Rosh Hashanah, the Head of the Year, and the start of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance), is associated with only one Biblical commandment – the blowing of the shofar. The mitzvah of shofar is so deeply connected to the essence of Rosh Hashanah that the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as "Yom Teruah" (Day of the Blowing).1 The mitzvah of shofar is steeped in symbolism – for centuries, the Jewish people risked their lives to hear the call of the shofar. In the Mishna, there is a discussion about blowing the shofar in confined areas and questions arose as to the validity of the performance since one is also distracted by the echo.2
The commentaries explain that this question came up during times of persecution when blowing the shofar was prohibited and Jews were forced to fulfill this commandment in secret. Even during the British occupation of the Holy Land it was forbidden to blow the shofar at the Western Wall and many Jews risked imprisonment to blow the shofar at the only remaining remnant of our Holy Temple.
There are numerous explanations for the mitzvah of blowing shofar. Since Rosh Hashanah is the day we proclaim Hashem’s Kingdom, it is fitting to blow wind instruments as was the custom at a coronation. In addition, as Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Ten Days of Repentance, we are alerted to take advantage of the King’s kindness and do teshuva during this period.3 This warning is accomplished by a loud blast of the shofar.
Another reason is to remind us of Matan Torah, which was preceded by blowing the shofar. A fourth reason is because the words of our prophets are compared to the shofar call.4 The shofar reminds us of the destruction of Jerusalem which was subject to the victorious trumpet blasts of our enemies. The shofar is also a reminder of the great Yiras Shomayim of our forefather Avraham when he was prepared to sacrifice his only son Yitzchok (a ram was substituted instead).5 The shofar also reminds us of the greatest Day of Judgment at the end of days, the ingathering of the Jewish people to our homeland and the raising of the departed when Moshiach comes.6 Furthermore, the shofar serves to confuse the Satan so he cannot effectively serve as a prosecutor during our judgment, so we may merit a merciful ruling.7
Most importantly, the Medrash tells us that when Hashem hears the call of the shofar He rises from the Throne of Justice and sits on the Throne of Mercy to review the personal accounts of each person on Rosh Hashanah.8
Although Rosh Hashanah is referred to as a "Day of Blowing", the actual mitzvah is to listen to the shofar sounds.9 In fact, the blessing on the shofar states, "…to listen to the call of the shofar". As mentioned, blowing in an area that is "echo prone" may invalidate the performance of the mitzvah even though one blew the shofar properly. This is proof that the essence of the mitzvah is actually hearing every blast of the shofar, not the act of blowing.
Making a shofar
The process of producing a kosher shofar has not changed much throughout the ages. Though the majority of shofros originate as rams’ horns, the Yemenite community traditionally utilizes the horn of an African antelope called the "kudu". A ram shofar has the additional benefit of reminding Hashem about the binding of our forefather Yitzchok. However, many horns are kosher for use as a shofar, unless they originate from cattle or a non-kosher species.10 Cattle horns remind Hashem of the sin of the Golden Calf and the Gemara refers to them only as "keren", as opposed to other horns which are called "shofar" as well.
An animal’s horn is constructed of soft bone tissues covered by an outer layer of keratin (the same material as fingernails). In order for a shofar to be kosher for the mitzvah, the inner tissue layer must be removed. This is accomplished by drying the horn for about a year. At this point, the inner layer is shriveled up and is easily removed. If one were to remove the core from the sheath and drill a hole through it, it would not be a kosher shofar.11 The shofar is placed in boiling water to sterilize any lingering bacteria and to facilitate the gentle scraping of any internal material clinging to the inside. The shofar is then left to dry. When it is dry, the tip of the keratin is carefully sawed off and a hole is drilled into the center of the shofar to form a mouthpiece. While flaring the mouthpiece allows for easier blowing, one should inspect the shofar to insure that the mouthpiece has not been distorted; as such a shofar is not preferred.12
Any pitch produced by a shofar, whether loud, soft, or dry, is acceptable.13 If a shofar has a hole, some sources consider it kosher even if it affects the sound; however, the prevailing view is not to utilize such a shofar.14 If one sealed the hole with a foreign material, even if the sound improves to what it was originally, the shofar is not kosher.15 If shofar material (like dust or shavings) was utilized to plug the hole, the repair is valid as long as most of the shofar remained whole and the sound reverts to the original.16 However, in extreme circumstances, even if the sound has been affected due to the patch, the shofar may be used.
