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Shawn Ruby

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Rosh Hashanah: The Original Meaning of Blowing a Teruah

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https://thetorah.com/article/rosh-hashanah-the-original-meaning-of-blowing-a-teruah

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Shawn Ruby

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Rosh Hashanah: The Original Meaning of Blowing a Teruah

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2022

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https://thetorah.com/article/rosh-hashanah-the-original-meaning-of-blowing-a-teruah

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Rosh Hashanah: The Original Meaning of Blowing a Teruah

Rosh Hashanah in the Torah is described as a day of teruah, a reference to one of the two types of blasts: a regular horn blast (tekiah) and a teruah blast. Interpreters ancient and modern understand the distinction as differing in sound, length, or pitch, but the biblical description of the shofar blowing during the siege of Jericho implies that the nature of a teruah lies in the people’s response to the blast.

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Rosh Hashanah: The Original Meaning of Blowing a Teruah

The Seven Trumpets of Jericho, James Tissot c. 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum

In the Torah, the festival we call Rosh Hashanah (New Year) falls out on the first day of the seventh month (Lev 23:24, Num 29:1), i.e., in the biblical calendar, it is not the new year. The Torah says very little about the festival. Other than the prohibition to do labor and the requirement for priests to bring the appropriate festival offering—the standard features common to festival days—the only unique description of the day is that it is a יוֹם תְּרוּעָה “a day of teruah” (Num 29:1) or the more enigmatic זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה “a memorial of teruah” (Lev 23:24).

The common understanding of teruah in this context is that it refers to a type of sound made by the blowing of a horn, traditionally identified with the shofar, the ram’s horn. For example, the Tannaitic midrash on Leviticus, Sifra (Diburah de-Emor 11:1) gloss the word teruah in the Leviticus passage with אֵלּוּ הַשּׁוֹפָרוֹת “these are the shofars.” Similarly, Targum Onkelos in both Rosh Hashanah passages glosses the word with the Aramic יבבא, “sound of a trumpet.”

Yet, the word תְּרוּעָה comes from the root ר.ו.ע, and its core meaning is to shout in alarm or joy.[1] This sense is especially clear from a poetic passage in Job, in the context of joy:

איוב ח:כא עַד יְמַלֵּה שְׂחוֹק פִּיךָ וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ תְרוּעָה.
Job 8:21 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with teruah.

Notably, the majority opinion among Karaites is that the verses associating teruah with Rosh Hashanah are not referring to horn or shofar blasts at all, just to shouting.[2] The common interpretation of yom teruah as a day of blowing the horn is likely based on the biblical description of horn-blowing in the wilderness account.

Blowing the Trumpet to Move the Camp

Right before the Israelites move away from their long encampment at Mount Sinai, YHWH commands Moses to make שְׁתֵּי חֲצוֹצְרֹת כֶּסֶף “two silver trumpets,” whose purpose shall be to communicate with the camp (Num 10:1). The text goes on to explain exactly how this is done. If both trumpets are blown (ת.ק.ע), the community should assemble before Moses, but if one trumpet is blown, only the chieftains should assemble (Num 10:3–4).

YHWH then tells Moses that, to organize the camps to move, there should be a different kind of blowing:

במדבר י:ה וּתְקַעְתֶּם תְּרוּעָה וְנָסְעוּ הַמַּחֲנוֹת הַחֹנִים קֵדְמָה. י:ו וּתְקַעְתֶּם תְּרוּעָה שֵׁנִית וְנָסְעוּ הַמַּחֲנוֹת הַחֹנִים תֵּימָנָה תְּרוּעָה יִתְקְעוּ לְמַסְעֵיהֶם. י:ז וּבְהַקְהִיל אֶת הַקָּהָל תִּתְקְעוּ וְלֹא תָרִיעוּ.
Num 10:5 When you blow teruah, the divisions encamped on the east shall move forward; 10:6 and when you blow teruah a second time, those encamped on the south shall move forward.[3] Thus teruah shall be blown for setting them in motion, 10:7 while to convoke the congregation you shall blow, without teruah.

Thus, trumpets can be used either in a regular blowing or a teruah blowing. Verse 7 clearly indicates that blowing (tekiah) can be done with or without teruah. What is the difference between a regular blast (tekiah without teruah) and a tekiah blast accompanied by a teruah?

