Jewish Calendar - Tishrei - Rosh Hashanah

The ram's horn (shofar) was a very common motif in ancient Jewish art. It appeared in reliefs, capitals, floor mosaics and various implements. It was often depicted near the base of the seven-branched menorah, sometimes coupled with the incense-bowl, the palm branch (lulav) and the citron (etrog), all of which are reminiscent of the objects used in the Temple and of the holidays celebrated within it.

From section of floor mosaic,
Hammat Tiberias synagogue,
4th century.
Click to view enlarged

The act of blowing the ram's horn and the trumpet made of metal was part of the ritual, and was to be found among many other civilizations as well. It was a means of making important announcements, rallying the forces to battle and proclaiming the coronation of kings. The horn, or pair of horns, assumed several symbolic meanings. They were frequently mentioned in the Bible, often in a context of strength and power. "The horns of the nations, which lifted up their horns over the land of Judah to scatter it."[1] In the prophecies of Restoration which promise that Jerusalem will be redeemed, the ram's horn serves as a symbol of honor and distinction. The bond between the ram's horn and redemption is underlined whenever the horn is mentioned in connection with the days of the Messiah.[2]

Another Biblical allusion connects the symbolic value of blowing the ram's horn with the handing down of the Torah to the Jewish people.[3] The messianic symbolism attributed to the act of blowing the ram's horn, inspired as it was by the imagery of kingship and redemption, was given further meaning by later Jewish traditions. Legends which gained currency in the Middle Ages referred to the prophet Elijah who will blow the horn three days before the arrival of the Messiah. The resurrection of the dead will also be announced by the blowing of a horn. Kabbalistic influences were instrumental in turning the sound of the ram's horn into a symbol of the harmony between the forces of justice and the forces of mercy.

The Binding of Isaac,
detail of floor mosaic,
Bet Alpha synagogue, 6th cent.
Click to view enlarged

The horn motif was to become firmly associated with the Biblical story about the Binding of Isaac. God commanded that the (horned) ram be sacrificed instead of Isaac. According to tradition, the Binding took place on the Jewish New Year on Mount Moriah, and it is this tradition that accounts for the link between the ram's horn, the New Year and the site of the Temple.

In contrast to its popularity as a symbol in ancient Jewish art, the ram's horn was to become increasingly rare as an isolated motif in the painting or embossing of later periods. In the Middle Ages, it was used primarily as an element in scenes of the prophet Elijah as he announces the redemption at the gates of Jerusalem.

In later medieval Jewish art, on the other hand, there appears another symbol, also related to the ram's horn motif; namely, an imaginary animal, usually resembling a goat or a white horse, with one white horn in the middle of its forehead. It appears in illuminated Jewish manuscripts, in paintings within the synagogues, and later on ceremonial objects as well. This imaginary creature, known as the unicorn, developed in European Christian art. Christian sources regarded it as embodying speed, courage and purity.

It was often associated with the Virgin Mary and even with Jesus. The unicorn, and especially its horn, were said in Christian legend to possess miraculous powers, among them the purification of poisoned waters. Like the horn, so, too, the unicorn was seen as an ambivalent symbol, a power capable of attack and a receptacle.

Hodorov synagogue ceiling, detail
17th-c. reconstruction,
Beth Hatefutsoth, Tel Aviv
Click to view enlarged

Jewish art adopted the unicorn and assigned to it some additional symbolic associations. Thus, the unicorn was identified with the wild ox mentioned frequently in the Scriptures. The wild ox and its horns, as depicted in the Bible, was a fierce, supernatural force. Talmudic legend adds to its superhuman traits by depicting it as equal in size to Mount Tabor and attributing to it various miraculous deeds. In some instances, it is described as being in confrontation with the lion: "Save me from the lion's mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of the wild oxen."[4] This verse was accorded various commentaries, interpretations and legends. In some of these legends, the lion and the wild ox are described as two forces possessing savage strength, which can only be controlled by divine authority. Their behavior is sometimes associated with that of King David.

From the fifteenth century, Jewish art made frequent use of the confrontation between the lion and the unicorn. In combination with other symbols, such as the gate and the Tree of Life, these two animals assumed a symbolic, messianic dimension which defies rational explanation.

footnotes [1] Zechariah 2:4 [back]
[2] Isaiah 27:13 36 [back]
[3] Exodus 19:19 [back]
[4] Psalms 22:22 [back]
excerpted From: Living Symbols: Symbols in Jewish Art and Tradition, by Ida Huberman.
Modan Publishers, 1996
related links The Shofar Blower, by Yiddish poet Kadya Molodowsky
Ten Reasons for Blowing the Shofar, Sa'adiah Gaaon

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