Is the Shofar Really the Voice of God?

What is the Freudian complex behind the origins of this mysterious instrument? What is the shofar's connection to the High Holy Days? And does it have anything to do with music?

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

There is nothing like the cry of the shofar. The startling burst of sound will instantly grab the attention of any who hear it, and few will remain indifferent.

The shofar is the main musical instrument used during the Jewish High Holy Days, while also appearing in a number of key moments in the history of the Jewish people as well as in the lives of ordinary Jews – to this day it is customary to blow the shofar during funerals of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, among Yemenite Jews, for example.

The shofar first appears in scripture in the story of Jethro (Yitro), in the fifth Torah portion (“parasha”) of the book of Exodus, which tells of the Revelation on Mount Sinai, where the sound of the shofar was heard:

Chapter 19, Verse 16: “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.Verse 17: “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.”

Verse 18: “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.”

Verse 19: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice…”

And again, after the giving of the Ten Commandments –

Chapter 20, Verse 18: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off…”

But what is the connection of the shofar to the High Holy Days? What is the connection between the shofar and Jewish “music” and is the shofar even to be considered a musical instrument?

Williamsburg Art Co., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The psychoanalyst and anthropologist Theodor Reik wrote an entire book titled “The Shofar,” in 1919, and in it claimed that the sound of the shofar was no less than the voice of God.

Is it possible that the only thing which makes the shofar special is that which is missing from it? Meaning: Is the shofar’s advantage and uniqueness as a vocal religious utensil derived from the fact that it is not a musical instrument at all, but rather nothing more than a primitive noise-making tool? Is its significance merely the result of the traditional religious tendency to glorify all that is ancient?

Theodor Reik, a Vienna-born Jewish student of Freud, was certain this was not the case, and he set out to explain, in a bold and original study, the secret holy magic of one the most central symbols in Judaism.

Reik felt, quite logically, that the traditional Jewish explanations of the significance of blowing the shofar during the festivals of the Hebrew month of Tishrei were unsatisfactory. Tradition, beginning with the Talmud, links the blowing of the shofar to the Binding of Isaac since the shofar is made of a ram’s horn and it was a ram that took the place of the beloved son on the altar at the last minute, thus certifying Abraham’s passing of the cruel test he was given, as well as certifying the special covenant between him and God. But is the memory of the covenant the only thing that passes through the hearts and minds of those who hear the sound of the shofar? Does it not have an awe-inspiring effect? Does the sound not call one back to a primeval point of deep religious emotion? It should not be forgotten that in biblical times the sound of the shofar was used to signal danger, to declare war, to accompany the anointment of a king and to celebrate redemption – so could it really only be an aid used to jog one’s personal and national memory?

Reik says no. To trace the sources of the shofar he turns to the book of Exodus, chapter 19, where he interprets certain verses differently. Verse 19, for example, reads: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.”

Did God and Moses have a conversation, accompanied by the shofar in the background? Reik claims that is exactly what happened. He also shows that the biblical father of music, Yuval (Genesis 4, 21), is connected to the subject (his name can also mean “ram” in Hebrew), and points out that music itself was always used for religious or liturgical purposes in ancient times with its origins in attempts to imitate totemic animals. Thus, the shofar is actually the voice of God. What then does this say about the significance of the ancient ritual?

Reik delves into detailed psychoanalytical explanations that incorporate Freud’s theory of “Totem and Taboo,” which had been published in a book of the same name (1917), released only seven years before Reik’s study. Freud saw Totemism as a primitive form of religion (experienced by humanity in its early stages), in which a certain animal is chosen by a community to be its “Totem,” the embodiment of the community’s essence and power. The animal acts as a substitute for an ancestor who has become semi-deified over the years, an “alpha-male” who forcefully claimed ownership over the women of the community (including the mothers, whom the sons, according to Freud, lusted after). This “alpha-male” was then murdered by the other males, whom, once  overcome with guilt over the slaying of their father-figure, chose an animal as their new object of submission and obedience. In the later stages of religious development, Freud believed the animal was replaced by a human-like figure, who eventually ascended to the heavens to become the Father-God. For Freud religion was nothing more than an illusion triggered by niggling feelings of oedipal guilt.

