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Which type of shofar horn is best?

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.

Various types of shofar hornsRabbi 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

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Shofar: Is it kosher?

What makes a shofar kosher? The Gemara discusses this issue at length in Tractate Rosh Hashana. The main requirements are as follows:

  • the shofar must be made from a kosher animal
  • the shofar must be a minimum length
  • it should not have any holes, cracks or plugs
  • it should be uncoated

When a horn is formed into a proper shofar, it can be rendered pasul (unfit, nonkosher) at various stages of the production process. According to Rabbi Moshe Flumenbaum of HaSofer, most of the shofars produced in Israel are made by workers who are paid by the piece, not by the hour. The worker may inadvertantly make a hole in the shofar or cause it to crack. To avoid incurring a loss, an unscrupulous worker may then take some horn dust, mix it with glue that becomes invisible when dried and patch the horn. He can then twist it into a shape that further hides the defect, and then sand and polish the horn to the point where it looks and sounds like a kosher shofar. The only ways to ensure the shofar was not patched is through on-site supervision or an X-ray!

Decorated Shofars

Adding silver or leather decoration to a shofar renders it nonkosher because even a slight change in the sound the shofar produces renders it unfit. The same applies if a lacquer coating is applied.

Likewise a shofar may not be painted (Shulchan AruchOrach Chayim, 586, 17). The only permitted decoration is carving into the keratin itself — as long as this does not significantly alter the shofar’s sound.

Shofar: Kosher Supervision

Sometimes a shofar will have kashrut certification, but the supervision merely ensures that the shofar was made from a ram’s horn or checks for cracks, patches and lacquer coating — only after the shofar is completed, when these problems are very hard to detect.

Keep in mind that the larger shofars are more difficult to make and frequently have problems during production, which is why the larger shofars are considerably more expensive than smaller ones.

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A shofar in Auschwitz

When Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, known as the Veitzener Rav, was a prisoner in Auschwitz, where his wife and several relatives perished, he managed somehow to get a shofar and blow it on Rosh Hashanah.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1944, a group of 1,400 teenage boys scheduled to be sent to the crematorium the next day heard that Rabbi Meisels had a shofar and was a skilled baal tokei’ah (shofar blower). They begged him to come into their block and sound the shofar for them. At the risk of being discovered and being killed with the boys the next day, he bribed the guards and entered the block, shofar in hand.

“The boys who were locked in the block and were about to be sent to the crematoria found out that I had a shofar,” Rabbi Meisels recounted in his memoirs. “I heard shouts and entreaties emanating from their block, imploring me to come to them and sound the 100 blasts of the shofar so they could fulfill this precious mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah in their last moments of life, before they would be martyred for Kiddush Hashem.

“I was beside myself and completely confounded, because this involved a tremendous risk; it was nearing twilight, a dangerous hour, and the Nazis would be coming to take them. If the Nazis were to suddenly show up while I was in there with the youngsters, no doubt they would take me to the crematoria as well. The Kapos, so famous for their ruthlessness, would not let me escape.

“I stood there weighing the situation and trying to decide what to do. It was very doubtful that I should take the risk to blow the shofar for the boys in such a dangerous situation, and it was not clear that the risk would be justified even if there were some doubt about the danger. But the youths bitter supplications were heart-piercing. ‘Rebbe, rebbe! Please, for the sake of God, have pity on our souls. We beg you to enable us to observe this mitvah in our last moments.’ I stood there frozen. I was all alone in my decision.

“In addition to my doubts as to whether it was justified to take the risk, my dear son Zalman Leib stood next to me, and he too entreated me with bitter sobs. Father, father! Don’t do this and endanger yourself because this may turn me into an orphan, and leave me stranded and alone. Father, father! Don’t go, don’t enter that block. You aren’t obligated to take the risk. You already blew the shofar so many times, and each time you risked your life. You have done more than enough. He went on beseeching me not to accede to the boys’ request.

“As I gazed at my son, pity and compassion welled up in me, and I saw that in a certain respect he was correct.

