JUDAISM AND THE FEAST OF TRUMPETS
From the book "Festivals of the Jewish Year" by Theodor H.
Gaster, written in 1952/53.
(Remember you are reading "Judaism religion" - some things
correct, some things wrong - Keith Hunt)
The Day of Remembrance
The Ten Days of Penitence
Blow the horn at the new moon,
At the appointed season, for our feast-day . . . PSALM 81:3
Among primitive peoples, there is usually no such thing as a
fixed and definite year. They reckon time in variable and
irregular cycles, from any one natural event to its recurrence.
Moreover, some of them do not even go as far as that, but
recognize only brief spans - times of heat or cold, rain or
drought, sowing or reaping - which they do not add together into
a continuous stretch. As civilization proceeds, however, the need
is felt for some more regular and uniform system, and at this
point people begin to reckon time from easily observable
astronomical events - from the solstice or equinox, from the new
moon nearest to sowing or reaping, from the early rising of Orion
or the Pleiades, and so forth.
The ancient Hebrews had two principal systems.
They reckoned the year from the new moon nearest to the
beginning of the barley harvest in spring, or to the ingather-ing
of fruits, in autumn. The former - the new year of Nisan - did
not survive as a formal religious occasion, but was used only for
legal and calendarical purposes. The latter, however - that of
Tishri--adopted as the beginning of the festal year and now
ranks, beside Yom Kippur, as one of the two great solemn
days of the Jewish faith.
In the Bible, the first of Tishri is called simply "the
Day of Memorial." but what this term meant is not known for
certain. A prevalent opinion among scholars is that it refers to
a public commemoration of the dead; for, as we have seen, it is
standard belief of primitive peoples that the dead return to
rejoin their descendants at the beginning of the year, or are
especially called to mind on that occasion. Moreover, the Hebrew
word rendered "memorial" is actually employed in other Semitic
languages to denote such a commemoration. Be this as it may, in
its modern development New Year is the Day of Remembrance. On New
Year's day, mnan remembers the beginning of the world; God
remembers the deeds of His creatures; Israel remembers its
special function as His witess, and recalls its successes and
failures of its mission.
But such remembrance is not merely an excursion into the
past. The central theme of New Year's Day is the power of Memory
itself. Memory defies oblivion, breaks the coils of the present,
establishes the continuity of the generations, and rescues human
life and effort from futility. It affords the only true
resurrection of the dead. The act of remembering is thus in
itself redemptive. If, on the one hand, it involves a chastening
assessment, it involves, on the other, a comforting reassurance.
New Year's Day is at once a day of judgment and a new be__
ginning. If it looks backward it does so only on the way forward;
and its symbol is the trumpet of an eternal reveille.
Judaism brings out the message of the day with vivid and
remarkable effectiveness, by ingeniously developing and
reinterpreting all the customs and myths traditionally associated
with it from primitive times. Primitive peoples have no
conception of the continuity of time. They regard it as a series
of leases annually or periodically renewed. On the basis of this
conception, Judaism regards New Year's Day not merely as an
anniversary of creation but also - and more importantly - as a
renewal of it. The world is reborn from year to year - even, in
an extended sense, from day to day and from minute to minute -
and the primary message of the festival is that the process of
creation is continuous, that the breath of God moves constantly
upon the face of the waters, and that the light is continually
being brought out of darkness. Nevertheless, if there is a new
creation every moment, it is not a creation out of nothing; no
moment is self-contained, but each emerges from its predecessor.
The deeds of the present are thus the raw material of the future
and this means in turn virtue and merit are not merely the
ornaments of those who evince them, but are also the seeds of
their children's prosperity. In the traditional Jewish
phraseology, the original virtue of the patriarchs is eternally
redemptive and insures the welfare of their descendants, even
outweighing the latter's defects.
