The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:2) rules that a bovine horn (i.e., from a cow or bull) is unfit for use in the commandment of blowing a shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud (in both the Babylonian and Jerusalemic Talmud there) explains that this is because a bovine horn is called a keren (Deut. 33:17, see also Gittin 2:3, Keilim 11:7) and not a shofar, while an ovine horn (i.e., from ram) is called both a keren and a shofar (or at least is not called a keren). This leads us to the obvious question: If shofar and keren both mean “horn,” then why is something called a keren disqualified from the commandment of shofar? In this essay, we will explore these two apparent synonyms and attempt to show the differences between them. By doing so, we will eventually be able to answer that question.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194–1270), better known as Ramban or Nachmanides, explains that there are two types of animal horns. As long as a horn is still attached to the animal, both types are called a keren. But once they are detached, there is a difference in terminology: The first type of animal horn is technically hollow, but is naturally stuffed with a sort of filling that needs to be removed in order for the horn to be useful for sounding. This type of horn is called a shofar when detached from the animal. Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (1320–1376) identifies shofar as a cognate of the Hebrew word shfoferet (“hollow tube”), which appears numerous times in the Mishnah (Shabbat 2:4, Keilim 14:5 17:17, Parah 5:4, 5:8, 6:1, 9:2, Mikvaot 2:10, 4:5, 6:1-2, 6:5-7, 6:9). The second type of animal horn is comprised of one solid keratin block. In order to use this horn for making sounds, one must drill into that block; there is no filling that can simply be removed to render the horn useful for making sounds. This type of horn is called a keren even when detached from the animal.
Based on this, Nachmanides explains that any animal horn that is a keren and not a shofar is disqualified from the commandment of shofar. Yet, when the Mishnah says that a bovine horn is unfit, this is not because it is a keren and not a shofar. Rather, this disqualification stems from the fact that the bovine horn is called a keren, even though it is materially a shofar. Why this nomenclature should disqualify the bovine horn from the commandment of shofar will be addressed after we discuss the etymologies of shofar and keren.
The Hebrew root SHIN-PEH-REISH yields words that mean “pleasant, beautiful, good” (Gen. 49:21, Ps. 16:6, Job 26:13). They are cognate with the Aramaic word shfar, which occurs thrice in the Bible (Dan. 3:32, 4:24 6:2). The Targumim often use the word shapir or variants thereof in translating the Hebrew words yafeh (“beautiful”) and tov (“good”). Traditionally, the word shofar is understood as a derived from this particular root.Indeed, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah §29:6) expounds on the word shofar (in the context of it being sounded on Rosh Hashanah, see Ps. 81:4) as related to shipper/shapir, as though along with the commandment of shofar, Hashem also commanded us shapru ma’asechem (“better your deeds”) during the month of Tishrei.This exegesis is rooted in the understanding that the Hebrew word shofar derives from the triliteral root SHIN-PEH-REISH.
When Jacob blessed his son Naphtali before he died, he likened Naftali to a speeding gazelle “who provides words of shefer” (Gen. 49:21).The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §98:17) understands the word shefer (derived from the same root as shapir) here as reference to the judge Deborah, who descends from Jacob’s son Naphtali. As the Midrash teaches, shefer alludes specifically to either the “beautiful” song that Deborah sang after leading the Jews to victory against the Canaanite general Sisera, or to her scholarly prowess in making the words of the Torah appear more clear and “beautiful” in her role as judge, with the Midrash adding that this connection is especially germane because the Torah itself was given with shofarot (Ex. 19:19). Here again, we see the rabbis connecting the word shofar to shapir.
Interestingly, a variant of shapir actually appears in the Bible as a personal name: One of the Jewish midwives during the Egyptian bondage was named Shifrah (Ex. 1:15) — often identified as Jochebed, the mother of Moses. The Midrashim (Sifrei Behalotcha §78, Shemot Rabbah §1:13, Kohelet Rabbah §7:3, and Midrash Shmuel §23) explain this name on account of Shifrah’s role in “beautifying” newly born infants after they emerged from the womb all covered in blood, or her role in the “betterment” of the Jewish People through Torah and Mitzvot (because she gave birth to Moses).
