The Shofar is the horn of a Kosher animal that is used in Jewish religious ceremonies. The Shofar is first mentioned in the Bible, at the Binding of Isaac, and ever since then has been used by the Jewish people as a way of beseeching and crying out to G-d on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, the day on which the fate of the whole world is decided for the coming year.
The Jewish Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities commonly use a ram's horn as a Shofar while the Yemenite communities traditionally use a kudu horn. The horns are hollowed out to produce a horn that is played in a way similar to brass instruments. The crying sound produced by the Shofar is very powerful and one cannot help but be moved by it.
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The Shofar's Origin
The Shofar instrument is most commonly made from a ram's horn but it can actually be made from the horns of other animals such as antelopes, gazelles and goats. In order for the Shofar to be fit for religious use, it must come from a kosher animal and may not come from the bovine family (although cows, for example, are kosher, the custom is not to use such horns due to the Israelite's sin of the golden calf in the desert). Ashkenazi Jews often use a Shofar without a carved mouthpiece, unlike Sephardic Jews.
How the Shofar is Made
The horn chosen to be made into a Shofar is heated in order to soften it and a hole is bored from the tip of the horn into the natural hollow inside. Inner elements are removed from the horn.
How the Shofar is Blown
The Shofar is blown in a way that is similar to how the European trumpet or other brass instruments are blown. The one blowing the horn purses his lips, applies them to the hole and makes the air column inside vibrate.
The Shofar in Jewish Tradition
The Shofar features frequently in the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible), as well as in the Talmud and later rabbinic literature. We learn from these sources that the Shofar was used to announce the new moon, as well as on Jewish festivals such as the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. After the Temple was destroyed, musical instruments were forbidden but the Shofar was still permitted as the Rabbis ruled that it is not a musical instrument.
The Shofar and Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and there is a prescribed ritual according to which the Shofar is blown. The three different sounds blown on the Shofar are called Tekiah, Teruah and Shvarim. Tekiah is a bass sound, Teruah a treble sound and Shvarim is three connected short sounds. The sequence of sounds on Rosh Hashanah is as follows; Tekiah, Shvarim, Teruah, Tekiah, Tekiah, Shvarim, Tekiah, Tekiah, Teruah and Tekiah Gedola (a long Tekiah sound that is held as long as possible). Tekiah is one note, Shvarim three and Teruah nine. This sequence is sounded three times, for a total of ninety sounds.
Ram's Horn Shofar
The Ram's Horn Shofar is the most commonly recognized Shofar and is a common motif in Jewish art. It appears on reliefs, floor mosaics and various objects. According to the Jewish commentator Rambam, a Shofar made from the horn of any other animal is not suitable for ritual purposes. The Ram's Horn Shofar has special significance as it symbolizes the ram that got caught in the thicket and was offered up as a substitute by Abraham in place of his son Isaac.
The majority of Yemenite Jews use a long Shofar that is made from the horn of the greater African kudu Tragelaphus strepsiceros- a large, striped antelope. Apparently the kudu has the biggest horn of any creature. There are those who claim that the kudu horn Shofar is the original Shofar. The Yemenite Shofar, apart from being longer than the Ram's Horn Shofar is also often polished, giving it an attractive, majestic shine.
The Gemsbok is a part of the antelope family and has become a popular option for Shofar horns. Their fabulous horns can be over 85cm long, with the horns of the males being straight and the horns of the females being longer and thinner. Perhaps a special feature of the Gemsbok Shofar is the fact that it does not emit an unpleasant odor that many other types are wont to do.