“But on the other hand the boys wailing gave me no peace and aroused in my heart tremendous compassion for them. Maybe this mitzvah would give them some protection during the difficulties that lie ahead. I was bewildered. A number of chassidim and other inmates awoke due to the boys urgent pleading and they added their voices to the youths’ pleas, saying that there was still much time left, and I would be able to enter their barracks and exit in time, and that someone who is going to do a mitzvah engenders some protective defense.

“I reached a decision. Come what may, I could not turn the boys down. I would ignore the pleas of my dear son. I immediately started negotiating with the vile Kapos, who didn’t want to let me in. I thought it would soon be too late, and I wouldn’t have another chance to blow for the boys. So eventually, after some of the other men there interceded and a sizable bribe was collected and offered, the Kapos agreed to our request, but warned me twice that if the bell at the gate sounded, meaning that the S.S. were coming to the camp, then my fate would be sealed along with the boys in the block, because by no means would the Kapos then allow me to leave.

A block at Auschwitz

“I accepted their terms and went into the youths. But first I told my son Zalman Leib to stand in the street and watch the gate from a distance. If he saw the S.S. men coming he should run and alert me immediately and I would leave the block, even if I was in the middle of the teki’ot.

“Truth be told, my decision was probably at variance with the strict halachah, which rules that you do not endanger yourself, or even put yourself slightly at risk, to perform the mitzvah of shofar. But my underlying reasoning was that either way whether I sounded the shofar or not I did not have much of a chance of survival. Who knew in Auschwitz how much more time he had to live? Day in, day out, we saw before our eyes thousands of our fellow Jews murdered and burned, or collapsing in the fields from slave labor. Our lives were not worth a penny. This was the main reason I put myself at risk, even though I knew that strictly speaking there was no halachic justification.

“Where is the pen, and where is the writer who could possibly put on paper my inner feelings when I entered that block? It is a miracle that my heart was not splintered into pieces when I saw the dozens of youthful eyes and heard their terrible sobbing. With tears burning and voices beseeching to the heavens, they pressed toward me, to kiss my hand, to touch my clothes, wailing, ‘Rebbe, rebbe! Have mercy, have mercy,’ and similar pleas that your ears cannot bear to hear.

“Some of them were my students and others were from my town. When I began to recite the verses preceding the shofar blowing, Min Hameitzar, From the depths do I cry out to Hashem, they burst into a cry and demanded that I deliver a drashah. They insisted on a sermon and would not even let me continue the prayer. I was so stunned and moved that I was mute, my tongue clung to my palate, and I could not open my mouth. I was also afraid that if there were any further delay this window of opportunity would be shut. Dusk would soon settle and the ensuing danger would be great.

“But I acquiesced to their pleading and began a sermon on the verse from Psalm 81, Blow the shofar at the moons removal, at the time appointed for our festive day, emphasizing how much has been removed from our lives and taken away. The despicable oppressors took away our families. What would be our end? Who would come out of here whole? Hashem is to a great extent now hidden from us. I reminded them that the Talmud teaches (Brachot 10a) that even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.

“I must continue relating what happened, so that future generations will know the great devotion, mesirut nefesh and holy words I heard that day from those teenagers in the moments before they were taken to their deaths. After I sounded the teki’ot I tried to go outside. One boy stood in my way and uttered a mournful cry. ‘Friends, the Rebbe gave us encouragement; even when a sword dangles at your throat.’ The others responded amidst their tears with a reverberating Shema Yisrael.

“As I left, a few boys followed me. With tears streaming down their faces they asked whether I had some morsels of bread, a kzayit [the minimum amount halachically considered to constitute a meal] in order to fulfill in their last moments another mitzvah that of the festive meal of Rosh Hashanah. In the 24 hours since they had been locked in their block they had not eaten or drunk a thing. According to halachah it is forbidden to fast on Rosh Hashanah. I was crestfallen that I had nothing to give them and I would not be able to come to their block again. This was a bitter day for them, all the more so because in addition to everything else, they were forced to fast on a festival as they were being taken to the pyre. May Hashem soon avenge their deaths.

