History of the Shofar
Construction of the Shofar

History of the Shofar

The shofar is a magnificent musical horn that was developed by the ancient Hebrews. This was never a folk instrument nor considered a classical instrument. It was, and is, a ceremonial item. It was used during holy rites, to call assembly or signal a sacrifice. The shofar was also used in battle. The ancient Hebrews used the shofar as a call to war. They believed that the sound would panic their enemies. The sound of the shofar also announced the Jubilee year.

Today, this ancient trumpet of Israel is used in both Jewish and Christian worship. It is most closely associated with the Jewish Holy days of Rosh Hashana (New Years) also called Yom Teru'ah (the day of blowing), and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Outside of these religions it is not uncommon to find the shofar used in holistic ceremonies or rites associated with the earth elements.

Construction of the Shofar

The ancient Hebrew shofar was made of animal horn. It was originally made from the horn of a domestic ram. These horns are relatively smooth, crescent shaped and usually just over a foot in length. The Talmud specifies that a shofar must be not less than three hand-breadths long to be used for ceremonial purposes. Other horns used would have included those of domestic sheep and goat, wild mountain goat, antelope, or gazelle. The domestic sheep and goat horns would have been similar to the rams’ horn, only smaller. Today, the wild Nubian ibex goats still dot the Israeli hill sides. The horns of these mountain goats are much longer than rams’ horns. The ibex horn grows with the familiar crescent curve. The silhouette of this horn is more striking that the rams’ due to the large protruding ridges that wrap around the horn along its entire length. The most striking horn, and today most desirable, comes from the Kudu antelope. Kudu horns are very long, most are over 30 inches. Their beauty comes from their length and the way the horn twists.

Kudu antelopes are native to southern Africa. They are a wild free ranging animal that is incredibly beautiful. Their ability to jump over 9 feet (2.5 m) has created some difficulties for the local farmers whose fences are not always tall enough. An adult male kudu can have horns that reach up to 66 inches (168 cm). For the antelope, these horns are much more than decorative. Antelope use their horns during play and, more importantly, during competitive matches with other antelope. A natural horn will often show the signs of these fights. As the kudu horn grows it becomes longer and twists in a helix pattern. A single horn can have color that varies from light tan, to dark gray-black. The growth patterns and texture add interest.

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 an outcry or a moaning 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 sounds. 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 teru'ah, whether it was simply an outcry or a moan, or both, necessitated two repetitions to make sure of securing the correct sound, the following formula, consisting of ten sounds, resulting:

teki'ah, shebarim-teru'ah, teki'ah; teki'ah, shebarim, teki'ah; teki'ah, teru'ah, teki'ah. This formula was repeated twice, making thirty sounds for the series. The last teki'ah was prolonged and was called "teki'ah gedolah" = the "long teki'ah." This series of thirty sounds was repeated twice, making ninety sounds in all. The trebling of the series was based on the mention of teru'ah three times in connection with the seventh month (Lev. xxiii, xxv; Num. xxix), and also on the above-mentioned division into malkiyot, zikronot, and shofarot. In addition a single formula of ten sounds is rendered at the close of the service, making a total of 100 sounds.

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