July 19, 2024
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The Etymology of Chatzotzrot (Trumpets)

This word appears 29 times in Tanach, all but one time in the plural. (The exception is Hoshea 5:8: “chatzotzrah.”) The most common spelling of the plural has the second vav but not the first vav: חצצרות. I used the word “trumpets” above because it is commonly used to translate our word. But it is a misleading translation. Most likely, the biblical “chatzotzrah” was just a simple “long, straight, slender metal tube, with flaring end.” See Brown-Driver-Briggs, page 348 and the picture in “The Living Torah,” page 409.

Josephus (1st century CE) describes it as follows: “In length a little short of a cubit, it is a narrow tube, slightly thicker than a flute, with a mouthpiece wide enough to admit the breath and a bell-shaped extremity such as trumpets have,” (Antiquities III, 12). Probably the Brown-Driver-Briggs description and the drawing in “The Living Torah” are based largely on Josephus. (But see also below.) The Torah does not describe our instrument, other than saying that it is made from silver. Cognates for the word for our instrument are not found in other ancient languages.

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The etymology of its name is uncertain. As to its form, a widely held view is that it is an incomplete reduplicative of חצר. A full reduplicative would have been חצרצר.

We know the root חצר in Tanach. It has three meanings: 1) enclosure, courtyard, 2) settlement of people and 3) grass. See the concordance of Even-Shoshan, pages 392-93. (It is possible that meanings 1 and 2 all derive from an original “surround” meaning. As to meaning 3, it is part of an earlier Semitic root for items that are green.)

Can we connect any of these meanings with our instrument? In one view, we do not have to connect it. The name of the instrument is merely an onomatopoeia: “a name that reflects the sound that it produces.” The idea that it is “perhaps” such a word was suggested long ago in Brown-Driver-Briggs. Does this sound correct? Does a trumpet make a sound like חצרצר or חצצר? I leave it to you to decide. I am not convinced.

Here are some of the other speculative suggestions that I have seen:

Jastrow, page 495: it is “closed all around.” He is trying to derive it from meaning no. 1 above. (I found something similar in the Wikipedia entry, “chazozra.” It states that the root means “housing, fence” and that from this we can derive the meaning “tube.”)

At Numbers 11:5, חציר seems to mean a specific vegetable: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, החציר, the onions and the garlic.” Based on Aramaic, החציר here is usually translated as “the leeks.” A leek is a vegetable with a long and narrow shape. (See the picture in the Daat Mikra.) So, perhaps chatzotzrot received their name because of resemblance to this vegetable.

Matityahu Clark, “Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch”: It is an instrument for “calling to (an) assembly area.” He cites Rav Hirsch on Numbers 10:2.

Here is what Rav Hirsch wrote himself (similar but not exactly the same): “Every signal calls those to whom it is directed … to the one from whom the signal emanates … It makes this latter into the center point of a circle … ” The blower has essentially produced a courtyard חצר.

I appreciate the cleverness of these approaches. But I don’t think they are plain sense ones.

The explanation that I think makes the most sense is one found in the modern lexicon, “halot,” edited by Koehler and Baumgartner. This work points out that in Arabic the root חצר has a meaning “narrow, stretched, to form a stalk, tube.” This matches the appearance of the “chatzotzrot.” This root is the reason that החציר at Numbers 11:5 means “leeks.” (There is also a חציר at Isaiah 44:4 that some suggest means “reeds,” not “grass” as is widely assumed.)

This work also suggested that the צר letters at the end are there to reflect the sound that the instrument made.

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Some further thoughts:

Our word has an unusual distribution. In the Chumash, it only appears in Numbers chapters 10 and 31. Also, we all imagine that it appears many times in Psalms. In fact, it only appears once in Psalms, at 98:6. Psalm 98 is one that we recite regularly (on Friday night). Verse 6 reads: “Bechatzotrot vekol shofar hariu lifnei hamelech Hashem.” (An issue here is why it does not say: “bekol chatzotzrot veshofar,” as we would have expected. See Daat Mikra.) The rest of our word’s occurrences are at Kings 2, Chronicles 1 and 2, Ezra and Nechemiah.

What were the “chatzotzrot” used for? In the Chumash, they are to be used to summon the congregation or the princes to the ohel moed. They are also to be used when the Israelites were going on a journey. They are also to be used in a time of war. Here is Numbers 10:9: “When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, vahareiotem bachatzotzrot, that you may be remembered (ונזכרתם) before Hashem Elokeichem and be delivered from your enemies.” This is a very important verse—as according to Nachmanides and many others—it provides the explanation for the teruah we blow on Rosh Hashanah. The “teruah” we blow is called “zichron teruah” at Leviticus 23:24, an ambiguous phrase. In light of Numbers 10:9, we can interpret those two words to mean that we are blowing the shofar (creating that teruah) in order to be remembered by God on Rosh Hashanah—impliedly for the good—as in Numbers 10:9.

Finally, we have Numbers 10:10: “On the days of joyous occasions (“uveyom simchatchem”), your fixed festivals and new moon days, you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being … ” This verse raises two important issues: 1) Are those first two Hebrew words a separate phrase, or just an introduction to what follows? and 2) what about “chatzozrot” on sacrifices on Shabbat, which seems not to be mentioned? At Sifrei, section 77, the majority view there surprisingly interprets those first two Hebrew words to be a reference to Shabbat.

Chatzotzrot were only to be blown by priests.

At Numbers 10:9, the enemies are described as “hatzar hatzorer etchem.” This may be intended as a wordplay with חצצרות.

Here are the joyous occasions where “chatzotzrot” appear in Nach: coronation of Yoash (2 Kings 2, 11:14); installation of the Ark in David’s tent (Kings 1, chapter 16); dedication of Solomon’s Temple (Kings 2, chapter 5); rededication of the altar and covenant under Asa (Kings 2, chapter 15); purification of Hezekiah’s Temple (Kings 2, chapter 29); laying of the foundation of the Second Temple (Ezra 3: 10) and consecration of the walls of Jerusalem (Nechemia 12).

On the Arch of Titus, there is a depiction that includes two chatzotzrot being carried away. Depictions of them are also found on coins from the Bar-Kochba period. Along with the description by Josephus, these depictions may also have influenced the BDB description mentioned above. The chatzotzrot on the Arch of Titus are bigger than what Josephus described, but this is not a real contradiction. We have to allow for some artistic license, as regular size might not have been visible enough. (On the Arch and on the coins, the word “chatzotzrot” is not there. But it is obvious that the chatzotzrot are being depicted.) The Arch of Titus was constructed around 81 CE at the order of Emperor Domitian, after the death of Titus, his brother.

The mishna states clearly that on Rosh Hashanah in the Temple, chatzotzrot were to be used together with the shofar. See Rosh Hashanah 3:3 for further details. See also 3:4 regarding their use on fast days.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He would like to thank Dr. Alden Leifer for asking him a question about “chatzotzrot,” which got him interested in this challenging word.

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