“What happened that terrible Rosh Hashanah flashes through my minds eye and reverberates in my ears: young boys with strength of character and bravery who sanctified Hashem’s name in public with great clarity of mind. I understand why the Binding of Isaac is read on Rosh Hashanah and why the Midrash says it took place on this day. For generations this day has been marked for kiddush Hashem in public with the mesirut nefesh and dedication that characterized the Binding of Isaac on the altar. These youths sanctified themselves, and sanctified Hashem in the most dignified way. That serves as an example for us all.”

Translation of Rabbi Meisel’s memoirs courtesy of Cross-Currents.

See also:

A Tallit in Auschwitz

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Shofar miracle in Moscow

by B. Moskoff

Many years ago in Moscow, in pure Russian tradition, the government enacted decrees against Jewish practice, culminating in the expulsion of all Jews from the city. All Jews – except those needed by the regime for their special skills. The vast majority left the city, but Rabbi Chaim Berlin, the city’s Chief Rabbi, refused to desert his flock. He remained in Moscow, seeing it his duty to assist his fellow Jews in whatever way he could. Of course, religious practices had to be carried out with extreme discretion. The Rabbi and his diminished community went to great lengths to continue their devoted Jewish life.

Rosh Hashanah is Coming

As Rosh Hashanah was approaching, Rabbi Berlin went to take the Shofar out of its place. To all the onlookers’ shock, the Shofar was cracked all along one side, deeming it pasul – unfit for fulfilling the mitzvah of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

The community was profoundly disappointed, particularly the Rabbi, who could not imagine Rosh Hashanah without the traditional blowing of the ram’s horn.

When Rosh Hashana came, the Rabbi faced the realization that this year, he would not be listening to the Shofar blowing. Not one to wallow, the great rabbi sat down to contemplate what to do.

“What does G-d want from me now? True, I cannot hear the Shofar, but I can study the laws regarding the Shofar.”

So, that was what Rabbi Chaim Berlin did that year. He stayed up the whole Rosh Hashanah night researching all the ins and outs of the Shofar.

An Unusual Sight

Just before dawn Rosh Hashanah morning, the rabbi headed towards the synagogue. As he quickly made his way, he saw something unusual in an approaching wagon. Incredulous, the rabbi got closer, just to make sure his eyes weren’t fooling him. But it was really true! The wagon was decorated with all kinds of interesting ornaments, and hanging just above the wagon driver’s head was a genuine Shofar!

Rabbi Berlin asked the driver where he had obtained the ram’s horn. The eccentric driver hastily blurted out, “I’m sorry, Rabbi. I didn’t know it was yours!” After more prodding, the driver admitted that he had an obsession with trumpets and horns, and when the Jews had been expelled from the city, he grabbed the opportunity. He stole into the synagogue and snatched the Shofar that he had been eyeing for years.

Certain that Rabbi Berlin was the rabbi of that synagogue, the wagon driver quickly handed him the Shofar, before the police would throw him into jail.

Rabbi Berlin’s joy knew no bounds. His devotion to the mitzvah of Shofar, his willingness to stay awake all night to at least study its laws, even if he couldn’t actually carry them out, earned him this amazing miracle. Surely the Shofar in Moscow that year sounded sweeter than any melodious trumpet or clarinet ever blown. Because it was a blast of devotion to Rosh Hashanah, to Jewish tradition, and to God.

(Adapted from Aleynu Leshabeiach, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, Vol. II, p. 343)

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Kudu shofar: Is it kosher?

Kudu shofars, sometimes called a “Yemenite shofar,” are certainly magnificent in appearance and can produce a wide range of tones, but are they kosher? Yemenite Jews generally adhere to the rulings of the Rambam, who maintained that any animal other than a sheep cannot be used for a shofar. How did the custom of using a kudu horn arise in Yemen?

