It is a positive mitzva to hear the blast (teru’a) of a shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, as it says, “In the seventh month, on the first of the month…. You shall observe it as a day of blasts (yom teru’a)” (Bamidbar 29:1), and “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts (zikhron teru’a)…” (Vayikra 23:24).
The word “teru’a” denotes brokenness. Thus, we read, “Smash them (tero’em) with an iron mace; shatter them like potter’s ware” (Tehilim 2:9). The word “tero’em” means breaking. Similarly, we read, “The earth is breaking, breaking (ro’a hitro’a’a). The earth is crumbling, crumbling. The earth is tottering, tottering” (Yeshayahu 24:19). It also says, “They shall lay waste (ve-ra’u) to the land of Assyria with the sword” (Micha 5:5), meaning they will smash the land of Assyria (Rashi). Similarly, Onkelos translates “yom teru’a” as “a day of wailing.”
While teki’a expresses joy and stability, teru’a alludes to brokenness, fear, tears, and radical change. Similarly, God instructed the Israelites in the desert to blow a teki’a on the trumpets when they needed to gather the people, as teki’a expresses joy and togetherness. In contrast, when they needed to go out to war or leave their encampment and move on, they were instructed to blow a teru’a (Bamidbar 10:1-7), for a teru’a represents brokenness, tears over that which is finished but imperfect, and apprehension about what comes next (3:2 above).
So too, on Rosh Ha-shana, which is when the previous year’s life has already been lived, never to return, and the upcoming year’s life has yet to be allotted, people experience anguish over the lost opportunities of the past year and great trepidation in anticipation of the judgment about the upcoming one. We face the accuser, and we do not know who will live and who will die, who will be healthy and who will suffer. God, in His mercy, commands us to blow teru’ot with the shofar and thereby mitigate the judgment, for by accepting His kingship and judgment, we are inspired to repent. Therefore, even though the teru’a is short, it expresses the character of the day. This is why Rosh Ha-shana is referred to as Yom Teru’a – a day of brokenness and tears, fear and trepidation.
Based on a close reading of the verses, our Sages inferred an obligation to hear three teru’ot on Rosh Ha-shana, each one of which must be preceded and followed by a teki’a. The Torah commandment is to hear three sets of teki’a–teru’a-teki’a (Rosh Ha-shana 32b, 34a).
The first teki’a of each set expresses the natural uprightness of the soul, as that of small children who have yet to sin and who are still innocent and pure. As a child matures, though, he is exposed to the complexities and dilemmas of this world; he struggles and is tested; he fails and sins. This is expressed by the teru’a, sighing or crying about our character defects and the sins to which we have succumbed. After this, another simple teki’a completes the set. It again expresses goodness and rectitude, but this time it is the goodness that follows repentance and asking forgiveness. Thus, each blast expresses a different part of life: the positive beginning, the struggle with life’s challenges, and the concluding corrective. At the end of all the blasts, the custom is to blow a particularly long teki’a, expressing the ultimate corrective, when all struggling and suffering is over. (See Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Torah Or §55.)
Even though Rosh Ha-shana is referred to as Yom Teru’a because of the judgment and trembling inspired by the teru’a, we still blow a teki’a before and after the teru’a. This is because, like the positive teki’a, judgment’s goals are positive: to distance us from evil, to lead us to self-improvement, and to grant us ultimate reward (Rabbeinu Baḥya, Kad Ha-kemaḥ, Rosh Ha-shana 2; Akeidat Yitzḥak, Sha’ar 67).
The shofar hints at this duality as well. It frightens us when we hear it, and it simultaneously inspires us to return to our roots, to our basic inner goodness. This is the advantage of a shofar over a trumpet. The shofar’s natural sound expresses the deep desire to return to our roots, to connect with true goodness, and to strive for perfection.