Trumpet Blasts to Remind YHWH of Israel

YHWH then explains to Moses that, in the future, the trumpets should be used in times of war:

במדבר י:ט וְכִי תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת וֲנִזְכַּרְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם.
Num 10:9 When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall make teruah with the trumpets, that you may be remembered before YHWH your God and be delivered from your enemies.[4]

The blowing of teruah with trumpets is intended to remind YHWH of Israel in the hope of divine intercession. This may be the meaning of the description of the festival in Leviticus as being זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה, meaning something like “a teruah that serves as a reminder to YHWH.”

Festival Blowing

The final verse in the passage notes:

במדבר י:י וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם וּבְרָאשֵׁי חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּתְקַעְתֶּם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת עַל עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְעַל זִבְחֵי שַׁלְמֵיכֶם וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Num 10:10 And on your joyous occasions—your fixed festivals and new moon days—you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, YHWH, am your God.

Here, the sound is not teruah but a tekiah blast, but its purpose is explicit: blasts blown on festivals serve as a reminder to YHWH of Israel. What is unique about Rosh Hashanah is that, in contrast to the practice mentioned here for standard festivals, on this day, Israel should do a teruah blast.

Again, what is the difference between a regular blast (tekiah) and a teruah blast?

Traditional Interpretation: Long and Short Blasts

The traditional interpretation of these two terms is that a regular or tekiah blast is long, while the teruah is a series of short blasts, and this is how the terms are translated in the NJPS (“long blasts”/“short blasts”).[5] This is already the interpretation of the Mishnah:

משנה ראש השנה ד:ט שֵׁיעוּר תְּקִיעָה כְּדֵי שָׁלוֹשׁ תְּרוּעוֹת. שֵׁיעוּר תְּרוּעָה כְדֵי שָׁלוֹשׁ יַבָּבוֹת.[6]
m. Rosh Hashanah 4:9 The length of a tekiah is that of three teruot. The length of a teruah is that of three yebavot.[7]

A variation on this interpretation is the Yemenite understanding that a tekiah is a blast with a continuous pitch while the teruah is one of varying pitch.[8] What these interpretations have in common is that they understand the teruah to be a sound made by the shofar or trumpet. Yet, looking at the story of Israel’s blowing of trumpets in the book of Joshua suggests an alternative possibility.

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

The story of the miraculous siege and fall of Jericho begins with YHWH telling Joshua that the Israelite army should circle the city once a day for six days (Josh 6:3), walking behind the ark, with seven priests each holding a shofar (Josh 6:3–4). And then:

יהושע ו:ד ...וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּסֹבּוּ אֶת הָעִיר שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים וְהַכֹּהֲנִים יִתְקְעוּ בַּשּׁוֹפָרוֹת.
Josh 6:4 …On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the horns.

YHWH then explains how the people should respond:

ו:ה וְהָיָה בִּמְשֹׁךְ בְּקֶרֶן הַיּוֹבֵל (בשמעכם) [כְּשָׁמְעֲכֶם] אֶת קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר יָרִיעוּ כָל הָעָם תְּרוּעָה גְדוֹלָה וְנָפְלָה חוֹמַת הָעִיר תַּחְתֶּיהָ וְעָלוּ הָעָם אִישׁ נֶגְדּוֹ.
6:5 And when a long blast is sounded on the horn—as soon as you hear that sound of the horn—all the people shall give a mighty teruah. Thereupon the city wall will collapse, and the people shall advance, every man straight ahead.

The people are not carrying horns; the text clearly envisions them making a sound with their voices, perhaps a shout of triumph or a battle cry. This is explicit later, when Joshua admonishes them not to make a noise until the proper moment:

יהושע ו:י וְאֶת הָעָם צִוָּה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לֵאמֹר לֹא תָרִיעוּ וְלֹא תַשְׁמִיעוּ אֶת קוֹלְכֶם וְלֹא יֵצֵא מִפִּיכֶם דָּבָר עַד יוֹם אָמְרִי אֲלֵיכֶם הָרִיעוּ וַהֲרִיעֹתֶם.
Josh 6:10 But Joshua’s orders to the rest of the people were, “Do not make a teruah, do not let your voices be heard, and do not let a sound issue from your lips until the moment that I command you, ‘Make a teruah!’ Then you shall make the teruah.”