Yemenite shofarRabbi Amram Korach, the last chief rabbi of Yemen, suggests one answer: “The shofar of Rosh Hashana that they were accustomed to blowing was long and twisted, two or three twists, and its sound was pure and eerie. Some said that is 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 beautifies the mitzva and its sound was greater than that of a sheep’s [i.e. ram’s] horn. To this very day they blow the mitzva blasts with this shofar, according to the rulings of the Geonim that all twisted shofars are kosher lechatchila” (Sa’aras Teiman, Jerusalem 1954, p. 99).

Ironically, it is more legitimate for non-Yemenite Jewish communities — which follow the Shulchan Aruch rather than the Rambam — to use a “Yemenite shofar” (i.e. a kudu horn) than for the Yemenite community.

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Saudia Gaon’s 10 Reasons for Sounding the Shofar

Saadia Gaon, born in Egypt in the late 900’s CE, was a prominent rabbi and Jewish philosopher and is considered the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature. He writes that the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah contains ten symbolic elements:


  1. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Creation, the day when God created the world and   became its Sovereign. As it is customary to sound trumpets to glorify a king and proclaim one’s   subservience to him, similarly do we show our acceptance of God’s dominion by sounding the   shofar.


  1. Rosh Hashanah marks the first day of the Ten Days of Repentance. We therefore sound the   shofar as a means of announcing and warning that this period has begun. It is as if we announce:   Those who choose to repent should do so now, and if they choose not to do so, let them not   come later and complain about their fate. This too is the manner in which kings exercise their   dominion, announcing their decrees to the accompaniment of trumpet blasts.


  1. The sounding of the shofar served as a reminder of the revelation at Mount Sinai, which was   also accompanied by shofar blasts. Thus, by listening to the shofar and remembering that event,   we once again accept upon ourselves that which our fathers accepted upon themselves when they   heard the shofar blasts.


  1. The sounding of the shofar serves to remind us of the remonstrations of our Prophets which   are compared to the sounding of the shofar, as the verses state: And if the listener shall hear   the sound of the shofar and not be careful, then the sword shall come and take him. And if he   shall be careful, then his soul has escaped” (Yechezkel 33:4-5).


  1. The sounding of the shofar serves to remind us of the destruction of the Temple and the   trumpet calls of the armies of our enemies. Thus when we hear the shofar, we should pray for   the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.


  1. The sounding of the shofar serves as a reminder of the shofar of the ram at the binding of   Yitzchak, who offered his life to God, but in whose place the ram was sacrificed instead. We too   should stand ready to make our lives a sanctification of His Name and we pray that this serve as   a source of merit for us.


  1. The sounding of the shofar instills a sense of trepidation and fear that leads us to humble   ourselves before G-d, as the verse states: “If the shofar is sounded in the city, will people not   tremble?” (Amos 3:8).


  1. The sounding of the shofar serves to remind us of the forthcoming great Day of judgment, as   the verses state: “The great day of G-d is near, close and quick [to come].. . is the day of [the   sounding of] the shofar and the teruah” (Tzefania 1:14,16).


  1. The sounding of the shofar serves as a reminder of the future ingathering of the dispersed   exiles of Israel and to awaken our yearning for it, of which the verse states: “And it shall be on   that day, the great shofar shall be sounded and those who have been lost among Ashur shall   come [back]” (Yeshayahu 27:13).


  1. The sounding of the shofar serves to remind us of the resurrection of the dead, as the verse   states: “All those inhabitants of the world and those who dwell in the earth, when a   sign is lifted upon the mountains you shall see and when the shofar is sounded you shall hear” (ibid. 18:3).
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The Shofar and Jericho: The Voice that Could

by Daniella Lieberman

One of the perplexing stories in the Tanach is the story of how Joshua and his army of desert wanderers conquered Jericho. After finally crossing the Jordan River after 40 years, Jericho was the first city on the map for Bnei Yisrael to defeat. The plans were designed by God — simple and foolproof.

The battle plan: The soldiers would take the Holy Ark and shofars, and circle the walls of the city once a day for seven days. On the seventh day (Shabbat), they should circle the city seven times, blow the shofars, and on the seventh circuit, have all of the people yell simultaneously. Then, the walls of the city would come tumbling down.

