Where do shofars come from?

Where does a shofar come from? Ram’s horn shofars, which are traditionally used on Rosh Hashana by almost all Jewish communities, are made from sheep horns, while kudu horn shofars, sometimes referred to as a Yemenite shofar, are made from the horns of the kudu antelope. Kudu are found almost exclusively in southern and eastern Africa.

Unlike deer antlers, these true horns from rams and kudu antelopes have a bony core that is really an extension of one of the bones from the animal’s skull. The skin layer that covers this core of bone contains the protein keratin that makes the horn, and later the shofar, extremely strong and durable.

No two animal horns look exactly alike and no two shofars sound exactly the same. As a ram or kudu grows older, the horn gets larger and becomes more and more twisted, forming a curve or even a spiral. Horns of older rams or kudu antelope may form two or three complete loops.

Today larger ram’s horn shofars are more difficult to obtain due to widespread animal diseases and strict veterinary requirements of the Israel Ministry of Health, which oversees their import, but long jumbo Yemenite shofars are quite common.

Shofar shopping: What you see is what you get?

Before we launched our shofar web store, we had a successful tallit and tzitzit web store operating for a number of years. When we began to venture into shofar sales, we received the following inquiry from Pierre, a prospective Yemenite shofar buyer:

I possess a shofar for one year and I would like to buy another one, unpolished this time…
However, before buying from your webstore, I wanted to know a very important point for me:
The picture is or is not the reality? (i.e. color and shape of the shofar are the same that on the picture?)

I was already aware of the issue, and had been toying with a concept for an online shofar shop that enabled buyers to actually see the shofar before placing an order. And when I got the above email from Pierre, I knew there must be a lot of other prospective shofar buyers out there who would appreciate this type of webstore. So we worked to make it happen.

Now I’m happy to say we have our shofar shop up and running, with photos of every shofar we have in stock.

The images may not be as crisp as the stock photos other online shofar sellers use, but at least they are the real thing, not just a disclaimer, like the following:

All pictures provided on these pages are meant to give a general impression of the items only. Expect variations in the coloring and exact size and shape of the shofar you receive.

It’s a lot of work to photograph and catalog each shofar individually, but we think it’s worth it.

Shofar playing tips: The mouthpiece

For 3 centuries horn instructors have advocated using a mouthpiece placement of two-thirds upper lip and one-third lower lip. Iin the case of a shofar I find this technique valid. The fleshy part of the upper lip is the area which determiness the quality of sound. Therefore this upper lip musculature should be developed. A large proportion of upper lip is also beneficial in playing the whole range of the shofar, which is typically two octaves (typically a kudu shofar has greater range); too little upper lip will not allow for the lowest notes on the horn.

Preferably you should blow the shofar from the right side, if possible, because the Talmud says the Satan sits on the right in a bid to condemn the shofar blower (Psalms 47:6).

There is no halachah on how to go about playing a shofar. By inference, if you find it uncomfortable to play the shofar from the right side of the mouth, then you should play on the left side (see Mishnah Berura, 585:6).

Some people play the shofar like they would play a brass instrument, from the center of their lips. While this is an unusual technique, it is permissible. However, the more conventional way to place the mouthpiece against the lips is to position it at one side of your mouth because it is smaller.

In the case of a Yemenite shofar, you will probably want to experiment with both straight and side mouth positioning.

Thanks to veteran shofar player Arthur Finkle for helping provide the material for this article.

What did the original shofars look like?

The Talmud  states that the trumpet was made of silver while the processed horn of one of the five animal species — antelope, gazelle, sheep, goat and mountain goat — was used to carry out the ritual commandment of the sounding of the shofar (Rosh Hashanah 27a).

It also notes that preferrably the shofar should be made of a rams horn or wild goat horn, because they are curved. Rabbi Judah says, “The shofar for Rosh Hashanah must be made of the horn of a ram, to indicate submission.”

Traditionally a ram’s horn is sounded on those days because of its association with the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac (the Akeidah), which serves as the Torah reading for the second day of the festival.

Conversely, a cow’s horn may not be used because of the incident of the golden Calf (Rosh Hashana 3:2). The shofar may not be painted, though it can be gilded or carved with artistic designs, as long as the mouthpiece remains natural.

A shofar with a hole in its side wall or a chip in its mouthpiece is deemed halachically unfit, though it may be used if no other one is available (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 586).