Our prayers are verbal, linguistic and very expressive. This is especially true for the High Holiday liturgy. Still, the pinnacle and highlight of the Rosh Hashana prayers is the wordless, raw, and simple sound of the shofar. What is the explanation for this?
You are right. While the shofar is the most powerful vehicle for conveying our prayers to G‑d, unlike any of the other prayers, it consists only of simple sounds – tekiah, shevarim, teruah – without enunciating a single word.
This wordless medium of sound for Israel’s prayers is related to the idea that all speech, no matter how sophisticated an expression of one’s thoughts, is based on the ability to emit sound. In returning to the source of speech on this day of Rosh Hashana which celebrates the anniversary of Creation, we return to the source of all life and existence, the Divine utterances through which all of Creation came into being. And as taught by the holy Baal Shem Tov, we thereby resonate with the underlying voice of G‑d which reverberates through Creation until this very day.
The sound of the shofar is reminiscent of an urgent, inner cry. And crying out to G‑d arouses our Heavenly roots. Crying out to G‑d through the shofar also recalls the merit of the Forefathers and reaches up to the most elevated realm of Heaven, to the spiritual roots of every Jew. This cry of speechless sound thus taps into the highest source of merit and expresses to G‑d that no matter how far we have strayed from our Source, our true desire is to regain and retain our Heavenly character. This is the meaning of Isaac’s proclamation, “The voice is the voice of Jacob” – Jacob’s descendants have the power to restore the Jewish soul through their wordless sounding of the shofar.
On Rosh Hashana, many of our requests and aspirations for the coming year can be clearly articulated. Others are so deeply and subtly embedded in our psyche that no words can express them. As the Zohar notes (Shemot 20a), certain cries find their voice only in the heart of the Jew. There exists no better way to express these inarticulate, subconscious cries than via the speechless shofar. This ability of the shofar to express the inner, unspoken aspirations of the heart is hinted at in Psalms 81 which we read on Rosh Hashana and which describes our “sounding the shofar in hiding” (v. 4) as a “private, thunderous reply” (v. 8). Perhaps the angels – who are described in the liturgy as merging with the sounds of the shofar – convey, voice, and amplify the cry from within our hidden recesses into the speechless sound of the shofar before G‑d.
Finally, the use of a wordless medium to convey our prayers reflects total self-negation before G‑d on this day of Divine Judgment. The shofar’s sound expresses the innate emotions embedded deep in every Jewish heart. And its cries, which emanate from the very breath and life-blood of the Jew, soar to the Heavens. If this cry were accompanied by words, it would imply that we are somehow able to dictate our return to G‑d. But when we resort to the sound of the shofar, which is really Jewry’s collective inner cry, we demonstrate our total and absolute reliance on G‑d to bring us back to Him.
- Days of Awe, based on the Sefat Emet, adapted by Rabbi Yosef Stern, pp. 125-134.