Sounds strategic. Well it was, and it worked. But how?

Kate Rosenblatt, in YU’s Derech Hateva Magazine (“The Resonance of Jericho” 2011), has an interesting theory as to how this phenomenon took place. She claims that God gave Joshua a mechanical and acoustic solution to bring the walls down. Simplified into laymen’s terms, she explains that the resonance of the marching, shofar blowing and people shouting could have created enough vibrations in the earth for the walls to fall down on its own. However, enough resonance would only occur if the ceremony was done in a very certain way — starting small and slowly building up power. Looking back at the detailed, and mapped out war plans, this is exactly what happened; starting with marching with shofars once a day for seven days, leading up to the seventh day of seven marches with shofars, and finally ending with the last circuit, same as the others but this time with the addition of the human voice! Scientifically, it is only with this set that the walls can come crumbling down from the vibrations.

Joshua's shofar and the walls of JerichoWhat can this victory, whether miraculous or natural (which is still miraculous) teach us about the power of shofars? After all, they had a key role in creating the resonance for the walls to fall. How do the shofars from Joshua relate to us during the month of Elul?

According to the Talmud, the shofar is meant to sound like a person screaming out from deep emotion. Since the shofar is a powerful instrument, we blow it on Rosh Hashanah to represent the immense noise of our own voices in order to breach the gates of Heaven and tear down the walls (compared to the physical walls of Jericho). However, as we learn form the story in Joshua, although the shofar has the amazing power to build up enough resonance to almost break down a wall, it needs the voices of the people for the final blow.

The shofar cries out for us on Rosh Hashanah, but we cannot rely on its power without putting in our own effort. Whether the walls of Jericho broke down due to a miracle or due to mechanical and acoustic resonance, we know that it could not have happened without our voice, calling out in harmony with the shofar’s.

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Shofar Through the Ages

by Deena Weinberg

While an entire book can be written about the halacha (laws) surrounding the mitzvah of sounding the shofar, including how and when to blow the shofar, requirements for a kosher shofar, who should blow the shofar and the meaning of the tekiyot, remarkable is how the symbol of the shofar has remained at the forefront of Jewish culture throughout the ages. The shofar is featured in Jewish art, Jewish literature, modern art, posters, postage stamps and more. In fact, today you can even listen to shofar sounds on the Web.

Let’s take a quick journey through time, looking at where and when the shofar has appeared and how it continues to be an influential, heart-stirring instrument and symbol of Jewish heritage to the present day.

Shofar Timeline

  • The word “shofar” appears 72 times in the Tanach (the Jewish Bible), including when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai
  • The most famous reference to the shofar occurs in the Book of Joshua, where the shofar took center stage in the battle plan to capture Jericho: “Then the Lord said to Joshua… March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in” (Joshua 6:2-5).
  • During Temple times, sounds of the shofar and trumpets marked important occasions and ceremonies; according to the Mishna, an ibex horn was sounded on Rosh Hashanah and during the Yovel, while a silver-ornamented ram’s horn was sounded on fast days
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls relate that shofar blasts served as a powerful war cry during battle to instill fear in the hearts of the enemy
  • According to the Midrash, the blowing of the shofar arouses God’s forgiveness as God remembers Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as related in the story of the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-24)
  • The Rambam (Maimonides) states that sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is intended to awaken the soul and to turn our hearts towards repentance (teshuvah)
  • Throughout history, stories of the “lost shofar” have emerged, including stirring stories about shofar blowing during the Holocaust
  • In June 1967, after Israeli troops entered Jerusalem’s Old City for the first time in 19 years, the shofar was sounded at the Western Wall by then chief rabbi Shlomo Goren as Paratroop Brigade Commander Mordechai Gur issued the immortal cry: “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”
  • Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach wrote many moving pieces about the shofar, including: “Our holy rabbis teach us that the sound of the shofar is the sound of our innermost soul and heart but also the sound of a newborn baby. It is everything. It wakes us up, gives us strength, reminds us how holy we are and how holy we can be, and also how close we are and how easy it is to be the best and most exalted.” (September 2, 1994)

Today you can find the symbol of the shofar featured in Jewish calendars, shofar ring tones, e-cards, jewelry, bookplates, t-shirts and more. You can find a whole treasure chest of shofar humor online and you can attend the International Day of Shofar Study in person to discover even more insights and revelations regarding this fascinating, timeless and enduring symbol of Jewish culture.

