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Part I: Elul – Hearing the call, befuddling the Satan

Elul 5783 | September 2023


Why do we sound the shofar in Elul?

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korkha in the earliest source to mention a tradition to blast the shofar in Elul.[1] He taught that Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for the final time on the first of Elul and descended with the second set of lukhot (tablets) forty days later, on the tenth of Tishrei. When Moshe left the camp they blasted the shofar to remind the Israelites not to turn to false gods; this was successful and God was exalted as it says “God ascends with the terua blasts.”[2]

The midrash continues “therefore the sages enacted they should blast the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul each and every year.”[3]

Early mentions

The midrash only mentions shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Why do we blast shofar for the rest of the month? Tur teaches “therefore Chazal enacted that they would blast the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul each and every year and the entire month to caution Israel to do teshuva… and to befuddle the Satan.” [4]

Tur maintains that the rabbinic leadership in the times of the Talmud instated this custom, yet it seems he deems the practice is a custom and not a rabbinic level obligation: “And this is the customary practice in Ashkenaz, to blast [shofar] every morning and night after prayers.”[5] He continues to describe other Elul customs, such as “there are those who say many Selikhot and pleas from Rosh Chodesh Elul on…” and notes that other places start later.

Shulkhan Arukh states that the custom is to wake up early and recite Selikhot throughout the month of Elul until Rosh HaShana, omitting any mention of shofar.[6] Rema teaches that the prevalent Ashkenazic minhag is to blow the shofar after Shacharit from Rosh Chodesh Elul until the day before Rosh HaShana, and adds that some places also blast shofar at ma’ariv.[7]

Why do we need more than the Torah mitzvah of shofar on Rosh HaShana?

I. To “move” us to teshuva

Tur mentioned two reasons for these blasts – as a warning to do teshuva (repent) and to befuddle the Satan. As a proof for the first explanation, he brings the verse from Amos, “If a shofar blasts in the city, don’t the people move with alarm?”[8] The shofar was often used in war – as a warning or a battle cry; it’s sound instinctively engenders feelings of panic, awe, and trepidation.

This explanation seems to be based on Rambam’s insight into the shofar blasts on Rosh HaShana; he explains that in addition to fulfilling the Torah mitzvah, the shofar acts like an alarm to wake us up from our complacency to do teshuva.[9] It seems that some communities didn’t want to wait until the last minute, so they set their “alarm” earlier, and made sure to have the reminder throughout the month of Elul.

II. To “befuddle” the “Satan?”

“To befuddle the Satan” is somewhat cryptic. Based on Sefer Minhagim d’bei Maharam, Rema explains that we befuddle the Satan so he does not know when Rosh HaShana is.[10] This idea seems strange – both because the idea of a Satan is cryptic and also because this entity should probably catch on after a few years.

The Jewish concept of the Satan is drastically different from the Christian idea of a devil. “Satan” is not its name, the term is preceded by “the” because it’s a description of the function it fulfills – the adversary. The most popular explanations describe the Satan as an imminent, internal force within each person or a more abstract representative of Divine justice. The former conjures the image of a little devil standing on our shoulder whispering in our ear, although our sages tend to understand it more as the pull towards physicality or base, fleeting pleasures at the expense of the spiritual. The latter is often presented as a prosecutorial angel in the Heavenly court but can also be understood to represent the truth of strict justice devoid of mercy – one that presents the world in black and white and ignores the gray.

Why is the Satan so easily befuddled?

Sefer Minhagim d’bei Maharam connects this idea with a popular midrash that explains how Israel could turn to the idolatry of the Golden Calf a mere forty days after the revelation at Sinai. Accordingly, Israel knew that Moshe was supposed to be on Mount Sinai for forty days and the Satan tricked them into thinking that Moshe was “late” because he was never coming back – he died on the mountain.

Since the Satan confused Israel about the first forty days, the people decided to blast the shofar to befuddle the Satan so it couldn’t mislead them again.[11] Based on language in the next paragraph, it seems Sefer HaMinhagim believed that every time the shofar blasts in Elul it unleashes the Satan’s unwanted influence – which strengthens us against its onslaught so it can’t lead us astray again and deters it from arguing on Rosh HaShana itself.

Another explanation is based on a prior use of the phrase “to befuddle the Satan” in tractate Rosh HaShana. It asks why we blow the shofar at different points in the Rosh HaShana service, in several different ways. Answer: “to befuddle the Satan.”[12] Rashi explains that because we go far beyond what is required to perform the mitzvah in every way possible this shows how much Israel loves the mitzvot, which leaves the Satan dumbstruck – unable to mount its offensive.

III. Practice makes perfect

There are several other explanations given for the custom to blow shofar in Elul. Most of them are related to the idea that the shofar blasts are meant to bring us closer to God – encouraging us to do teshuva – return to God – through repenting over past sins or reinvigorating our Divine service.[13]

Yet there is one very different reason in the sources, which connects the practice with the determination that we should begin studying the laws of Pesach thirty days before Pesach.[14] Some say the ba’al toke’a (person sounding the shofar) should start rehearsing thirty days before Rosh HaShana so that he will be ready for the big day.[15] Others focus on the spiritual preparation that the shofar blasts encourage – teshuva and prayer and renewed devotion to our avodat Hashem (service of the Lord).[16]

Concluding thoughts

As mentioned, the timing of the thirty days is no coincidence. The Vilna Gaon explains that we begin repenting from Rosh Chodesh Elul because it begins “yemei ratzon” – a time of favor when God accepted the teshuva of Israel after the Sin of the Golden Calf and renewed the covenant with us.[17]  Bach associates this with the oft-mentioned acrostic for Elul “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved mine.” Rosh Chodesh Elul begins a forty day period when “through teshuva their heart is closer to their Beloved, so that their Beloved is near to accept teshuva through love.”[18] When I become my Beloved’s – turn my thoughts and actions to God – my Beloved is mine – God is drawn close to me and ensures my wellbeing.[19]

Those who don’t go to minyan on a regular basis, which is the case for many women, generally don’t hear shofar in Elul. In Part II we will see that most halakhic authorities consider shofar in Elul to be a communal mitzvah – the blasts of the shofar are certainly more powerful when the experience is shared with others, and it seems that the community as a whole is responsible for reminding its individual members to “wake up.”

