The central commandment of Rosh Hashanah, and the defining feature of this festival in the Torah is the shofar.
The first day of the seventh month shall be a sacred holiday to you when you may not do any mundane work. It shall be a day of sounding the ram’s horn shofar.
A hollowed-out ram’s horn is blown on Rosh Hashanah to produce sounds known as tekiah, shevarim, and truah, a long blast, three shorter blasts and a number of very short blasts. The most obvious idea behind this commandment is that the shofar sounds a wake-up call for us to begin an accounting of our lives, to become aware of our responsibilities and to make positive commitments for the future. As Maimonides writes,
Even though the blowing of the shofar is a decree of the Torah, there is nevertheless a hint within it. That is, “Wake up… from your sleep… Search through your actions, return in repentance and remember your Creator… Look into your souls, improve your ways… and abandon evil…”
In light of this explanation, we can understand why there is a custom to begin sounding the shofar in the synagogue a month before Rosh Hashanah. We really have to wake up and start the process of change well before Rosh Hashanah. If we wait until then it will be a last minute, panicked rush. During the month before Rosh Hashanah, known as Ellul, the shofar is blown (just one set of sounds) every day after the weekday morning services in order to wake us up from our apathy gradually, in the hope that we will not press the “snooze” button.
Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people, was subjected to one of the most severe tests imaginable. God asked him to take his beloved son, Isaac and to bring him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Even though this request contradicted everything that Abraham had known and believed until that moment, Abraham maintained his total devotion to and trust in God; he took Isaac, put him on the altar and held the knife to his throat. At the last second, an angel of God told him not to harm the boy. God then showed Abraham a ram whose horns were entangled in a bush nearby and Abraham brought that ram as a sacrifice to God, instead of his son. Blowing the horn of a ram reminds us of this event, The Binding of Isaac and of Abraham and Isaac’s tremendous devotion to God. The sound of the ram’s horn challenges us to dedicate ourselves totally to God, with the same faith, trust and devotion as Abraham. If we are sincere in this dedication, God considers it as though we actually performed the same act as Abraham.
The shofar was blown on occasions other than Rosh Hashanah as well. As the famous verse, inscribed in part on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, states
…blow the shofar throughout your land… Proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants…
The context of this verse is the release of indentured servants every jubilee (50th) year, which was proclaimed by the blowing of a shofar. The Sages of the Mishnah explained that the primary significance of the shofar, including the shofar of Rosh Hashanah, is a proclamation of freedom.
The freedom that this shofar proclaims is within our power to achieve. It is the freedom from our past, from our sins and failings. It is the freedom to change ourselves and the entire world through the power of free-will and repentance. The shofar reminds us that we are always free to choose what is right and good, and that our lives are not pre-determined, no matter how many obstacles appear to stand in our way. We believe that when people take this lesson to heart and really change for the better, we will merit the ultimate shofar of freedom which will herald the time of the Messiah.
It shall be on that day that a great shofar will be blown and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come together, and they will bow down before God on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.