The Shofar – An Alarm Clock

Following Maimonides’ words, we learn how the shofar awakens us to do cheshbon nefesh (soul-searching) and teshuva (repentance).

Resource Ages: 9-11, 12-14


[The shofar’s] blast is symbolic, as if saying: “You that sleep, wake yourselves from your sleep, and you slumbering, emerge from your slumber, examine your conduct, turn in repentance […]”

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:4

רֶמֶז יֵשׁ בּוֹ [בשופר], כְּלוֹמַר: עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם וְנִרְדָּמִים הָקִיצוּ מִתַּרְדֵּמַתְכֶם 

וְחַפְּשׂוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה […] 

רמב”ם, משנה תורה, הלכות תשובה פרק ג, הלכה ד

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can I be the best “me” this year? In class, at home, on the playground, etc?
  • What resources support/enable/inspire my growth?
  • How do I grow as a result of the Jewish calendrical cycle?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • Why is it important to examine ourselves – as individuals and as a society? 
  • To what extent are people willing and open to examine themselves?  
  • How can people be awoken from their habits and stimulated to examine themselves?

Background for Teacher

One of the main themes of Yom Kippur is the process of soul-searching – in Hebrew cheshbon nefesh – every Jew is supposed to undergo on this day. Cheshbon nefesh refers to a process of self-criticism, reflections about our life, and a summary and...

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One of the main themes of Yom Kippur is the process of soul-searching – in Hebrew cheshbon nefesh – every Jew is supposed to undergo on this day. Cheshbon nefesh refers to a process of self-criticism, reflections about our life, and a summary and evaluation of our actions and achievements. If we find that we have behaved wrongly toward someone else, we must ask the person we offended for forgiveness and we must repent. This process of introspection should lead us to take decisions about the future and about the changes we want to make.

The process of cheshbon nefesh begins in the month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and continues over the Ten Days of Repentance through to Yom Kippur. In our source, Maimonides connects the commandment to hear the shofar, which is the central commandment concerning Rosh Hashanah, with the process of soul-searching. He suggests that people are in a kind of spiritual slumber throughout the year. The shofar acts as an “alarm clock” that awakens us from this sleep. The analogy to an alarm clock is appropriate for several reasons. Firstly, just as a clock marks the passage of time, so Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a new year. Secondly, just as an alarm clock penetrates our consciousness as we sleep, so Maimonides claims that the shofar can awaken us from our spiritual slumber. And just as the sound of an alarm clock can sometimes be irritating or even frightening, so the shofar – and the process of soul-searching – may disturb our tranquility. This quote invites discussion of the things that keep us in this state of slumber (routine, fear of thinking about and encountering things that could challenge our familiar stability, etc.).  

Maimonides (1138-1204)

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (known in Hebrew as “the Rambam” and in English as Maimonides) was a rabbi, thinker, and physician, and is one of the most important and influential characters in Jewish culture. For most of his life he lived and worked in Egypt. His treatise Mishneh Torah is one of the most important books in the Jewish library.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
How to Do It?
  • Bring a shofar to class and blow it. What feelings do the sounds inspire? What thoughts and emotions? Alternatively, play this clip of shofar sounds
  • Bring an alarm clock to class and surprise the students with its ringing. Ask the students: were you surprised? What is the function of the alarm clock? What kinds of things do you set alarms for? Do you have alarms or reminders that are repeated at daily, weekly, or other regular intervals?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

After making sure that the students have understood the source:

  1. One of the purposes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to encourage people to make positive changes in their lives. The process of soul-searching – cheshbon nefesh –  is vital before people make changes. Why?
  2. Soul-searching can sometimes be challenging. Why? Suggest some different reasons.
  3. Maimonides describes everyday life as “slumber” and soul-searching as a process of awakening. What does he mean? What do you think makes us “sleepwalk” through our daily lives?
  4. According to Maimonides, the shofar is a kind of alarm clock. How do you think the blowing of the shofar in particular, and the process of soul-searching in general, function as an “alarm clock” awakening us from our daily slumber?
  5. When we engage in soul-searching it is important to think both about the positive things we’ve done and the less positive things. Why is it also important to remember our good deeds?

6. We can examine ourselves every day. Why do you think Jewish tradition has set aside special days in the calendar to focus on soul-searching? 

  • Do a personal cheshbon nefesh (you don’t have to share what you write with others). To do this, prepare a table in your notebook with two columns:

cheshbon nefesh about the past   |   cheshbon nefesh about the future

About the past: Think about some daily habit or type of behavior that you would like to improve in yourself, or something wrong you did that hurt or annoyed someone else (think about the following circles: friends, family, studies, outside world, etc.).

About the future: Think about things you’d like to improve next year in the above areas. What new things do you want to do? What or who could help or encourage you to achieve your desired change?

You can use the attached worksheet.

  • Write a letter to yourself: What do I want to try and change this year? Keep the letter somewhere safe and next year open it and check what change you managed to achieve in this field.
  • The students work in pairs. Each pair receives one card from the “Old Year, New Year” set (see the separate file). Share your answers to the questions. After a few minutes, hand your cards to the pair next to you, and so forth.
  • Look at the sculpture The Thinker by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The sculpture depicts a man deep in thought and self-reflection. Discuss the sculpture in the context of soul-searching.
  • Read the story A Retrieved Reformation by O. Henry, which features a man who wants to make a change in his life.
  • Read the poem I Walk Down the Street by Portia Nelson, which discusses the automatic nature of our actions and suggests a way to make changes in our lives.
  • Detailed explanation in English about how to blow the shofar.
  • Video film in English about how to blow the shofar.
  • Video film in Hebrew about how to blow the shofar.