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Treasure Chest of Shofar Insights

by D. Weinberg

The shofar has long been a central symbol in Judaism, with many meanings and interpretations offered regarding the blowing of the shofar and its hidden message. From a triumphant war cry to a primal cry from the depths of the soul, from a symbol of remembrance to a proclamation of God’s majesty, and from a call to action to a call to freedom, the significances are many and varied. The following is a collection of some of the most poignant and inspirational insights gleaned from the sounds of the shofar.

  • Call to Teshuva (Repentance): According to the Rambam (Maimonides), the shofar blast contains the hidden message: “…Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator…look into your souls, amend your ways and deeds…” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, 3:4).
  • Key to the Heart: According to the Baal Shem Tov, the shofar blast has a way of penetrating the human heart like no other instrument or tool: “In the palace of the king there are many chambers and each one needs a different key. There is one key, one instrument, however, which can open all the doors – the ax. The shofar is an ax. When a person passionately breaks his heart before the Almighty, he can smash any gate in the palace of the King of Kings.” Accordingly, the shofar holds the key to the deepest recesses of the heart, allowing us to reach otherwise impenetrable places within ourselves and to thereby achieve an emotional breakthrough in our Avodat Hashem (service of the Almighty).
  • Intellectual Experience: In Tehillim (Psalms), King David proclaims: “Happy is the people who know the tru’ah [the shofar blast]” (Psalms 89:16), suggesting that knowledge or intellect is the means understanding and benefiting from the shofar.
  • Infusing the Physical with the Spiritual: Just as God blew breath into Adam, transforming him from a purely physical creature formed from the dust of the earth (“Adam” meaning from the adama or ground) into a spiritual being, so too the shofar begins as merely a physical instrument, the hollow horn of a ram. Once human breath is blown through the shofar, however, it becomes infused with holiness and spirituality, undergoing a transformation similar to the one we hope to achieve by hearing the sounds of the shofar.
  • Kol Pnimi – Finding One’s Inner Voice: In the blessing over the shofar, we are reminded of the commandment on Rosh Hashanah, which is to “hear the voice of the shofar.” The sages explain that merely ‘listening’ to the shofar blasts is not enough. Rather, we must “hear” the shofar in a deeper and more significant way, in a way which truly affects or transforms us.

This helps us understand a fascinating discussion in the Talmud regarding a case wherein one shofar is placed inside of another shofar. Can one fulfill his/her Torah obligation by hearing sounds from a double shofar? The conclusion brought by the Talmud is: Im kol p’nimi shama, yatza – If the voice of the inner shofar is heard, one has fulfilled his obligation. It is the sounds of the inner shofar which count, just as the goal of hearing the shofar is to affect us from within.

  • Agent of Forgiveness: According to the Midrash, the blowing of a ram’s horn evokes God’s mercy, serving as a reminder of Abraham’s actions in the story of Akeidat Yizchak, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24). At God’s command, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, only to stopped by an angel of God, whereupon a ram “caught by its horns in the bush” was sacrificed instead.
  • Reminder of Our Holiness: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, in one of his many insights on the meaning of the shofar, wrote: “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)
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Shofar: Crying out to Heaven

The blowing of the shofar has many purposes and many layers of meaning.

The blowing of the shofar, which is typically made of a ram’s horn, calls to mind the ram that the Patriarch Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac. And it helps us remember to feel fear of Hashem’s glory, as it says in Amos 3:6: “If a ram’s horn is sounded in the city, can the inhabitants fail to be alarmed?”

R’ Mordechai Housman writes that the word “shofar” is similar to the word shapru, Hebrew for “beautify,” which is to remind us to “beautify” our deeds and correct our actions. The shape of the shofar is very indicative of our relationship with Hashem.

The shofar has one narrow end and one wide end. We blow into the shofar at the narrow, tapered end, and the sound comes out of the wide end, as in some musical instruments. On Rosh Hashana, the verse “From the straits I called upon Hashem, Hashem answered me expansively” (Psalms 118:5) is recited before the Blowing of the Shofar. In other words, when we are in dire straits, in a bind, we pray to G-d for help and support.

According to Leo Rosten, “The bend in the shofar is supposed to represent how a human heart, in true repentance, bends before the Lord. The ram’s horn serves to remind the pious how Abraham, offering his son Isaac in sacrifice, was reprieved when God decided that Abraham could sacrifice a ram instead.”

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What makes a shofar kosher?

What can make a shofar non-kosher (i.e. halachically unfit)?

Shofar Size

A shofar must be at least one tefach (9.6 cm) long, not including the mouthpiece.

Cutting off the end of the shofar or reducing the thickness of the shofar walls does not render the shofar invalid, as long as it retains the minimum length.