As an aside, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935–2017) explains that the Hebrew/Aramaic word shapir itself reflects the shiphal form, so the letter SHIN is not actually part of the root. Instead, he connects the word shapir to the triliteral root PEH-ALEPH-REISH, which gives us words like tiferet/pe’er (“glory” or “beauty”). According to this, the initial SHIN serves a grammatical function to denote an action that leads to the creation of pe’er. Fascinatingly, a popular folk etymology connects the early Ashkenazi surname Shapiro to the word shapir, although historians argue that it more likely derives from the name of the German town Speyer.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 5:1, 49:11) finds a connection between the Hebrew terms shefer/shapir and the words sefer (“book”), mispar (“number”), sofer (“counting”), and shover (“breaking”). All of these connections are based on the interchangeability of SHIN and SIN, plus BET and PEH. Rabbi Hirsch explains that sefer denotes a composite creation, made up of various sub-parts all brought together in a coherent way. Similarly, he explains that counting and numbers refer to the highlighting of individual units within a greater holistic mathematical system. Based on this, he explains that shover refers to “breaking” that overarching system by detaching the individual parts from the holistic whole.
Rabbi Hirsch builds on this to surmise that shefer/shapir focuses on “beauty” as the overarching aesthetic property of a multipartite entity, whose constituent pieces have been brought together in an orderly and pleasing way. In light of this, Rabbi Hirsch notes that shefer differs from yofi (“beauty”) in that shefer focuses on inward beauty (i.e., the harmonious way that something’s various parts work together), while yofi focuses on the outward, superficial beauty (i.e., the way others perceive something as beautiful). With this focus on inwardness, Rabbi Hirsch implies that it makes sense that the word shofar would also specifically focus on the inside of a hollow tube.
Let us now segue into a discussion of the word keren, after which we will bring together the various ideas to sharpen the difference between shofar and keren. The classical lexicographers (i.e., Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, and Radak) trace the word keren to the triliteral root KUF-REISH-NUN, which means both an animal’s “horn” and a “ray” of light. The connection between these two meanings is obvious: a ray/beam of light projects outwards from its source of light, just like a horn juts out from an animal’s forehead.
From the “horn” meaning, keren also came to refer to something’s “power/strength” (e.g., Ezek. 29:21, Ps. 132:17, 148:14), as the horn gives power to an animal’s gore. Keren also came to mean a horn-shaped “container” (e.g., I Sam. 16:1, 16:13, I Kgs. 1:39). Likewise, the word shofar in the Mishnah also means a sort of “container” that was narrow on top and wide on the bottom, like the shape of a shofar horn (see Shekalim 2:1, 6:1, 6:5, and Maimonides’ commentary). In the Mishnah, keren maintains its Biblical meaning of “horn” (Rosh Hashanah 3:2, Ketubot 13:2, Gittin 2:3, Keilim 11:7), but also refers specifically to an animal’s horn damaging something by way of “goring” (Bava Kamma 2:5).
The word keren in the Bible also refers to horn-like protrusions at the four corners of an altar (Ex. 38:2, Lev. 8:15, Ezek. 43:20). In the Mishnah, the word keren expanded to refer to any “corner,” but also maintained the Biblical meaning of an altar’s corner (see Kilayim 6:7, Yoma 5:5, Zevachim 5:3, 6:2, 6:5, 11:3, Tamid 2:5, 4:1, 7:3, Middot 3:2-3, 4:3, 4:5, Keilim 17:9-10). Interestingly, Radak even insinuates a connection between the Hebrew keren and the Latin cornu (from which the English word corner is derived via French, see below).
Moreover, in the Mishnah the term keren also refers to the “principal capital” of an investment (Peah 1:1, Kiddushin 4:12) or the “principal value of a monetary obligation,” as opposed to an added penalty (see Terumot 6:1–4, 7:1–4, 8:1, 11:2, Maaser Sheni 4:3, Pesachim 2:4, Yevamot 11:5, 11:7, Ketubot 3:9, Bava Kamma 9:6–12, Shevuot 8:3-4). [By the way, Rabbi Ernest Klein innovatively connects keren in the financial sense to the Akkadian qerenu/qaranu (“pile/heap” or “threshing floor”), which seems related to the Hebrew goren (via the interchangeability of KUF and GIMMEL).]
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) traces the word keren to the two-letter root KUF-REISH, which refers to the “strong impact” that results from extreme weight or velocity. One group of words derived from this root include korah (“wooden beam”) and tikrah (“ceiling”), because the weight of the horizontal beams that comprise the ceiling weigh down on a building’s support, thus creating a point of “impact.” Other related words include kir (“wall”), vertically-positioned wooden beams that bear the weight of a structure (borrowed to refer to any sort of wall); kiryah (“city”), a community comprised of multiple walled structures; kurei (“spider web”), a wall-like structure used for capturing small insects; and krum (“covering”), a ceiling-like membrane that covers one’s internal organs.
Rabbi Pappenheim similarly explains the words kor/kar (“coldness/cold”) as relating to this root because the biological process of homeostasis ensures that one’s body always remains warm, such that encountering the chill of something cold causes a crash/clash of conflicting temperatures, resulting in a sort of “strong impact.” He similarly explains the words mikrah/keri (“occurrence,” “happenstance”) as referring to the sudden collision of a person and his new set of circumstances. Finally, Rabbi Pappenheim explains the word keren in the sense of an animal’s “horn” as related to this biliteral root in light of the horn’s potential for “high-impact” goring.
