After the Torah is read and returned to its place, the congregation is seated. One person stands and recites the blessing: Blessed are You, Hashem, L-rd of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar. (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shofar, Lulav, v’Sucah 3:10)
The shofar communicates a message we are called upon to obey
The sounding of the shofar is the central practice of Rosh HaShanah. Hearing its sounds is one of the Torah’s 613 commandments. The performance of many positive commandments is preceded by a blessing. There are a number of opinions regarding the proper blessing for the mitzvah of shofar. The accepted opinion is presented above. Maimonides rules that the blessing ends with the words lishmoa kol shofar – to hear the sound of the shofar. In this blessing we acknowledge that Hashem commanded us to hear the sounds of the shofar.
Rabbeinu Asher accepts the opinion above but notes variants of the benediction suggested by other authorities. One alternative is to end the blessing with the words lishmoa ba’kol shofar. This variant adds the ba prefix to the word kol – sound. Although this addition seems minor, it changes the meaning of the blessing. With this addition, the blessing means to obey the sound of the shofar.
We do not accept this opinion. However, its premise is important. This opinion points out that the fulfillment of the mitzvah of shofar requires that we not only hear its sounds but that we obey their command. What is the command communicated by the shofar? The first step toward answering this question is to identify the theme of Rosh HaShanah.
You were revealed in Your cloud of glory to Your sacred people to speak with them. From the heavens You made them hear Your voice and revealed Yourself to them in thick clouds of purity. Moreover, the entire universe shuddered before You and the creatures of creation trembled before You during Your revelation, Our King, on Mount Sinai to teach Your people Torah and commandments. ….. You were revealed to them and with the sound of the shofar You appeared to them. (Musaf Amidah of Rosh HaShanah)
The theme of Rosh HaShanah is Hashem’s kingship
The musaf amidah of Rosh HaShanah includes three unique central blessings. The first of these blessings – malchuyot – deals with Hashem’s sovereignty. The second – zichronot – discusses His providence over humankind and the Jewish people. The final blessing – shofarot – is devoted to exploring the meaning of the shofar. The opening paragraph of this blessing is quoted above. It associates the shofar with the Sinai revelation. The blessing suggests that the shofar blast announces the revealed presence of Hashem as sovereign of the universe. In other words, the shofar is akin to the trumpet blast proclaiming the entrance of a king.
The shofar’s proclamation of Hashem’s presence is an expression of the day’s overall theme. Rosh HaShanah is the celebration of Hashem’s sovereignty over the universe. This theme is fully developed in the first of the central blessings of the musaf amidah. This is the blessing of malchuyot which discusses the sovereignty of Hashem. The blessing has a second theme. It is also the blessing of kedushat ha’yom. It is devoted to describing the unique sanctity of Rosh HaShanah. The combination of these two themes suggests that they are closely related or even synonymous. The day’s sanctity is derived from its designation as our celebration of Hashem’s sovereignty.
We now have a response to our question. What is the message of the shofar that we are called upon to obey? Rosh HaShanah celebrates Hashem’s sovereignty. The shofar announces the entrance of the king. The shofar declares that Hashem is our king and that He is the ruler of the entire universe. We obey the voice of the shofar by acknowledging Hashem’s kingship and serving Him as our ruler.
Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar’s call] is saying: Wake up, sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts. (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)
The sounds of the shofar call upon us to repent
In the above quotation, Maimonides discusses the meaning of the shofar. He explains that the shofar serves as a wake-up call. It urges us to reconsider our lives, renew our devotion to Hashem, abandon our sins, and repent. This message seems to be different from the amidah’s commentary of the meaning of the shofar. According to Maimonindes, the shofar beckons us to repent. According to the commentary of the amidah, the shofar proclaims Hashem’s sovereignty. In order to respond to this issue, let us consider other comments of Maimonides.
