There is a beautiful parable that illuminates the reason for sounding the Shofar in the month of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah.
Two people came before a judge in a court to have their case heard. One of the litigants realizes that the judge is from his part of the country. He proceeds to present his case in the special dialect of the region, known only to the local people. The sound of the litigant’s words, spoken in the same rhythm and pitch as his parents, moves the judge. From that moment forth, the case is effectively over!
When the Jewish people come before G-d and speak in the language of the Shofar, they speak in a special language, known only to them and G-d. G-d’s heart is effectively swayed (so to speak). As we learn in Psalms, “Happy is the people that understand the call of Teruah of Hashem, in the light of Your presence they shall walk”.
It is known in Judaism that a horn made of a cow or ox may not be used as a Shofar. The Talmud explains that the reason for this is that “the prosecution cannot also act as the defense”. The horn of a cow serves as a reminder of the Golden Calf and can therefore not be used in Israel’s defense when they come to plead before G-d.
In fact, according to the Talmud, the horn of a ram is the most preferable kind of Shofar as it is explained than when G-d hears the call of the Shofar He is reminded of the binding of Isaac and the ram that was offered in his place and he will consider it as thought the Jewish people are offering themselves up before G-d. Ultimately, the ram’s horn is a reminder of Abraham’s total dedication to G-d and the Jewish people, feeling lowly and unworthy, present their forefather’s deeds before G-d, hoping that they will serve as protection for them.
The Biala Rebbe, may he live days that are pleasant and long, explains this passage in the Talmud as follows. The call of the Shofar moves every Jew to wanting to break down the walls between himself and G-d. Each Jew who hears the Shofar wishes to offer himself to G-d in complete self-sacrifice. Just as Isaac was willing to offer himself up to G-d, every Jew has an inner desire to do the same and the Shofar’s call exposes this desire.
Adapted from http://www.nishmas.org/minhagim/shofar.htm
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DIFFERENT NOTES OF THE SHOFAR
On the Jewish New Year, the Jewish people are commanded to blow the Shofar. The Shofar is a horn fashioned from a kosher animal. The Shofar is blown in Jewish houses of prayer that are known as Synagogues. Every single member of the Jewish nation is obliged to hear the Shofar being blown.
There are three basic sounds of the Shofar– Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah.
In the Bible (Torah in Hebrew), the Jewish New Year, which is known in our days as Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Teruah. The Sages in the Talmud discussed the Teruah sound and agreed that it refers to a blast that resembles crying. There was a difference of opinions as to whether the crying was of the melancholy moaning kind or of the uncontrolled staccato sound. As a result, both possibilities were honored and today the Shevarim, made up of three medium length sounds and akin to sighing, as well as the Teruah, connoting uncontrollable crying and made up of nine short sounds, and a combination of the two known as the Shevarim-Teruah are sounded.
Directly before and immediately after these sounds is the Tekiah which is a long, simple blast that alludes to many things- it can be regarded as a summons to gather together, as a wakeup call, as a way to greet the King and a sound of rejoicing.
The inconsistency between the crying sounds of the Teruah and Shevarim and the joyful sounds of the Tekiah are quite apparent and this paradox teaches an important aspect of Rosh Hashanah. On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is a very joyful day on which we praise G-d through heartfelt prayers and crown Him as King of the Universe. On the other hand, it is also a very serious day of reflection when each soul comes before G-d to be judged and our lives and future are very literally on the line.
The arrangement of the Shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah reflects this reality. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, “There is nothing more complete than a broken heart.” Rosh Hashanah is the time of opening our hearts as we express our desires to correct our ways and to draw close to G-d. These powerful emotions are enveloped by the Tekiah; the hope, trust and joy that it represents.