The Shofar – Rosh HaShanah’s Most Remembered and Best Loved Ritual

by | Sep 6, 2023 | Blog, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur

In a recent survey of Jewish people of all denominations and backgrounds, of all ages and of all levels of observance from synagogers to secular Jews – when they were asked what they remembered most about the High Holy Days the response was near unanimous – the shofar!

Actually, the remembrance not the instrument itself, but the distinctive, soul-stirring sounds that were top of mind.

From those of us who are self-described “shul-goers” to those among us who no longer participate in the synagogue experience, it seems that all Jews everywhere associate the sound of the shofar with the Jewish New Year.

And in recent years the shofar has come back into fashion. It began in the mid 2000’s, when a giant shofar “sound-off” was organized on a Massachusetts beach (that placed the “sounders” squarely in the Guinness Book of Records), and continued with Bugles Across America founder, Tom Day, whose rendition of shofar Taps at one of the ceremonies marking the WW II Memorial dedication in Washington, DC, brought listeners to tears.

The origins of the shofar go way back. Author Ariela Pelaia (The Origins of the Shofar) writes that some scholars believe that its birth predates Jewish practice when making loud sounds on New Year’s night was thought to scare away demons, dybbuks and evil spirits.

In fact, in Sicily, centuries ago, when marrano Jews could not practice their religion, they instituted a new Italian tradition. On December 31st, the other New Years Eve, they opened their windows and sounded the shofar!

As the religion developed, the shofar took on biblical proportions – we find it mentioned in the Tanach, the Talmud and in many pieces of historic Jewish literature.

The shofar is the world’s oldest horn in continuous use.

Biblical scholars state that the shofar dates back 6,000 years and was used in ancient times to announce the beginning of Jewish festivals, to signal the start of processions and to mark the start of a war.

In fact the shofar’s most famous biblical reference is found in the Book of Joshua where shofarot (the Hebrew plural form of shofar ) were used as part of a battle plan to capture the city of Jericho (Joshua 6:2-5). According to the account, Joshua followed God’s commandments to the letter and the “walls came tumbling down!”

Yet it is the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah (which literally means “head of the year”) where the shofar commands its greatest respect.

In fact, Pelaia writes that” the shofar is such an important part of this holiday that another name for Rosh HaShanah is Yom Teruah, which, in Hebrew means, “day of the shofar blast.”

On each of the two days of Rosh HaShanah the shofar is blown one hundred times (with the exception of Shabbat where, in orthodox and conservative synagogues the shofar is not sounded).

It was our most famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, who wrote that the sound of shofar on Rosh HaShanah is meant as a Jewish “wake-up call,” where our souls arise to the possibilities of positive change. And the four specific sounds (technically the second and third harmonics) create an atmosphere were we can focus on self-improvement.

The person who sounds the shofar is called the “Ba’al (or the feminine, Ba’alat) Tekiah) – Ba’al for Master and Tekiah for Blast.. or the “Master Blaster,”

The types of shofarot sounded are many and varied. The instrument itself is basically the hollow horn of a kosher animal that is crafted by hand according to Jewish guidelines and specifications.

There are some exceptions. The horn of a cow or a calf is never used because the cow is associated with the Golden Calf and the idolatry and false worship from the time of Moses.

An ox horn is also disqualified. These, known as “keren” in Hebrew, have their own prominent position during Jewish pilgrimage holidays. However, it is the shofar that is confined specifically to the horn of a sheep, goat, antelope, gazelle, ibex or kudu.

In fact, the large, curling Yemenite shofar is made from any of several types of antelope horn.

Some Sephardi shofars feature colorfully painted Jewish symbols, intricate carvings or decorative silver-plating, which makes them (like eating rice on Passover) un-kosher according to Ashkenazi tradition. However, both cultural groups adhere to the rule that a shofar is never manufactured or factory produced.

Throughout history, Jewish communities created shofar shapes and sounds unique and appropriate for their people. For example, at the time of the Expulsion and Inquisition, the Jews of Spain used a flat, straight shofar that featured a low pitch.

Shofar maker, Zvika Bar-Sheshet explains that “in the past during Inquisition times, Jews were not allowed to carry a shofar or use it. So it was necessary for these Jews to smuggle it hidden between the body and the trouser belt.

The straight shape was adopted for this purpose so that the shofar could hide in the trouser leg!” Today many Sephardic communities preserve this tradition by using only the un-curved ibex horn as a way to honor our martys and remember the lengths to which our ancestors went to observe their traditions.”

After the Expulsion from Spain, some Jewish communities migrated through Central and Eastern Europe, where it was difficult to find or make the shofarot they were used to. At this time ram’s horns gained in popularity.

The sound produced from these new horns was a high, thin, weeping-like sound. Because the ram’s horn shofar was bent, and not straight as the ibex horn had been in Spain and North Africa, the rabbis taught that the bent horn was a symbol of the human heart, which, on Rosh HaShanah inclines or “bends” toward God.

In Yemen and Iraq, Jews created the long, spiraling shofar. Unlike European shofarot that were drilled lengthwise to create the traditional sound, the large Yemenite antelope or bushbuck horn was cut width-wise at its hollow point, thus creating the long, low sound that creates an echo effect.

Some historians believe that the Yemenite Jews preferred the antelope horn because its strong echo brought to mind the image of the mountain of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son.

The sounds from the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah are a call for Repentance (“Teshuvah” in Hebrew) and Remembrance (“Zikhronot” in Hebrew) of the sovereignty of G-d (“Malkhuyyot” in Hebrew) And Talmud tells us that hearing the sounds in person fulfills one of the mitzvot of Rosh HaShanah.

So, let’s refresh our memories with the traditional sounds:

The first sound, Tekiah, “is an unbroken blast that asks us to listen, focus and pay attention.

Shevarim represent a Tekiah sound that is broken into three distinct segments, symbolizing sighing as we recall our less than perfect behavior of the past year..

Teruah is a series of nine rapid-fire blasts, described as the sobbing sound of deep sadness. The tears we cry when we acknowledge grave mistakes of the year just past.

Tekiah Gadolah – is the “triple-threat” Tekiah, lasting nine seconds at minimum but many who sound the shofar will attempt to make this sound last as long as possible to the congregation’s awe and delight. The Tekiah Gadolah blast inaugurates the new year.

With its Hebrew roots in the letters “shin, peh, resh,” the word “shofar” originates from the Hebrew word meaning, “hollow.” Regardless of its specific type, the shofar is a perfect hollow shell that, with the human breath, brings to life the culture, tradition and meaning of the season.