Pitch

Shofars of any pitch are kosher, as long as the sound of the shofar has not been artificially modified (e.g. by adding to it).

No substance or coating may be added to the mouthpiece. The remaining part of the shofar may be coated on the outside, as long as the coating does not alter the sound the shofar produces.

Perforations

The shofar must be fully intact, without any holes. Under certain circumstances a shofar with a hole may be used � assuming it was not patched, which would alter the sound.

Cracks

Ideally a shofar should be free of any cracks. In the case of cracks that run along the length of the shofar, if no other shofar is available (e.g. a crack is discovered on Rosh Hashana and there is no kosher shofar nearby), one can rely on the opinion that the shofar remains kosher as long as the crack does not extend along the majority of the shofar’s length (or if it does extend along most of the length, the crack has been glued).

In the case of a hairline crack, the shofar may be used even if another shofar is available, but even so the crack should be fixed before Rosh Hashana so that the shofar does not appear defective.

In the case of a crack that runs along the width of the shofar, if the crack extends along the majority of the diameter, the shofar is pasul (unfit) and should not be used on Rosh Hashana, etc. If the crack does not extend along most of the shofar’s diameter the opinions vay and a qualified rabbi familiar with the halacha should be consulted.

This article is based on Chayei Adam, Hilchot Rosh Hashana, Klal 140.

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Shofar odor and cleaning tips

If you keep coming across references to shofar odor, don’t be alarmed. It’s not so bad. In fact, personally I would rather have a slight animal scent than a sanitized hospital or factory scent. After all, a shofar comes from an animal, not a manufacturing plant. And G-d wants us to keep that in mind when we blow it.

The source of the odor is remnants of particles of muscle, sinew or bone or blood-eating bacteria. Professional shofar makers heat the shofar to a high temperature, which kills the bacteria, rendering it harmless.

When Isaac blessed Jacob, Isaac said, “My son’s fragrance is like the fragrance of the field blessed by Hashem.” Jacob, of course, was wearing animal skins on his hands and neck, demonstrating that an animal smell is not necessarily a bad odor.

Still, if your shofar has an odor you find a bit too strong, you can try cleaning the shofar with any of the following:

  • Synthetic vinegar
  • Arak
  • Mouthwash
  • Baking soda solution
  • Aquarium gravel (avoid large or sharp pieces)

Just press your thumb against the mouthpiece, fill it with one of the above and shake thoroughly.

Never soak a shofar in oil (including olive oil) or liquid, which can damage it. Whichever method you use to clean the shofar be sure to rinse out the liquid with water to avoid causing permanent damage to the shofar.

A final option is to spend a few dollars on a bottle of Shofar OdorFree, a natural, biodegradable spray solution.

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Shofar sounds: Groaning and weeping

The Torah could have commanded us to arouse ourselves to tshuvah by looking at a startling sight or by sniffing a powerful scent. But instead we are commanded, at the start of the year, to a hear a sound. That sound must come from a shofar, connecting us, through a primeval instrument, to other spiritual planes.

The big question then is what exact sound must we hear? There is an extended discussion in the Gemara about how to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. And because certain doubts remain unresolved, we sound the required set of nine shofar blasts three times, each time in a slightly different manner.

The core of the dispute is how to interpret the word תרועה. The Torah tells us (Bamidbar 29: 1) that we must have a day of teruah: יום תרועה יהיה לכם. And elsewhere (Vayikra 23:23-25) we are commanded to have a day of remembrance during which the shofar is sounded.

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד
לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ

It’s not an easy verse to translate, but roughly it comes out to “it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast, a holy occasion.”

Then the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 33b) tells us as follows:

מר סבר גנוחי גנח ומר סבר ילולי יליל

Interestingly, the Gemara says any tone that comes from the shofar is fine, whether it is a thin, high-pitched tone (e.g. from a small ram’s horn shofar) or a deep baritone (e.g. from a long kudu shofar).

The first opinion says we should similate moaning and groaning with the shofar. According to the other opinion, the shofar sound should resemble the rapid, truncuated sound of weeping.

At first glance this does not seem to fit in with the spirit of Rosh Hashana. But perhaps the idea is simply that sometimes, when are emotions are stirred, we feel a need to express those emotions vocally (e.g. crying, sighing). On Rosh Hashana, to truly forge and feel a powerful connection with Our Father in Heaven, we have to create an emotional release through sounding the shofar. As if we are letting loose a great sigh: ‘Father, I’m coming home!’

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A glimpse at The Shofar Man

The Shofar Man has been quite a character online for a number of years.  His motto: “The Shofar Man is more than a business, it’s a calling!” I believe him on that. He seems to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, both for shofars and selling shofars.

