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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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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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Choosing the right ram’s horn or kudu shofar

When buying a shofar, one can end up with anything from a fabulous sounding horn with a beautiful appearance that will be treasured by the whole family for generations to come, to something very regrettable and not even kosher for use! Shofar buyer beware…

Shofar nightmare

According to an unusual news story featured in the New York Times, Orthodox Jews had bought and used what they were sure were kosher shofars for use on the High Holy Days, only to receive a rude shock when it was discovered that the “shofars” were actually fakes, made in molds from a combination of leather glue and plastic ply fibres.

Key factor: Is the shofar kosher?

Unless you are buying a shofar merely for decoration or as a conversation piece, if your intention is to fulfill the commandment of sounding the shofar, then it makes sense for the kashrut of the shofar to be the buyer’s top priority. The factors that can invalidate a shofar for ritual use range from coming from the wrong kind of animal to cracks or holes made unintentionally during production, which may be covered up by unscrupulous shofar makers.

The best way to guarantee the kashrut of your shofar is to ensure the shofar for sale bears an adhesive sticker attesting to the kashrut supervision. In some cases the sticker is not an indication of kashrut at all, but merely indicate says that it is a genuine animal’s horn and not a replica.

Types of Shofar for Sale

There are short shofars, long shofars, straight shofars and curved shofars. They come in black, brown, beige or any combination of these colors.

Ram’s Horn Shofar: The classic ram’s horn shofar is the most widespread choice among shofar buyers. The ram has always been associated with God’s mercy, ever since a ram, whose horns were tangled in the thicket, was offered up as a sacrifice to God in lieu of Abraham’s son Isaac. It is also considered the “most beautiful” type of shofar horn, and thus the most appropriate to fulfill the commandment. Used by both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, it is made from the horn of a domestic ram. The typical ram’s horn shofar is light in color, although black ones can be obtained from black rams. A ram’s horn shofar can also be relatively flat, with an upturned end. This shape is often preferred by Moroccan and German Jews. Some claim this shape was chosen due to persecution, because it enabled the shofar to be hidden under one’s clothing. Bavli shofars are natural, unpolished ram’s horns with a very deep tone, and are typically used by Jews of Iraqi or Persian origin.

Traditionally, the ram’s horn type of shofar is generally considered the preferred way of fulfilling the mitzvah of shofar. According to most authorities, however, the horn of almost any Bovidae animal may be used, and today’s shofar buyer can also choose among various exotic shofar types, including ibex, eland and gemsbok shofars.

Kudu Shofar: Although it is difficult to say precisely when the Kudu horn became popular among the Yemenite community, it is thought that it occurred when a scarcity of rams in Yemen coincided with the appreciation of the Yemenite Jews for the magnificent dark horns of these animals, and the idea that using them would be a beautiful and fitting way of performing the mitzvah. To this day, Yemenite Jews often use these large, three-twisted horns, producing sounds far deeper and louder than the ram’s horn. The kudu horn is made from the Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), an antelope found in eastern and southern Africa.

Ibex Shofar: The Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 3:2) quotes an early opinion that the shofar should be made of an ibex horn. Although not a mainstream option today, it can definitely be understood why the ancient communities in the Land of Israel might have chosen this kind of shofar horn, a magnificent curved arc with a series of bumps running up one side. Ibex have always been a familiar sight in the Land of Israel, and today can be seen in many parts of the country.

Twisted or straight?

Horns come in many different colors and sizes, but an important difference between them is how straight they are. This difference was the subject of an early discussion recorded in the Talmud. One side argued that, just as we are bent over, bowing before the king, on the High Holy Days, so too should we choose a particularly bent shofar. The other side argued that as we are reaching straight upwards on these days, a horn as straight as possible is preferable (Rosh Hashana, 26b). The Talmud rules that the curved horn is preferable, but if one prefers a longer, straightened shape, these are available and kosher too.

What else I should know before buying a shofar?

In addition to aesthetic appeal, it is important to bear in mind the size of the shofar. The size does not affect how kosher the shofar is. According to halacha, even a shofar under a foot long is kosher, as long as it is large enough to protrude on either side of the hand that grips it.