The totemic animal of the ancient Hebrews, which Reik believes was either a ram or a bull (since the sound of the shofar resembles the mooing of a bull or cow), and the emergence of the shofar-blowing custom during the period of Jewish ritual sacrifice, indicates a subconscious need to remember the murder of the primordial ancestor and to ask for forgiveness.

Jewish Museum, N.Y., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

But even without all of the Freudian baggage which can at times appear unbearable, Reik’s study raises some fascinating points: Is the voice of God in the Hebrew Bible really the shofar? If this is the case, it sheds new light on well-known biblical events. It must be remembered that in the ancient period, the religious object embodied the full essence of its subject, and not just its representation. Meaning, the sound of the shofar did not just symbolize the voice of God – it was the voice of God. Only in later stages of religious development did a gap open up between artifacts and their meanings, with objects becoming symbols. As a result, it is clear to us that the very voice of God is what knocked down the walls of Jericho, and not the symbolism of the blowing of the shofar, as we might be led to believe by an anachronistic reading of the text.

Just as the object was charged with symbolic significance, so was the ritual charged with mythological significance. In other words, it was given a storied and historical interpretation such that today, when we hear the sound of the shofar, we know only that we are supposed to remember the story of the Binding of Isaac and the covenant with God bequeathed to us by our ancestor Abraham. Any other feelings brought forth by the cry of the shofar come from a different, hidden, place, withholding a truth our conscious minds may not have access to.

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

In her book “The Music Libel Against the Jews,” Ruth Hacohen discusses the Christian view which interpreted the sounds of the synagogue as noise. The sounds of prayers unaccompanied by musical instruments and lacking a conventional western melody were perceived as disharmonious cacophony from a musical point of view. Even the “instrument” known as the shofar which was used during prayers would emit unrecognizable foreign sounds that were heard as noise. As a result, Christian anti-Semites attributed nefarious magical powers to the Jews which they believed were used to cause harm to others.

The shofar heard in the synagogues during the High Holy Days brings about a union of the inner and outer voices of those who listen to it. To those who gather in prayer, the sound of the shofar is music to their ears, while to foreigners it is nothing but noise. To this day, in Jewish culture, the shofar remains unrivalled, sitting high above all other musical instruments.

A soldier wearing a talit and blowing a shofar. Photo by Uzi Keren, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel



How does one become a Baal Tokea – a master of shofar blowing? What should Rosh Hashana tekias sound like? Gila Flam interviews Calman Feinberg, a Baal Tokea for over 39 years who says he is the only person who can do it right!


Click here to listen to our collection of shofar recordings!

To Have and to Hold: The Wedding Between Children and the Torah

At the start of their studies, children in Morocco went through a symbolic wedding ceremony to bond them forever with the Torah

חתני כאתב. התמונה לקוחה מתוך ספרו של ד"ר מאיר נזרי, קהילות תאפילאלת סג'למאסא, כרך א, מעגל האדם, אוניברסיטת בר אילן תשע"ג

Throughout the generations, Jewish communities in the Diaspora have recognized the same historical truth that is quickly learned by all young parents: the first day of school is both exciting and a bit stressful.

Jewish communities across the world have developed their own ways of facilitating the start of Torah learning for young children when they begin their studies in Heder (Jewish school). At the southern tip of the Sahara Desert, in a region of Morocco called Tafilalt, one of the most interesting and special traditions of welcoming children to their studies in Heder was preserved until the 20th century.

A photo of a bride from the wedding ceremony. The photo is not dated. Image from the Heritage of Moroccan Jewry.

The second main event in a child’s life of every Jewish boy, after of course, his birth and Brit Milah (ritual circumcision), was an event called “Liktahb,” a term that means “entry to Heder,” in English. This central event in the child’s life is marked with a grand ceremony modeled after the mock wedding described in the Talmud that symbolically ties the youth to the Torah.

