Mind Blown: Shofar as Divine Encounter Beyond the Limits of Human Comprehension

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Aton M. Holzer


One of the most perplexing practices in the Jewish tradition — when we give it sufficient thought — is the sounding of the shofar. Jews come to synagogue, begin prayer, and punctuate the prayer with loud, monotonal trumpet blasts.[1]

What do the blasts mean? The Torah gives no indication. The Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shanah 16a) explores this question haltingly, and becomes a locus classicus for the unknowability of the mind of God:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: Why does one sound [tok’in] on Rosh Ha-Shanah? Why do we sound? The Merciful One states “Sound [tik’u]” (Psalms 81:4). Rather, why does one sound blasts [teru’a]? Sound a teru’a? The Merciful One states: “a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns [teru’a]” (Leviticus 23:24). Rather, why does one sound blast [teki’a] and blasts [teru’a] sitting and sound a tekia and a teru’a while they are standing? In order to confuse [le’arbev] the Satan.[2]

The Talmud makes clear that the reason for the commandment of shofar is unknowable. The expansion of the shofar-blasts beyond the Divine prescription, however, is given a rationale: to make the Satan confused (literally, mixed – to render two separate entities indistinguishable). Medieval scholars such as Rosh (Rosh Ha-Shanah 4:14), Ran (ad loc s.v. garsinan), Ra’avyah (Rosh Ha-Shanah 542) and Tur (Orah Haim 581) expand this explanation to a further, later expansion — the shofar blasts sounded (in Ashkenazic communities) throughout the month of Elul.

The various commentators on the Talmud deal with problems posed by this cryptic passage. Two stand out among them.

  1. One problem is logical: if the rationale for sounding the shofar is unknowable – effectively senseless — how can there be any sense in expanding this activity?
  2. A second problem is theological: Is the Satan really best conceived as a human-like personality who can be duped?[3] This passage, at face value, is theologically problematic for rationalists, but later commentators tend not to take it at face value. [4]

This passage, and its implications, played a significant role in medieval debates with regard to the limits of human understanding vis-à-vis Divine precepts.[5] In the modern period, new philosophical approaches have emerged with regard to cognizing the inherent mystery in Divine law, as symbolized by shofar – and they are encapsulated well in the divergent approaches of two generations of Rabbinic thinkers, that of R. Moshe Soloveitchik (1879-1941) and his son, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993).

Shofar and the Merit of Embracing the Inscrutability of Divine Will
Rashi (16b s.v. k’dei le-arbev) implicitly responds to the question of what good can there be in a content-free edict imposed by Divine fiat. He writes, “to confuse the Satan: so that he does not accuse. When he hears the Jews cherishing the Mitzvot, his words are plugged up.[6]” For Rashi, Satan is simply the personification of the accuser, of Divine scales tipping toward the side of demerits. The blasts – and the various ways in which we extend them – celebrate our embrace of blind Divine obeisance. That itself is the potent source of merit.[7]

Rashi’s view regarding shofar, grounded in a literal understanding of the Talmudic text – can support a Leibowitzian[8] read. For the Israeli public intellectual and polymath Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), all Mitzvot are observed only because “the Merciful One states ‘sound.’” The climax of religious commitment is exemplified in the other focus of Rosh Ha-Shanah, the binding of Isaac, the paradigm of the utterly inscrutable Divine command, “the ultimate redemptive act [in which t]he rational and the ethical… are suspended and, finally, transcended when one fully accepts the yoke of Torah and Mitzvot.”[9]

This point of view seems to animate a story in R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man:

Once my father was standing on the synagogue platform on Rosh Ha-Shanah, ready and prepared to guide the order of the sounding of the shofar. The shofar-sounder, a god-fearing Habad Hasid who was also very knowledgeable in the mystical doctrine of the “Alter Rebbe,” R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, began to weep. My father turned to him and said: “Do you weep when you take the lulav? Why then do you weep when you sound the shofar? Are not both commandments of God?”[10]

Shofar and the Religious Need for the Intractable Mystery of Divine Otherness
Despite R. Moshe Soloveitchik’s (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s father) protestations, perhaps the Habad Hasid’s weeping can be seen as consonant with obeisance to an inscrutable Divine command. Indeed, later remarks by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik indicate that he did not identify with his father’s approach in this story.[11]

R. Solomon b. Aderet (Rashba) offers a different explanation of the Talmudic passage, which nevertheless works within the same theme and will help us make this connection. He explains the Satan differently from Rashi: as the embodiment of temptation, of the evil inclination. “Some explain that it is to subdue the inclination, as it is written, ‘Shall a shofar be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid?’ and Satan is the evil inclination, just as Resh Lakish said (Bava Batra 16a) ‘he is the Satan, he is the evil inclination, he is the angel of death.’”

