevate the superstitious observances by giving them a Jewish explanation and coloring. The use of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is an example of this phenomenon.
- What is Yom Teruah, the day that was later called Rosh Hashanah?
- Why was Yom Teruah called Rosh Hashanah during the post-biblical period?
- Does the Torah require the blowing of the shofar on Yom Teruah?
- Does the Torah give even a hint of a reason for making a sound on Yom Teruah?
- How did the ancient Jews use the shofar?
- What reason did the talmudic rabbis give for the shofar-blowing?
- What did Maimonides say on the subject?
What is Yom Teruah?
Scripture proclaims a Yom Teruah, literally a “Day of Shouting” in Numbers 29:1. It takes place on the first day of the seventh month.
Arguably, the original significance of this special day was simply that it was the first day of the seventh month. The seventh day is the Sabbath that recalls that there is a God, that God created the world and that God communicated the divine will (when God informed the Israelites of ceasing creating on the Sabbath day and that they must therefore also rest on this day). The number seven is repeated frequently in Jewish practices to remind Jews of these three fundamental ideas. The holidays of Passover and Sukkoth are seven days long. The holiday of Shavuot is seven weeks after Passover. The seventh year, the Sabbatical year, is a year of rest for the ground. The seventh Sabbatical year is the Jubilee Year. Thus the seventh month was also highlighted as Yom Teruah. The day was also called Yom Zikaron Teruah in Leviticus 23:24, the “Day of Remembering Through Shouting.” “Remembering” what? Remembering the significance of seven.
Why is the Day Called Rosh Hashanah?
The Bible does not indicate a date when the year begins. The Talmud records two opinions on the subject. One position is that it is the first day of the month of spring, the first month Nissan, the same month in which the holiday of Passover occurs. This is the month that the Torah calls the “first of the months” because it recalls the Exodus from Egypt. The second idea, which became the accepted view, is that the year begins on the first day of the fall, in the seventh month Tishrei. More specifically, this opinion states that the sixth day of creation, the day on which humans were created, was the first day of the seventh month, and that the new year begins with this sixth day of creation. Once this non-biblical idea – that the first of Tishrei is the beginning of the new year – was accepted by Jews, Yom Teruah gained the name Rosh Hashanah, “New Year,” in the popular mind, although it retains its biblical name Yom Teruah in the holiday prayer book.
Was the Shofar Blown on Yom Teruah?
One of the most significant ceremonies during Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar one hundred times during the services. Yet most people do not realize that there is no scriptural verse requiring that the shofar be blown on this day. Searching for some biblical source, the Midrash Sifra refers to Leviticus 25:9, which states that on the Jubilee year, once in forty-nine years, the Israelites are commanded: ta’aviru shofar, “sound the shofar,” on the “tenth day of the seventh month on Yom Hakippurim (later called Yom Kippur).” The Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34a, in contrast, derives the requirement from the obscure verse in Psalms 81:4, “Blow the shofar vachodesh [meaning, “during the month” or “on the new moon”] bakeseh [a word that is given various interpretations, including “when it [the moon] is hidden”], l’yom chageinu [which could mean: “to proclaim a day of holiday”].”
The lack of any clear mandate to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and the reliance on somewhat speculative and tentative unrelated verses highlights the non-biblical origin of the practice and suggests that the blowing of the shofar on this day was started by the masses and was later justified by the rabbis using the two cited verses.
The Ancient Use of the Shofar
Anthropologists and other social scientists have recognized that ancient people used a shocking sound like the shofar blast to attract or repel. Sir James G. Frazer (1854–1941), in his Golden Bough, in the chapter on “The Scapegoat,” states that primitive people usually sounded loud noises on New Year’s Day to expel demons; today’s noisemaking on New Year’s Day is a relic of this ancient practice. It seems likely that this was also the original purpose for the shofar blasts; surprisingly, this is the view of the Talmud.
The Talmud Relates the Shofar-Blowing to Satan
The original reason for blowing the shofar on the New Year, to frighten and expel satanic forces that may persuade an influenceable God that the Jew is a sinner and should be punished and perhaps even killed during the upcoming year, is explicitly reported in the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b. The Talmud states that the shofar is blown “to confound Satan” and to prevent him from approaching God and accusing Jewish people of past sins.
Long after the practice of shofar blowing began, the Talmud mentions that there are two series of synagogue shofar blowings, one during the Amidah – or standing – prayer and one before it. One of these series – the rabbis differ as to which one – is an integral part of the way that Rosh Hashanah came to be understood, while the other, the more ancient practice, the Talmud says, is designed to confuse Satan.
One series reflects a more advanced spiritual concept of the shofar. The other retains the ancient primitive superstitious fear of demons and the notion that Satan is involved in divine judgments and has the power to influence God’s decision about the future of a Jew’s life and that humans, in turn, have the somewhat supernatural ability to confuse Satan, a heavenly being, and restrain him from carrying out his diabolical scheme to harm Jews.
The Superstitious Origin Recognized in Many Sources
This notion is present not only in the Talmud but also in various legal codes and commentaries, such as Nathan ben Jechiel’s Arukh (1035–1106) and David Abudarham’s book on prayer Perush haberakhot v’hatefilot (fourteenth century).
The Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 105b, and Rashi’s commentary to Rosh Hashanah 28a repeat that the shofar was used to scare demons and upset their plans. The talmudic rabbis question whether a Jew fulfills his obligation to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah if he blows it only to confound or repel demons. Curiously, the Talmud answers that the obligation to blow the shofar is fulfilled.
