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Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Mystical Meaning of Shofar

The Mystical Meaning of Shofar

Arthur L. Finkle

Several articles address the religious, social, political, cultural and philosophical meaning of Shofar. No articles currently in circulation address the mystical tradition of Shofar.

Jewish mysticism is rich in tradition, citing Shimon Bar Yochai as a founder. In 1176, the Bahir was published by the Provence (Southern France) School of Kabbalists). However, it is ascribed to R. Nechuniah ben HaKana, a disciple of bar Yochai. It is mentioned by the Ravaad, the Ramban and the Zohar. Then xx’ Moses De Leon in the 13th century claims to have found the Zohar, a masterly mystical treatise. Then mystics flourished in Spain during its Jewish Golden Age (Ramban, Abulafia, R. Moshe Cordevero, etc.).

Primary Jewish Mystical Texts
Sefer Yetzirah ("book of creation") was the first historically recorded book on Kabbalah. Meaningless to those not schooled in mysticism, it was written for those schooled in mysticism who had discipled under a mentor.
The second of the important Jewish mystical works is the Bahir ("the illumination"), also known as "The Midrash of Rabbi Nechuniah ben haKana". It is some 12,000 words long. First published in Provence in 1176, many Orthodox Jews believe that the author was Rabbi Nehuniah ben haKana, a Talmudic sage of the first century. Historians have shown that the book was likely written not long before it was published.

The Zohar (זהר "the radiance") is arguably the most important book written on Jewish mysticism. Attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, a 2nd century Talmudic commentator, it is generally assigned to a 13th century Spanish Jew, Moshe de Leon. There are those (mostly non-religious) who doubt that the Zohar was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Moshe de Leon was in possession of the manuscript and claimed it was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s work. Other sages authenticated this (possibly Abulafia, or Rabbi Levi ben Gershon aka Ralbag).

The Zohar contains and elaborates upon much of the material found in Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Bahir, and without question is the Kabbalistic work par excellance.

Kabbalistic teachings about the human soul
The Zohar posits that the human soul has three elements, the nefesh, ru'ah, and neshamah. The nefesh is found in all humans, and enters the physical body at birth. It is the source of one's physical and psychological nature. The next two parts of the soul are not implanted at birth, but are slowly created over time; their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual. They are said to only fully exist in people awakened spiritually. A common way of explaining the five parts of the soul is as follows:

• Nefesh (נפש) - the lower part, or animal part, of the soul. Is linked to instincts and bodily cravings.
• Ruach (רוח) - the middle soul, the spirit. It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
• Neshamah (נשמה) - the higher soul, or super-soul. This separates man from all other lifeforms. It is related to the intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided both to Jew and non-Jew alike at birth. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God.
• Ha’tah – Higher spiritual plane
• Yichuda – unite with HaKOM

In addition, there are five “realms” through which the “soul” travels. From lowest to highest:

• Asiyah (World of Activity, Making or Physical Manifestation).
• Yetzirah (World of Formation), and
• B'riyah (World of Creation),
• Atziluth (World of Emanation),
• Atziluth is also called the "Supernal World."
• It is rooted in the Sefirah Crown/Above and correlates with the letter Yod in the Name YHVH. In Atziluth, the twenty-two Hebrew letters are yet unmanifest,

In the sixteenth century, R. Isaac Luria (Arizal) (1534-72) and his fellow mystics of Safed were concerned about the Spanish expulsion (and its consequent mass conversions), and Messianic Redemption.

He overturned the Talmudic restriction that before studying mysticism one had to attain the age of 39. This led to spreading the word of a legitimate Jewish mysticism.

His fast-traveling doctrines included Tzimtzum (contraction); the breaking of the vessels: and Tikkun: (restoration and repair). Simply put, Luria ingeniously fashioned a metaphor of God’s contracting the universe to create the world, among other things.

Preconditions to the Rise of Hasidism

Although Jewish Lithuania retained its intellectual supremacy, sixteenth century Jewish Poland and its environs was a place of disillusion, pessimism and dismay. The failures of the Spanish Jewish mass conversions in the late 15th century stimulated a rigorous orthodox reaction in Europe. The failure of the messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi; the decimation of the Cossacks’ uprising in 1648-60 and the general poverty made this region ripe for a radical change for Judaism to survive.


In the mid-18th century, The founder of Hasidism was a man of the obscure Podolian Jewry, Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem-Ṭob (BeShT). His personal fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. He often cured the Jews by fervent prayer, profound ecstasies, and gesticulations. He also at times successfully prognosticated the future, and revealed secrets. Soon acquiring among the masses the reputation of a miracle-worker, he came to be known as "the kind Ba'al Shem" ("Ba'al Shem-Ṭob").

