The Watchman


With Tisha B’Av behind us, I’ve started looking ahead to the Yamim Noraim. One of the first indications of the coming of these days will be the blowing of a shofar every morning after Shacharis. The Tur notes this minhag, sourcing it in a teaching from Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 46 (1), where Rosh Chodesh Elul is pinpointed as the day that Moshe returned to the top of Har Sinai in order to receive the second set of tablets. As he ascended, a shofar was blown in the camp as a warning to everyone not to stray after idolatrous notions as they had previously done. Much has been written about the timeline of these events, as well as picking apart the exact wording of the Tur here. However, I would like to focus on the next idea that the Tur writes:

לכן התקינו חז”ל שיהו תוקעין בר”ח אלול בכל שנה ושנה וכל החדש כדי להזהיר ישראל שיעשו תשובה שנאמר (עמוס ג’) אם יתקע שופר בעיר וגו’

Therefore, the Sages established that they should blow shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul each and every year and [continue] the entire month in order to warn the Jewish people to repent, as the verse states, “If a shofar is blown in the city, [will the inhabitants not tremble…] (Amos 3:6)
The Tur, again quoting Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, seems to establish two separate ideas here (2). First, we blow the shofar specifically on Rosh Chodesh Elul as a remembrance of the fact that Moshe went back to the top of Har Sinai to plead with God to forgive the Jewish people. This culminates with Moshe’s descent from Har Sinai, second set of tablets in hand, on Yom Kippur. This serves to both announce and coronate the coming days as days of repentance and drawing close to God. Second, the shofar is blown throughout the month of Elul as a notice to all that now is the time to repent. While this twofold presentation caught my interest, the verse from Amos really caught my interest. It’s so easy to learn a source like this and not bother to think about how a verse being quoted serves as a support for an idea and what we could gain from knowing the full context of that verse. With this in mind, I set out to see what more could be gained by delving into the section of Amos from which this verse is taken.

Amos 3:3-6 contains a rebuke of the Jewish people that follows a fascinating pattern :

JPS 1917 translation

A – Will two walk together, except they have agreed?
B – Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey? Will a young lion give forth his voice out of his den, if he have taken nothing?

C – Will a bird fall in a snare upon the earth, where there is no lure for it? Will a snare spring up from the ground, and have taken nothing at all?

D – Shall the horn be blown in a city, and the people not tremble? Shall evil befall a city, and the LORD hath not done it?
Here, the fundamental theme is that nothing is happenstance. Divine Providence guides all, even the bad. It’s worth noting that Amos primarily utilizes examples from nature. This serves to bolster the theme of this section: I, the prophet, am giving you a message from God. To heed this message is such a logical thing to do that doing so is likened to the natural order of the world!

While life can often feel so random and chaotic, Judaism most certainly asserts a belief in Divine Providence. Granted some of the specifics of how and to what degree Divine Providence guides our lives is debated, the basic principle stands nonetheless. Over the course of Elul, we strive to attain greater awareness of Divine Providence in our lives and to incorporate this clarity fluidly into our existence. This act of repentance, of acknowledging and renewing our bond with God, is exactly what Amos and the other prophets encourage through their prophecies.

In commenting on verse 6, the Ibn Ezra links this section to an idea in Yechezkiel that may well add some richness to Amos’ description of the shofar in the city and the prophet:

כבר הזכיר יחזקאל דבר הצופה כי הנביא דומה לו והטעם איך לא תחרדו מדברי הנביא או תחשבו כי יש רעה באה לעיר אם אני לא גזרתי להיותה וזהו ויי’ לא עשה כי גם השם לא יעשה רעה עד שיגלה סודו להודיעכם על יד הנביא אולי תשובו מדרכיכם הרעים על דרך רגע אדבר על גוי וממלכה והנה משאגת האריה יחרד כל שומע ואף כי כאשר אתן קולי ואדבר אל הנביא איך לא יפחד ממנו למלאת אשר צויתיו:

Yechezkiel has already noted the idea of a watchman for the prophet is akin to one. The reason [for this comparison] being how could one not tremble upon hearing the words of the prophet or think that evil will befall the city if I hadn’t decreed it, as stated, “Shall evil befall a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” God will not bring calamity until He has revealed it to the prophet who will sound the alarm in order that they may repent, as Yirmiyahu stated, “One instant I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to demolish and to destroy.” [and in the next moment they’ve repented]. Just as a person would be afraid when hearing a lion’s roar, how could they not have trepidation and strive to fulfill My words after hearing the prophet?!?

Here’s the crux of Yechezkiel’s prophecy (33:7,11):

(ז) וְאַתָּה בֶן אָדָם צֹפֶה נְתַתִּיךָ לְבֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְשָׁמַעְתָּ מִפִּי דָּבָר וְהִזְהַרְתָּ אֹתָם מִמֶּנִּי:

(יא) אֱמֹר אֲלֵיהֶם חַי אָנִי נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְקֹוִק אִם אֶחְפֹּץ בְּמוֹת הָרָשָׁע כִּי אִם בְּשׁוּב רָשָׁע מִדַּרְכּוֹ וְחָיָה שׁוּבוּ שׁוּבוּ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶם הָרָעִים וְלָמָּה תָמוּתוּ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל: פ

JPS 1917 translation

7. So thou, son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore, when thou shalt hear the word at My mouth, warn them from Me.

11. Say unto them: As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
The prophet is a watchman. Most immediately for his times, but also for all generations. That is the exact context of the shofar in the city that Amos describes. It is an alarm, signaling an impending attack, allowing for those who listen to find refuge. The shofar we blow during Elul functions in much the same manner, it sounds the warning to reflect on our actions and to set changes in motion.

1. Much of the Tur’s quote isn’t existent in our version as noted by the Bach, OC 581 and Karban Nesanel, Rosh HaShanah 4:14.
2. See Perish ad loc., the Beis Yosef however seems to understand the Tur’s statement as being a single unit.


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