Maimonides’ Recognition That No Rational Basis for Using the Shofar Exists
In his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7, Maimonides rationalizes the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. He writes that it is a way of calling the people to awaken from their slumbers, search their deeds and change their ways. Yet he admits that he knows no reason why the ram’s horn, and not another instrument, was chosen to perform this act.
Another Practice Designed to Confuse Satan on Rosh Hashanah
It is a widespread Jewish custom to announce the date of the new moon at the morning synagogue service on the Shabbat before the onset of the new month. This takes place each month except for the Shabbat preceding Ellul, the month in which the holiday of Rosh Hashanah occurs. The commentators explain that the practice originated, like the shofar soundings, to confuse Satan. The fearful masses persuaded themselves that when they did not publicly announce the date of the new moon, Satan, whom they must have thought attended Shabbat services and paid attention to announcements, would not know on which date Ellul would begin, and he would thus be kept from traveling to heaven and prosecuting Jews before the heavenly court.
Possible Biblical Support for the Use of the Shofar to Repel Evil
Needless to say, those who held these superstitious notions did not need biblical support for the rituals that assuaged their fears. Yet, it is possible that some Jews may have supported and rationalized their beliefs by recalling that the Bible frequently mentions the use of the shofar in association with war and fighting, such as in II Samuel 18:16 and 20:22, and to frighten those who heard the sound, as in Amos 2:2 and 3:6. The superstitious ancients may have seen a basis in these passages concerning human reactions for their view that the shofar can frighten and repel satanic forces.
How Did Other Rabbis Interpret the Use of the Shofar?
Although many rabbis bought into the superstitious rationale for the blowing of the shofar, other rabbis developed a loftier spiritual reason for it. They, like Maimonides, mentioned above, teach that the shofar is sounded to awaken the Jew’s attention to consider past misdeeds and correct them.
These rabbis also point out that the Bible states that the shofar was sounded to announce the inauguration of kings, as in II Samuel 15:10 and I Kings 1:34, 39. Thus, the Rosh Hashanah shofar blowing is a proclamation or recognition of divine rule.
Furthermore, these rabbis note that Scripture records that the shofar is used to warn people of danger, as in Hosea 5:8 and 8:1. Thus, the shofar soundings also warn people of the danger of improper self-destructive conduct.
They also cite verses such as II Samuel 6:15, where the shofar is blown when David returns the captured ark to Jerusalem with great joy. They refer to Psalms 150:3 where the psalmist states that it is used to praise God. They suggest that Jews blow the shofar one hundred times because this count corresponds to the number of berakhot (blessings) that the rabbis encouraged Jews to recite daily. Thus the shofar reminds its listener of the joy of the holiday, praising God and filling the world with blessings.
The shofar is blown one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah as a significant part of this holiday’s service. Yet the Torah does not mention that the shofar should be sounded on this day.
The first of the seventh month (later called Tishrei) is not the New Year holiday in the Bible. The day is called Yom Teruah, “Day of Shouting,” and its significance was most likely to highlight the number seven that was an integral part of many holidays and ceremonies because the number seven reminded Jews of the original seven, the Sabbath, and its lessons that there is a God, that God created the world and revealed commandments.
Ancient people had a primal fear of the presence of destructive demons during New Year’s Day. The Jews were no different. The Talmud records that the shofar was sounded on New Year’s Day to confound Satan and stop him from approaching God and accusing Jews for past sins. The people were convinced that God, like them, could be persuaded by demons and would accept the demon’s accusations, and that, as a result of Satan’s accusations, they would be punished with sickness, poverty and other evils, including death.
The use of the shofar is not the only means that the Jews used to combat Satan and his demonic cohorts. They did not rely on one single stratagem in their battle against the demons. Several other rites are performed before and during the holiday, including curtailing the announcement of the date of the new month before the month in which Rosh Hashanah appears. The ancient uneducated populace apparently thought that Satan learned the date of the new month from the synagogue announcement of humans, and did not remember from year to year over the centuries that he was repeatedly tricked; thus he would not know the date of Rosh Hashanah and when to journey to the heavenly court to carry out his plan to condemn the Jews.
While, as the Talmud attests, Satan provoked the use of the shofar, the rabbis rationalized the ceremony and elevated it to a spiritual level. They emphasized that it teaches Jews to turn their attention to God, cease acting improperly, and fill the world with blessings. Maimonides, ever opposed to superstitions, took this approach, maintaining that the shofar’s sound was a call to awaken Jews to consider the impact of their past behavior and to improve it.
 It is possible that in earlier times the tenth of Tishrei, the Day of Yom Kippur, was the New Year holiday. Ezekiel 40:1 states, “In the twenty-fifth year of our exile on the new year on the tenth of the month….”
 This reason only appears in the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the earlier Jerusalem Talmud. It also does not appear in the earlier Mishna which mentions the malchiyot and zichronot prayers. Thus, it is possible that the Satan association may have been a Babylonian later influence. See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/demons.html subheading- “In the Talmud.” However, in view of other sources mentioned in this essay and our knowledge that Jews in Israel were also very superstitious, this absence of mention of Satan in these early sources does not prove the Jews in Israel did not believe the shofar blasts chased Satan away.
 Religious people prefer to use ancient or at least older objects in their rituals. Thus, for example, while an electric light is permissible for Shabbat candles, virtually all Jews use the ancient candles. In all likelihood, it is for this reason that the ancient ram’s horn that preceded the trumpet is mandated for Rosh Hashanah.