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The Two Silver Trumpets of the Levite Priests

the two silver trumpets

"And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall sound with the trumpets
and this shall be an ordinance forever, throughout your generations
Numbers 10:8

In the reference section, Who were the Levites?, we briefly covered some of the functions performed by the Levites (both priests and non-priests) in relation to the Tabernacle system. After the Tabernacle and related infrastructure was fully assembled and tested, Moses was given some last minute projects and instructions that had to be completed prior to setting out from Mt. Sinai. One of these projects was the fabrication of two metal signaling instruments, the two silver trumpets.

Like the shofar both in form and function, the silver trumpets were incapable of producing what we might refer to as a musical tones like our modern trumpets. They were only able to produce, like the shofar, one primary tone. In the context of the Scriptures, the silver trumpets were never considered musical instruments like the translated word trumpet may imply to the reader in this time period. From the various Scriptural and historical texts relating to them, the silver trumpets would take the place of many of the traditional functions held by the shofar within the community and would serve as their means of communicating specific community-wide information to the masses. The initial two functions specifically mentioned in the texts were: the calling of assembly and the breaking of camp.

The Two calls associated with the Silver Trumpets
From both the Scriptural and historical texts we find that there were two basic calls associated with the silver trumpets, the tekiah (a short blast) and the teruah (a series of rapid, staccato blasts).

The Call to Break Camp - the 'teruah'
The short, rapid tones of the teruah were apparently the tones that would signal the various families surrounding the Tabernacle compound to set out and break camp. (Numbers 10:5,6).

The Call to Assemble - the 'tekiah' In addition to the breaking of camp, the silver trumpets were used to call various segments of the community assemble with Moses at the entrance to the Dwelling. In order to distinguish between the two types of instructions, the tekiah of a single, silver trumpet would signal the family heads to assemble at the entrance of the Dwelling with Moses. If both trumpets sounded, then the whole community was to gather at the entrance to the Dwelling with Moses - (Numbers 10:3, JOS Antiquities of the Jews 3:292-294).

see also expanded documentation on the Shofar for specifics on these calls

As time went on, the functions assigned to the silver trumpets was expanded to include: sounding them in the time of war (Numbers 10:9, 31:6; 2 Chronicles 13:12), in the day of your gladness, your appointed seasons and new moons (Numbers 10:10), before the Ark of YAHVEH and over the burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. - (Numbers 10:10; 1 Chronicles 15:24, 15:28, 16:6, 16:14; 2 Chronicles 5:12, 5:13, 7:6. 13:14, 29:28)

The later function is also echoed in the later writings found the Mishnah regarding the wine libation that followed the meat offering where we read:

"...they handed him the wine for the libation. The Deputy would be standing at the corner holding banners, while two priests were standing on the Intestinal Fat Table holding two silver trumpets. They would sound Teki'ah and Teru'ah and Teki'ah, and then they would go and stand next to ben-Arza, one on either side of him. When he bent down to make the libation the Deputy would wave the banners, ben-Arza would clash on the cymbals, and the Levites would break into song. When they reached the end of a section they would sound a Teki'ah and the people would prostrate themselves. With each section a Teki'ah and with each Teki'ah a prostration. This was the order of the Tamid ritual in the House of our God. May it be His pleasure that it be rebuilt soon in our days, Amen." (Tractate Tamid, Chapter 7, Mishnah 3 -

Comparing these very specific uses to the calls of the shofar, it may have occurred that these calls (originally designated to be played by the silver trumpets) were later associated and assimilated into the repertoire of the shofar and the ensuing traditions of the Hebrew community after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. by Titus, the subsequent abolishment of the sacrifices, and the probable destruction of the silver trumpets themselves during this time period. This commonality and intertwined relationship between the shofar and the two silver trumpets can be seen when we compare Psalm 81:3 (81:4 JPS) [where the shofar was used to herald the new moon] and Numbers 10:10 [where this function was delegated to the two silver trumpets].

"also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons. And [when] you have sounded with trumpets over your burnt-offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be for you a memorial before your God: "I am YAHVEH your God.'" - Numbers 10:10

"Sound with [the] new moon a shofar, at the full moon for our feast-day" - Psalm 81:3 (81:4 JPS)

From these observations, we may conclude the silver trumpets served in very much the same function as the shofar and may have been simply an evolution of the instrument. You might be asking yourself at this point, "Why the new instrument, why not just use the shofar? Both are played in the same manner, sound somewhat the same and have the same range." Three things came to mind that might be considered: the metal trumpets would be louder and more consistent in timbre with each other than an equivalent shofar (whose timbre would vary according the size of the animal horn used), a metal instrument would (if handled properly) not crack like animal that would have to be replaced often and most importantly - sanitary reasons.