His teachings were simple and directed to the simple person. There was an omnipresent God who is inter-connected with humankind.
His focus was on emotion (spirituality), not on liturgy, leading to experiencing ecstasy and rejecting negativity.

In turn, Dov Baer of Mezirech, the foremost disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, congregated a missionary force to propagate the BeSHt’s uplifting teachings. As a result, many Hasidic leaders arose who ultimately led Hassidic regional movements: Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Shneur Zalman of Liady, the "Seer" of Lublin, etc.

One of his foremost followers was Shneur Zalman of Liady who founded the Lubavitcher Dynasty. Called the Alter Rebbe (Old Rebbe), he accented the intellectual domain to appreciate Jewish mystical approach. His seminal intellectual output significantly contributed to Jewish scholarship. Among other things, he wrote a consequencial compendium on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law published in 1565 by R. Yosef Caro), the gold standard of Jewish legal interpretation. Next, he wrote the Tanya , a foundational work which explained Hasidism for the everyday person. He established a new vocabulary to enable practically everyone to understand the esoteric ideas of Hasidism. Moreover, he wrote numerous Responsa and essays (including Torah Or and Likutei Torah on Chassidic concepts related to the Torah portion of the week) on various Jewish topics.

Using these documents, he materially influenced the movement of Hassidism in Southern Russia and the Ukraine during 1780-1820. Specifically, he legitimatized the Hasidic movement among the public. And he generated activities to the public good, including enhancing economic activities for his Jewish brethren.

The Shofar

One of his essays, “The High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah that falls on the Sabbath,” explains his understanding of the mystical qualities of the Shofar.

He begins with the paradox that Jewish law forbids the sounding of the Shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on the Sabbath. Yet using the etrog and lulav to celebrate Sukot on the Sabbath is not forbidden.

Explaining the mystical nature of the holidays, he develops the anthropomorphic concept that God experiences “delight” upon the hearing of the Shofar. A similar but not identical delight also occurs on the Sabbath. Therefore, we do not need the sound of the Shofar on the Sabbath when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Sabbath. (Yom Kippur can never fall on the Sabbath.)

The “delight” idea xx that Jews have the ability to interact with God; to arouse and strength Gods attribute of Kingship .

He states:

A shofar is made of the horn of a docile animal, symbolizing a willingness to go along with G-d’s will over our own. In addition, a shofar¬-blast is a piercing cry that reaches to the very depths of a person’s heart and soul; this represents, and in fact helps to stimulate, our heartfelt repentance – a repentance that is also rooted in the very deepest depths of the soul. Only this deep level of commitment to G-d, embodied in the mitzvah of shofar, is capable of evoking a correspondingly deep response from G-d, a response on the level referred to above as “delight.”
(Der Alter Rebbe, Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah Shechal Lih’yose BaShabbes, (An adaptation of Maamar found in Likutei Torah. %20Hashanah% 20pamphlet%20web.htm. Accessed July 5, 2009.)

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (z’l) made another analogy that the High holy Days are based on coronation, repentance and Shofar.

Coronation refers to the Kingship that humankind establishes with God, both reaching up and its reaching down to embrace humankind. Repentence (tshuvah) is a major part of the High Holy Days. Indeed, during these ten days, Jews are obligated to atone for their sins and to purifiy their souls. There is also an obligation (mitzvah) for sounding the Shofar.

The mitzvah of the day is the sounding of the shofar."( Rosh HaShanah 27a.)] That is to say, not only does Rosh HaShanah contain characteristics that are exclusive to the theme and conception of Rosh HaShanah alone, and not only does Rosh HaShanah include shared features common to all the Ten Days of Repentance, but it also possesses its own "mitzvah of the day" - sounding the shofar. ACCESSED jULY 5, 2009.

Basically, he equates the sound of the Shofar with God’s voice, on a mystical level! Such a voice is awesome is bespeaks the solemnity and grandiosity of the High Holidays in the lives of the Jewish People.

He then resolves the lulav and etrog paradox on the Sabbath by indicating that Sukkot does not require the Godliness of “delight,” which is only reserved for the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the announcement of the Messiah!

Moreover, the voice of God is mentioned in the Bible as God’s voice and as God’s voice cessation

[In Sedra Yitro, Gen. 18:1-18], The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice. יט. וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱ־לֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל: grew increasingly stronger:

Rabbi Larry Freedman

For more information about Shofar and other Holy Temple instruments.

We have three websites

1) Shofar Sounders WebPage

2) Joint Effort with Michael Chusid,an expert Shofar sounder and commentator

3) Shofar WebPage
If you have any questions or comments, do not hesitate to ask.
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Art Finkle and Michael Chusid

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