But how does shofar conquer the evil inclination? By dint of its mystery. The relationship between Divine obeisance and the yetzer ha-ra is a theme in R. Soloveitchik’s U-Vikashtem mi-Sham.[12] There he writes:

God, who reveals Himself from out of His utter separation as a mysterium tremendum, an awesome mystery, walks terrifyingly with the despicable “small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2)… Someone who has attained knowledge of God only through personal inner awareness, and who does not feel the pincers of the revelational duress compelling him to adapt to the laws and statues imposed upon him by a separate supreme authority, is liable to disgrace himself in public… Religious commands (secular moral norms are insufficient) that break out with elemental force are the foundation of objective religious reality; those who deny them make religion a fraud… Religiosity lacking the objective-revelational element that obligates man to perform particular actions cannot conquer the beast in man… From time to time, Satan has taken control over the realm of Western religiosity, and the forces of destruction have overcome the creative consciousness and defiled it.

But whereas revelation begins as a matter of compulsion and “contradicts man’s intellectual values,” it proceeds through a stage of serenity with this compulsion to ultimately culminate in a third stage, which he summarizes in the final paragraph of the monograph:

The imperative nature of man’s behavior gradually palls at the dawn of the third stage, the stage combining love with awe, when the soul longs for its Creator out of the aspiration for total attachment and strives to achieve this in a running movement without any retreat. While the goal in the second stage is to imitate God, the end of the third stage is to cleave to Him… in the third stage we see the wonder of the identification of wills. (150)

Ultimately, it is precisely the incomprehensible religious commands, those which “break out with elemental force,” which vanquish “Satan” and the forces of destruction. It is the shofar – as the commandment which R. Moshe Cordovero (Or Yakar V, 199-200) teaches “reaches a place that human understanding doesn’t tolerate,” that, as per Rashi, manifests the embrace of blind Divine obeisance — which best inaugurates and encapsulates the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that animates the High Holidays, the period that inspired the very genesis of the term:

Speaking at Rudolf Otto’s graveside service, Heinrich Frick recalled “Otto’s own description of how he had once, in remarkable circumstances, encountered the power of the Holy with utter clarity”:

It was on his journey through North Africa, and he found himself in a poor Moroccan synagogue on Yom Kippur, just at the climax of the ceremony. What a contrast! Here was a pathetic, impoverished building with a tiny gathering of equally pathetic human beings (Existenzen) – and in this context the dazzling hymn of the trisagion, the seraphim’s song of praise from the prophet Isaiah: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” By the flickering light of the candles the full majesty of the Lord of heaven and earth seemed to be present in the midst of our poverty and paltriness. Afterwards Rudolf Otto experienced the Holy in other religions, too, at more magnificent sacred places and in higher cultures. But it seemed to him that the contrast [between the setting and song in the synagogue] made that single impression the most shattering of all. Later he identified that experience as the precise moment (Stunde) when he discovered his understanding of the Holy, and he described it in moving words.[13]

Regarding shofar itself, a prominent Israeli Jungian psychoanalyst writes,

For years, as a boy and as a young man, I attended services in the synagogue, being part of the Jewish community of Zürich. The Jewish rites connected me to something more spiritual, to God, and the beyond. I vividly remember how I was moved to the core, when I heard the shofar, the ram’s horn, blown on the Jewish New Year. The archaic tones reached a level of the soul, which was not touched by prayer or by the reading of religious texts. What is the difference between the numinous experience at the concert I mentioned and the experience on hearing the tones of the ram’s horn? The first is real bliss, an elevation of the soul, the latter is a sensation of awe according to Rudolf Otto’s book The Idea of the Holy (1920, passim), as it contains fear of the irrational. The term ‘numen’ expresses the divine power, the inexpressible, the mysterious and the terrifying. It is also defined as the wholly other.[14]

Shofar as a Portal to the realm of the Divine Unknown
In Halakhic Man, the shofar proceeds to penetrate even further, beyond concrete reality, to the Other – and hence the shofar-sounder weeps.[15] R. Soloveitchik writes:

Man’s weeping on Rosh Ha-Shanah, according to this doctrine, is the weeping of the soul that longs for its origin, for the rock from whence it was hewn, that yearns to cleave to its beloved not in hiding, but openly. The sounding of the shofar protests against reality and denies the universe itself… The shofar heralds the great and awesome [eschatological] day of judgment when the Holy One, blessed be He, will appear and fill His world with a terrible dread… Judgment means an ontological weighing and evaluation of finite existence from the perspective of infinity. The attribute of judgment by its nature tends to tip the ontological scale to the side of guilt and causes existence to revert back to chaos and the void. Therefore, on Rosh Ha-Shanah a person ventures to rise up from the divine realm of strength—i.e. judgment—to the divine realm of grace and from thence to “A God dreaded in the great council of the holy ones” (Psalms 89:8), outside concrete reality.

