The Ram, the Goat, and the Shofar

Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish new year and the Day of Atonement, will fall on Oct. 4 and 5 and Oct. 13. The shofar or ram's horn is an important symbol of this festival season.

"When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son."
Gen. 22:13, Rosh haShanah Torah reading.

"Aaron [the high priest] shall place both of his hands upon the head of the live goat and shall confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and it shall be sent off to the wilderness…"
Lev. 16:21

"In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day of blowing the ram's horn…"
Num. 29:1

"In order that the Israelites may bring the sacrifices they have been making in the open to the priests at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well being…that they may offer no more sacrifices to the goat-beings after whom they stray."
Lev. 17:5, 7

The autumn holidays of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur are both deeply associated with horned animals. On both festivals, we blow the shofar as a sign of remembrance, repentance, and deliverance. On Rosh haShanah, we read the story of how Avbraham sacrificed a horned ram in place of his son, Isaac. On Yom Kippur, we read of how our ancestors used two male goats to cleanse the sanctuary on the day of atonement. One goat was slaughtered so its blood could purify the holy place. The other was sent to the wilderness, to the spirit Azazel, who may have been a goat himself. Why the fascination with horned animals at this season?

In many cultures, horned animals are honored in the fall because the autumn is hunting season. The spirits of the animals, sometimes embodied in horned deities, were celebrated and placated. I don't know if this was true of ancient Israel, but that is one possibility for the origin of our fascination with horns. Another possibility is that horned animals represent the moon. All of the holidays at this season fall on a different phase of the moon. At this time when the nights become longer than the days, horned animals might have symbolized the transition to the dark half of the year.

It appears our ancestors had a long tradition of honoring goat-like spirit-animals, as the book of Leviticus tells us the Israelite sacrificial system was meant to replace the practice of offering meat to the se'irim or goat-beings. In II Chronicles 11:14 we hear about the Northern Kingdom of Israel (during the days when there were two Israelite kingdoms) worshipping se'irim. The depiction of the Adversary as a goat-like man may stem from the duel Israelite religion fought with the goat-beings.

How does Judaism transform the ancient symbolism of the goat or the ram? On both Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, the goat/ram is sacrificed as a substitute for us (of course, now we only use a text about an animal, not an actual animal, as a sacrifice). Through these stories, we symbolically offer our life-force to the Divine to be used for healing in the universe. This is part of the teshuvah or repentance process. The shofar, which is blown on Rosh Hashanah to represent Divine sovereignty, remembrance, and revelation, teaches us that our offerings need not be violent ones. We can dedicate ourselves to the forces of life through remembering our deeds and acting justly in the world. The ram and goat become, not only symbols of hunting, but symbols of righteousness. The nights of the holidays, with their bright moons, beckon us to search in our own inner wildernesses for our worthy inclinations, our path lit by the sky-torch of the Shekhinah. The hunt we engage in this autumn is a hunt for the knowledge of our true selves.

Good hunting to all of us.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director and co-founder of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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