Rosh Chodesh Elul: Confounding the Satan

The piercing sound of the shofar resembles both a mournful sob and a bristling alarm. Its exotic shape and penetrating voice capture our attention and imagination. As the month of Elul begins, leading into the high holy days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the shofar will be sounded each weekday morning in synagogues throughout the world.

The shofar is a popular appurtenance in Hebrew Roots because enthusiasts see it as biblical, not so much a symbol of later rabbinic Judaism. The instrument whisks them away to ancient Israel, to the twelve tribes encamped under their banners, to the gates of the Temple, and to the scenes of epic biblical battles. In Hebrew Roots congregations people like to imagine themselves there, even if only in a spiritual sense.

Charismatic Christianity has had a dramatic influence on many Messianic and Hebrew Roots congregations. Charismatic Christians commonly view prayer and musical worship as a heavenly battle, involving the clash of angelic and demonic legions. The warlike symbol of the shofar fits well with this vivid conception of spiritual warfare, so participants view it as a call to arms, a battle alarm, or rallying of the troops. I have even heard individuals describe it as a weapon itself, whose sound pierces holes through some kind of supernatural barrier in heaven, opening the way for blessings.

While people in Hebrew Roots tend to be wary of rabbinic writings, they do not hesitate to cite a certain talmudic text in support of their use of the shofar. According to the sages, the sound of the shofar “confounds the Satan.” If so, why not blast the shofar at every possible opportunity?

So in the Hebrew Roots world, it is common for shofarot to appear at nearly every function. Shofar blasts introduce the start of everything from Shabbat services to Passover Seders. The blaring sound may occur at random during singing times and at prayer meetings.

At Hebrew Roots services shofar blowers often come in pairs or in squads of seven or more. The shofar is perceived as part of the complete Hebrew Roots survival kit, along with a kippah and tallit. Because of its importance, Hebrew Roots enthusiasts are willing to shell out $100-200 for this ritual item.

It is hard to explain how bizarre all of this appears from the perspective of traditional Judaism. To a person who lives a Jewish life, the symbol of the shofar immediately brings Rosh HaShanah to mind. Nonetheless, the shofar is sounded at every weekday morning service starting with Rosh Chodesh Elul. It is also blasted during Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabbah services. Other than that, the shofar rarely makes an appearance. Because one must hear the shofar call clearly, one highly skilled tokea provides the sound when necessary. The shofar is never blown on Shabbat, even when Shabbat and Rosh HaShanah coincide.

Now imagine some strange religious sect that simultaneously fetishizes and disrespects Christianity. They open every service throughout the year by ceremoniously plugging in a set of Christmas trees that are bedecked with lights and tinsel. They don’t care that this deviates from Christian custom; when questioned they explained that they know through supernatural revelation that doing this helps them break through spiritual strongholds.

A shofar may be a Jewish symbol, but blowing it on Shabbat, especially outside of the proper season, is a specifically non-Jewish thing to do. Hebrew Roots congregations may not be bothered by using Jewish symbols in a way that is unrecognizable to Judaism, but in Messianic Judaism, we cannot afford to have such an attitude.

While in Hebrew Roots congregations they may feel that the shofar transports them to ancient times, in reality their use of it does not resemble anything that the ancient Israelites ever did. They have started something new, without any historical basis or continuity. For Messianic Judaism to survive long term, we must rely on practices that are authentic and that connect us with generations past.

The shofar truly is a beautiful symbol, and it has many deep spiritual lessons for us. And it is effective in spiritual warfare, although not the way that charismatic Christianity envisions it. By setting the shofar in its proper context, we are able to perceive its powerful biblical messages.

In its context, the talmudic statement about “confounding the Satan”[1] does not mean that the sound of the shofar magically paralyzes all demonic forces whenever it is blown. The statement is preceded by the question (and I paraphrase), “Why do we blast the shofar on Rosh HaShanah so many times in different ways?”

The reason that this confounds the Satan—the Accuser, that is—is because it shows our great love for the mitzvot, our trust in God’s forgiveness, and our confidence in a judgment in our favor. Because of our repentance, which is hailed by the shofar blast, the Satan has no opportunity to accuse us and make any case for a negative judgment.

There truly is a spiritual war taking place. It is important for us to realize, however, that it is not taking place in some heavenly realm; it is a battle for our hearts.

Exhaling through the antler of an expired antelope may be effective if we were fighting against “flesh and blood,” but as we know, “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” [2]

The list of spiritual armor that we find in Ephesians 6:10-18 makes no mention of the ram’s horn (or anything else actually visible to human eyes, for that matter). The shofar call of Rosh HaShanah is different in that the sound is a message for our own human ears—not the angelic, demonic, or divine. The voice of the shofar brings victory in our hearts by provoking us to repent. It is the act of repentance that “confounds the Satan.”

  1. Rosh HaShanah 16a-b
  2. 2 Corinthians 10:4-5

Source: First Fruits of Zion