“And in the seventh month, on the first day, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work. It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you.”
— Numbers 29:1
While it is the (nearly) universal practice to blow the shofar 100 times on Rosh Hashanah, this was not always the case. The Torah, in fact, does not instruct us on the exact number of shofar blasts required on the day of the new year. So, how did we get to one hundred?
Evolution of the Shofar Blasts
Within the Torah we find guidance that indicates nine blasts are minimally necessary — three Teru'ot, each preceded and followed by a Teki'ah — making a total of nine blasts. In the 3rd century CE this count was tripled to twenty seven because there was some doubt about the exact sound of the Teru'ah.
Over the passage of the years and throughout the many exiles, we are no longer sure as to the exact nature of the teru'ah which the Torah mentions. We do not know whether it is similar to wailing of weeping women (i.e. a terua, or nine short blasts), or the sighs of a person who is deeply distressed about a major matter. Or perhaps it is a combination of the two - sighing and the crying which will follow it. Therefore, we perform all three variations.
— Rambam, Laws of Shofar 3:2
Although this discrepancy was later resolved, by that time the tradition had taken hold.
Over several centuries the count of shofar blasts continued to increase. Some rabbis advised thirty blasts, to account for the breaths taken between Shevarim-Teru'ah. Later forty blasts were considered proper to symbolize the forty days that Moses received the Torah. Some rabbis then argued that the correct number should be forty two (again in consideration of breath patterns), then sixty (“to confuse Satan”) and then sixty one (to thoroughly confuse Satan.)
Eventually they settled on 100 blasts in connection to the hundred wails Sisera’s mother cried when her son did not return from his campaign against the people of Israel (Judges 5:28). And now, we ask, what was the story of Sisera and what led to his mother wailing?
The Tale of Jael
Jael is a crucial player in the story of Israel’s conflict with Canaan and her story is recounted in Judges book 4 as well as in the poetic Song of Deborah (Judges book 5). Some scholars have argued that the poetic telling is older than the prose — in fact, the Song of Deborah is theorized to be one of the oldest parts of the Bible. This is a matter of debate as there is no consensus on the precise dating and therefore no definitive answer as to which was written first. Many scholars suggest that they be read together as a single story, told in different ways or genres. Each text contains components not found in the other so together they provide a complete story.
Sisera was the captain of the Canaanite army under Jabin, the king of Hazor (it is thought that “Jabin” may simply be a title similar to “Pharaoh” in Egypt). Although the Israelites under Joshua had defeated the northern coalition and destroyed the city of Hazor, the city had been rebuilt and became the capital of the Canaanites. The Israelites were less concerned with the city of Hazor itself, rather the true threat was the Canaanite army under Sisera’s command, stationed near the Mount Carmel slopes in the city of Harosheth-ha-goiim. The military superiority of the Canaanites is demonstrated in their 900 chariots of iron while the Israelites had none.
During a twenty-year period of oppression, the Canaanites immobilized Israeli commerce and subjected the Israelites to intolerable disruptions of normal life. Armed resistance seemed almost impossible until Deborah arose as a prophet to whom the Israeli people turned in hope. Sisera encountered no serious threats from the Israelites until Barak, with the guidance of Deborah, led a division of 10,000 against him.
Commanding those 900 chariots of iron, Sisera dominated the Israelites who were limited to infantry. These chariots most likely were two-wheeled and each one carried a driver, a warrior, and a shield bearer. When Sisera learned that an Israelite army had gathered on Mount Tabor he advanced his chariot division into the Plain. A sudden and, by all accounts, unexpected rainstorm changed the Kishon Valley into a muddy terrain, giving the Israelites the advantage since they were already prepared to fight without chariots. Sisera abandoned his chariot and led, completely demoralising the Canaanites.
When Deborah instructed Barak to go and fight the Canaanites, Barak replied that he would only go if Deborah accompanied him. In response Deborah told Barak that while she would agree to go with him, Sisera would not die by his hand but instead would fall to a woman:
“Very well, I will go with you,” she answered. “However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.
— Judges 4:9
With the battle having been a disaster for Sisera’s army, he fled and went to Jael’s tent, for there was peace between King Jabin and Jael’s husband, Heber the Kenite. When Sisera approached her tent, Jael went out to greet him, invited him in, and covered him with a blanket or rug (the word used in this passage does not appear anywhere else in the Bible, so its meaning is uncertain, which has led to some more open interpretations as we’ll soon see). Following his request for a little water, she instead gave him milk. Some have suggested that Jael covered Sisera with her body (with all the Biblical implications that meant) though this is unsupported by the text. However, even if we do not discern any actual intimacy between the characters, both of the Judges books 4 and 5 are suffused with sexual overtones—as well as maternal ones. Jael says to Sisera:
“Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me” — Judges 4:18
These words could certainly be considered suggestive, especially considering she was alone in her tent with a man that was not her husband. Her use of the address “my lord” could also be a bit of verbal foreplay. This form of address is often used in the Bible by women towards men with whom they have or will have a sexual relationship.
Once inside the tent, Sisera asked Jael to stand at the entrance and turn away whomever asks whether anyone is inside. The passage reads:
“He said to her, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and if it happens that any man comes and asks you, ‘Is there a man here?’ say, ‘None.’” — Judges 4:20
As Sisera lay asleep, exhausted from his defeat in battle, Jael took a tent peg and drove it through his forehead into the ground. She then presented his body to Barak, who had come in pursuit of the enemy general. Jael accomplished what Barak could not, and Sisera was indeed defeated at the hands of a woman.
While some have found it strange that such an important synagogue custom is based on the grief of a non-Jewish mother over an enemy of the Israeli people, the tradition still stands. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of contemplation, a time to consider what we have done in the past year and how we have used the time allotted to us to live a life of purpose and devotion. As some experienced victories others experienced defeats, and we acknowledge that actions we have taken may have harmed others. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the period where we consider those we have harmed or transgressed against, and we prepare ourselves to ask forgiveness from them and from G-d.
This year, when you hear the sound of shofar, take some time to consider the wisdom of Deborah, the hesitation of Barak, and the courage of Jael. The history of the Jewish people is colorful and complicated and we remember this as each new cycle begins.