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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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Kudu shofar: Is it kosher?

Kudu shofars, sometimes called a “Yemenite shofar,” are certainly magnificent in appearance and can produce a wide range of tones, but are they kosher? Yemenite Jews generally adhere to the rulings of the Rambam, who maintained that any animal other than a sheep cannot be used for a shofar. How did the custom of using a kudu horn arise in Yemen?

Yemenite shofarRabbi Amram Korach, the last chief rabbi of Yemen, suggests one answer: “The shofar of Rosh Hashana that they were accustomed to blowing was long and twisted, two or three twists, and its sound was pure and eerie. Some said that is was from an animal that was similar to sheep. Therefore they did not concern themselves with the [Rambam’s] stringency that only sheep horns are kosher, since they saw that this shofar beautifies the mitzva and its sound was greater than that of a sheep’s [i.e. ram’s] horn. To this very day they blow the mitzva blasts with this shofar, according to the rulings of the Geonim that all twisted shofars are kosher lechatchila” (Sa’aras Teiman, Jerusalem 1954, p. 99).

Ironically, it is more legitimate for non-Yemenite Jewish communities — which follow the Shulchan Aruch rather than the Rambam — to use a “Yemenite shofar” (i.e. a kudu horn) than for the Yemenite community.

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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.

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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
Kudu

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.

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History of the Yemenite shofar

Is the Yemenite shofar a brand new development, or does it have roots in ancient tradition?

On a social media site a user posed the following question:

Growing up I only saw short shofars that actually looked like horns from a ram. At some point these very long shofars showed up. Are they naturally from a ram?

Jay Gurewitsch posted an interesting reply from a social-historical perspective:

The really long, curlicued shofarot (plural for shofar in Hebrew) are from the Kudu and is the standard shofar for the Yemenite Jewish community.

The fact that they “showed up” as you put it is actually quite a tale of religious intolerance being overcome. They became the “in” shofar in Israel in the 60s and 70s and their popularity has spread worldwide since then, I assume through Jewish tourists buying them and bringing them home. The Yemenite community was airlifted en masse to Israel in 1949 in a secret operation known as Operation Magic Carpet. After years of severe discrimination by the European born Jews in charge of religious and secular Israeli institutions, they eventually gained enough political power in Israel so that their traditions and community standards were accepted, and as with their shofar, even became popular with Jews worldwide who saw it as the cool, new thing. Personally, I love the fact that Ashkenazi Jews worldwide now use a Yemenite traditional shofar. Perhaps if more people knew the background of that shofar they might be more tolerant of differences within the Jewish community.

The problem with his answer is that it’s inaccurate to say that the kudu shofar is “standard” in the Yemenite Jewish community. Many Yemenite Jews rely predominantly on the Rambam in halachic matters, much like Sephardim rely primarily on the Shulchan Aruch and Ashkenazim rely on the Shulchan Aruch with the glosses of the Rema. And guess what? The Rambam holds that a shofar must be made from a ram’s horn, not a kudu horn. So it would seem the Yemenite shofar is not so Yemenite.

However, a large segment of Yemenite Jewry did not accept the Rambam as the main decisor of halacha, and they do have a custom to use a kudu horn on Rosh Hashana.

According to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, today the majority of Yemenite shofars are made from a kudu horn, and he argues that ironically, since a significant segment of Yemenite Jewry adheres to the Rambam’s rulings, a kudu shofar is actually more kosher for use among Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews (who follow the Shulchan Aruch) than for Yemenite Jews.

Kudu Horn among Yemenite Jews

What is a Yemenite shofar? A Yemenite shofar is made from the horns of the greater kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros, a large antelope whose horns, with up to three full twists, are among the largest of any animal. Owing to their magnificent appearance, they are often used outside of the Yemenite Jewish community, but because they originated there, they are commonly referred to as “Yemenite shofars.”