Primitive peoples believe also that New Year is a time when
the order of the world is re-establish and when the fates of men
are determined for the ensuing twelve months. In ancient Babylon,
for example, it was commonly supposed that at this season the
gods met in conclave in the principal shrine of the city and not
only fixed the movements of the heavenly bodies and established
the alternation of the seasons for the ensuing twelve months, but
also reviewed the deeds of individual human beings and settled
the destiny of each.
Judaism inherited or took over the idea, but it gave it a
new and significant twist. The Jewish people had lived through
too much adversity to credit the belief in summary, unrelenting
condemnation or peremptory doom; there was always, it maintained,
the Last Chance, the merciful loophole. The review which took
place at New Year, it said, was not finally concluded until Yom
Kippur, and, in the meanwhile, "prayer, penitence and charity
might avert the evil decree." New Year thus became a day of warn-
ing rather than of judgment. If, in the end, there was con-
demnation, it was a condemnation pronounced reluctantly, rather
than in vengeance; man had forced the unwilling hands of God.
What was now represented as inevitable was not divine
retribution, but divine mercy. As a medieval New Year hymn
O constant God, when Thou dost us arraign,
If Thou shouldst plumb the depths,
if Thou shouldst drain The cup,
would there be any to remain?
Didst Thou not deign, O Lord,
for Thine own sake
Thy fury and Thy wrath from us to take,
No deed of ours could intercession make.
But this mercy of God was not wholly an act of grace; it was
also a fulfillment of His obligation to Israel under the terms of
the Covenant. For the moment God started to remember and count up
the deeds of His people, He had perforce to recall also the many
occasions on which it had indeed proved faithful to that bond and
on which it had qualified for the promised providence and
protection by "passing through fire and water for the
sanctification of His Name."
The "remembrance" which takes place on New Year's Day thus
becomes inseparable from the memory of the Covenant, and it is an
act performed by each of the partners to it: God remembers His
debt to Israel in respect of its trust and devotion, and Israel
remembers that only by reason of such devotion is it entitled to
claim the divine favor.
The point is brought out in traditional lore by associating
with New Year's Day two pertinent stories from the Bible, in the
one of which man performs and God promises, and in the other of
which man promises and God performs.
The former is the story of how Abraham prepared to sacrifice
Isaac in obedience to the command of God, and how his piety was
rewarded not only by the eventual sparing of his son but also by
the assurance that his seed would be multiplied "as the stars of
heaven and as the sand which is upon the shore of the sea" and
that "in it all the nations of the earth shall be blessed." This
incident, which, as it were, allegorized the perpetual role of
Israel, was said, by a pious fiction, to have taken place at New
Year, and the story was selected as the Lesson from the Law on
the second day of the festival.
(Second day of the festival? Judaism had often made two days of
some of the Festivals of the Lord. This was to accomidate the
Jews in the "dispora" and had no Scriptural authority - Keith
The other tale which was fancifully associated with the
occasion was that of the birth of the prophet Samuel, a tale in
which the promise of service made by Hannah at once impelled the
reciprocal grace of God: "And Hannah was in bitterness of soul,
and she prayed to the Lord, and wept sore . . . and she said: 'If
Thou wilt remember and not forget Thine handmaid, and if Thou
wilt give unto Thine handmaid a son, then I in turn will give him
to the Lord all the days of his life' . . . And Eli answered and
said: 'Go in peace, and the God of Israel will grant thy petition
which thou hast made to Him.'" The birth of the prophet is
likewise said to have taken place at New Year, and the tale is
recited as the Lesson from the Prophets on the first day of the
(Again Jewish traditions - having no bearing on the Scriptures -
To primitive peoples, New Year, or the beginning of a new
month or season, is a crucial and critical time, when demons are
thought to be especially rampant, eager to inflict mischief and
harm. To scare them away it is customary in most parts of the
world to beat drums, sound gongs, blow trumpets, crack whips and
generally create pandemonium. In Japan, for example, the advent
of New Year is heralded by troupes of dancers who go from house
to house and, on being admitted, proceed to make a furious noise
by rattling bamboo sticks. This is regarded as an effective
method of clearing out malicious spirits. Similarly, in some
parts of Scotland, parties of boys parade through the villages,
on New Year's Eve, encircling every house three times and setting
up a deafening din for the purpose of expelling demons and
witches, while in the neighborhood of Zurich, Switzerland, and in
the Falkenau district of Germany, it is (or was) the common
practice for boys and girls to pace the streets on New Year's
morn beating drums and kettles and blowing whistles. In Cornwall,
England, March the first, the beginning of the old Celtic year -
was likewise "cracked in" with whips, while the general practice
of noise-making indeed survives (though the reason has long since
been forgotten) in our own New Year's Eve celebrations.