For people who are very mobile, e.g. who blow the shofar for others in numerous places for people to hear, a smaller shofar may be preferable. For synagogue use, a medium or large shofar is more popular. Very small and very large shofars are usually more difficult to blow.

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Why the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashana

The Torah does not explicitly mention the shofar in conjunction with Rosh Hashana. The verse only tells us

יום תרועה יהיה לכם

The key word here is teruah. However, a verse elsewhere tells us that the proclamation of the Jubilee Year is accomplished with a “shofar teruah.” Therefore the Talmudic Sages extrapolated that both of the teruah soundings in the seventh monthof the year (i.e. Tishrei) are done with a shofar (Rosh Hashana 33b).

Ram’s Horn Shofar

The Rambam writes that a shofar must be a bent ram’s horn. The Raavad and other Rishonim take issue with him, arguing that although a ram’s horn shofar may be ideal, other types of shofars, including a kudu horn, may also be used, with the exception of a cow horn.

Kudu horn shofarIn the Beis Hamidkash (the Holy Temple) the shofar player was flanked by two trumpet players, as described in the verse (Tehillim 98:6):

בחצוצרות וקול שופר הריעו לפני המלך ה

Apparently this applied elsewhere in Jerusalem, but not in the rest of the Land of Israel.

A shofar that has been used for idolatrous purposes should not be used, but if it was blown on Rosh Hashana, those who heard it did fulfill the mitzvah. Likewise, a stolen shofar should not be used, but if it was, then the mitzvah is fulfilled. The reason is that the mitzvah is to hear the sound of the shofar and the concept of theft does not apply to a sound. Indeed, the blessing recited is שמוע קול שופר .

The Raavad adds that even if theft did apply to sound, the mitzvah, as noted above, is to have a יום תרועה.

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Cheap shofars for sale

As a family business located outside of the big cities (we’re located in Modi’in Illit, near the area of the Maccabeans of the Tanakh) we’re able to keep our prices down. I’m sure there are all sorts of eBay sellers who sell shofars at very low prices, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting a better value.

Often inexpensive shofars are not made in Israel, but in a sweat shop in Morocco and China. The exploit cheap labor and get shoddy work with a low level of expertise. That means indiscernible hairline cracks are common and the sound produced is likely to be inferior.

Another detail to pay attention to when shopping online is the size of course. A small ram’s horn shofar (9-12 inches) can be bought for as little $20. But what you are getting is a rinky-dink horn that you can barely get a sound out of. Note that with ram’s horn shofars, bigger does not necessarily mean better in terms of sound. Although a jumbo shofar is impressive, for quality sound you’re usually better off with a medium size. This applies to ram’s horn shofars, but not necessarily to Yemenite shofars.

In terms of appearance, you could get lucky with a cheap shofar, but you could also get stuck with an unattractive piece. That’s why we take the trouble to individually photograph, test and describe each shofar we keep in stock.

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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.

Buy a Yemenite Shofar>>

Buy a Traditional Ram’s Horn Shofar>>

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Yemenite Shofar Buying Tips

If you’re thinking of buying a Yemenite shofar, but have never actually seen a one up close, and held it in your hands, the following tips will help you choose one that has the right look, feel and sound.

Yemenite Shofar Sizes

Long Yemenite shofarA kudu shofar normally measures somewhere between 20 inches and 50 inches, measured around the curve, from the mouthpiece to the aperture. Keep in mind that a very large kudu shofar, say 40″-50″ is also quite heavy. In fact, I have even seen musical appearances that include a shofar where a special stand was used so that the shofar player would not have to bear all the weight for an extended period of time.

A long shofar is also going to invariably be from a kudu antelope that was alive for many years, meaning some some marks on the back side of the shofar, near the aperture are very likely. Some people may actually prefer to have a shofar from an animal that has been around, that may have weathered some battles and tight situations. Others want a shofar with a smooth, even surface.

Shape

The shape of kudu shofars, unlike a ram’s horn shofar, does not vary significantly. However, some are curled more tightly, while others will be a bit straighter.

Color

Usually around the mouthpiece you will find a lot of black, sometimes all black. The underside is often tan with reddish blotches and the top side is beaver brown.

A half-polished Yemenite shofar is completely polished near the mouthpiece and then along the remainder of the length, only on the underside. A fully polished shofar is smooth on all sides.

