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History of the Yemenite shofar

Is the Yemenite shofar a brand new development, or does it have roots in ancient tradition?

On a social media site a user posed the following question:

Growing up I only saw short shofars that actually looked like horns from a ram. At some point these very long shofars showed up. Are they naturally from a ram?

Jay Gurewitsch posted an interesting reply from a social-historical perspective:

The really long, curlicued shofarot (plural for shofar in Hebrew) are from the Kudu and is the standard shofar for the Yemenite Jewish community.

The fact that they “showed up” as you put it is actually quite a tale of religious intolerance being overcome. They became the “in” shofar in Israel in the 60s and 70s and their popularity has spread worldwide since then, I assume through Jewish tourists buying them and bringing them home. The Yemenite community was airlifted en masse to Israel in 1949 in a secret operation known as Operation Magic Carpet. After years of severe discrimination by the European born Jews in charge of religious and secular Israeli institutions, they eventually gained enough political power in Israel so that their traditions and community standards were accepted, and as with their shofar, even became popular with Jews worldwide who saw it as the cool, new thing. Personally, I love the fact that Ashkenazi Jews worldwide now use a Yemenite traditional shofar. Perhaps if more people knew the background of that shofar they might be more tolerant of differences within the Jewish community.

The problem with his answer is that it’s inaccurate to say that the kudu shofar is “standard” in the Yemenite Jewish community. Many Yemenite Jews rely predominantly on the Rambam in halachic matters, much like Sephardim rely primarily on the Shulchan Aruch and Ashkenazim rely on the Shulchan Aruch with the glosses of the Rema. And guess what? The Rambam holds that a shofar must be made from a ram’s horn, not a kudu horn. So it would seem the Yemenite shofar is not so Yemenite.

However, a large segment of Yemenite Jewry did not accept the Rambam as the main decisor of halacha, and they do have a custom to use a kudu horn on Rosh Hashana.

According to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, today the majority of Yemenite shofars are made from a kudu horn, and he argues that ironically, since a significant segment of Yemenite Jewry adheres to the Rambam’s rulings, a kudu shofar is actually more kosher for use among Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews (who follow the Shulchan Aruch) than for Yemenite Jews.

Kudu Horn among Yemenite Jews

What is a Yemenite shofar? A Yemenite shofar is made from the horns of the greater kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros, a large antelope whose horns, with up to three full twists, are among the largest of any animal. Owing to their magnificent appearance, they are often used outside of the Yemenite Jewish community, but because they originated there, they are commonly referred to as “Yemenite shofars.”

Yemenite shofar made from a kudu horn
Yemenite shofar

The last chief rabbi of Yemen, Rabbi Amram Korach, writes that Yemenites were accustomed to blow a “long and twisted [shofar], two or three twists, and its sound was pure and eerie. Some said that it was from an animal that was similar to sheep. Therefore they did not concern themselves with [the Rambam’s] stringency that only sheep horns are kosher, since they saw that this shofar enhances the mitzvah in its stature and its sound was stronger than that of a sheep’s horn, and to the present day they blow the mitzvah blasts with this shofar, according to the rulings of the Geonim that all twisted shofars are undoubtedly kosher” (Sa’arat Teiman, Jerusalem 1954).

Rabbi Ovady Melamed argues that rams’ horns are easier to obtain than kudu Yemenite shofar horns, and this proves that there must have been an ancient Yemenite tradition that predated the Rambam, according to which kudu horns are acceptable, and perhaps even preferable because of the greater number of curves.

However, Rabbi Shlomo Muchrar, an elderly Yemenite who now lives in the Haifa area, says he recalls that the kudu horn was only used because in certain parts of Yemen sheep with usable horns were virtually non-existent.

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