Thursday, April 26, 2007

A shofar is a ram's horn

A shofar is a ram's horn that is used as a musical instrument for religious purposes. It is used on Judaism's high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The shofar is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Bible, from Exodus to Zechariah, and throughout the Talmud and later rabbinic literature. It was the voice of a shofar, "exceeding loud," issuing from the thick cloud on Mount Sinai that made all the Israelites tremble in awe (Exodus xix, xx).

The shofar is prescribed for the announcement of the New Moon and solemn feasts (Num. x. 10; Ps. lxxxi. 4), as also for proclaiming the year of release (Lev. xxv. 9). The first day of the seventh month (Tishri) is termed "a memorial of blowing" (Lev. xxiii. 24), or "a day of blowing" (Num. xxix. 1), the shofar; the modern use of the instrument survives especially in this connection. In earlier days it was employed also in other religious ceremonials, as processions (II Sam. v. 15; I Chron. xv. 28), or in the orchestra as an accompaniment to the song of praise (Ps. xcviii. 6; comp. ib. xlvii. 5). More frequently it was used as the signal-horn of war, like the silver trumpets mentioned in Num. x. 9 (see Josh. vi. 4; Judges iii. 27; vii. 16, 20; I Sam. xiii. 3).

The Torah describes the first day of the seventh month (1st of Tishri = Rosh ha-Shanah) as a zikron teruah (memorial of blowing; Lev. xxiii) and as a yom teru'ah (day of blowing; Num. xxix). This was interpreted by the Jewish sages as referring to the sounding the shofar.

The shofar in the Temple in Jerusalem was generally associated with the trumpet; and both instruments were used together on various occasions. On New-Year's Day the principal ceremony was conducted with the shofar, which instrument was placed in the center with a trumpet on either side; it was the horn of a wild goat and straight in shape, being ornamented with gold at the mouthpiece. On fast-days the principal ceremony was conducted with the trumpets in the center and with a shofar on either side.

On those occasions the shofarot were rams' horns curved in shape and ornamented with silver at the mouthpieces. On Yom Kippur of the jubilee year the ceremony was performed with the shofar as on New-Year's Day.

Post-Biblical times

In post-Biblical times, the shofar was enhanced in its religious use because of the ban on playing musical instruments as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the temple. (It is noted that a full orchestra played in the temple, including, perhaps, a primitive organ.) The shofar continues to announce the New Year and the new moon, to introduce the Sabbath, and to carry out the commandments on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The secular uses have been discarded (although the shofar was sounded to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967) (Judith Kaplan Eisendrath, Heritage of Music, New York: UAHC, 1972, pp. 44-45).

The shofar is primarily associated with Rosh ha-Shanah. Indeed, Rosh Hashanah is called "Yom T’ruah" (the day of the shofar blast). In the Mishnah (book of early rabbinic laws derived from the torah), a discussion centers on the centrality of the shofar in the time before the destruction of the second temple (70 C.E.). Indeed, the shofar was the center of the ceremony, with two silver trumpets playing a lesser role. On other solemn holidays, fasts, and new moon celebrations, two silver trumpets were featured, with one shofar playing a lesser role. The shofar is also associated with the jubilee year in which, every fifty years, Jewish law provided for the release of all slaves, land, and debts. The sound of the shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah announced the jubilee year, and the sound of the shofar on Yom Kippur proclaimed the actual release of financial encumbrances.

The halakha (Jewish law) rules that the shofar may not be sounded on the Sabbath due to the potential that the ba’al t’kiyah (shofar sounder) may inadvertently carry it which is in a class of forbidden Sabbath work (RH 29b) the historical explanation is that in ancient Israel, the shofar was sounded on the Shabbat in the temple ‘located in Jerusalem. After the temple’s destruction, the sounding of the shofar on the Sabbath was restricted to the place where the great Sanhedrin (Jewish legislature and court from 400 BCE to 100 C.E.) was located. However, when the Sanhedrin ceased to exist, the sounding of the shofar on the Sabbath was discontinued (Kieval, The High Holy Days, p. 114).

The shofar says, “Wake up from your (moral) sleep. You are asleep. Get up from your slumber. You are in a deep sleep. Search for your behavior. Become the best person you can. Remember God, the One Who created you. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4.


The shofar may be the horn of any kosher animal, except that of a cow or calf, which would be a reminder of the golden calf incident.