The first task every band member who played a brass instrument was instructed to do after summer vacation in High School was as to take his instrument (which was provided by the school at no charge and in my case a baritone horn) was to clean it. This meant removing the slides and values and soaking the whole mess in a bath tub of warm water and Ivory Snow detergent. Once the black mold that had grown inside the tubing during the moist summer months started to break up, you would rinse the instrument with clear water and thoroughly dry the parts inside and out with soft cloths. You would then grease the slides with Vaseline (today they use silicone products), oil the valves and reassemble the instrument. If you didn't do this each year, the first days band practice would be one your taste buds would not soon forget.

Animal products tend to smell and taste even worse than metal ones when they get damp. The method of playing these type of instruments would most certainly insure that the horns, whether animal or metal, would constantly be exposed to moisture and mold growth. These new silver trumpets with their removable mouthpieces and straight, smooth bore would have been easy to keep clean and odor free - an instrument more befitting the tasks that were assigned to them.

Unlike the shofar, which could vary in size and had a small mouthpiece footprint for the embouchure (i.e., the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece), the silver trumpets (unlike many traditional renderings) were relatively short in length with a disproportional large bore and a wide, cup shaped mouthpiece. It was a hybrid of an instrument with a bore like a section of pipe attached to the bell of a trumpet and played with a tuba mouthpiece. It would have also taken a great deal of breath to play and sustain tones on this instrument. As later century artifacts show, ancient trumpets were often played using puffed cheeks "ala Dizzy Gillespie and Winton Marsalis." This puffed cheek method of playing may also indicate that circular breathing was utilized when playing these types of instruments. Circular breathing is a technique that permits a player to sustain a tone almost indefinitely. Circular breathing however, is prohibited in the ritualistic soundings of the shofar today in the Hebrew communities.

The silver trumpets are one of the few instruments in the Hebrew texts that we not only have multiple historical descriptions, but also physical images of from multiple visual to reference. The first of these sources are the coins of the bar Kochba revolt. On numerous and varied dies that were struck during this period, we find images of these silver trumpets preserved for us.

the two silver trumpets

From these coins and the method used to construct these types of instruments, we can conclude the silver trumpets consisted of three main parts: the body, the mouthpiece and a leather or fabric knop, which along with bees wax was most likely used to seal the juncture of the mouthpiece and the main body of the horn. Along with these coins, we have another source of information regarding the silver trumpets of Moses, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius. In the following account, Josephus provides some very detailed information regarding the silver trumpets of Moses.

"Moreover, Moses was the inventor of the form of their trumpet, which was made of silver. Its description is this: - In length it was little less than a cubit. It was composed of a narrow tube, somewhat thicker than a flute, but with so much breadth as was sufficient for admission of the breath of a man's mouth: it ended in the form of a bell, like common trumpets. Its sound was called in the Hebrew tongue 'asosra.'" - Josephus Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews; III.2.6, translated by Whiston, William, 1773.

Josephus starts off his commentary with the statement that the silver trumpets of Moses were a little less than a cubit in length. Now the exact length of the cubit referred to by Josephus in his time cannot be known for certain. However, we do have a source from which we can not only visually see the relative size of the cubit used by Moses in the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, but also the size of the silver trumpets in relation to that cubit of Moses' day. For this, we have to journey to modern day Rome, Italy and our second visual representation of the silver trumpets- the Arch of Titus.

Depicting the plundering of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD by Titus, the Arch of Titus has representations of some of the articles that were taken from the Temple including the gold lamp-stand, the table of showbread and the two silver trumpets.

Fortunately, one of the articles of the original Tabernacle that we have a defined size from the Scriptures is depicted on the arch, namely the table for the bread of the Presence (aka table of the showbread). In Exodus 25:23, we read: that table was to be two cubits long, one cubit wide and one and one-half cubit high. Carried by eight men, the table has two objects that most historians agree are the two silver trumpets lashed to the side of the table.

Using the one cubit width of the table as a reference point, the trumpets depicted on the Arch appear (at first glance) much larger than the less than a cubit length mentioned by Josephus if taken in relation to the one cubit width of the table. In fact, they would be over one and one-half cubits in length. Was the account of Josephus wrong?

By removing the mouthpiece, joint wrapping and proportionality resizing the body of the horn to the size of the bore and the bell of the images on the Arch, we find that that when superimposed, the mouthpiece joint of each horn falls directly on a center support and what appears to be a wrapping securing each trumpet to a center support and the table itself. From this and the account of Josephus, it is the author's opinion, that the images of the trumpets on the Arch of Titus are not only representations of the silver trumpets, but also support poles over which the horns were slid and attached to the table of showbread for transport.

The practice of using an internal support for the storage and transport of ancient trumpets is not unique to this example. In the tomb of Tutankhamen, a slightly larger silver trumpet was found with an internal, wooden core that apparently was used to prevent damage to the relatively fragile instrument. This use of staves to secure the silver trumpets in this manner is also in keeping with an account found in the book of Numbers outlining the procedures to be followed by the sons of Kohath when the Tabernacle and its furnishings were disassembled and secured for transport.

