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Shofars from Jerusalem

This week we received a big delivery of shofars from Jerusalem Shofars: ram’s horn shofars, Yemenite shofars and decorated shofars. I was very impressed with the level of craftsmanship. The shipment included some superb specimens of jumbo shofars.

Jumbo ram's horn shofar
A jumbo ram’s horn shofar from this week’s shipment

Jerusalem Shofars is a long-standing company located on the outskirts of Jerusalem in Atarot, near Ramallah and the Neve Yaakov neighborhood. If you were to ride a donkey in the wadi alongside Neve Yaakov, or nowadays drive a car in the road down to the Dead Sea, you would pass by Bedouin tents and soon arrive at Jericho. I think this is a winning combination of locations: Jericho, Jerusalem and Modi’in, where our offices are located. We ship from the Modi’in area, which is where the Maccabees lived.

Getting back to the new shipment we received, I liked the long, straight flat necks on many of the ram’s horn shofars, as well as the elegant rounded curves. There was one tan ram’s horn shofar with very even coloring, which I liked, but of course shofar coloring is a matter of personal preference. And the sound, especially of the extra large and jumbo shofars, is superb. I tested all of them and found it quite easy to produce deep, clear, powerful tones (except for the very small ram’s horn shofars). In addition to the shaping and polishing, they also put a lot of effort into shaping the mouthpiece properly.

The polished Yemenite shofars are have fabulous purplish-red hues and dark tan coloration. The natural ones, i.e. polished on one side and unpolished on the other, feature a great mottled brown, that reminds you of the savannah where the kudu antelopes roam.

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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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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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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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How are shofars 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.

Generally speaking, the horns are bought in bulk from cattle ranchers and only on arrival at the manufacturer are they thoroughly inspected. For this reason, and because 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.

To make a kudu horn or ram horn into a shofar, the horn must first be drilled out from one end to the other. The hole drilled is small in diameter near the mouthpiece, but most of the thickness of the main part of the horn is hollowed out completely. Drilling out the inside of horn to form the shofar must be done very carefully because even a small hole in the shofar renders it nonkosher.

Sterilization and straightening

Since most ram horns and kudu horns when removed from the animal are twisted, or even completely looped, the first step is to heat the horn in boiling water to make it pliable. It is then extended until it is straight enough to be drilled. Once the drilling is complete, the shofar is twisted into the familiar curved or spiral shape, and either left in its natural state or polished.

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. The shofar is 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).

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).

Decorative shofar: Not for mitzvah use

Decorative elements are sometimes added to the shofar, such as silver or painted leather coverings. However, decorations that cover any of the surface area of the shofar also make it non-kosher: a decorated shofar serves as a decorative piece, and cannot be used for the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.

The critical mouthpiece area of the shofar remains kosher even if the opening is very close to one edge. This can occur during the drilling if the shofar shifts to one side due to the condition of the bone.

The drilling process may leave the mouthpiece rough or with small pieces of loose bone flaking off. This can be smoothed by lightly sandpapering the rough spots.

Finally, the shofar receives its ultimate test: It looks great, but how will it sound? The shofar shape 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.

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Jumbo shofar

Kudu horns are the largest and most striking shofar horns currently available. But another contender in the giant shofar category is a species of sheep. Not the famous American bighorn sheep, whose horns are indeed enormous, but are short and impractical for making shofars.

Buy a large Yemenite shofar>>

Buy a large ram’s horn shofar>>

Rather the most massive horns are found on a wild sheep from the mountains of Asia. Standing up to four feet high and weighing in at 400 pounds, the argali (Ovis ammon) boasts a pair of prodigious horns. The longest on record measured 75″, two inches longer than the longest kudu horns.

Large kudu horns

The record-breaking horns were taken from a Marco Polo argali (Ovis ammon polii) although another rarer subspecies, the Altai (Ovis ammon ammon) has shorter horns, but which are even more massive.

The Shmoneh Esreh prayer refers to the shofar gadol (“the Great Shofar”) which will be blown to usher in the Final Redemption.

Likewise a verse in Yeshayahu mentions a “great shofar.” “And it shall be on that day that a great shofar shall be sounded, and those lost in the land of Assyria shall come, as well as those expelled to Egypt; and they shall bow down before G-d, on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem (Isaiah 27:13).

Invariably these references are not to a literal shofar, but the spiritual concept of shofar. Still, seeing and hearing the types of giant shofars mentioned above could help us visualize that day, may it comes speedily in our times.

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Shofar as a primal experience

Blowing the shofar is an intensely primal experience that connects you with earth and sky. There is a lot of sensory engagement in keeping mitzvahs, but the shofar takes this to a very high level. It’s a ram’s horn or a kudu horn, it smells like an animal horn.

“There’s something very primal and earthy and wild about it,” writes Jordia Gerson. “It has a similar smell to the smell that you get when you open a Torah scroll, since a kosher Torah scroll is made of animal skin. They both smell like animal…”

So many areas of our lives are unnaturally sanitized today. We live in closed, climate-controlled environments, with air filters and ionizers. In fact, some scientific research, the Hygiene Hypothesis, even suggests that our super clean and sanitized environments may actually be making us sick!

In high school and college, I used to go on three- and four-day backpacking trips. One summer a friend and I went into the Sierra Nevado Mountains for a 10-day jaunt. After about a week of zero exposure to cleaning solutions, car exhaust, air conditioners, etc. I started picking up subtle smells in the world around me. Not just pine needles and fields, but even tree bark and boulders from several feet away. The kinds of smells dogs and cats and horses are attuned to, but which escape the senses of modern man.

Perhaps the shofar is a hedge against becoming overly sanitized, something like working in the garden and getting dirt under your fingernails.

Blowing the shofar bonds you with nature. Arguably, the shofar is meant to be blown outdoors. All of the shofar blowing described in Tanach occurred in the open air. The shofar horn is a signaling device meant to be heard over long distances. There would be no need to sound it in the generally small rooms of Biblical-era structures.

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Shofar tones and pitch

The Shulchan Aruch states that the pitch of a shofar can be high or low (586, 6). This ruling is derived from the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 27b), which states as follows:

היה קולו דק או עבה או צרור כשר שכל הקולות כשירין בשופר

Here we see that not only high- and low-pitched shofars can be used to fulfill the mitzvah, but even a “hoarse” tone, which Rashi describes as a “dry” tone.

Sometimes the pitch of a shofar will change midway. A tekiah starts high and then in the middle suddenly changes to a lower note. Or it may start as a clear tone and then suddenly shift to raspy. The custom is that the tekiah is acceptable, and does not have to be repeated.

There are two notable cases where the tekiah may have to be repeated:

  1. If there is a break that can be detected by the listeners
  2. If it trills

Note that if a shofar shound is not produced and air can be heard passing through the shofar, this is not considered קול שופר and therefore does not affect the order of the required shofar notes.

When looking at shofars for sale, keep in mind that you will find it easier to play it well if the sound is clear, not raspy, and the notes are easy to hit, without skipping up or down.

Yemenite shofars are typically able to produce a wider range of notes than rams horn shofars.

Long shofar made from a kudu horn
Yemenite shofar
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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.

Horns on a kudu antelopeUnlike 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.