When buying a shofar, one can end up with anything from a fabulous sounding horn with a beautiful appearance that will be treasured by the whole family for generations to come, to something very regrettable and not even kosher for use! Shofar buyer beware…
According to an unusual news story featured in the New York Times, Orthodox Jews had bought and used what they were sure were kosher shofars for use on the High Holy Days, only to receive a rude shock when it was discovered that the “shofars” were actually fakes, made in molds from a combination of leather glue and plastic ply fibres.
Key factor: Is the shofar kosher?
Unless you are buying a shofar merely for decoration or as a conversation piece, if your intention is to fulfill the commandment of sounding the shofar, then it makes sense for the kashrut of the shofar to be the buyer’s top priority. The factors that can invalidate a shofar for ritual use range from coming from the wrong kind of animal to cracks or holes made unintentionally during production, which may be covered up by unscrupulous shofar makers.
The best way to guarantee the kashrut of your shofar is to ensure the shofar for sale bears an adhesive sticker attesting to the kashrut supervision. In some cases the sticker is not an indication of kashrut at all, but merely says that it is a genuine animal’s horn, and not a replica.
Types of Shofar for Sale
There are short shofars, long shofars, straight shofars and curved shofars. They come in black, brown, beige or any combination of these colors.
Ram’s Horn Shofar: The classic ram’s horn shofar is the most widespread. The ram has always been associated with God’s mercy, ever since a ram, whose horns were tangled in the thicket, was offered up as a sacrifice to God in lieu of Abraham’s son Isaac. It is also considered the “most beautiful” horn, and thus the most appropriate to fulfill the commandment. Used by both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, it is made from the horn of a domestic ram. The typical ram’s horn shofar is light in color, although black ones can be obtained from black rams. A ram’s horn shofar can also be relatively flat, with an upturned end. This shape is often preferred by Moroccan and German Jews. Some claim this shape was chosen due to persecution, because it enabled the shofar to be hidden under one’s clothing. Bavli shofars are natural, unpolished ram’s horns with a very deep tone, and are typically used by Jews of Iraqi or Persian origin.
Traditionally, the ram’s horn is generally considered the preferred way of fulfilling the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashana, at the end of Yom Kippur and in the Jubilee Year. According to most authorities, however, the horn of almost any Bovidae animal may be used, and today’s shofar buyer can also choose among various exotic shofar types, including ibex, eland and gemsbok shofars.
Kudu Shofar: Although it is difficult to say precisely when the Kudu horn became popular among the Yemenite community, it is thought that it occurred when a scarcity of rams in Yemen coincided with the appreciation of the Yemenite Jews for the magnificent dark horns of these animals, and the idea that using them would be a beautiful and fitting way of performing the mitzvah. To this day, Yemenite Jews often use these large, three-twisted horns, producing sounds far deeper and louder than the ram’s horn.
Ibex Shofar: The Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 3:2) quotes an early opinion that the shofar should be made of an ibex horn. Although not a mainstream option today, it can definitely be understood why the ancient communities in the Land of Israel might have chosen this kind of horn, a magnificent curved arc with a series of bumps running up one side. Ibex have always been a familiar sight in the Land of Israel, and today can be seen in many parts of the country.
Twisted or straight?
Horns come in many different colors and sizes, but an important difference between them is how straight they are. This difference was the subject of an early discussion recorded in the Talmud. One side argued that, just as we are bent over, bowing before the king, on the High Holy Days, so too should we choose a particularly bent shofar. The other side argued that as we are reaching straight upwards on these days, a horn as straight as possible is preferable (The Talmud, Rosh Hashana, 26b). The Talmud rules that the curved horn is preferable, but if one prefers a longer, straightened shape, these are available and kosher too.
What else I should know before buying a shofar?
In addition to aesthetic appeal, it is important to bear in mind the size of the shofar. The size does not affect how kosher the shofar is. According to halacha, even a shofar under a foot long is kosher, as long as it is large enough to protrude on either side of the hand that grips it.
For people who are very mobile, e.g. who blow the shofar for others in numerous places for people to hear, a smaller shofar may be preferable. For synagogue use, a medium or large shofar is more popular. Very small and very large shofars are usually more difficult to blow.