Rav Kook Torah

Rosh Hashanah: The Call of the Great Shofar


Rav Kook delivered the following sermon in Jerusalem’s Old City on Rosh Hashanah 1933. It was a time of mixed tidings. On the one hand, ominous news of Hitler’s reign in Germany became more troubling with each passing day. On the other hand, the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael was flourishing. Immigration from central Europe was on the rise, bringing educated immigrants with needed skills and financial means. It seemed that the footsteps of redemption could be heard.

We say in our daily prayers, “Sound the great shofar for our freedom, and raise the banner to bring our exiles together.”

What is the significance of this “great shofar”?

Three Shofars

There are three types of shofars that may be blown on Rosh Hashanah. The optimal shofar is the horn of a ram. If a ram’s horn is not available, then the horn of any kosher animal other than a cow may be used. And if a kosher shofar is not available, then one may blow on the horn of any animal, even one which is not kosher. When using a horn from a non-kosher animal, however, no blessing is recited.

These three shofars of Rosh Hashanah correspond to three “Shofars of Redemption,” three Divine calls summoning the Jewish people to be redeemed and to redeem their land.

The preferred Shofar of Redemption is the Divine call that awakens and inspires the people with holy motivations, through faith in God and the unique mission of the people of Israel. This elevated awakening corresponds to the ram’s horn, a horn that recalls Abraham’s supreme love of God and dedication in Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. It was the call of this shofar, with its holy vision of heavenly Jerusalem united with earthly Jerusalem, that inspired Nachmanides, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, the students of the Vilna Gaon, and the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov to ascend to Eretz Yisrael. It is for this ‘great shofar,’ an awakening of spiritual greatness and idealism, that we fervently pray.

There exists a second Shofar of Redemption, a less optimal form of awakening. This shofar calls out to the Jewish people to return to their homeland, to the land where our ancestors, our prophets and our kings, once lived. It beckons us to live as a free people, to raise our families in a Jewish country and a Jewish culture. This is a kosher shofar, albeit not a great shofar like the first type of awakening. We may still recite a brachah over this shofar.

There is, however, a third type of shofar. (At this point in the sermon, Rav Kook burst out in tears.) The least desirable shofar comes from the horn of an unclean animal. This shofar corresponds to the wake-up call that comes from the persecutions of anti-Semitic nations, warning the Jews to escape while they still can and flee to their own land. Enemies force the Jewish people to be redeemed, blasting the trumpets of war, bombarding them with deafening threats of harassment and torment, giving them no respite. The shofar of unclean beasts is thus transformed into a Shofar of Redemption.

Whoever failed to hear the calls of the first two shofars will be forced to listen to the call of this last shofar. Over this shofar, however, no blessing is recited. “One does not recite a blessing over a cup of affliction” (Berachot 51b).

The Great Shofar

We pray that we will be redeemed by the “great shofar.” We do not wish to be awakened by the calamitous call of the shofar of persecution, nor by the mediocre shofar of ordinary national aspirations. We yearn for the shofar that befits a holy nation, the shofar of spiritual greatness and true freedom. We await the shofar blasts of complete redemption, the sacred call that inspires the Jewish people with the holy ideals of Jerusalem and Mount Moriah:

“On that day a great shofar will be blown, and the lost from the land of Assyria and the dispersed from the land of Egypt will come and bow down to God on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 27:13)

(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah, pp. 67-70)