If a shofar splits along the entire length, it is no longer kosher. 17 If partially split, then if it is tied tightly it may be used.18 If mostly split, some authorities allow for gluing. If split entirely across the width then if four thumb breadths (about 3.16 – 3.76 inches) remain (the minimum required length of a shofar) it is acceptable.19 However, if one assembled sections of shofar and bonded them it is invalid even if each section is four thumb breadths,20 since this is as though one connected several shofars together and the Biblical limit is one shofar.21
If one blows with the shofar facing downwards it is unacceptable,22 since the shofar must be blown in the position that it faces in nature, upwards. One must blow from the narrow end, the side facing the Heavens in nature23 If one widens the narrow end and narrows the wide end it will not be a kosher shofar.
As mentioned, a shofar has a soft tissue core and a keratin sheath. Cattle horns are one solid piece of bone, which is one reason why they are not used for shofros.
…When Hashem hears the call of the shofar He rises from the Throne of Justice and sits on the Throne of Mercy to review the personal accounts of each person on Rosh Hashanah…
A shofar need not be from an animal that was slaughtered properly (by shechita), but may not originate from a non-kosher species.24 If one simply drills through the core and does not remove it, the shofar is valid.25 There is no minimum thickness for the shofar walls.26 One should not draw on or dye a shofar; however one may etch carvings into the outside of a shofar.27
One is permitted to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but one may not desecrate Yom Tov in any way, even on the second day of Yom Tov, except to instruct a non-Jew to obtain one from outside the permitted carrying zone.28 If a non-Jew constructs a shofar on Rosh Hashanah, without being asked to do so, the shofar is kosher.29 One may pass liquids through a shofar on Rosh Hashanah to enhance the sound.30 The shofar is not blown on Shabbos as is derived from a verse in the Torah and may not even be handled as it is an object utilized for sound and, therefore, muktzah.31 However in the Bais HaMikdash it was blown on Shabbos and according to some authorities also a Bais Din can blow shofar on Shabbos (not relevant in our day).32 On Yom Tov, it may not be utilized for other tasks that do not involve blowing.33
While a bent shofar actually conveys contrition and should be sought out,34 in order to drill the hole for the mouthpiece a very bent shofar must first be carefully heated to 350 degrees to allow for a partial straightening. Otherwise, it would be impossible to drill as one would have to drill on a curve. The straightening and drilling process is the period when a shofar is most fragile and may crack or split, wasting many hours of labor and expense. As many workers are paid by the piece, there is a strong temptation to patch such cracks with shofar shavings blended with invisible glue. A professional repair job can almost never be spotted except through x-ray.
Another concern regarding shofars is that polishing the shofar may create a weak spot which over time will cause the shofar to break. Unscrupulous manufacturers often coat the inside of the shofar with lacquer of urethane that can strengthen the shofar or hide defects. However, this may distort the sound of the shofar rendering it invalid. Not long ago, the press reported on "shofars" produced in molds containing plastic fibers and leather glue. These economically priced "shofars" were purchased by an unsuspecting public. To ensure one is obtaining a kosher shofar, only frequent a reputable certified shofar dealer, as differentiating a genuine shofar from a counterfeit one requires expertise.
An issue some have with a shofar is the strong odor emanating from it. While there are several dubious remedies for eliminating the odor, storing it dry (especially after use) and in a dry location may curtail some of the odor. Remember, the shofar was a part of a living being. Only synthetic shofars have no natural odor.