Physical horns

Many large grazing animals, the ones that have cloven hoofs and chew their cud, are armed with either horns or antlers. These weapons are used for defense against predators or dominance duels between males for possession of a few favored females. Both horns and antlers are borne on the head and have similar uses. However, they are structurally different.

A Shofar may be created from the horn of any kosher animal (ritually slaughtered; cloven hoof; and chews a cud. Mishnah RH 1:1). In biological classification, these animals belong to the Bovidae family.

Bovidae horns are made of keratin (the same material which is a human toenail or fingernail). An antler, on the other hand, is not a horn but a calcium protrusion. Such antlers are not used for Shofars because they cannot be hollowed. A rent or hole in the shofar affecting the sound renders it unfit for ceremonial use. A shofar may not be painted in colors, but it may be carved with artistic designs (Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chayim, 586, 17). According to traditional Jewish law women and minors are exempt from the command to hear the shofar-blowing (as is the case with any positive, time-bound commandment), but they are allowed to, and encouraged to, attend the ceremony.

The horn is flattened and given a turned up bell by applying heat to soften it. A hole is made from the tip of the horn to the natural hollow inside. It is played much like a European brass instrument, with the player applying his lips to this hole, and causing the air column inside to vibrate. Shofars used in Ashkenazic Jewish worship tend to have no carved mouthpiece, the player instead applying his lips directly to the irregular hole drilled in the tip of the horn. Sephardic Jewish shofars, on the other hand, usually do have a carved mouthpiece resembling that of a European trumpet or French horn, but smaller.

Because this hollow is of irregular bore, the harmonics obtained when playing the instrument can vary: rather than a pure perfect fifth, intervals as narrow as a fourth, or as wide as a sixth may be produced.

The sounds

The tekiah and teruah sounds mentioned in the Bible were respectively bass and treble. The tekiah was a plain deep sound ending abruptly; the teruah, a trill between two tekiahs. These three sounds, constituting a bar of music, were rendered three times: first in honor of God's Kingship; next to recall the near sacrifice of Isaac, in order to cause the congregation to be remembered before God; and a third time to comply with the precept regarding the shofar.

Ten appropriate verses from the Bible were recited at each repetition, which ended with a benediction. Over time doubts arose as to the correct sound of the teruah. The Talmud is uncertain whether it means a moaning/groaning or a staccato beat sound. The former was supposed to be composed of three connected short sounds; the latter, of nine very short notes divided into three disconnected or broken sequences of 3 notes each. The duration of the teruah is equal to that of the shevarim; and the tekiah is half the length of either. This doubt as to the nature of the real teruah, whether it was simply a moan, a staccato or both, necessitated two near-repetitions to make sure of securing the correct sound. The following formula, consisting of ten sounds, resulting:

tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah; tekiah, shevarim, tekiah; tekiah, teruah, tekiah. This formula was repeated twice more, making thirty sounds for the series. The last tekiah was prolonged and was called "tekiah gedolah" = the "long tekiah." This series of thirty sounds was repeated twice more, making ninety sounds in all. The trebling of the series was based on the mention of teruah three times in connection with the seventh month (Lev. xxiii, xxv; Num. xxix), and also on the above-mentioned division into malchiyot, zichronot, and shofarot. In addition a single formula of ten sounds is rendered at the close of the service, making a total of 100 sounds. This correspond to the 100 cries of the mother of the Sisera, the Cannanite general who did not make it home after being assassinated by the biblical Yael (Judges 5:28).

Unique sound waves

Click on a computer representation of a “tkiya.” Note the second tkiya note is similar but not identical to the first. The second starts out the same, then the long note of the first note is more sustained (and perhaps more melodic). The second note below has a vibrating long note at nearly the same amplitude. The third part of the note trails off and is similar but not identical in the two examples.

The performer

The expert who blows (or "blasts" or "sounds") the shofar is termed the Ba'al Tokea (lit. "Master of the Blast"). Qualifications include someone who is learned in Torah and God-fearing. Every Jew is eligible for this sacred office, providing he is acceptable to the congregation. If a potential choice will cause dissension, he should withdraw his candidacy, even if the improper person is chosen. See Shulkhan Arukh 3:72; The Ba'al Tokea shall abstain form anything that may cause ritual contamination for three days prior to Rosh ha-Shanah. See Shulkhan Arukh 3:73.

Use in modern times

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