Every traditional Jewish wedding requires the participation of a bride and a groom- this was also the case in the ceremony held by the Jewish community in Tafilalt. The groom, just five years old, beginning his studies in Heder, was matched with a bride around the same age and they were joined together in a symbolic wedding ceremony.

The bride and the groom. The girl, Rachel the daughter of Hannah from Fes and the groom, Meir Turgeman from Erfoud. This picture was taken from Dr. Meir Nazri’s book, “The Communities of Tafilalt and Sijilmasa,” Volume I, The Human Cycle, Bar-Ilan University.

This unique ceremony had interesting variations within the Sephardic community. There were those who held a parade for the children down to the local river where each of the bridegrooms would throw an apple into the waters and there were those who would invite the bride’s family for dinner the night before the ceremony to eat a special, traditional dish. Some even held a special ceremony in their local synagogues that is typically reserved for a groom on the Shabbat before his wedding.

Like the tradition held in many communities where the child entering Heder licks honey off of the letters of the Aleph Bet, the wedding ceremony is also a symbolic ritual to connect the child with the Torah. The ceremony with honey symbolizes the sweetness of the Torah and the wedding ceremony symbolizes the marriage and commitment of the child to the Torah and his studies.

How did Christians View the Destruction of Jerusalem?

This 500-year old map that depicts the destruction of the Temple as witnessed by Christians is a rare find.

מפת שדל לתיאור חורבן בית המקדש - 1493

In commemoration of the Ninth of Av, the day of mourning and fasting marking the destruction of Temple, the National Library of Israel presents this ancient map printed in Hartmann Schedel’s large world chronical. The chronical, an early modern book, published in 1493 in the German city of Nuremberg was an ambitious undertaking. It contained an overview of world history from the creation of the world until that time. The book boasts a mass of illustrations drawn by the leading artists of the time and was only made possible due to the invention of the printing press.

The map illustrated the destruction of Jerusalem and depicts the Temple going up in flames. However, this is not an illustration of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period and a description of the Jews who lived there. It is rather the printing of an engraving depicting Jerusalem’s Christian sites alongside the Temple, typical to the 14th-15th centuries.

The Schedel map depicting the destruction of the Temple – 1493. Click to enlarge.

It is fascinating though, that the text accompanying the map describes the history of the destructions of Jerusalem – first, the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, the Temple vessels being looted, the execution of Shimon bar Giora in Rome, and finally, Jerusalem being turned into Aelia Capitolina, the Roman colony built upon the ruins of the holy city. The author of the text relates that the city was later held for short periods of time by other Western and Crusader kings (Charlemagne of France, Conrad III of Germany and Louis XI, also of France) – but they did not manage to hold it for long against armies of Islam. According to the author, in 1943 the city was under the control of Mohammed’s battalions, which Schedel refers to as “a nation of sin.”

The former curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library, Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin explained that despite Christianity seeing the destruction of the Temple as conclusive proof of Christianity’s victory over Judaism, not only is the text void of any gloating about the destruction of the Temple but on the contrary. “It appears that the destruction of the Temple – which is referred to in the illustration as “Solomon’s Temple” and the destruction of the City of David is the reason for the writer’s sorrow. This is testimony to the fact that the day of the Ninth of Av is also seen by Christians as a day of mourning and sorrow for the destruction of the holy city,” Dr. Levy-Rubin explains.


The Rabbi Who Performed Scientific Research From a Hungarian Prison

In 1920 Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, the chief rabbi of the Hungarian city of Szeged was arrested by Hungarian authorities who interrogated and imprisoned him for a year.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning, 1944

In 1920, Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, one of the most important contributors to the lexicons of Wilhelm Gesenius for the Bible and of Carl Brockelmann for the Aramaic Language, was accused of making political statements against the authorities and against the new governor of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy.