For R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, shofar is thus not merely an expression of the revelational duress, of the mysterium tremendum; for the initiated, it is also the tool toward achieving his “third stage,” to cleaving unto God, “the identification of wills.”

By means of shofar, during the High Holidays, the Jew seeks not to comprehend God but to recognize Divine otherness by dint of His mystery – and to protest his own distance from that otherness. He yearns to cross over into His unknowable space. Shofar thus emerges as an apt symbol for the Days of Awe, the forty days from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur dusk that are bracketed with and punctuated by shofar-blasts. It is precisely that aspect of God and His law – that which is unknowable and irreconcilably other – that distinguishes the sacred from secular, that fills us with fear and dread, but at the same time draws us close to Him.

[1] Thanks to my daughter, Dina for reading an earlier draft of this article.

[2] Translation from Sefaria ( with minor modifications.

[3] The use of ha-Satan by the Talmud actually already seems to militate against this idea, as the definite article suggests not a proper name but a descriptor: “the accuser.” The very idea of a distinct angelic figure described as Satan emerges only in some of the very last books of the Bible: Zechariah, Job and I Chronicles, and even there his distinct identity is debatable; there is nothing to suggest that “the adversary” is anything but a loyal member of God’s retinue. In extracanonical Second Temple literature and the Gospels, Satan, beliya’al, mastema, and ultimately diablos emerge as a personified evil agent and God’s adversary, perhaps under the influence of Zoroastrian dualism. But Rabbinic literature shies away from such personalization in the Tannaitic period, and while Samael/Satan as a character emerges in Amoraic literature, he is a minor figure who is tasked with tempting man to do evil (and also the angel of the death), who in both roles is subservient to God and sometimes cast as a trickster; only in the ninth-century Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer does the character assume the role of fallen angel and Divine antagonist, similar to Christian and Islamic traditions (even if elements can be identified in prior sources). In the second millennium, the Rishonim are riven between the rationalists like Rambam (Guide III:22) who identify the Satan with the evil inclination – an abstraction — and the Kabbalists, from the 12th century R. Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen of Spain and on through the Zohar, who continued the Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer’s trend and developed myths supporting a dualistic approach to evil with multiple personified evil forces.

[4] In an innovative reading, Rav Shagar sees demystification beginning within the Talmudic text itself, in the manner in which the Gemara frames R. Yitzhak’s suggestion. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Shiurim ba-Gemara: Yoma – Sukkah – Rosh Ha-Shanah (Makhon Kitvet ha-Rav Shagar, 2017), 431-434.

[5] See, e.g., Josef Stern, “The fall and rise of myth in ritual: Maimonides versus Nahmanides on the Huqqim, Astrology, and the war against idolatry.” The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 6:2 (1997): 185-263.

[6] Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[7] A similar view is expressed by Rabbeinu Hananel (16b).

[8] See Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Aviezer Ravitzky, Vikuhim Al Emunah ve-Filosofyah (Misrad Habitahon, 2006), 111.

[9] Haim O. Rechnitzer, “Redemptive Theology in the Thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz,” Israel Studies 13:3 (2008): 139.

[10] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983), 60-61.

[11] See citation by R. Hershel Schachter of a lecture given September 1984, in his Mi-Peninei ha-Rav (Beth Hamidrash de-Flatbush: 2001), 126. R. Chaim Jachter of a public lecture in Boston, August 1985, here:, accessed September 7, 2020. Generally speaking, the conclusion that R. Soloveitchik does not personally identify with the figure of Halakhic Man is drawn by Dov Schwartz, Religion or Halakha: The Philosophy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Brill, 2007), especially p. 350. However, he does question if we can know whether or not he identified with his father’s view at the time of his writing Halakhic Man; see p. 189.

[12] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham: And From There You Shall Seek, trans. Naomi Goldblum (Ktav, 2008), 50-55.

[13] Gregory D. Alles, “Rudolf Otto, cultural colonialism and the ‘discovery’ of the holy,” in Timothy Fitzgerald (ed.), Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations (Acumen Publishing, 2007), 193. The Yom Kippur synagogue experience seems to have had a similar impact on Franz Rosenzweig, whose life trajectory was changed entirely thereby. See Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), xviii, 25.

[14] Gustav Dreifuss, “Experience of the Self in a Lifetime,” Journal of Analytical Psychology 46 (2001): 689-696, 690.

[15] Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, 61-62.

Aton Holzer is Director of the Mohs Surgery Clinic in the Department of Dermatology at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and is an assistant editor of the recent RCA Siddur Avodat HaLev.