There are times when I feel a bit out of place within not only the Church of the Nazarene, but within church circles in general. You see, I have a background that is very different than most of my Christian brothers and sisters. I grew up in a Jewish family; we attended synagogue and celebrated Jewish holidays. Although my family ceased to be an active part of a synagogue or a Jewish community about a year after my bar mitzvah (a Jewish rite of passage), I always maintained a strong sense of Jewish identity. Amidst deep personal crisis during my mid-20’s, I first came to know Jesus Christ at a Messianic Jewish congregation in San Antonio, Texas. I spent eight years in Jewish missions before I became involved in the Church of the Nazarene and embarked on my current journey towards ordination as an elder. So why do I feel out of place? Because it’s fall, and with my Jewish background, that means the High Holy Days, the holiest of times  for a Jew.

This next Wednesday, Jews worldwide will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. At this time of year I often find myself flooded with rich childhood memories of the synagogue I grew up in. The dark wood paneling on the walls. The chanting of the congregation in Hebrew. Standing up. Sitting down. Standing up. Sitting down. The smell of mothballs wafting from old men’s suits. The taste of apples dipped in honey, or maybe a gloriously decadent dessert called teglach, made of dough balls, nuts and candied fruit coated in a sweet syrup that sticks the whole thing together.

Rosh Hashanah, known to many as the start of the Jewish New Year, is a holiday that is marked not only with joy and celebration, but for many Jewish people it also begins a period of solemn introspection and self-examination. The holiday is the start of a ten-day period called The Days of Awe, culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Jewish tradition holds that during this time God will judge the sins of each individual, writing their name in a Book of Life or a Book of Death at the end of the ten days.

Rosh Hashanah is referred to today as the Feast of Trumpets, after the most notable activity which marks its observance: theblowing of the shofar, a trumpet made of a ram’s horn. It is considered the fulfillment of a mitzvot (commandment) to hear the shofar blast on this day. Such importance is placed on this commandment that Judaism teaches that anyone who has not listened to the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah has not actually observed the holiday. It is not enough to merely hear the shofar, but one must listen with the full intention (kavanah in Hebrew) of fulfilling the commandment.

Interestingly, the Bible never refers to Rosh Hashanah as the New Year. The Bible places the beginning of the Jewish religious year in the spring, and it is associated with the celebration of Passover. Although it is today called Rosh Hashanah, this holiday is in fact unnamed — the only feast of Israel to which the Lord did not assign a title.

“Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘In the seventh month on the first of the month, you shall have a rest, a reminder by blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any laborious work, but you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD.” Leviticus 23:23-25

The Hebrew name for this feast, Yom Teruah, can be translated as, “the day of blowing,” and in the original Hebrew text the word “trumpets” does not appear – it is only implied. Neither does the word shofar appear in the original text. Perhaps this is to to focus  on the purpose of all the blowing: to remember. Yet the text doesn’t tell us what God wants us to remember. This is a riddle that the Lord has placed before us.

The sound of the shofar is a piercing sound, which grabs our attention and forces us to turn and say to ourselves, “What is that? What’s happening?” And that’s precisely the purpose for blowing the shofar – it’s God’s wake up call. It’s meant to rouse us from slumber and to grab our attention. But what does God want us to wake up about? What’s so important that God wants us to remember?

As ancient rabbis struggled to solve the riddle of what God wanted us to remember, they noticed that in Hebrew the numerical value of the words and letters in the phrase “the first day of the seventh month” were exactly the same as the numerical value of the words and letters in the phrase “In the beginning,” from Genesis 1:1. Rabbis refer to this type of numerology as gematria, and use it to derive meaning and relationship from different parts of Scripture. Using gematria, the rabbis reasoned out that that this holiday must commemorate the very Creation of the universe, and that it was this event that God wants us to remember.

This all sounds like a pretty good answer to our riddle, doesn’t it? Although it sounds very reasonable, I personally think it’s what’s known in Yiddish as bubbameise, or “old wives’ tales.” This is not what God wants us to remember. To truly solve the riddle, we need to look at how the shofar is used to celebrate Rosh Hashanah today, and how that connects to the use of the shofar throughout Scripture. During the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, three basic calls are produced. Each of these different trumpet calls had meaning to the Israelites during the biblical period.

The first call is known as tekiah. This is a long, sustained note. In ancient Israel, tekiah was a signal that the watchmen on the walls of a city were on duty and alert. It was periodically sounded during the day and the night. One can imagine that this was a reassuring sound to an Israelite, a signal that all was well and that they were being kept safe.

The second call sounded on the shofar in the Rosh Hashanah service is known as shevarim. This call consists of three sharp, successive blasts. Shevarim was a signal of important events in ancient times: the changing of the watch, the arrival of a king or other important individual, or sometimes the call to assemble to hear important news. Whereas tekiah was a routine call,shevarim was a more uncommon call, yet welcome because it was sounded before good news.

The final call, teruah, consists of nine sharp, rapid blasts on the shofar. To the ancient Israelites, teruah was a most unwelcome call, because it was an alarm signal. Teruah alerted the Israelites to the presence of enemies, and called them to defend themselves in battle. Teruah was also sounded for other disasters that required the Israelites to assemble rapidly.

In most translations of Scripture, where the word teruah appears, it is translated as “alarm.” Perhaps a more literal translation of Yom Teruah would be not “the day of blowing,” but rather “the day of alarm.” In a general sense, the sound of the shofar was meant to be God’s wake up call for His Chosen People, and to focus them on remembering that with the Lord on their side, they had nothing to fear from earthly enemies or hardships. God wanted them to remember His presence and provision in their lives, and the covenant He had made with them. He gave them further reminders of this in the fall feasts which were to follow soon after: Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles).

More specifically, the call of the shofar was meant to be God’s wake up call to His people to turn away from their focus on the physical world and their physical needs, and to turn their attention to more spiritual things: the holiness of God, the sin which separated the Jewish people from God, and the atonement He offered them. The call of the shofar was a call to prepare for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, a day on which the Jewish people could be cleansed of sin and renewed in a right relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yom Kippur allowed God’s people to know that their sin had been forgiven, so that they could go up and enjoy being in the house of God with a free conscience and a clean heart.

In Rosh Hashanah, followers of Jesus can take joy instead of alarm at the blast of the shofar. Our joy should come from knowing that we have heeded God’s wake up call, that we have already been alarmed by the sin in our lives which separated us from Him. We have received the atonement that God offered us atonement through the sacrifice of His Son, and so we rejoice in knowing that we face another year in relationship with Him.

I will post about both Yom Kippur and Sukkot in the coming weeks, but for now let me close by pointing out that throughout Scripture, we see that God reinforces His purposes in the blowing of the shofar. Isaiah 27:13 tells us that the great day heralding the return of all the Jewish people to the land of Israel will be set to the sound of the blowing of the shofar. The rabbis of old came to understand that the coming of the promised Messiah was associated with the blowing of the shofar. As we move from the Old Testament into the New, we can see that they were right.

The blowing of the shofar is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament:

  • Matthew 24
  • I Corinthians 15
  • I Thessalonians 4
  • Revelation 8 and 11

The sound of the shofar tells us to be ready, to WAKE UP! If you are a believer in Jesus, let these words be a reminder to you; if you do not yet trust in Him, may they point you to a future Hope:

“For the Lord Himself will come down from Heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet blast of God, and the dead in Messiah will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore, encourage each other with these words.” I Thessalonians 4:16