(How paganism has entered society and also the Christian church
as well as Judaism - Keith Hunt)
Here again, Judaism took over the traditional usage
and invested it with a new and more spiritual signifi-
cance. The blowing of the ram' horn (Hebrew, shofar)--which had,
in fact, taken place at every new moon was taken to recall those
moments in Israel's history when it had heard, in more than a
physical sense, the notes of the clarion. It recalled the
trumpets and thunder at Sinai, sounds which, as the Scripture
says (Exod. 19 i9), "grew ever louder and louder" and which, far
from being a means of repelling hostile forces of nature,
revealed their cooperative presence at the Giving of the Law and
the Conclusion of the Covenant. Moreover since, in Jewish
teaching, memory always looks forward as well as backward, the
blasts of the shofar came, by a fine "twist" of the primitive
conception, to prefigure the great day when, as the prophet had
foretold, God himself would drive out the powers of darkness,
"blow the ram's horn, and come with the whirlwinds" (Zech. 9: 14)
Nor this alone, it was interpreted also as a symbol of the Last
Trump and as the rallying call of Israel in its eternal battle
for the Kingdom of God.
Lastly, primitive people believed that at New Year, when
their supreme gods defeated the forces of chaos and thereby
reasserted their dominion, they were formally reinstated as
sovereigns of the world and exacted renewed allegiance. In
Babylon, for instance, an essential feature of the New Year
celebrations was the recital (possibly also the enactment) of the
story which related how, at the beginning of the present
dispensation, the national god Marduk had engaged and defeated
the monstrous Tiamat, a divine marplot, together with all her
confederates. In reward for his triumph, the high god Anu had
consigned to him the "tablets of destiny" and other insignia and
had ordained that he be ensconced in a palace especially built in
his honor. The palace in question was identified with Esagila,
the great temple of Marduk in Babylon; and annually, at the New
Year festival, the image of the god was paraded through the city
and finally installed in that sacred edifice.
Similarly, among the Canaanites, Baal, god of rainfall and
fertility, was said to have acquired "kingship eternal" by
vanquishing the rebellious Lord of the Sea (alias Leviathan), who
claimed dominion over the earth; and as a reward for his prowess,
he, too, was enthroned in a palace especially built for him on
the sacred "Mountain of the North." The tale of his victory,
subsequently developed into an elaborate poem recently discovered
at Ras Shamra, on the north coast of Syria, was very probably
recited at the autumnal festival which inaugurated the season of
and marked the beginning of the agricultural year.
In the same way, too, it would appear, the God of the
Hebrews was thought to have done battle against demon and dragon
and thereby to have insured the world order and His own
supremacy. For there are several passages in the Bible which
allude - albeit cryptically - to a primeval combat between
Jehovah and Leviathan (or the Dragon of the Sea) and it is
significant that both of His temples in Jerusalem were in fact
dedicated at the autumnal festival of Ingathering, 2 and that
the prophet Zechariah refers expressly to pilgrimages made on
that occasion for the purpose of paying homage to "the King, the
Lord of Hosts." 3 Indeed, some scholars have suggested that
psalms which begin "Jehovah is become king" (or "The
1 e.g. Isa. 27:1; 51:910; Hab. 3:8; Ps 74:13-14; 93; Job 9:13;
2 1 Kings 8:2; Neh. 8:13-18.
