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?

Dr. Gila Flam
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!


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