Even though repentance and calling out [to Hashem] are desirable at all times, during the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, they are even more desirable and will be accepted immediately as [Isaiah 55:6] states: “Seek Hashem when He is to be found.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:6)
For these reasons, it is customary for all of Israel to give profusely to charity, perform many good deeds, and be occupied with mitzvot from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur to a greater extent than during the remainder of the year. During these ten days, the custom is for everyone to rise [while it is still] night and pray in the synagogues with heart-rending words of supplication until daybreak. (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)
The Ten Days of Repentance
Maimonides explains that during the period beginning with Rosh HaShannah and continuing through Yom Kippur emphasis should be given to repentance. Conventionally, this period is referred to as the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance. The special character of this period is reflected in the practices that Maimonides associates it. These include giving more intense and consistent attention to the performance of mitzvot and rising in the morning to recite selichot – prayers of supplication and penitence. In practice, the liturgy of Rosh HaShanah does not include such prayers. We do not recite vedoi – the confession of our sins. We do not engage in expression of contrition. This is because Rosh HaShanah celebrates Hashem’s sovereignty. Its mood is festive and joyous. It is not appropriate in this context to dwell upon our sins and engage in expressions of contrition. But how do we reconcile our observance of Rosh HaShanah with Maimonides’ assertion that it initiates a period of repentance? Where in our observance of Rosh HaShanah is there any element of repentance or contrition?
If a person transgresses any of the mitzvot of the Torah, whether a positive command or a negative command – whether willingly or inadvertently – when he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before the L-rd, blessed be, He as [Numbers 5:6-7] states: “If a man or a woman commit any of the sins of man… they must confess the sin that they committed.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1)
Teshuvah is great for it draws a man close to the Shechinah as [Hoshea 14:2] states: “Return, O Israel, to Hashem, your L-rd;” [Amos 4:6] states: “`You have not returned to Me,’ declares Hashem;” and [Jeremiah 4:1] states: “`If you will return, 0 Israel,’ declares Hashem, `You will return to Me.'” Implied is that if you will return in teshuvah, you will cling to Me. Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by the Omnipresent, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear. (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 7:6)
Two Aspects of Repentance
The answer lies appreciating that there are two aspects to teshuvah – to repentance. First, the commitment of a sin requires that we repent. This aspect is explained by Maimonides in the first quotation above. In the second quotation, Maimonides focuses upon the second aspect of teshuvah. When we sin we move away from Hashem. Our sins create a partition between us and Hashem. Teshuvah is the means of restoring our relationship with Him. It rips down the barrier that separates between us and Hashem. In short, teshuvah is a response to sin and it is a restoration of our relationship with Hashem.
The Aseret Yemai Teshuvah are devoted to both aspects of teshuvah. They are a time to repent our sins and atone for the specific sins we have committed. They are also a time to return to Hashem and restore our relationship with Him. Appropriately, Rosh HaShanah initiates this period. We begin our return to Hashem by acknowledging and personally accepting His sovereignty. Rosh HaShanah does not feature vedoi or expression of contrition. But its clear resounding declaration of Hashem’s majesty is the beginning of the process of returning to Him and restoring our relationship with Him.
Let us consider an analogy. Many of us have entered into a conflict with a friend and after time wished to bring the conflict to a close. We apologized and perhaps, we exchanged apologies with the other person. But even after apologies were exchanged, tension remained. The relationship that we enjoyed before the conflict was not restored.
How could we have secured a better outcome? What measure would have restored the relationship that we miss? Well, what would have happened if instead of offering a simple apology, we had first spoken to our friend about the meaningfulness of the relationship that we shared, then described how much we miss this relationship, and finally apologized for specific wrongs? I suspect that this apology would have been more effective. This is because our friend would understand that it is not merely an apology for a specific wrongdoing; it is an apology for discounting the importance of our relationship and allowing this conflict to undermine it.
The point of this analogy is that like two friends in conflict, we too must take responsibility for our wrongdoings and apologize; we must repent for our sins. But this repentance is more meaningful when it is founded upon a desire to restore our relationship with Hashem. Rosh HaShanah expresses that desire to restore our relationship with Hashem. Through our declaration of His sovereignty, we declare that we wish to return to Him. Upon this foundation, we move forward during the remaining days of the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah and offer our vedoi and supplications.
Acknowledgment of Hashem’s kingship is the foundation of our repentance
We can now return to our original question. What is the message of the shofar? Is it a proclamation of Hashem’s presence as our king or is it a wake-up call to perform teshuvah?