"and they (i.e., the priests) shall take all the instruments of ministry, wherewith they minister in the sanctuary, and put them in a cloth of blue and cover them with a covering of sealskin, and shall put them on a stave" - Numbers 4:12

If we now take the same resized image (only this time with the mouthpiece) and place it sideways in relation to the one cubit width of the table, we find that the length of the trumpet is indeed as Josephus said, a little less than a cubit - just about 7/8th the size of a cubit. As there were many cubits used in ancient times, the next question would logically be how large is a cubit? As Moses was no doubt well educated in the Egyptian methods of mathematics, it is not unreasonable to assume that the table may have been constructed using the Egyptian Royal Cubit approximately (52.4cm or 20.632"). This would make the trumpet (with the mouthpiece) around 45cm or 17.75" in length. A short, stubby instrument, a little less than a cubit as Josephus had stated.

Now regarding the physical construction of the instrument, we know from various archeological relics that have been uncovered that ancient metal trumpets had been constructed of silver, copper or bronze and were in common use during Egyptian times. Eventually in modern times, brass (an alloy of copper and tin or zinc) was used in their construction and led to our modern classification for these types of instruments as brass instruments. But just how were the silver trumpets actually made?

The Scriptures unfortunately do not give every detail about every event, they are as my son once said, "many accounts in the Bible are like an Executive Summary with basic information, but without all the details." This is also true of the silver trumpets. There are no details in any of the texts that describe the technique used to construct these instruments, except that they were to be made out of a solid piece of beaten silver. It may surprise those of you who are unfamiliar with how modern trumpets, bugles and trombones are made, that they start off as a flat piece of metal. This method of instrument construction goes back to Egyptian times and may have even been taught Moses at some juncture while in the household of Pharaoh.

As we said, the life of a trumpet starts off as a flat piece of metal cut in the shape of the completed horn (if cut down the middle, unfolded, and flattened). This flat piece of metal is then notched on the edges, folded in half and the tabs interlocked and soldered. This flat shape is then opened and hammered over on an anvil into the rough shape of the finished instrument with periodic annealing (heating of the metal a high temperature to prevent metal fatigue and cracking). In modern times, the horn is then spun on a lathe over a mandrel (a metal form in the shape of the finished instrument) until the desired shape and flair of the bell is created. The completed instrument is then buffed and lacquered to preserve the finish.

making a trumpet

Even today, the making of a horn is a very labor-intensive and skilled process. As with all the articles of the Tabernacle, the crafting of these initial silver trumpets (by whatever means) required an extremely high level of artisanship, resources and time. In addition to the main body of the horn, an appropriate mouthpiece had to be fashioned and fitted to the individual horn and possibly even the player.

Even though as time went on, there were apparently many more of these types of metal signaling instruments constructed (above the original pair) that were utilized by the priests in their service (2 Chronicles 5:12), there have been no artifacts uncovered to date that can be directly linked to the Tabernacle and later Temple systems. We do have however collaborating sources from the references within the Scriptures, the account of Josephus, the images found on the coins of bar Kochba, and the carvings on the Arch of Titus to provide us with an enlightening three-dimensional perspective of these unique instruments. We have a reasonable idea what they looked like, what they sounded like and even the calls that were played by them.


As a final insight, let us go back to the quotation from Josephus regarding the two silver trumpets of Moses.

asosra (Greek ä-sos-rä) 1. Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word chatsotsra  (chä-tsots-rä'). In the account of Josephus, he states that the sound of the type of trumpets made by Moses was asosra ("Its sound was called in the Hebrew tongue asosra'" - Antiquities of the Jews, 3:291). In a very general sense, the use of the phrase its sound by Whiston may be acceptable. However, upon closer examination of the Greek words from which he is translating, we find a far deeper and meaningful understanding. The phrase its sound is translated from the two Greek words, kaleitai  and kata.

to call, to summon kaleitai
down or downwards kata

The Greek words appear to be referring to a specific, recognizable sound associated with the trumpets that would call or summon down, in other words - a call to assemble. Josephus now states that this call to assemble was referred to in the Hebrew tongue, asosra. As within our own language, foreign words are often assimilated into another language phonetically. It appears that this may have been the case with the use of this word. In the Scriptures, there is a Hebrew word that not only closely matches the phonetics of asosra, but is also used in reference to the silver trumpets - a word traditionally translated as a single trumpet and found only once in Hosea 5:8

Greek Hebrew
asosra = chatsotra
äsosrä chä-tsots-rä'

Following the verbiage and description of Josephus, the translation of a "call to assemble" should be given consideration as a possible expansion to the traditional "single trumpet" translation and understanding this usage may imply within the context of this single occurrence.

an alternate translation:
"Sound a shofar in Gibeah, [the] call of assembly in Ramah: cry out house of Aven, 'they are after you Benjamin.'" - Hosea 5:8
traditional translations:
"Blow ye the cornet in Gibeah, and the trumpet in Ramah: cry aloud at Bethaven, after thee, O Benjamin." - Hosea 5:8 (KJV)
"Blow ye the horn in Gibeah, and the trumpet in Ramah; sound an alarm at Beth-aven: 'Behind thee, O Benjamin!'" - Hosea 5:8 (JPS)

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