Blowing the shofar
Women are not required to listen to the shofar since it is a mitzvah that is dependent on the time of the year and, in fact, a woman cannot blow the shofar for the benefit of a man since he is commanded to fulfill this mitzvah while she is not. However, the custom is that women do listen to the shofar and in fact can blow the shofar for themselves and other women even with a brocha.35
On a Biblical level, one is only required to listen to nine calls of the shofar.36 It is derived from verses that three teruos are required and each needs a tekia before and after, totaling nine.37 However, a question arose as to what constitutes a proper terua: is it three short sounds (shevarim), many rapid sounds (terua) or both together (shevarim terua)?38 The Talmud therefore requires one to listen to all of them for a total of 30.39 The commentaries struggle with how this doubt arose as Jewish people have been blowing shofar consistently since Sinai. One approach is that there were always different groups that blew according to their interpretation since these doubts are based on how one interprets specific verses. The Talmud, therefore, requires us to hear shofar according to all the different interpretations, presenting a common mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah to demonstrate our unity.40 In fact, the Zohar41 mentions the mystical significance of blowing all three versions of terua, centuries before the Talmud.
The tekios are grouped into two categories – the seated tekios (before Mussaf) and the standing tekios (during Mussaf). Since the shofar has the power to confuse the Satan, it is blown before Mussaf so that he cannot interfere with our prayers.42
While the Talmud’s sum of thirty refers to the seated tekios,43 there is a dispute as to how many times the shofar is blown during Mussaf.44 While there are those who also blow during the silent Amidah and those who only blow during the repetition by the chazzan, our custom is to add many tekios after Mussaf to complete the 100.45 It is also our custom to blow the shevarim terua in one breath during the sitting tekios and two breaths during the standing tekios.46
One must be careful to separate the different shofar sounds or a question will arise as to their validity.47 One should also be careful not to talk until they have listened to all 100 of the shofar sounds.48
Through our meticulous fulfillment of this important mitzvah, may we merit to experience the call of the Great shofar which heralds the imminent coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.
1. Bamidbar, 29:1.
2. Mishna, Rosh Hashanah, 27b, Rav Hai Gaon in Ran.
3. Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4.
4. Sefer Kol Hakemach LeRabeinu BChai.
5. Gemara, Rosh Hashanah, 16:1.
6. Machzor Hameforash, R’ Saadya Gaon.
7. Gemara, Rosh Hashanah, 16:1.
8. Vayikra Raba, 29:10.
9. Rambam, Hilchos shofar, 1:1.
10. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim, 586:1.
11. Ibid., 586:15.
12. Minchas Yitzchok, 8:54.
13. Ibid., 586:6.
14. Ibid., 586:7, Rama.
15. Ibid., 586:7.
16. Ibid., 586:7.
17. Ibid., 586:8.
18. Ibid., 586:8.
19. Ibid., 586:9.
20. Ibid., 586:10.
21. Ibid., 586:58, Mishna Brurah.
22. Ibid., 586:12.
24. Ibid., 586:8, Mishna Brurah.
25. Ibid., 586:15.
26. Ibid., 586:14.
27. Ibid., 586:17.
28. Ibid., 586:21.
29. Ibid., 586:22.
30. Ibid., 586:23.
31. Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechta Rosh Hashanah, 4:1.
32. Gemara, Rosh Hashanah, 29b.
33. Ibid., 588:5, Rama.
34. Ibid., 586:1.
35. Ibid., 589:6, Rama.
36. Ibid., 590:1.
37. Ibid., 590:2, Mishna Brurah.
38. Ibid., 590:2.
39. Gemara, Rosh Hashanah, 34a.
40. Gemara, Rosh on Rosh Hashanah, 4:10.
41. B’nei Yisaschar, Nissan, Maamar 4:2.
42. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim, 583:3, Tur.
43. Gemara, Rosh Hashanah 34a.
44. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim, 892:1, Mishna Brurah.
45. Ibid., 896, Rama & Mishna Brurah 2 in the name of Sheloh.
46. Ibid., 590:4, Rama; 590:9; 890:4, Sha’ar Tziyon 18 says the quoted Rama is a mistake and the correct way is one breath for sitting tekios and two breaths for standing tekios.
47. Ibid., 590:5.
48. Ibid., 593:3, Rama. One does not need to hear the brocha again if he speaks during tekios.