It is fundamentally a declaration of Hashem’s kingship. But in the context of Rosh HaShanah, this declaration wakes us up to the imperative to perform teshuvah. We declare that Hashem is our king and proclaim our desire to renew our relationship with Him. This is our wake-up call. Once we acknowledge His sovereignty and embrace the challenge of returning to Him, we feel compelled to consider our lives, repent from our sins and seek His forgiveness.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah.
 Not every positive commandment is preceded by a blessing. For example, we are commanded to honor our parents. When one cares for one’s parents this commandment is fulfilled. Nonetheless, no blessing is recited prior to the fulfilling the commandment. Why some positive commandments are preceded by a blessing and others are not is discussed extensively among the authorities.
 Rabbaynu Asher, Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Rosh HaShanah, Chapter 4, note 10.
 This conclusion assumes that when the ba prefix is added to the word kol and follows a conjugation of the verb ShMA – for example, liShMoA – it changes the meaning of the phrase from hear the voice to obey the voice. This conclusion is based upon the meaning of this expression in the Torah. For example, see: Sefer Beresheit 21:12, 27:8, Sefer Shemot 4:1, 23:21, Sefer BeMidbar 14:22, Sefer Devarim 9:23, and 21:18. An exception is Sefer BeMidbar 21:3. In this instance, the phrase means to respond to the voice. Thank you to Rabbi Michael Taubes for this insight into the significance of this variation from the accepted version of the blessing. (Is There a Mitzvah of Teshuvah on Rosh HaShana?, YUTorah.org).
 The Talmud in Mesechet Berachot explains that a blessing must conclude with a single theme. The conclusion of malchiyot / kedushat ha’yom is Blessed are You, Hashem, King over all the world, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance. This conclusion combines reference to Hashem’s sovereignty with description of the day’s unique sanctity as the Day of Remembrance. This formulation seems to violate the rule that a blessing must conclude with a single theme. Based upon the above discussion, this issue is easily resolved. Because Hashem’s sovereignty is fundamental to the theme of the Day of Remembrance these are not two separate themes but merge into a single theme. See similar remarks by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Harerai Kedem vol 1 p 45.
 On Rosh HaShanah, it is customary to recite Avinu Malkaynu following the leader’s repetition of the amidah. However, there is dispute among the authorities as to whether the first line should be included. This is because this line proclaims that we have sinned before Hashem. The authorities who exclude this line argue that it is inconsistent with the theme of Rosh HaShanah. We do not focus upon confessing our sins or engage in expressions of contrition. See: Mishne Berurah 584:3.
 Of course, the atmosphere of joy is accompanied by our recognition that on Rosh HaShanah Hashem sits in judgment. The Avinu Malkaynu verses that are recited are comprised of various petitions for salvation. These verse acknowledge that Hashem is our king and that He determines our destiny. Also, other elements of the liturgy focus upon judgment and appeal to Hashem for salvation. Nonetheless, our awareness of the seriousness of the occasion is not intended to negate the joy of the day.
 Tur, Orech Chayim 581 discusses the custom of sounding the shofar from the beginning of Elul. He cites two sources. The first is a midrash. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai on the first of Elul to receive the second Tablets. Accompanying his ascent, a shofar was sounded in the camp. The midrash adds that also Hashem “ascended with that shofar blast”. Tur adds that the shofar is also associate with repentance. The commentaries on Tur discuss his reasons for providing two explanations of the significance of shofar in support of the custom. According to the above, Tur’s comments can be explained. Tur first quotes the midrash. The midrash provides an historical connection between the sounding to the shofar and the first day of Elul. Also, it associates the shofar blast with Hashem’s presence. He ascends with the blast of the shofar. However, we do not sound the shofar during the month of Elul solely to acknowledge Hashem’s presence or His approach. As on Rosh HaShanah, it is intended to evoke an urgency to repent. Tur provides a second source that describes the shofar as such a wake-up call. In other words, inherently, shofar proclaims Hashem’s sovereignty. However, our objective in sounding the shofar during Elul is not only to announce His presence but also to thereby, inspire repentance.