In the words of the Rambam, the Shofar calls out, "awaken you sleepers from your (spiritual) slumber. Search our your ways and return to Hashem in Teshuva."
From the second day of Rosh Chodesh we begin to blow the Shofar. The custom in most places is to blow after the Shacharis (morning) prayer, although some blow after the Maariv (evening) prayer as well.
The source for the blowing of the Shofar comes from Rabbenu Asher, the Tur who explained that when Moshe Rabbenu went up to Mount Sinai the second time to get the tablets of the Ten Commandments, it was Rosh Chodesh Elul. As he ascended, they blew on Shofars to indicate that Moshe Rabbenu was going to be gone for 40 days (until Yom Kippur). They shouldn't make a mistake again with a Golden Calf.
A parable will unravel the secret of the sound of the Shofar.
Two people come to court to have their case heard by the judge. One of
the litigants, recognizing that the judge is from his region of the country,
presents his side of the case to the judge using a dialect that is known
only to people of that region. The sound of the litigant's words, spoken
in the same cadence and tone that he heard from his mother and father in
his youth, sways the heart of the judge. Fair or not, the case is over!
The sound of the Shofar is a special language known only by Hashem
and the Jews. When the Jews speak to Hashem with their Shofars,
his heart is surely swayed. "Happy is the people that understand the
call of Teruah (the Shofar) of Hashem, in the light
of Your presence they shall walk."
On the day before Rosh HaShanah, the Shofar is not blown.
There are two reasons.
One is to make a separation between the blasts which were designated for Rosh HaShanah by the Torah, and those which were instituted by the Sages during Elul. The second reason is to confuse the prosecutor (Satan), into thinking that the Day of Judgment has already passed!
Concerning this one must ask. The Satan (not to be confused with the English - devil, rather the Hebrew term for the negative inclination or Yetzer Hara), is a wily and clever being always finding ways to tempt and trip up Jews, encouraging them to disregard the will of Hashem. Is he so foolish that he doesn't understand the calendar enough to know when Rosh HaHashanah falls? Moreover, presumably the Satan would be wise enough to know after 4000 years, that not blowing the Shofar on Erev Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish custom. (This is also why we stand during the Shofar service. In Halacha those blasts are called the "sitting blasts". Technically, one does not have to stand. We only stand to fool the Satan.)
The Toldos, R' Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye answers (in Parshas Vayelech), that the Shofar arouses in the world the sparks of the final redemption, a time when there will be no Yezter Hara and no death. By not hearing the Shofar Erev Rosh HaShanah he thinks that Rosh HaShanah has passed and he has become superfluous. His job is finished. It is similar to waking up in the morning to find your name in the obituaries.
Additionally, since the sound of the Shofar arouses the hearts of Jews to repentance, the Satan seeing the arousal and inspiration of the Jews upon hearing the Shofar, becomes confounded and despairingly gives up.
The nature of the Shofar blast arouses trembling and trepidation in the heart as it is written, "If the Shofar is blown in the city, will the people not tremble?" (Amos 3:6)
The Shofar can be made only from a ram's horn and not from the horn of a cow or ox. One of the most compelling reason is brought in the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 26a) "The prosecution cannot also act as the defense." The horn of a cow, which is a reminder of the Golden Calf, cannot plead Israel's case before the Master of the World.
Nevertheless,why then do we blow the Shofar of a Ram specifically. Rabbi Abahu asked, "Why do we only blow on the Shofar of a ram?" Answered The Holy One Blessed Be He, "Blow for Me on a ram's Shofar, and on account of it I will remember the binding of Issac (and the ram that was sacrificed in his place). I furthermore will consider it as if you bound yourselves up before me like Isaac." (Talmud Bavli Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a)
A few years ago, on the night of Rosh HaShanah, the Biala Rebbe, shlit"a explained the signifigance of this passage. The sound of the Shofar stirs up the heart of every Jew to break down the barriers that divide himself from his Creator. He is aroused to serve Him with complete self sacrifice. Just as Isaac put his life on the line in order to fulfill the will of his Creator, so is the inner desire of every Jew to do the same. The sound of Shofar urges him to do so.
How does the Shofar do this? At the revelation on Mt. Sinai, the Torah states that there were to be long Shofar blasts. (Shemos 19:13,19) Rashi comments that the Shofar blown at Mt. Sinai was the same Shofar that came from the head of the Ram that was offered in Isaac's place. The Ramban (v. 13), wonders how Rashi could say such a thing, wasn't the Ram completely consumed as a burnt offering on Mt. Moriah? The Ramban answers that the Shofar that was heard on Mt. Sinai wasn't the actual horn from the Ram of Isaac. Its sound was the sound of the 'dread' and 'awe' of Isaac who laid on the altar before Hashem. It is the expression of his willingness to give up everything for Hashem, even his life! It is a sound which penetrates deeper into the heart and soul than any speech. This is the call of the Shofar.
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