3 Zech. 14:16.
Lord reigneth") 4 were originally designed for recitation at the
New Year festival.
Judaism translated this ancient myth into the present tense:
God was continually doing battle against the forces of chaos,
continually fighting His way to Kingdom, continually asserting
His dominion, and continually enthroning Himself as sovereign of
creation. At New Year, when the world was annually reborn, that
sovereignty was evinced anew, but it was the consequence of a
continual, not of a particular triumph; and the palace in which
He was enthroned was not an earthly dwelling, but rather nature
itself, and the hearts and minds of men. Thus, although the more
grotesque features of the myth were discarded, its essential
message was conserved, and remained attached to New Year's Day as
one of its cardinal features. The Sovereignty of God is a
dominant theme of the occasion, reiterated constantly in the
services of the synagogue. Indeed, the sounding of the ram's horn
has been brought into direct connection with it, for one of the
meanings which is today assigned to that practice is that it
symbolized the fanfaron before a king.
All of the varying aspects of the day, as they are conceived
in Jewish thought, are epitomized in the great formula which is
inserted, on New Year, into the recital of the Eighteen
Benedictions - one of the staple elements of all Jewish cervices,
viz.: "Remember us for life, O King who delights in life;
inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Thy sake, God of life." Here
is the remembrance; here is the kingship; here is the judgment.
But here is also the resonant, dominant note that New Year is a
new beginning, and that on this day all these things coalesce
into a triumphant affirmation of life.
4 e.g., Pss. 93:97
THE BLOWING OF THE TRUMPET
The lesson of New Year is imparted, in Judaism, not by mere
abstract formulation but by concrete symbolism in the service of
the synagogue: The essential feature of that service is the
blowing of the shofar, or trumpet. The instrument is usually
fashioned out of ram's horn, and the name "shofar" itself
properly refers to horned sheep; in point of law, however, the
horn of any clean (kosher) animal may be used, with the exception
of the cow or calf, for that--it is held--might serve to recall
the disgraceful incident of the Golden Calf. The shofar may not
be painted, but it may be embellished with carved designs. It is
usually curved, symbolizing (as one of the sages observed) the
natural posture of the humble and trite.
The blowing of the shofar demands considerable skill, and
for this reason the services of a trained expert (known as the
ba'al teki'ah, or "trumpeter") are usually enlisted. Nor are the
notes sounded at random or in an arbitrary manner; they are duly
prescribed by tradition, and there may be no deviation from the
established order. There are three basic sounds. First called
teki'ah or "blast," is a short bass note ending abruptly. The
second called teru'ah, or "trump," is a long, resonant blast. The
third, called 'shebarim,' or "quavers," is a series of trills.
The shofar is blown during the morning service of the day,
except on the Sabbath, when it is omitted. It is first sounded
after the reading of the Lesson from the Prophets, the
congregation remaining seated. The ceremony is introduced by the
chanting of the Forty -seventh Psalm, selected on account of
the verse "God is gone up with a fanfare, the Lord to the sound
of the ram's horn." This is followed by a short prayer and by
The first praises God for ordaining the blowing of the
trumpet; the second, for "keeping us alive and sustaining us and
enabling us to reach this season." It is customary for the ba'al
teki'ah to cover his head with the praying-shawl (tallith) while
performing his office. When the blasts have been sounded, the
congregation chants the verse (Ps. 89:15): "Happy the people who
know the trumpet sound; these walk, O Lord, in the light of Thy
The blowing of the shofar is repeated four times more during
the service. These blasts occur during the cantor's repetition of
the statutory "Standing Prayer" so that on these occasions the
congregation rises. The first time it is sounded to celebrate
God's kingship; the second time, "for remembrance"; and the third
time to bring to mind all those events both past and future which
are linked, by the authority of Scripture, with the blowing of
the ram's horn. On each occasion, ten Biblical verses are
recited dealing respectively with each of these themes. 5
The excerpts are known as "Kingship-verses" (Malkioth),
"Memorial-verses" (Zichronoth) and "Shofarverses" (Shofaroth),
and form the keynote of the entire service.