The Shofar Man
The Shofar Man, a.k.a. Jim Barbarossa, outside the White House in 2015

The Shofar Man, a.k.a. Jim Barbarossa, got his start with shofars 20 years ago, on a trip to Eretz Yisrael. Like many tourists, he bought a large Yemenite shofar, and then, “[to his] surprise, G-d spoke to him to blow the Shofar as He would lead him.” A few months later his wife had a dream that she was pregnant and Jim blew a shofar to help her in delivery. On a trip to Africa Jim “blew the Shofar as G-d directed, and deliverances, healings, and miracles followed.”

He now sells an enormous range of different types of shofars. Many of them are certainly not kosher and it would be much more accurate to describe them as horns, not shofars.

A number of remarks listed on The Shofar Man website sound quite peculiar.

  • “All Shofar [sic] are imported directly from Israel.” This makes little sense, since a large number of the type of horns he sells are not available in Israel and certainly none of the shofar makers there has anything to do with them.
  • “Do yourself a favor and do not purchase a Shofar until you have personally heard our exceptional sounding Shofars for yourself.  If you call (219) 250-2187, The Shofar Man will personally sound an exceptional sounding Shofar.” That’s a nice offer, but it doesn’t seem to fit in with his return policy: “Because of health reasons, we have a no return policy on all Shofars…Would you want to purchase a Shofar that someone else bought and used (spit in), then returned?”
  • “I have come to the conclusion that all Shofars have an odor to them and it is just the nature of a Shofar.” That’s certainly true, but elsewhere on his website he sells a supposedly “Odor Free Shofar.”

If you ask me, it doesn’t make much sense to buy a shofar from an Arab wheeler-dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem, or from a guy out in Indiana — especially since his prices seem exorbitant. I would stick with a traditional shofar from the Land of Israel. Here are a few kosher shofar sellers I know:

  1. HaSofer – They really specialize in mezuzahs and tefillin, but they have a decent shofar selection.
  2. Ben’s Tallit Shop – A widely known tallit store with a shofar category that allows you to see each individual shofar they sell.
  3. Kol Shofar – Mostly ram’s horn shofars made by Shimon Keinon, a veteran shofar maker in the Golan Heights.
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Shofar Behind Bars

The Talmud discusses whether one can fulfill the obligation to hear the shofar while inside a cistern since the sound of the shofar must come directly, not as an echo.

Shofar blower Michael Chusid knows what the inside of a “cistern” looks like. For several years, on Rosh Hashana he took his shofar into the depths of the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Prison.

If this piece of Talmud is interpreted on a deeper level, that can be quite a challenge when blowing a shofar inside a concrete bunker at what is described as the “Largest Prison in the Free World,” because the walls echo with the sound of so many of society’s failings, plus the fears and uncertainty facing the woeful residents.

Yet all the Rosh Hashana messages about teshuva — that a genuine turnaround is really attainable — come into much greater focus when discussed with someone who has seen the darkness of violence, addiction, crime and incarceration.

Yossi Carron, a chaplain at the facility, used the themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to help the men understand that forgiveness is possible and that by taking responsibility for their actions, their future does not have to be determined by their pasts.

“The residents recognized that I was in the prison by choice,” said Chusid. “It was meaningful for them to know that they had not been forgotten by or completely severed from the outside world. Some had never heard a shofar before and were trying to reconnect with their Jewish heritage to help them have faith in their future.”

One inmate told Chusid the sound of shofar was seared into his heart, enabling him to tap into Rosh Hashana and the sound of the shofar throughout the year.

As the guards were preparing to strip search him before the brief visit, he told Chusid, “If I can keep hearing the shofar, it will remind me of what [Carron] told us. Then, maybe, this will be my last time in prison.”

 

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Pro Shofar Teacher David Perkins

Each shofar has its own distinctive sound. According to professional musician and shofar blowing instructor David Lloyd Perkins, the longer the shofar, the easier it is to play and produce harmonics.

“On a short ram’s horn I can get three harmonic tones,” says Perkins, “but on a long kudu shofar I can produce between 9 and 12 harmonics.”

Perkins has blown his shofar in such diverse locations as the roof of the Vatican in Rome, and in Seoul, Korea, on Israel Independence Day 1995, when he was an official representative of the Israeli government.

According to Perkins, playing the shofar is not difficult at all. “Even the three- and four-year olds in my classes play the shofar wonderfully,” he says. Sometimes, though, he says, “the mouthpiece cut into the shofar is too small, which is very often the case with the factory-produced shofars.”

What should the correct mouthpiece size be? “Big enough to be comfortable for human lips,” says Perkins, who heats the ends of his shofars in order to enlarge the mouthpiece.