On Rosh Hashana we sound the shofar during the day and not during the night following the biblical verse that refers to yom teru‘ah (Numbers 29:1) – a day when the horn is sounded. As with other commandments that are fulfilled during daytime, the time for blowing the shofar begins from first light, but because this is difficult to discern we wait until sunrise. In extenuating circumstances, the shofar may be sounded from dawn, even before the fiery ball of sun has risen above the horizon (Shulhan Arukh OH 588:1).
One might think that, as we strive for best practices on the Day of Judgement, we would all rise at the crack of dawn in order to sound the shofar at the earliest possible time. Indeed, as a general rule in Judaism we are encouraged not to delay the performance of good deeds; rather, we should diligently hasten to do mitzvot. Yet common practice is to delay shofar blowing until after morning prayers. Why?
The Talmud explains that this aberration came about at a time of persecution (Bavli, Rosh Hashana 32b; Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 4:8). Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana was prohibited and regime spies were present all morning to catch Jews sounding the horn. Once the afternoon arrived and the policing officials dispersed, the Jews hastened to sound the shofar and fulfil the obligation of the day. According to one approach, even though the danger has long passed, we preserve the memory of that dastardly period … lest it return (Tosafot).
An alternative approach suggests that non-Jews once heard the shofar blasts early in the morning. Thinking that this was a call to war, they quickly gathered and struck with a preemptive massacre. From that time forth, it was decided to move the sounding of the shofar to later in the service. With that move, non-Jews would see that the Jews had read Shema, prayed the silent Amida, read the Torah, and continued to pray and sound the shofar. Seeing the entirety of the morning service, the non-Jews would not assume that this was a war cry. Rather, they would just suppose that that shofar was just another ritual element of the prayer service.
A third approach offers an entirely different perspective: we delay shofar blowing in order to ensure that as many people as possible are present, giving a chance to latecomers not to miss the opportunity to hear the shofar.
Hasidic tradition recounts a tale of unorthodox early-morning shofar blowing. According to some accounts, the protagonist was a figure who predated the hasidic movement: Rabbi Elazar Rokeach (ca. 1685 –1742) – originally from Kraków, later chief rabbi of Amsterdam, before making Aliya to the Holy Land in 1740. Rabbi Elazar Rokeach’s great-grandson was Rabbi Shalom Rokeach (1783-1855), who established the Belz hasdic dynasty.
Other sources retell the tale with a different hero: Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Szepetówka (d. 1801), who travelled from Europe to the Land of Israel on multiple occasions – around 1790, in 1795, and again in 1799.
A 1908 collection of hasidic tales, Tiferet Ha-Tzadikim, opts for the former identification, citing Rabbi Natan Nuta Dunner of Kołbiel (1860-1922) as the source.
Rabbi Elazar Rokeach was aboard a ship bound for the Holy Land. Back in the day, travel was a lengthy affair, so it was not uncommon for Jews to find themselves at sea on Jewish holiday. Thus, Rosh Hashana arrived and Rabbi Elazar and his attendants prepared to observe the New Year aboard the ship.
Rosh Hashana night arrived and a storm began to rage. People were being tossed from side to side by the waves and they looked like drunkards as they lurched along the ship’s deck. Water began to seep through holes in the ship, and everybody aboard was in grave danger. The crew and passengers were busily scooping up water, but it all seemed in vain.
Meanwhile Rabbi Elazar was below deck in his room, deep in meditation and unaware of what was happening above deck.
His two attendants were well aware of the spiritual powers of their master, and they knew that his potent prayers would be able to save the ship. Each time they came to his room to tell him of the looming danger, they found Rabbi Elazar ensconced in meditative prayer. Awestruck, they did not disturb him.
When the situation on the ship deteriorated further and everyone felt death was near, the two attendants decided to disturb their master. They entered his room and touched him so he would awake from his meditative state. Rabbi Elazar turned to them and asked what was afoot.
The attendants quickly responded with tears: “Our master, why are you silent? Are we not in grave danger? Soon the ship with everything in it will sink to the depths of the ocean.”
Rabbi Elazar passionately responded: “If that is the case, then I instruct you to diligently prepare yourselves and at the moment of first light stand with me, shofar in hand, and we will sound the shofar to fulfil the commandment of the day.”
And thus it happened. Indeed, when Rabbi Elazar blew the shofar, a divine spirit swept through and the waters subsided. The storm lifted and in its place was silence. The waves were calm. And everyone thanked God’s kindness.
The upshot of the story is that Rabbi Elazar’s dawn shofar blasts evoked divine mercy and saved the ship and all aboard from impending doom.
Yet not everyone understood that to be the message of the tale. Rabbi Simha Bunem of Przysucha (1765/7-1827) explained to his students that they should not think that Rabbi Elazar’s sounding of the shofar served as a mystical charm to ward off evil and stay the blustery hand of the storm. That was not the case.
Rather what transpired was a different reality. When Rabbi Elazar heard about the dire circumstances, he understood that if nature was to run its course there was no escaping bitter death. He pondered the situation and his final moments in this world, and realised that in his heart he desired to at least merit performing the holy commandment of hearing the shofar blasts before his death. So he told his attendants to ready themselves, in order to sound the shofar at the earliest possible moment – even though this was not standard practice.
Indeed, because of Rabbi Elazar’s great holiness, the fulfilment of the mitzvah resulted in the storm passing and they were all saved in his merit.
The transmitter of the tale added a postscript: “And understand the greatness of his holiness, and his self-sacrifice for the sake of God and God’s holy Torah. May his memory protect us. Amen.”