Finally, the blowing is repeated once more toward the end of
But it is not only in the notes of the shofar that the
message of the day is conveyed. Interspersed in the order of
service are a number of hymns and devotional compositions
designed to reinforce it. One of these, which has acquired
especial fame, is the poem entitled, from its initial Hebrew
words, "U-netanneh Tokeph"
5 Typical "Kingship-verses" are: Nam. 23:21; Deut. 33:5; Ps.
93:1; Isa. 44:6; Zed E. 14:9. "Memorial-verses" include: Gen.
8:1; Exod. 2:24; Ps. 106:45; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16:6o.
"Shofar-verses" are: Exod. 19:16,19; Ps. 47:6; 81:4; 98:6; Isa.
18:3; Zech. 9:14.
(Let us rehearse the grandeur). This poem which is repeated on
Yom Kippur - recites the grandeur and majesty of the great Day of
judgment, when the sovereignty of God is reasserted from year to
year and when He sits upon His heavenly throne to judge both the
hosts on high and the families of mankind upon earth:
A sudden hush, a trumpet blast-
The angels quail and are aghast;
"The Judgment Day is here," they cry,
"The judgment on the hosts on high!"
(For there's no minister of light
Untarnish'd in the judge's sight.)
And all that roam the earth below
Like sheep before their shepherd go,
Filing past him to the fold, C
ounted, number'd, reckon'd, told.
God declares and God decrees
When Fate's abhorred shears to these
Shall come; and with His mighty hand
Sets upon their souls the brand.
Dust are men, to dust return;
With their souls their bread they earn
Fragile vessels, wither'd grass,
Fading flowers, shades that pass,
Drifting clouds, and winds that blow,
Dust-specks, dreams that winged go.
But Thou, eternal King sublime,
Thy days and years outdistance time.
Thron'd above the cherubim,
Who can all Thy glory limn?
Who the mystery proclaim
Hidden in Thy hidden Name?
Yet Thy glories cover us,
For Thy Name is over us.
Legend asserts that this poem was written in the tenth
century, by a certain Amnon of Mayence, who had been ordered by
the archbishop of that city to abjure his faith. Amnon asked for
three days in which to think the matter over. When, however, he
failed to appear at the end of this period the archbishop had him
arrested, and Amnon then begged that his tongue be cut out for
having given a false undertaking. The archbishop replied,
however, that the punishment should more fittingly be visited
upon his feet, which had failed to convey him. Amnon's toes (and
likewise his fingers) were therefore amputated.
The New Year festival had now come around, and Amnon, dying
of his wounds, requested that he be carried into the synagogue.
As the cantor was about to intone the solemn words of the
Sanctification ("Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts"), which
form a cardinal element of the Standing Prayer, Amnon stayed him,
saying, "Pause, that I may sanctify the most holy Name." He then
began to recite the poem U-netanneh Tokeph, and when he came to
the words, "Yet Thy glories cover us, For Thy name is over us,"
he, too, passed into the hands of the heavenly judge.
Scholars have long ago pointed out that this story lacks
historicity and that it is probably based on a medieval Christian
legend associated with a certain St. Emmeram of Regensburg.
Nevertheless, it has retained such a hold upon the imagination of
Jews throughout the ages that it has acquired a kind of reality
which transcends the prosaic limitations of fact.
Another theme which finds constant expression in the New
Year hymns is the immutability of God and the mortality of man.
An excellent specimen of this genre is the poem "Ammiz
Ha-menusse" written in the tenth century by Simeon ben Isaac ben
Abun of Mayence, which contrasts the status of the heavenly King
with that of earthly princes. The following extracts, somewhat
freely translated, will serve to convey its general tone and
King in the world of light--
Austere, exalted He,
Above all powers that be,
All things by His command are made and known.
