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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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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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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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What is the ideal shape for a ram’s horn shofar?

The Gemara informs us that it is a mitzvah on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to use a curved shofar because it reminds us to bend ourselves (i.e. bend and submit ourselves, rather than being stiff-necked and un-repentent). The remainder of the year a straight shofar is best (Rosh Hashana 26b).

Curved ram's horn shofarAnother reason to prefer a curved shofar is that it serves as a remembrance of the ram whose horns got tangled in the brush following the Binding of Isaac (Akeidas Yitzchak) and which was later sacrificed in place of Isaac.

The Ran writes that it is a mitzvah to use a more curved shofar, but it is not mandatory. The Rambam (Hilchos Shofar 1,1), on the other hand, holds that the shofar must be curved in order to fulfill the mitzvah.

ושופר שתוקעין בו בין בראש השנה בין ביובל הוא קרן הכבשים הכפוף

The Shulchan Aruch seems to side with the Ran.

If one is faced with a choice of using a curved shofar with mediocre sound or a straight shofar with very good sound, HaRav Nissim Karelitz writes that the curved shofar would be preferable. The reason, he explains, is that according to one opinion curved is required, whereas according to all opinions nicer sound is no more than an embellishment of the mitzvah (הידור מצוה).

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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.

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Shofar shopping: What you see is what you get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

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The Gemsbok Shofar, Eland Shofar and Other Exotic Horns

The gemsbok shofar has been gradually making its way onto the shofar market in recent years. According to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, it is made from the horn of an antelope, the southern African oryx (Oryx gazella), known in Afrikaans as the “gemsbok.”

The horns are about two and a half feet long, straight, ridged along half their length, and dark brown or black in color, lending the shofar a striking appearance that can command a hefty price. They are considered kosher, but according to halacha are not preferred, because they are not bent. However, for the Jubilee year, the Mishna states that a straight horn is ideal (Rosh Hashana 3:2).

Gemsbok horns
A gemsbok at Etosha National Park in Namibia

Another exotic shofar appearing on the shofar market is the eland shofar, which is straight, but has a twist (not a curve) along part of its length. Ibex shofars and pronghorn shofars are also sometimes sold, and are kosher, but not preferable. (According to the Pri Megadim, the ibex shofar is preferable to the eland shofar, because the ibex is from the goat family and the Torah uses the same terminology for goats and sheep.)