The parallelism here makes it clear that teruah is made by a human voice in response to the blowing (tekiah) of the shofar. Concerning the seventh climactic day, the text makes a clear distinction between shofar blasts, blown by the priests, and teruah shouts, made by the people:

יהושע ו:טז וַיְהִי בַּפַּעַם הַשְּׁבִיעִית תָּקְעוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים בַּשּׁוֹפָרוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל הָעָם הָרִיעוּ כִּי נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם אֶת הָעִיר.... ו:כ וַיָּרַע הָעָם וַיִּתְקְעוּ בַּשֹּׁפָרוֹת וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ הָעָם אֶת קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר וַיָּרִיעוּ הָעָם תְּרוּעָה גְדוֹלָה וַתִּפֹּל הַחוֹמָה תַּחְתֶּיהָ...
Josh 6:16 On the seventh round, as the priests blew the horns, Joshua commanded the people, “Make the teruah! For YHWH has given you the city… 6:20 So the people made the teruah when the horns were sounded. When the people heard the sound of the horns, the people raised a mighty teruah and the wall collapsed…

Thus teruah is a sound people make in response to hearing the blast of a horn. We can see this usage in the book of Job as well, in a scene describing alarm at the coming of battle:

איוב לט:כה בְּדֵי שֹׁפָר יֹאמַר הֶאָח וּמֵרָחוֹק יָרִיחַ מִלְחָמָה רַעַם שָׂרִים וּתְרוּעָה.
Job 39:25 As the shofar sounds, he says, “Aha!” From afar he smells the battle, the roaring and teruah of the officers.

Here again, the teruah comes after hearing the sound of the shofar.

A Responsive Blast

I suggest that teruah as a human response to the blowing of a horn or trumpet is the meaning of the phrase “teruah blast” in Numbers 10. A standard blast (tekiah) is just the sound of the horn, while a teruah blast is one designed to elicit a response. The term teruah refers to the collective response, while the phrase uteka’atem teruah refers to the blast that is blown to elicit the response.

In other words, the key difference is not in length, pitch, or tone, but in the cultural understanding of the people, who know to respond with a collective shout to a certain way of blasting the horn or trumpet. This phenomenon is familiar to anyone who has attended a sports event. When the horn (or sometimes an organ) is sounded to play the fanfare, the crowd knows to let out a cheer.[9]

Formal occasions like the call to gather of the leaders or the people, or the ritual sounding of the trumpets to accompany the sacrifices, require a simple trumpet blast (tekiah). Occasions that are meant to “get the people going” like the call for the tribes to march from the encampment, require a blast that calls the people to respond vocally (and emotionally!). The same is true for calling God’s attention to Israel’s plight in times of war and, apparently, for the festival of the first day of the seventh month, Rosh Hashanah.

Collective Effervescence on Rosh Hashanah

The 19th century father of sociology, Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), coined the concept of “collective effervescence.”[10] He noted how across societies, cultures create opportunities for the community to gather in large groups and shout and make music. The psychosocial impact of this is to create unity among the group and a feeling of sanctity that they share.

The exact theme of the biblical festival of the first of the seventh month is not explained in the Torah,[11] but a collective teruah cry in response to a horn blast, can be seen as the “kickoff” day for the holy seventh month, where the people gather to experience the “collective effervescence” evoked by shouting in response to the blast of the shofar, in preparation for the Day of Atonement and harvest festivals that will come later in the month.

This works well with the themes of judgment and repentance that have characterized Rosh Hashanah for at least two millennia. The term zichron teruah in Leviticus emphasizes how, on this day, Israel wants to make enough noise to get God’s attention, and remind God of the covenant with Israel.[12]

Although in contemporary Rosh Hashanah practice, we do not cry out in response to the shofar,[13] the day is one of collective prayer, with the voices of the congregation gathered not in shouts but in song, and indeed echoes of the biblical ritual.

Published

September 18, 2022

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Last Updated

November 6, 2022

Footnotes

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Rabbi Shawn Ruby lives in Zikhron Yaakov with his wife Tammy. They have 3 grown children, Eliana, Kay and Noam. Ruby has passed the יורה יורה exams of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and is in the process of completing ordination by Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati in Maale Gilboa, where he was a member of the Kollel from 2012 to 2018. In his day job, he is co-CEO of Ruby Cherry EDA, an electronic design automation consulting firm.

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