What exactly is a shofar? The Sages tell us it is related to the word שפופרת (shfoferet), which is a hollow implement. Certain animals have a horn (as opposed to antlers) which is comprised of a bony protrusion on the top of their head, covered by a hollow cone made of bony keratin. This hollow bone is a shofar.
Ram’s Horn vs. Antlers
Many large grazing animals (i.e. animals that have cloven hoofs and chew their cud) are armed with either antlers or horns — weapons used for defense against predators or in duels between males to establish dominance. Both horns and antlers are positioned on the head and have similar uses, but are structurally different.
A shofar can be made from the horn of any kosher animal (Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 1, 1). Biologically these animals are classified as follows:
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Subphylum: Vertebrata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Artiodactyla
- Family: Bovidae
The bovids include diverse species: African antelope (kudu), gazelle, mountain goats, buffalo and domesticated species such as cattle, goats and sheep. Modern bovids species are most diverse in Africa. The horns of the most common antelope species are often used to make shofars: the eland is the world’s most common antelope species, followed by the kudu.
Horns, unlike antlers, are not branched. They are hollow sheaths encasing a pointed bony core that arise from the front of the skull. These sheaths are made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails. They continue to grow throughout the lifetime of the animal and are never shed.
The Sages teach that the preferred way to fulfill the mitzvah of shofar is with the horn of a ram, which serves as a a remembrance of Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac). Another reason they give to prefer a ram’s horn shofar is that it is bent (not straight, like an oryx or gemsbok horn), which hints to us that we should bend our hearts through tshuva (repentance). Thus the most common type of shofar is made of a ram’s horn, while Yemenite shofars are made from the long, swirling horn of a kudu antelope.
The following may not be used as a shofar:
- a horn derived from a non-kosher animal
- a horn that is not naturally hollow
- the horn of a cow or bull
If one cannot procure a ram’s horn shofar, the horn of a different animal is acceptable. Kudu shofars, for example, are fairly common. Preferably it should be bent, but even a straight horn is kosher for use on Rosh Hashana as long as the horn is derived from a kosher animal.
Size of Shofar
The minimum shofar size is one tefach, or three thumb breadths, so that when held in a single hand a bit of the shofar is visible on both sides of the hand.
The inner bony part must be removed. According to halacha, if it was not removed, but merely a hole drilled through it, the shofer is still kosher because the sound is produced by the shofar. Furthermore, we apply a Talmudic principle known as מין במינו אינו חוצץ, which means that something made of the same substance as the object in question does not create a barrier to that object. However, if one removes the inner bony piece and then drills it out and creates a hole in it, the horn produced is not a kosher shofar, because in its original form it was not hollow.