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Wild rams horn shofar with natural finish

Despite the beautiful markings on this shofar (below), some people would pass it up because of that gash. But others don’t mind making use of a horn from a noble animal who ran into various trials and tribulations in life—just as we do. In fact they might even like the idea of a scar that tells the tale of a life fully lived.

Although fully polished shofars and half-polished shofars are popular, some people prefer a shofar with a natural finish, that allows you to clearly seeing the ribbing and texture of the original horn, and to really feel it when you grasp the shofar in your hands.

Buy a natural finish rams horn shofar>>>

large ram's horn shofar

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Kosher shofar for Rosh Hashana and Yovel

The Mishnah describes two types of kosher shofar:

  1. Rosh Hashana – a straight shofar made from a “ya’el” horn, with a gold-plated mouthpiece. Rashi says ya’el refers to a steinbok, while the Aruch says a ya’el refers to a female sheep. The Ran sides with Rashi’s definition, citing two textual proofs. He also explains that the gold-plate is not on the tip, where one places the mouth.
  2. Taanit (fast day) – a bent shofar made from a male animal, with a silver-plated mouthpiece. The Ran says a bent (i.e. curved) shofar is used to distinguish it from a Rosh Hashana shofar.

The Gemara explains that a shofar used for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur should be curved. So why did it say above “ya’el pashut” (a straight horn)? The fact is the halacha goes according to Rav Yehuda, who holds it should be bent to teach us how to bend ourselves (i.e. change ourselves).

kosher shofar
A straight (Gemsbok) shofar

The reason ya’el pashut was mentioned in the Mishnah was to make it clear that a bent shofar is for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but not for the Yovel. The Ran explains that a straight shofar is ideal for the Yovel because it is a sign of liberty or liberation. He then asks whether the debate between kafuf (bent) and pashut (straight) is merely a mitzvah or a mandatory requirement. Following a long give-and-take the Ran concludes that we follow the advice of Rav Levy and use a bent shofar for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, however this is merely considered the preferred form of the mitzvah and not an inviolable precept. The Ran lays forth the following conclusions regarding kosher shofars:

  1. Any type of shofar can be used, if necessary, with two exceptions: a cow horn or a horn made of the zachrus (the bony core of an animal horn).
  2. A bent/curved shofar is preferred.
  3. A ram’s horn is ideal.

The Shiltei Giborim adds examples, saying a kosher shofar can be made from the horn of a goat or antelope, even if it’s a straight, but a ram’s horn is best, because it serves as a reminder of Akeidas Yitzchak, where Avraham Avinu sacrificed a ram in lieu of his beloved son.

As an end note, the Ran suggests that although we have established that the horns of any animal except a cow can be used, perhaps only kosher animals are acceptable. He cites Shabbos 28a, which says only a kosher animal can be used for a Maleches Shamayim (a divine endeavor), and blowing the shofar is considered a Maleches Shamayim.

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Buying a shofar: The bigger the better?

A shofar can be quite small and still be kosher. The minimum size requirement, according to halacha is one tefach, or four thumb breadths, i.e. big enough so that when held in one hand, a bit of shofar is visible extended from the person’s grasp on both sides.

Interestingly, this means someone with a very large hand may need to use a slightly larger shofar, i.e. the same shofar would be kosher for one shofar sounder, but not for another (see Orech Chaim, 686, 19).

In the laws of the Four Species we find that when you buy an esrog you should add up to one-third of the price you paid in order to upgrade to a bigger esrog. The Magen Avraham holds that this rule applies to all mitzvahs, citing shofar as an example. However, he also holds that this rule requiring you to spend an additional amount to upgrade to a bigger esrog or a bigger shofar only applies if the buyer can go back to the seller and exchange the one he bought for a larger one.

