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 kudu shofars may have an especially wide range.

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.

Unlike 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.

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.

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.