Yemenite shofar made from a kudu horn
Yemenite shofar

The last chief rabbi of Yemen, Rabbi Amram Korach, writes that Yemenites were accustomed to blow a “long and twisted [shofar], two or three twists, and its sound was pure and eerie. Some said that it was from an animal that was similar to sheep. Therefore they did not concern themselves with [the Rambam’s] stringency that only sheep horns are kosher, since they saw that this shofar enhances the mitzvah in its stature and its sound was stronger than that of a sheep’s horn, and to the present day they blow the mitzvah blasts with this shofar, according to the rulings of the Geonim that all twisted shofars are undoubtedly kosher” (Sa’arat Teiman, Jerusalem 1954).

Rabbi Ovady Melamed argues that rams’ horns are easier to obtain than kudu Yemenite shofar horns, and this proves that there must have been an ancient Yemenite tradition that predated the Rambam, according to which kudu horns are acceptable, and perhaps even preferable because of the greater number of curves.

However, Rabbi Shlomo Muchrar, an elderly Yemenite who now lives in the Haifa area, says he recalls that the kudu horn was only used because in certain parts of Yemen sheep with usable horns were virtually non-existent.

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Ram’s Horn Shofar vs. Kudu Horn Shofar

Kudu shofars, sometimes mistakenly identified as “gazelle shofars,” come from the Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), a woodland antelope found throughout eastern and southern Africa.

The males, which weigh in at 190-270 kg (420-600 lbs), have large horns with two and a half twists. If straightened they reach an average length of one meter. However, the male horns do not begin to grow until the male is at least six months old, forming their first spiral at around two years of age, and not reaching the full length until the age of six.

Yemenite shofar
Kudu shofar

The Yemenite shofar is therefore much larger than its contemporary European counterparts. Some hold that Yemenite shofars made of the kudu horn were the original shofars used by the Jewish people, brought to the Land of Israel from Africa.

Ram's horn shofar
Traditional European shofar

The Yemenite kudu shofar has a polished exterior from the mouthpiece to the middle portion. The rest of this Jewish Shofar has a natural finish and texture. The original color of the Shofar is retained across this portion.

Small-sized Yemenite shofars measure between 26 and 29 inches, while medium ones measure 30 to 33 inches and the large ones between 34 and 38 inches.

The typical non-Yemenite shofar is made of a ram’s horn. The Talmud discusses why a shofar should be made from a ram’s horn. “Why do we blow with the shofar of a ram? As the Holy One says, Blow before Me with the shofar of a ram, so that I will recall the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham for you, and I will consider it as though you bound yourselves before me” (Rosh Hashana 16a).

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Yemenite Shofar Price Survey

If you’re in the market for a shofar, the most significant cost factor is length, which is typically measured around the outer curve (not end to end). Ram’s horn shofars range from 10 inches for a compact shofar to 24 inches for an extra large shofar, with several more shofar sizes in between. Typical online prices for short shofars can run as low as $30. For a medium shofar, expect to pay $40-$60 and for a large shofar $60-$120. An extra large or jumbo ram’s horn shofar will set you back $120-$180 or more.

The same principles apply to Yemenite kudu shofars as well, though these shofars are considerably longer, of course. A 30-inch kudu shofar will cost around $100, while a jumbo kudu shofar, which is typically about 48 inches (yes, that’s right, four feet long) can cost $200 or more.

A natural finish is slightly less than polished.

In the exotic shofar category, gemsbok shofars typically range in length from 26-32 inches and cost between $80 and $150.

If you’re in the market for a decorative shofar, expect to pay anywhere from $100 for a silver-plated ram’s horn shofar, to $400 or more for a sterling silver plated Yemenite shofar. Anointing shofars are typically $100. Note that decorative shofars are not kosher and should not be used on Rosh Hashanah.

If you are ready to order a shofar and prefer to buy from Israel, you can find links to several dealers based in Israel listed on our Yemenite Shofar Price Survey page. You can also find shofars at your local Judaica dealer, but prices are often marked up significantly.

When it comes to shofar accessories, a basic velvet shofar pouch may cost just $15 and up for a ram’s horn pouch, but a long pouch for a Yemenite shofar can be over $40. A simple shofar stand can be found for as little as $10, while a hand-painted wooden shofar stand can cost $35 or more.

Info on prices of shofar for sale>>