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!’

Gideon’s might, military prowess and the shofar

But the spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon; and he blew a shofar; and Abiezer was gathered together after him. Judges 6:34

At first glance this verse seems to merely record how Gideon called up the troops, using the shofar like a bugle or another type of horn. But note that the summons to battle is juxtaposed with a profound spiritual change in Gideon. The classical commentators explain that Gideon was “enclothed” with a spirit of might and courage from G-d. Then he blows the shofar.

Note that he used the shofar to summon Aviezer, but to summon troops from elsewhere he sends messengers. The Aviezer clan was devoted, and apparently joined him instinctively upon hearing the call of the shofar.

The shofar appears again in Chapter 7. After Gideon pares down his troops to an elite fighting force of 300 shock troops, he equips each soldier with a shofar. These shofars were not intended merely as a tactical combat tool, but to gain spiritual advantage as well. As Rashi notes (Judges 7:13), they carried shofars and torches as reminders of the merit of the Giving of the Torah.

In From Dan to Megiddo, Rabbi Benjamin Fleischer writes that the Sages placed Gideon on a level with Moses and Samuel, and as a general, alongside Joshua and Barak. His brilliant tactic of using shofars and torches to confound the enemy transformed his soldiers “as if by magic, suddenly, in a super-natural manner into heroes and fearless fighters, revived by a spirit of celestial fire and zeal, with an awakening of higher national consciousness of their pure and Divine faith.”

From a practical military perspective, Gideon’s battle plan was based on a knowledge of the composition of the enormous Midian army, with its fierce cavalry 150,000 strong. He took into consideration the fact that the barbarian army was a heterogeneous amalgamations of various races and nations, with no unifed command and no uniformity of discipline or military conduct. Likewise they were unaquainted with the lingual customs of the various tribes and divisions that constituted the army.

When confronted by Israel’s surprise attack in the middle of the night, breaking into the center of the camp, general panic ensued. As their military order vanished, they fled like a terrified mob, trampling their own men and scattering in all directions.

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. Jericho Shofar – A unique shofar dealer 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.

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. A notable exception is Jericho Shofar, which has individual product images to allow you to choose.

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.”

 

Have Shofar, Will Travel

While most people have the privilege of hearing all 100 blasts of the shofar from the comfort of their shul seat, in every town there are also Jews who can’t make it to the synagogue — even on Rosh Hashana — because they are hospitalized, housebound or institutionalized.

Many shofar blowers view these hapless folk as an opportunity to take Rosh Hashana beyond the synagogue walls and to earn a double mitzva: visiting the sick (bikur cholim) or doing acts of kindness (chessed), and enabling others to fulfill the commandment to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana.

In some cases these mitzvah-seekers may be organized into a “shofar corps,” making sure that if someone wants to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana, a traveling shofar blower will come to them.

For several years, master shofar blower Michael Chusid of Tarzana, California participated in a monthly Shabbat service at a nursing home. Several members of the minyan were unable to speak and were locked in bodies they no longer controlled. “Yet somehow,” Chusid recalls, “I could sense that even their souls were moved when they heard the shofar at our Rosh Hashana gathering.”

Another member of the Shofar Corps run by his congregation, Makom Ohr Shalom, blew the shofar at a different nursing home. After he finished blowing the shofar an elderly gentleman approached him saying, “Young man, that’s the first sound I’ve heard in 30 years.”

According to another shofar blower who ventured with shofar in hand to a facility for people with impaired memory, “Just saying the word tekia triggered a couple of people’s memories, and they would light up like a happy kid. We led the Shehechiyanu and translated it, giving thanks for being right here, right now. These people are in the Right Now — each moment is a new day for many of them.”

“Hearing the shofar can be especially meaningful to those who are sick and live with the knowledge that their days may be numbered,” writes Chusid. “The call of the shofar may reassure them that, in sickness as in health, we each stand before God as the Holy One passes judgment. For the dying and their families, prayers of teshuva take on a special urgency, and hearing the shofar may provide them comfort.”

Go to Jericho Shofar>>