Ten things you did not know about the shofar
Strict koshrus laws. What’s the connection between shofars and fingernails? Making your soul tremble.
1. Not only on Elul and Tishrei
Most of us are used to hearing the shofar during the months of Elul and Tishrei only, when in fact, in the past; the use of the shofar was far more commonplace. Shofars were blown to assemble crowds and to call the people to wage wars (and to terrorize the enemy on the way), to publicize bans or permits or by the court of justice in order to announce the sanctification of the new month. In addition, shofars were blown during public fast days, in cases of drought, in funerals and so forth. In the days of old, prior to the beginning of Shabbat they would blow six blasts – each one in order to signal to the different kinds of laborers (such as field workers, shopkeepers, artists etc.) that they should stop working in anticipation of the Shabbat.
2. Why on Rosh Hashanah?
Rabbi Saadia Gaon noted ten reasons which explain why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Succinctly explained: This is the day in which God is crowned King of the World, and by blowing the shofar we crown God as such. It is a call to repentance, a reminder of the revelation at Mount Sinai [where we accepted the Torah] about which it is said, “and the sound of the shofar continually increased and was very strong”. The Shofar reminds us of the admonitions of the prophets, as in Ezekiel 33, “When I bring the sword [of war] upon the land … a sentinel blows the shofar and warns the people”. Blowing the shofar serves as reminder for the destruction of the Holy Temple. It reminds us of the binding of Isaac. The sound of the shofar inspires fear and trembling in our souls. The Shofar reminds us of the great and awesome Day of Judgment, and to anticipate it with fear. It makes us yearn for the ingathering of the exiles, as said in Isaiah 27, “And it will be on that day, a great shofar will be blown, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away … will come [together]”. The shofar recalls the resurrection of the dead, which will be accompanied by the sounding of a shofar, as it is said in Isaiah 18 “All inhabitants of the world and dwellers of the earth – you will see when the banner is hoisted up upon the mountains, and when the shofar sounds, you will hear [it]”. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 29) explains the source of the name [shofar] “Blow the shofar at the moon’s renewal, – Renew your actions – Shofar – [has same root as the word ‘improve’ in Hebrew]-improve your actions.”
Tractate Rosh Hashanah explains an additional reason; “and you shall say before Me on Rosh Hashanah ‘Kingship’, ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Shofar’ prayers. ‘Kingship’ prayers for crowning Me King upon you; ‘Remembrance’ prayers so I will recall you with a favorable memory, and how [do you bring this about]? By [blowing] the shofar. Why do we blow the different sounds while seated and again while standing? In order to confuse Satan. How is Satan confused? Rashi explains “to confuse him means that he will not accuse [us]. When the people of Israel hears the sounds of the shofar, the people Israel cherishes [all] the commandments – leaving Satan with nothing to say.”
3. Not every horn is a shofar
A shofar is a musical instrument made from a hollowed out animal horn, e.g. from rams (male sheep) or antelopes. Not only from these two animals we can make kosher shofars, actually from any other animal which has horns. Shofars made from bull horns or from animals with solid-bone horns (not hollow) are not used (although in theory it would be possible to process them into shofars). Only horns that naturally resemble a tube are fit to be called a shofar in the first place.
4. Not all shofars are kosher
Every year tens of thousands of raw, unprocessed horns are imported into Israel, but most of them, around 70% – become disqualified for various reasons: cracks, fractures or decay. The remaining 30% of the horns that do pass the initial screening are processed, cleaned and polished. Professional artisans separate the hard coat form the inner bone – a procedure prompt to break the horn, so this requires special care. After the separation process is finished the horn is checked again, lest a hole or a crack appeared.
5. Burying the horn
The initial process for manufacturing shofars consists of extracting the cartilage out from the inside of the horn using a special technique which prevents it from cracking. Some even bury the horn inside the soil and wait until larvae consumes the contents, thus the horn becomes naturally hollow without any further special processing.
6. Kind of a fingernail.
The shofar is made from the same material as fingernails – mainly keratin. The skull of the animal grows protuberances out of the skull which develop into full horns, therefore, the narrow end of the horn is not hollow, and grows completely sealed. After slaughtering the sheep the horns are dried, and only then removed from the main bone. The horns come out dirty and rough, therefore at the shofar factory they undergo abrasive and smoothing polishing to make them more pleasant to the touch and use.
7. Long preparation process
The process of turning a coarse horn into a beautiful shofar it’s simple at all. Horns arrive at our ‘Jerusalem Shofars’ factory only half hollow (at the widest end). The narrow end is still sealed, so we drill that end to create the nozzle, – a process which could easily jeopardize the koshrus of the shofar if cracked or perforated during this procedure. In addition, the horn arrives while still curly. To straighten it up, it is warmed until it looks partly charred. Then comes the polishing phase, which requires much gentleness and skill. It is not permitted to apply lacquer or any other coating material to the shofar, since this will invalidate its koshrus. Nowadays we use machinery calibrated according to the different polishing degrees to bring the horn to its final stage; a polished shofar.
8. Short Guide for ‘ethnic’ shofars
Some Yemenite Jews have the custom of blowing shofars made from African antelope horns, some Ashkenazi Jews blow small (palm-sized [ram]) shofars, shaped resembling the Hebrew letter vav (ו), curled towards the end; while Sepahardi shofars are straightened along their entire length. This is what sometimes raises their prices, since during the straightening process, 50% of them brake and become disqualified.
9. Shofars’ biggest enemy.
A shofar is not an industrial product; it’s a limb extracted from the body of an animal and therefore requires maintenance. It is recommended to keep the shofar in a cool, dry place year-round, heat may damage it. Also it should be kept well ventilated – not inside a plastic bag or talit covering. Otherwise it may swell, lose its natural gloss and even rot. Its main enemy is the dust accumulated inside the horn, the dirt inside causes the shofar to emit hoarse sounds when blown. It is therefore recommended to clean the inside of the shofar using a cotton cloth moistened with alcohol. If in the past shofars lasted for an average of five to ten years due to rather primitive production processes, today they last for an average of about 40 years.
10. When did it become forbidden to blow the shofar?
The shofar is so intimately identified with Judaism that during the Ottoman period and afterwards during the British Mandate, Jews were forbidden to blow the shofar at the Western Wall. Somehow the circle was closed at the end of the Six-Day War when Rabbi Shlomo Goren reached the Western Wall and blew the shofar as a sign of victory and for what it symbolized doing so.