Without explicitly mentioning all of this, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro addresses why the Torah disqualifies a bovine horn from the commandment of shofar because it is called a keren. A keren describes the point of intersection/impact of two opposing forces moving in opposite directions. When the term keren is used to describe damage by goring, it does not just refer to the physical limb used in the act, but also represents the point of departure from which an animal may stray and act out inappropriately. Thus, keren represents the crossroads at which one is faced with the choice of going in one of two possible ways. Keren as a “corner” also relates to the concept of an “impact” because it denotes the meeting place of two sides.
Similarly, Rabbi Shapiro teaches that this explains why keren in a financial context describes the principal capital originally invested in a given venture: When monies are invested into a potential endeavor, the undertaking can go in one of two possible directions — the principal can be lost, or it can produce profit.
On Rosh Hashanah, we galvanize all our energies to focus them in a single direction, for one single goal: the proclamation of Hashem’s kingship. In that context, there are no other valid possibilities, so the very fact that something is simply called a keren — which implies a fork in the road that leads to various possibilities — disqualifies it from being using as a shofar. The very word keren is incompatible with what the shofar represents.
Although Rabbi Moshe Shapiro does not make this point explicitly, per Rabbi Hirsch (cited above) we may add that the shofar represents the exact opposite; it conjures the unification of all the constituent parts of something working together in harmony. Indeed, Rabbi Yom Tov of Seville (1250–1330), known as the Ritva, notes that the term shofar implies something “beautiful and copacetic” (like the SHIN-PEH-REISH words discussed above). Thus, the very word shofar functions as the antithesis to the keren, because it implies unification that precludes all other possibilities, just like we strive for when we proclaim Hashem’s universal kingship.
Linguists like Avraham Even-Shoshan (1906–1984) and Rabbi Ernest Klein (1899–1983) claim that the Hebrew word shofar cognates with the Akkadian word shapparu (“wild sheep”). That Akkadian word, in turn, seems to be related to the late Biblical Hebrew word tzfir (Dan. 8:5, 8:8, 8:21, Ezra 8:35, II Chron. 29:21) — based on the interchangeability of SHIN and TZADI — and perhaps the earlier Biblical Hebrew word se’ir (with the possible interchangeability of PEH and AYIN).
Similarly, the word yovel also means “horn” (Ex. 19:13), although in some instances it actually refers to the animal from which the horn was taken (see Josh. 6:4–13). The Torah commands that after counting seven cycles of the Sabbatical Year, the fiftieth year should be consecrated and the shofar should be sounded. Because of this, the fiftieth year of the Shemitta Cycle became known as yovel (Lev. 25:10–15, 25:50, 27:17–31), from whence the English word Jubilee (“fiftieth anniversary”) is derived. Because the primary use of the yovel horn was to inform the travelling Jews when they should begin to travel or to tell the army when to attack, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim suggests that the word is derived from the biliteral root BET-LAMMED (“mixing”), as the yovel causes an intermingling of domains in its role as the catalyst for moving from one place to another.
Another word for rams’ horns is chatzotzrot. Even though the chatzotzrot mentioned in the Torah were made of silver (Num. 10:2), the Mishnah (Kinnim 3:6) uses that term when discussing the usefulness of a ram’s horn after the animal had already died. This suggests that chatzotzrot ought to be understood as synonymous with shofarot. Indeed, the Talmud (Shabbat 36a, Sukkah 34a) reveals that what were originally called shofarot in the times of the Temple, were later renamed chatzotzrot after the Temple’s destruction (see Chatam Sofer and Aruch L’Ner to Sukkah 34a who discuss the reasons for this). Nonetheless, Rabbi Moshe of Trani (1505–1585), known as Mabit, points out that nowadays we went back to using the older word for a ram’s horn, so we call it a shofar.
The English word horn derives from the Latin words cornu and Greek keras, which originally meant something like “pointy” or “protruding.” English words for horned-animals (like unicorn, capircorn, and rhinoceros), cornet (the head ornament and musical instrument), and cornea (the horny external coating of the eye) are all derived from those classical words. While it is tempting to argue these terms actually derive from the Hebrew keren (as some have argued), linguists understand the relevant Latin and Greek as tributaries of the Proto-Indo-European root ker, so the n-sound does not seem to be integral to the original root, making it harder to connect these words to the Hebrew keren. Nonetheless, according to Rabbi Pappenheim, the NUN of keren is likewise not part of the core root, so maybe there is something to this connection after all.