Uplifted high and proud,
He raiseth up the bow'd ;
'Tis He that setteth kings upon the throne.
Eterne His reign.
King in the world of light--
The cloud-mist is His screen,
He strides the flames between,
And drives his cherub-chariot thro' the sky.
Stars in their courses shine
To light the way divine,
And shimmering sparks proclaim that He is nigh.
Eterne His reign.
Kings in the world of blight--
Grow old and faint and slow,
Down to the Pit must go,
Down to the slime and slough must they descend;
After the world's spent riot,
Into the grave unquiet,
Into the weariness withouten end.
How long their reign?
Kings in the world of blight--
Lo, at the end of all,
Sleep on their eyes shall fall,
And slumber o'er their eyelids shall be sprent.
Folds of obscurity
Their winding-sheet shall be,
And grey oblivion all their cerement.
How long their reign?
A further prominent feature of the devotions is the ceremony
of "falling kor'im," or performing the act of prostration.
Although this was common in the time of the Temple, Jews are
today forbidden to kneel in worship. On New Year and the Day of
Atonement, however, an exception is made; and a high point of the
service is the moment when the entire congregation kneel and fall
upon their faces as the cantor intones the ancient words said in
tradition to have been composed by Joshua himself upon his entry
into the Promised Land:
We bend the knee (kor'im) and prostrate ourselves and make
acknowledgment before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One,
blessed be He, who stretched out the heavens and laid the
foundations of the earth, whose glorious throne is in the heavens
and the home of whose majesty is in the loftiest heights. 6
It is customary, during the morning services of the
festival, for all adult males to wear a long white cloak known
as "kittel." This cloak is also worn on the Day of Atonement and
likewise at the Seder ceremony of the Passover and during the
recitation of the special prayers for dew and for rair. On that
festival and on the Feast of Booths respectively. It is a symbol
of purity, and in this garment the pious Jew is both married and
In the afternoon of the first day of New Year (or of the
second day, if the first happen to fall on the sabbath), (Jewish
traditions again - Keith Hunt) it is the practice of orthodox
Jews to repair to the
6 The "dignified" Spanish and Portuguese Jews, however, in an
effort to preserve the "decorum" of public worship, omit this
nearest body of flowing water and there recite in Hebrew the
closing words of the biblical Book of Micah viz.:
God will again have compassion upon us; He will tread our
iniquities under foot; And Thou wilt cast all their sins into the
depths of the sea.
Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob, mercy to Abraham, As Thou
hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.
The ceremony is called "Tashlich," from the Hebrew word for
"Thou wilt cast"; and while the verses are being recited, it is
customary to shake crumbs from one's pockets into the water.
The custom is first attested in the fifteenth century, and it
explained by tradition in a purely homiletic manner. According ,
to one view, the sight of water on New Year's Day is intended to
recall the fact that the world was created out of watery chaos,
while another insists that the purpose of visiting flowing
streams is to observe the fish and thereby to be reminded that,
in the words of the Preacher, mankind is "as the fishes that
are caught in an evil net" (Eccles. 9:12). Yet a third
interpretation sees in the custom an allusion to the ancient
legend which relates that when Abraham was speeding to Mount
Moriah in obedience to the divine commandment to sacrifice his
son Isaac - an event which was said to have taken place on New
Year's Day - Satan interposed a turbid stream to impede his
progress. The patriarch, however, would not be stayed, but strode
through it undaunted!
The true origin of the ceremony is probably to be
found, however, in the common custom of throwing sops to the
spirits of rivers on critical days of the year. The Romans, for
example, used to cast straw puppets into the Tiber at the Ides of
May; in European folk-usage, such offerings are (or were) often
made to Rhine, Danube, Rhone, Elbe and Neckar on New Year's Eve.
The Jews would thus have adopted the custom from their
Gentile neighbors, reinterpreting it in accordance with their own
outlook and tradition.
DAYS OF PENITENCE - DAYS OF AWE
Explained and exposed under another study in this section of this
Website - Keith Hunt