During his 13 month imprisonment, Rabbi Lőw continued working on his famous work, Die Flora der Juden (“The Plants of the Jews”), which deals with the various vegetation mentioned in Jewish sources with a focus on Rabbinic literature. Written in German, the four-volume series was published between 1924-1934 and is available at the National Library of Israel. The series went through a second printing after the death of the author.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw - Statement of defense
Available at the National Library of Israel: The statement of defense from the trial of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Rabbi Lőw, who was charged with defamation of the Hungarian governor, was imprisoned and released a year later as a result of an international intervention.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was born in 1854 in the Hungarian city of Szeged. As an orientalist, he was interested in the names of plants in Semitic languages since his youth.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Rabbi Immánuel Lőw in his youth

In addition to his studies at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums), he studied Semitic linguistics at the University of Leipzig, Germany. It was there in 1879 that he submitted his doctoral thesis on plant names in Aramaic (Aramäische Pflanzennamen). His scientific publications and notes on the animal and mineral issues in Biblical and Talmudic sources attest to his intention to publish two additional books, thus creating a series: “The Fauna, the Flora and the Minerals in the Jewish sources.”

Aaron Aaronsohn to Rabbi immanuel Löw
Aaron Aaronsohn’s 1908 letter to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Aharonson, the discoverer of emmer (“the mother of wheat”) describes his journey to Constantinople to report on his research. He requests information from Lőw about specific plants from these areas, from the NLI collections.
Lewis Ginsberg to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
A letter from Ginsberg Lewis of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, from the NLI collections

After his death on July 19th, 1944, the estate of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was preserved in the Jewish community of Szeged. On the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, the community decided to donate the collection to the new State of Israel. The Hungarian government had other ideas and forbade the transfer of the collections to anywhere outside the borders of  Hungary. After a long negotiation, the State of Israel successfully purchased the collection instead of simply receiving it for preservation.

Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Rabbi Leopold (Lipót) Lőw

The collection was permanently deposited in the National Library archive in 1958. It includes correspondence, manuscripts, various documents, lists, speeches and essays by Immanuel Lőw and several pieces of correspondence and speeches given by Immánuel’s father, Leopold (Lipót) Lőw.

Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Letters from Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lőw in Hebrew and German, from the NLI collections.
Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Three letters by Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lőw, father of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Frankfurt 1865-1867, from the NLI collections

Rabbi Leopold Lőw was born in Czerna Hora, Moravia, a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was imprisoned following the plots of his enemies who denounced him at the end of the revolution in 1848 but was pardoned by the Austrian general Julius Jakob von Haynau. Leopold Lőw was the rabbi of Szeged from 1850 until his son Immánuel took over the position in 1878. He also corresponded with many important personalities of his time.

Isaiah Luzzatto to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from Isaiah Luzzatto (son of Samuel David Luzzatto – Shedal) in French to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw – Padova, 1880, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw’s father, Rabbi Leopold Lőw was the first rabbi who gave speeches to his congregation in Hungarian and the first who introduced the Hungarian Language into the Jewish prayer. He was an important rabbi whose rulings influenced the policies of the Austrian and Hungarian governments. His son Immánuel inherited his affinity for public speaking. This talent accompanied Rabbi Immánuel Lőw during his tenure as head of the Jewish community of Szeged, from 1878 until his death.

Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from the Hebrew Language Committee to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw on his election as an active member of the committee. Signed on the letter: Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin, from the NLI collections.

Immánuel Lőw was a representative of the Neolog communities in the Supreme Council of the Hungarian Parliament of 1927. He was a Zionist and served as head of the umbrella organization of the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod. He corresponded mainly in German, Hungarian and English with distinguished academic institutions, publishers, personalities and scholars of his time, among them Aharon Aharonson, Theodor Nöldeke, Nathan Shalem, Ephraim Hareuveni and others.

Theodor Nöldeke to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Correspondence between Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and famous German Semitic languages researcher Theodor Nöldeke, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw wrote more than 10 books on politics and religious topics. According to some sources, when the transports of Hungarian Jews to extermination camps began, he was allowed to leave Hungary as part of the Kasztner deal. He was removed from the deportation train, but he was gravely ill and he later died in the Jewish hospital in Budapester on July 19th, 1944.

Joint passport of Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Bella Breuning
The joint passport of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and his wife, Brenning Bella. Apparently, this passport was supposed to serve them when boarding the train to Switzerland as part of the Kasztner-deal in 1944, from the NLI collections

(For the records of Immánuel Lőw Archive click here).