In practical terms, larger shofars are more expensive because large horns are harder to obtain and because the production process is more complicated. Also, it should be kept in mind that a jumbo ram’s horn shofar can be harder to blow than a medium-size ram’s horn shofar, whereas a large kudu shofar is generally easier to blow than a small or medium kudu horn.

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Blast from the past: Shofar history from biblical times thru the Middle Ages

by Libi Astaire

Ever since Har Sinai, the shofar has been associated with momentous events. Nothing can beat a horn’s blast when you want to say “Wake up!”


After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, shofars and trumpets were rarely used in Jewish public life — except, of course, during the month of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But horn blasts continued to be used in other cultures.

“If the shofar is sounded in the city, will the people not tremble?” The navi Amos might have asked that question almost 3,000 years ago, but it’s as true today as it was then. There’s something about the shofar’s blasts that penetrate to the very core of our being.

But while the shofar remains the ultimate “wake-up call” of the Jewish people, other peoples have also used horns of different shapes and sizes to wake up the populace, whether it was to summon troops to battle or announce the entrance of royalty. And in more recent times, horns are being used to do something ancient musicians and tony classical composers once thought impossible: Make music.

Sound the Shofar

Take a walk through Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter during the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and chances are you’ll hear someone making a few tentative blasts on one of the shofars on sale at the many tourist shops that line the streets. Those blasts might be applauded with a hearty yasher koach or greeted with giggles, but one thing is certain: They won’t send people running for cover.

Various types of shofar hornsYet in days of yore, the sounding of the shofar could be as terrifying as the sirens used today to warn people to run to the nearest bomb shelter. For instance, when Gideon ordered 300 of his men to blow upon their shofars, the noise sent the enemy Midianite troops flying (Shoftim 3:27). And one can only imagine the terror of the people of Jericho, when Yehoshua used a cacophony of shofar blasts combined with shouts to bring down the walls of that city (Yehoshua 6: 1-20).

Of course, not all shofar blasts were associated with war. Shofars and trumpets (chatzotzros) are mentioned dozens of times in Tanach, with the most famous being the shofar blasts heard at Har Sinai during the giving of the Torah. The sounds of a heavenly shofar will also be heard on the future Day of Judgment (Tzefania 1:16), when the exiles are returned to Eretz Yisrael (Yeshayahu 27:13), and when the dead are resurrected (Yeshayahu 18:3). On Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded of both Har Sinai and the End of Days by our own shofar blasts, and promised that Hashem will remember us because of the sound of our shofar.

The shofar was also sounded at joyous times, such as when David Hamelech brought the Holy Ark toJerusalem (Shmuel I 6:15) and when Shlomo Hamelech was crowned king (Melachim I 1:39). Silver trumpets were sounded when Shlomo Hamelech inaugurated the Beis Hamikdash (Divrei Hayamim II 5:13), and on Rosh Chodesh and holidays while the burnt and peace offerings were being offered (Bamidbar 10:10). When Shaul won a battle over the Plishtim, a shofar was blown throughout the land to announce the victory (Shmuel I 13:3).

After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, shofars and trumpets were rarely used in Jewish public life — except, of course, during the month of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But horn blasts continued to be heard in other places, sometimes causing trembling and sometimes great joy, and always making a loud, far-reaching noise.

Natural Talent

The earliest trumpets were either made from the horn of an animal, like our shofar, or from a conch shell. When an animal’s horn was used, the tip from the narrow end of the horn was removed to create a mouth hole. Often there wasn’t any mouthpiece, and so the person would put his lips directly on the mouth hole. A trumpet made from a conch shell might have the tip of the shell removed or have a hole bored into the middle of the shell.

Early trumpets were also made from natural materials, such as clay or hollowed out bark, bamboo, or gourd. These were often just long tubes, without the flaring bell on the end, and were used to amplify the human voice rather than make a horn-like sound.

