Thursday, 16 Jun 2016

Written by Alasdair Nisbet


The King James Bible uses the word trumpet for three different Hebrew words whilst Jewish translators usually use two: the transliterated word “Shofar” when it appears in the Hebrew and trumpet for the Chatsotsrot mentioned in this week’s Sidra and the little used Juval that is heard along with the Shofar on Mount Sinai before the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19). The Juval is also blown to announce the 50th Jubilee year that, according to Robert Alter, gives the celebration its name Leviticus 25:9.

Moses is commanded: “Make two trumpets (Chatsotsrot) of silver; of beaten work shall you make them.” Numbers 10:2.

I want to explore the following four questions: what did they look like? how were they used? what did they sound like? and how do they relate to the Shofar today?

Trumpets are still made by taking a sheet of metal and gently tapping it around a mould. They usually also have a detachable mouthpiece. There are no other descriptions of these trumpets in the Bible but we know that they were used in both the First and Second Temples. The closest that we have to an eyewitness account is from Flavius Josephus who expands the Numbers description: “In length it was little less than a cubit [about 50 cm]. It was composed of a narrow tube, somewhat thicker than a flute, but with so much breadth as was sufficient for admission of the breath of a man’s mouth: it ended in the form of a bell, like common trumpets [probably Roman trumpets].”

Amazingly we have three contemporary images: on the Arch of Titus in Rome there are two trumpets depicted (longer than Josephus’ description but likely modelled on a Roman trumpet by the sculptor), two trumpets on some of the coins of the Bar Kochba rebellion and two, probably unrelated trumpets, in the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Both king Tut’s trumpets were about 50 cm one in bronze and the other silver. Surely these are the type of trumpet Moses knew. They, and the coins, show a separate mouthpiece and a band holding it to the trumpet.

How were they used? The Torah describes three uses of the Chatsotsrot:

To direct the people using variously one or two trumpets and different calls “they shall serve you for calling the community and for the journeying of the camps. And when they blow them, all the community shall meet with you at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And if but one they blow, the chieftains, the heads of Israel’s thousands, shall meet with you. (Numbers 10: 3-5).

To direct troops in battle, “And when you come in battle in your land against the foe who assails you, you shall let out a long blast with the trumpets and be remembered before the LORD your God and be rescued from your enemies.” (Numbers 10: 9-10)

To celebrate festivals, And on the day of your gladness and at your fixed seasons and on your new moons, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over your communion sacrifices,” (Numbers 10:10)

One biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah which is often translated as Day of Blowing (the Shofar) and although the shofar is not mentioned explicitly it is linked with the following “cause the Shofar to sound (Teruah) on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the Day of Atonement shall you sound (Teruah) the shofar throughout all your land.” (Leviticus 25:9)

The Torah mentions three different sounds from the Chatsotsrot and the Shofar: on Mount Sinai the voice (Kol) of the Shofar is heard and in this Sidra the Teruah and Tekiah are used as commands. But what did they sound like?

When someone picks up a shofar they usually play one note which we know as a Tekiah. Is this right? We have a few hints in the Bible that suggest that it is. In our Sidra the Tekiah is mentioned before the Teruah and in verse three they are combined u’teckatem teruah,

In the story of Joshua storming the city of Jericho (Joshua 6), this moment where Hollywood meets Bible has the priests walking round the city blowing long load Tekiahs, On the seventh day with one last blast and a shout, the city walls come tumbling down.

Instead, the word Teruah seems to be associated with the concept of alarm. When I play the shofar, I play three beats of semiquavers twelve staccato notes. Again from Hollywood I think of the moment when the US cavalry arrive to save the day announced by the rapid sound of the bugle.

The clincher for me is in Psalm 150, a number of instruments are mentioned, some with their sounds. We get a Teikah Shofar, which suggests a long blast, and then two sounds from cymbals, Btziltzaleh Shama which seems to me to be a single clash and Btzilzaleh Teruah which I suggests a rapid ringing or tingling noise.

With the Temple, gone the Rabbis have moved on from the Temple’s sacrifices and the trumpets to accompany them. We now use the cheaper more robust ram’s horn that was linked in the Torah to Rosh Hashanah. Some say that they link all the way back to Abraham and the ram in the thicket that saved Isaac. The message is clear, God -You remembered Abraham and Isaac – we are their descendants so remember us too.

The Rabbis in the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah) have a long discussion about the shofar and how to make it and use it. They debated the sound of the Teruah and came up with a third “broken” note, the three blast Shevarim. As often happens in the Talmud we preserve both traditions by playing both.

Let’s finish with the theological question – why does God need to hear the Shofar at all? If we think that God needs to be “woken up” shouldn’t we then be scorned by Elijah as he did to the priests of Baal?

“Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud; for he is a god [Baal]; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is in a journey, or perhaps he sleeps, and must be awakened.” 1 King 18:27

No, at Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar to wake up OUR own souls to be receptive to God, Somehow the primeval sound reaches into our being and drags us back from our modern busy lives to be nearer to God, to our ancestor Abraham and that great revelation on Mount Sinai.

Alasdair Nisbet
June 2016

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.