Where to buy a Yemenite shofar

If you plan to be in Israel, you may want to stop by some Judaica stores. Most will let you try to blow the shofar to text the sound. Keep in mind that a typical Judaica store may have a selection of a dozen ram’s horn shofars, but only two or three Yemenite shofars.

If you want to buy online, you can try Amazon and eBay, if you find a seller you feel confident with.

The other avenue is to go with a Judaica webstore or even a specialty shofar webstore. But keep in mind that most only have photos for illustrative purposes.

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Yemenite Shofar Use in Secular Music

  • Featured in Edward Elgar’s oratorio “The Apostles” (usually other instruments, such as the flugelhorn, are usually used).
  • Featured in the last movement of Aaron Minsky’s Judaica Concert Suite, “Sound the Shofar.”
  • Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov includes shofar blasts in “Rocketekya,” “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” “Rose of the Winds” and “Tekya.”
  • Romanian composer Anghel Irinel uses a shofar in “Labryinthe” and “Images Flottantes.”
  • Isaac Sinwani, a Jew of Yemenite descent, opened his performance of Ofra Haza’s song Im Nin Alu at one of Madonna’s concerts with a shofar.
  • Film composer Jerry Goldsmith used shofar sounds in the soundtracks for Planet of the Apes and Aliens.
  • Salem (Israeli Mizrahi band) uses the shofar in their adaptation of a psalm.
  • Late trumpeter Lester Bowie played a shofar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
  • The former bassist for Phish is credited for playing the shofar In Joey Arkenstat’s album Bane.
  • David Haskell blew the shofar in the first act of the musical “Godspell.”
  • Israeli composer and singer Shlomo Gronich uses the Yemenite shofar to produce a very wide range of notes.

On YouTube you can hear Metropolitan Klezmer trumpeter Pam Fleming trying out her latest horn, a kudu Yemenite shofar.

 

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How a Shofar is Made

by Adam Ehad

Practically every Jew has seen a shofar and heard it sounded on the High Holy Days. But how many of us know the true intricacy of the process of shofar production?

Selecting horns suitable for the shofar

Although the horns of any animal from the Bovidae family (except for those of a cow) may be used to make a shofar, a ram’s horn is considered preferable and for this reason most shofars are made from rams horns. The second most common type is a Yemenite shofar made of kudu horns.

Generally speaking, the horns are bought in bulk from ranchers and only on arrival at the manufacturer are they thoroughly inspected. For this reason, and because rams and kudu horns are often damaged during transit and during the actual process of making the shofar, the whole process is extremely wasteful; less than 30% of the horns which arrive at the shofar factory will end up as a usable shofar.

Removing the inner horn

Once the horns have been selected, they are boiled in hot water and sodium carbonate to soften the bone that forms the center of the horn. Once this has been carefully picked out, what remains are the layers of keratin (the same substance that human fingernails are made of) which grow outside the bone. As a result, a hollow tube of keratin has now been produced, narrowing to the tip which can now be sliced off to form the mouthpiece.

Sterilization and straightening

Being an organic, natural substance, the horn may contain bugs or bacteria which can erode it over time. For this reason, it is baked in an oven for a long time, in order to ensure complete sterilization. The shofar is then ready for the most difficult phase; straightening. Ram’s horn shofars are straightened in order to comply to the traditions of the community for which it is being produced (Ashkenazim generally prefer a slightly curved shofar and Sefardim a longer, straighter one). Kudu shofars are not straightened; some are curved more tightly than others.

The final stages: polishing, ornamentation and sound adjustment

It is a lucky shofar indeed that passes successfully through the rigorous processes of selection, hollowing and shaping. However, there are two final stages to complete its journey. First, it must be polished and sometimes carved with designs in order to beautify the mitzva of shofar as much as possible. (Only shofars that are not intended for actual use are ornamented with silver or gold, as this invalidates them for ritual blowing).

Finally, the shofar receives its ultimate test: It looks great, but how will it sound? The shofar shape, especially the mouthpiece, can also be slightly adjusted at this stage to achieve a perfect sound.

Adam Ehad grew up in London and is a graduate of Manchester University. He lives in Givat Shmuel and is currently pursuing his Masters Degree in English Literature. His father was a shofar maker.