During the Bronze Age, trumpets made out of metal began to appear. Two of the treasures found in the tomb of the Egyptian ruler Tutankhamen were a trumpet made from silver and one made from copper with gold overlay. Dating back to the 1300s BCE, they’re among the oldest surviving metal trumpets that have been found.

While trumpets were probably always used to assemble people or warn them of danger, wall reliefs from the time of Assyrian King Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) show us another use: signaling to laborers working on massive building projects. In addition to telling the workers, who were often slave laborers, when to start and finish their work day, the trumpet blasts would help them synchronize their movements while moving heavy slabs of stone or doing other heavy labor.

Teutonic tribes in northern Europe, circa the sixth century BCE, had their own trumpet, which was called a lur. The lur had a slightly curved tube of metal with a small mouthpiece on one end and a flat metal disk resembling a shower head on the other. From drawings found in a burial mound, it seems the lur was usually played in pairs. Lurs were also made from wood and some of these wooden ones were used to call to the cattle instead of people.

Battle Cry

By the time of the Romans, trumpet players were an integral part of the army. The Romans had perfected the art of bending brass tubes, which enabled them to create horns with different sounds. A cylindrical trumpet, for example, usually had a more brilliant, piercing sound, while a conical-shaped horn gave out a more mellow tone. There were four main kinds of Roman trumpets — the tuba, the cornu, the buccina, and the lituus — and each was used for a different purpose. For instance, the tuba (not to be confused with the modern brass instrument with the same name) was used to signal both a charge and a retreat — and the soldier had to know in an instant which signal was being relayed.

The sounds made by Roman trumpets have been variously described as horribilis (horrible), raucus (raucous), and stridulus (shrieking), and because the sound was so terribilis (terrible) they were never used to make music. Therefore, after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, and the disappearance of Roman soldiers from European soil, trumpets fell out of use inEurope and people slowly forgot how to make them. It was only after the Crusaders encountered Arab Saracens — and their long metal trumpets — some 600 years later, that the trumpet made a comeback inEurope.

The Romans weren’t the only ones who used trumpets on the battlefield during the time of the Roman Empire. The Celts had an interesting trumpet called a carnyx, which was very long and stood straight up, ending in a shape that resembled a boar’s head with an open mouth. Because it towered over the soldiers’ heads, its tones could travel far — and the sight of the advancing boar heads must have been a frightening sight for the enemy.

Of course, the Romans would never admit to being scared by this “peculiar barbarian kind” of trumpet, which is how the carnyx was described by the historian Diodorus Siculus, whose epic work Bibliotheca historica included a description of Julius Caesar’s capture of Gaul, where the Roman emperor fought the Celts. Instead, the Romans featured the carnyx on their coins and in triumphant sculptures, where it became a symbol of the vanquished Celts — similar to the way the two chatzotzros appear on the relief of the Arch of Titus, among other treasures the Romans stole after they destroyed the Beis Hamikdash andJerusalem.

The Hunt Is On

During the Middle Ages, a favorite pastime of European kings and noblemen was to hunt animals for sport. An important member of the hunt was the person who blew the horn, which signaled to the hunters where to find the animal being hunted. While some hunting horns were made from an ox’s horn, the more upscale horn, called an olifant, was made from ivory. Later horns were made from brass or copper.

Horn players called Waits were also important members of medieval society. The Waits were a castle’s watchmen, standing guard at night and ready to sound the alarm should a fire break out or enemy soldiers be spotted. The Waits would also herald the entrance of an important visitor. While watchmen with horns performed the same function in towns, as well as woke up people in the morning, over the years the term “Wait” began to be used for minstrels who played horns and reed instruments at important civic occasions.

Meanwhile, Europeans were rediscovering how to coil metal tubes with a vengeance, with the result that many new types of horns were being introduced, such as the sackbut, a sliding instrument similar to the trombone; a new-and-improved hunting horn that was coiled; and a strange instrument called the serpent, which had a slithery shape.

Excerpt republished with permission of Mishpacha Magazine
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