Reverberating throughout the month of Elul and climaxing on Rosh Hashana, the sounding of the shofar has changed little since it was first heard millennia ago. The rudimentary animal horn and the primal sound it emits evoke a raw emotion hard to pin down. Humble in origin, the horn used to make a shofar can come from an antelope, a goat or other animal species, although the standard horn is that of a ram.
What is a shofar horn made of?
To appreciate exotic shofars (or shofarot in Hebrew), one has to know a bit about the different types of animal horns. A horn is a protrusion of bone covered with a layer of keratin. Horns differ from antlers, which are made of bone tissue, are shed annually, and cannot be used as a shofar. A kosher shofar is made from a horn removed from a dead animal. The keratin sheath is separated from the bony inner horn, and the resulting hollow shell is what actually serves as the shofar. The wide, open end of the horn was originally attached to the animal’s skull; the narrow end, which is solid, will have a cavity drilled into it to become the mouthpiece. Most shofars undergo a heat treatment allowing the solid part to be straightened for drilling. Otherwise the drill could easily hit the curved part of the horn, perforate it and render the shofar invalid.
Since any horned animal is kosher, any type of animal horn may be used for a shofar – except a cow’s. So the antelope and gazelle can provide valid shofar horns, as can the ibex. Like a medieval trumpet, the horn of an African gemsbok produces beautiful, deep bass sounds. Acoustics notwithstanding, ram’s horns are highly preferable, since Abraham sacrificed a ram in place of his son in the Binding of Isaac.
Although there is little evidence regarding kind of horn was used in antiquity, ancient mosaics and coins give us some clues what shofar horns were made of. The crude, tiny images appearing on coins suggest a short, curved horn such as that of a ram, but the larger size of mosaic images probably affords a better indication. In 1921 a mosaic floor was uncovered just south of Tiberius, in the remains of a small synagogue dating from the 3rd to 5th centuries CE, when the Sanhedrin convened in the city. The shofar that appears together with other ritual items in one of the mosaic’s main panels actually resembles a bull’s horn, which according to nearly all opinions is not permitted as a shofar. Presumably, then, the mosaic depicts a shofar made of a curved ram’s horn.
But the conventional ram’s horn has occasionally been exchanged for something else – and not always deliberately.
Goat, antelope and rams horn
A surprising anecdote was recounted in a letter by Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Mulhausen and quoted in 1869 by Abraham Berliner in the Zionist daily Ha-levanon (35, 26 Elul 5629).
A colleague of Rabbi Mulhausen’s, Reb Zamlin HaKohen, visited a nearby workshop where a non-Jewish father and son made shofars used throughout Germany. There he stumbled upon the terrible secret that all these shofars were made from goat horns! Even when a Jew handed them a ram’s horn to be fashioned into a shofar, they substituted a goat horn. The reason was very simple – goats’ horns are straighter than rams’ horns, therefore the mouthpiece can be drilled right through with no heating or straightening involved. Mulhausen bemoans the shocking revelation that for 40 years, all the Jews of Germany had been blowing goat horn shofars! (Several years ago, goat horns were also used in Chabad shofar-making demonstrations in the United States – hopefully by mistake.)
Mulhausen arranged for Reb Zamlin to teach Jews the trade, and for two years they manufactured ram’s horn shofars. These were apparently dire times, which Mulhausen attributed to the “curse of Rabbi Isaac” (Rosh Hashana 16b), according to which tragedy strikes whenever the shofar is not blown – or blown improperly. Mulhausen attempted to put things right by publicly cursing anyone making or using a shofar produced from anything other than a ram’s horn. This curse applied whenever a ram’s horn was available, even if it was smaller or produced a poorer sound than other kosher horns.
Mulhausen had other complaints. He pronounced all the Torah scrolls of his generation defective, contending that the scribes didn’t know how to spell or space the text. It’s hard to believe that among Jews as organized as the Germans, both the shofars and the Torah scrolls were invalid, so Mulhausen’s quibbles should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But the use of goats’ horns instead of rams’ has certainly not been limited to his time.
Sound of the kudu horn
The best-known example of the sounding of a shofar not made from a ram’s horn is also the most puzzling. Yemenite Jewry generally follows the rulings of Maimonides, who clearly states in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Shofar 1:1) that the commandment of blowing the shofar requires a ram’s horn. Yet the “Yemenite shofar” is made from the long, twisted horns of the greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), a type of antelope.
Rabbi Jacob Sapir of Jerusalem recounted in his book Even Sapir (1990, p. 165) how he spent Rosh Hashana 5620 (1859) in the Yemenite town of Mocha, and recounted the difficulty he encountered blowing the local shofar. He described it as the meter-long, twisted horn of an ibex, which produced a loud, frightful blast. Ibex horns are curved, however, not twisted, so he probably meant a kudu horn.
Although the late Rabbi Joseph Kapah (1917-2000, Yemen and Jerusalem) asserted that most Yemenite Jews did use rams’ horns, he admitted that the kudu horn was also blown, particularly in the city of Sana’a. When challenged, those using the kudu shofar claimed an ancient tradition among Yemenite Jews, in accordance with the basic law that all horns may serve as shofars, as long as they don’t come from a cow.
Whether it’s used exclusively in the period leading up to Rosh Hashana or for other purposes as well, and whether it sounds the deep notes of the kudu antelope horn or the higher, nasal pitch of the ram’s horn, the shofar continues to resonate in the Jewish consciousness. There’s a growing tendency to embrace a variety of horns – some easier to blow, some harder – sounded with different degrees of virtuosity. But however and wherever it’s blown, the various types of shofar reflect the Jewish people’s long and varied history.
Much of the material for this article appeared in an article published by Segula Magazine