Commodity, Mitzvah, Sacred Instrument: The Shofar

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish celebration of the new year, and it begins the ten-day atonement period that culminates in Yom Kippur.  Though traditional Rosh Hashanah celebrations have many elements – from symbolic foods to specific prayers, there is but a single mitzvah – or commandment – for the high holiday of Rosh Hashanah.  That mitzvah is the blowing of the shofar – an ancient musical instrument whose roots can be traced to biblical times.

What is the shofar’s role in Rosh Hashanah?

According to Rabbi Yitzchak Gornish, the shofar has several layers of meaning when it’s blown on Rosh Hoshanah.  He explains, “Since Rosh Hashanah is the day we proclaim Hashem’s Kingdom, it is fitting to blow wind instruments as was the custom at a coronation.”  In addition, the shofar’s sounds reminds Jews of the ancient trumpet blasts that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem and also brings to mind the great sacrifice Abraham was willing to make when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, only to be permitted to substitute a ram at the last moment.  Gornish also reminds us that the words of prophets were compared to the call of the shofar.  And finally, Gornish explains, “when Hashem hears the call of the shofar He rises from the Throne of Justice and sits on the Throne of Mercy to review the personal accounts of each person on Rosh Hashanah.”  For more details about the significance of the shofar, see Gornish’s detailed explanation here.

Are there different kinds of shofar?

Indeed, there are!  Shofar made in Israel were traditionally fashioned from a ram’s horn.  Shofarot (the plural of shofar) are mentioned a number of times in the Bible, and perhaps the most memorable is in the book of Joshua.  Shofars.com presents an article about the history of the shofar, in which we read the account of the battle of Jericho:

Then the LORD said to Joshua… March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in. (Joshua 6:2-5)

Though rams were plentiful in Israel, Jews in other parts of the world adapted to their circumstances.  Yemeni Jews, for example, didn’t have rams, so they used kudu antelope horns instead.  According to Holyland Shofar, the kudu horns were brought to Yemen from Africa by way of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.  Kudu shofar are long, elegant spirals with a dramatic appearance and tone.

How are shofar made?

Though ram and kudu horns are the most common sources for shofar, a number of different animals’ horns are suitable.  Horns of cattle or of non-kosher species are prohibited.  Rabbi Gornish shares a detailed explanation of the process of making a shofar, but basically, the horn is dried, the inner layer is removed, the horn is boiled, scraped, dried, and a hole is drilled to create the mouthpiece.

Only kosher shofarot are supposed to be used for Rosh Hoshanah celebrations, and there are a number of defects or processes that render a shofar pasul, or ineligible for use on the holiday.  HaSOFER explains what makes a shofar kosher or pasul in great detail.  First, kosher shofarot must be made under kashrut supervision, and they must have a hechsher certification affixed to them.

In order to be kosher, the shofar must not have holes, cracks, or plugs, and it must not have been lacquered or treated to disguise any defects.  Anything that alters the sound of the shofar renders it pasul, and decorative leather or silver similarly means the shofar is not suitable for use on Rosh Hoshanah.

Where can I buy a shofar?

The short answer is practically anywhere, including Amazon!  There are many small, traditional shofar makers in Israel who take great pride in the traditions handed down from their fathers and grandfathers.  There are also scores of online retailers and wholesalers of shofar.  Many are now produced in China, and prices can range from a modest $50 to thousands of dollars, depending on the size and craftsmanship involved.

Many shofar for sale aren’t kosher, though, so if you’re looking for one to celebrate the high holy day of Rosh Hoshanah, take care to investigate and ensure you purchase a shofar made the traditional way, just like the ones Joshua used when God delivered the city of Jericho to him.

A common complaint about traditional shofar is the odor they carry.  An authentic, kosher shofar is made from part of an animal.  It shouldn’t be lacquered to suppress its natural aroma.  Some modern manufacturers of shofar even use synthetic materials to produce shofarot that look and sound like a genuine kosher shofar, but obviously are not.

If a shofar is merely intended as a showpiece, then these inexpensive and non-kosher options look great hanging on a wall.  But the real shofar, the instrument that produces sound the very same way it did in Abraham’s day is a labor of love and scrupulous adherence to kosher law.  The sound of the shofar inspires deep reflection and connection with a shared past, and its meaning is inextricably entwined with the celebration of Rosh Hoshanah.

About the Author
Baruch Labunski is an entrepreneur, internet marketing expert and author from Toronto, Canada. He currently serves as CEO of Rank Secure, an award-winning web-design and internet marketing firm.
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