As women have the same obligation to do teshuva, those who don’t hear shofar should ensure that they find an alternative that will rouse them to draw close to our Creator.[20] For some it’s dedicating extra time or concentration to prayers. For others it’s adding another – such as Mizmor (Psalm) 27 “l’David Hashem ori v’yish’i” – customarily inserted at the end of prayers in the month of Elul. There are options for those who connect to learning – podcasts, a bit of daily Hilkhot Teshuva of Rambam, Mussar books on teshuva or avodat Hashem. While it does not have the same effect and does not “fulfill” any obligation, some people may be moved to teshuva hearing recordings of shofar over radio or internet. Similarly, some connect to the songs and tunes of Selikhot and similar prayers, which make an excellent soundtrack for the days leading up to Rosh HaShana.

The month of Elul and days leading up to Rosh HaShana are a once-a-year opportunity at increased access, a time when both our souls and our Creator are open to renewing our connection. Every day we should find a way to “lean in” to this precious opportunity.


Go to Part II: Part II: Is there an obligation to hear shofar in Elul?

Go to Part III: Can a woman blow shofar for men in Elul?

[1] Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 46:2. Traditionally it’s agreed that Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the lukhot after ma’amad Har Sinai (the revelation on Mount Sinai) around the 7th of Sivan, and descended forty days later on the 17th of Tammuz when, upon witnessing Israelites serving the Golden Calf he broke the lukhot. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the second and final set of lukhot on the 1st of Elul and descended on the 10th of Tishrei. This is the date God forgives the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf and declares “Slakhti,” “I have forgiven.” It’s no coincidence the Israelites will soon learn that this is the date of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Some claim Moshe went up for a total of three sets of forty days, with another set in between these two periods, to pray for forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites.

[2] Tehillim 47:6

[3] It is unclear if there’s a difference between the blasts on Rosh Chodesh and those throughout the rest of the month – perhaps different forms or levels of obligation?

[4] The concept of Satan should not be confused with the Christian devil. We’ll discuss this further in the next section. OC 581 and Beit Yosef ibid 2. Bach has an interesting explanation on why Tur included all three reasons. (ibid 2)

[5] In addition to the language of “nohagin” “this is the customary practice,” he clearly indicates that this custom is accepted in Ashkenaz and not necessarily beyond. In general Sephardim and Ashkenazim observe rabbinic enactments (takanot) from the Talmudic sages (Chazal).

[6] It should be noted that many Sephardic communities blow shofar during or after the recitation of Selikhot. Kaf HaChaim wrote that at his time some communities did and some did not. Now the custom is more widespread within Sephardic communities.

[7] Shulkhan Arukh OC 581:1, 3. See Darkhei Moshe where he explains that we do not blow the shofar the day before Rosh HaShana to befuddle the Satan.

[8] Amos 3:6. The Hebrew term here is “yecheradu” the root ch.r.d. can mean tremble, anxiety, fear, alarm. It also means movement. If the blast of the shofar is a warning of impending danger, human nature responds in fight, flight, or freeze – all correspond with possible interpretation of the root h.r.d.: quake in fear, run away, or move to fight (with trepidation). These different explanations fit with various biblical verses that use the root.

[9] Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4

[10] Darkhei Moshe ibid.

[11] Seder Reinus l’Erev Rosh HaShana

[12] TB Rosh HaShana 16a-b

[13] Perisha (OC 581:1-2), for example, notes that the original blasts in the wilderness accomplished their goal -Israel did not turn to false gods during Moshe’s absence. This sanctification of God’s name is the basis of the verse “God is elevated through terua (blast).” Interestingly, this explanation connects our teshuva with one of the main reasons we blast shofar on Rosh HaShana – as a sign of God’s rule.

[14] TB Pesachim 6a. Mishna Berura (429:1) debates if this is also the case for Shavuot and Sukkot.

[15] Responsa Maharakh Ohr Zarua 33

[16] Sefer Minhagim d’bei Maharam ibid.; Chayei Adam 198:1; Mitzvot Re’iya 581

[17] Bieur HaGra OC 581:1, based on sources in Talmud and Rishonim.

[18] Bach OC 581:2 quoting Shir HaShirim 6:3. Part of this connection relies on the acrostic from the beginning of the words, the second aspect is the gematriya (mathematical equivalent) of the letters at the end of the words is forty, which hints at the forty days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai beginning Rosh Chodesh Elul.

[19] Arukh HaShukhan OC 581:1

[20] Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook l’Shlosha b’Elul 195; Mateh Efraim 581:1.

For example, Rav Yitzchak Weiss of Vrbrov would seek out a way to hear shofar in Elul if he was unable to attend minyan. (Responsa Si’ach Yitzchak 264)

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.