How to Hear the Shofar

The mitzvah of shofar is not merely to blow the shofar, but to hear it blown. As necessary as it is to create the sound that can be heard, it doesn’t suffice; one must listen to it.

This is evident in the blessing “that He commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.” Similarly, one who hears an echo of a shofar, or a shofar laden with gold or other material in the mouthpiece, has not fulfilled the mitzvah. For one must hear the sound of the shofar itself and nothing else, no admixture, no matter how beautiful or precious.

Yet, the poskim are generally silent on the question of how to listen to the shofar. The discussion focuses rather on the preconditions: aside from the intention to fulfill the mitzvah, as proclaimed in the blessing immediately preceding it, and not speaking during the tekios.

How do we listen? What thoughts should be in our minds during those crucial moments? Thoughts of teshuvah and malchus are certainly appropriate, but it’s not an obligatory part of the mitzvah. For the loftier souls, there are the various kavanos according to the Kabbalah.

But for most people, one approach is to rid the mind of any and all thoughts other than fulfilling this great mitzvah, and fill it up with the sound of shofar.

The Midrash says that when the shofar sounded at Sinai, no other sound could be heard in the entire world, not even the tweeting of the birds, so that the world should know that nothing exists besides Him (Shemos Rabba 29:9).

Any sound, no matter how slight, would interfere with the revelation. So too, any sound, any words or distracting thoughts, should be banished from the moment.

This, of course, is not easy. As Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, observed, the brachah of Chonen Hadaas does not begin with a request, like the brachos of Shemoneh Esrei that follow. Instead, it begins with a statement of fact, that Hashem bestows knowledge. He does so in various ways, but one of them is the ceaseless flow of thoughts in our minds. The mind is continually busy with thoughts. They may be trivial or profound, from “What’s for lunch?” to “What’s pshat in the Rashba?” But there isn’t a moment when we aren’t thinking something. Even in sleep, we dream unconscious thoughts. So we don’t need to beseech Hashem for that which comes naturally, unbidden; the request in the brachah is for quality of mind, for insight, for wisdom, that our minds should be vessels of transcendence, not grab-bags of trivia.

We live in an opinion-saturated society. Almost every morning reveals another poll, and many a conversation revolves around strongly held opinions and an attempt to gauge the listener’s viewpoint. “What do you think?” “What’s your opinion?” (Not that thinking is a precondition for having an opinion.) Our mental effervescences are solicited without end.

On Rosh Hashanah, we disconnect from all that. But it’s like throwing a switch in reverse. Our thoughts, our opinions, are not solicited. It is not about us; it’s about the One Who made us. The One Who gave us the Torah and Who brings Moshiach. He asks not for our opinions about Him or anything else, but our fullest recognition of Him as the Source of all.

Indeed, the self-absorption of everyday life is an impediment to our ability to draw close to Hashem. As it says in Parashas Va’eschanan (Devarim 5:5), “I stand between Hashem and you.” What stands between a person and his Creator? The “I,” the ego, the distractions of the self. We need to clear those away on Rosh Hashanah, to make room in our hearts and minds for Hashem.

To be sure, this does not mean that we are to shut down completely, thinking nothing, feeling nothing. There is a well-known dispute regarding how to react to the tekios. The Vilna Gaon wrote that one should be joyful; just as nations rejoice at the coronation of a king, so we rejoice in acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty. In contrast, according to many other authorities, it is appropriate to weep from fear and awe of the Divine judgment.

Either way, it is the sound of the shofar itself, and our undivided attention to it, which yields the deepest perceptions and most powerful emotions.

These are precious, lofty moments. May we all merit to use them properly to draw close to Hashem, and may all of Klal Yisrael merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah.