The Laws of the Shofar and Its Sounds

  • Rav David Brofsky






In memory of Yissachar Dov Shmuel bar Yakov Yehuda Illoway

and Leah Ruth Illoway bat Natan Naso Jacobs



Shiur 4: The Laws of the Shofar and Its Sounds

Rav David Brofsky





Last week, we introduced the mitzva of tekiat shofar.  We explored different reasons for the mitzva and questioned whether the primary focus of the mitzva lies in the tekia (blowing) or the shemia (hearing). 


This week, we will begin our summary and analysis of the laws of the shofar, beginning with its physical properties and characteristics, and then we will discuss the actual sounds of the shofar, quantitatively and qualitatively.  We will conclude next week with a discussion of the Musaf prayer of Rosh Ha-shana and its relationship to blowing the shofar. 





Horns and Antlers:


As we have already pointed out, the Torah does not explicitly state that one must blow a shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, but rather, that it should be a "zikhron terua" (Vayikra 23:24) or "yom terua" (Bamidbar 29:1), a "remembrance" or "day" of terua (which we still must define). 


The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana[1] 33b) derives the obligation to blow a shofar, as well as the types and number of sounds, from the shofar blown on Yom Kippur of the yovel year.  Regarding Rosh Ha-shana, the Torah (Bamidbar 29:1) instructs, "And in the SEVENTH MONTH, on the first day of the month… it shall be a day of TERUA for you."  The Gemara derives that the term terua refers to a sound produced by a shofar, as it says regarding yovel (Vayikra 25:9), "Then shall you make proclamation with the SHOFAR OF TERUA on the tenth day of the SEVENTH MONTH."  Just as the terua of the SEVENTH MONTH of the yovel year is produced by a shofar, so too the terua of the SEVENTH MONTH of every year, on Rosh Ha-shana, is generated by a shofar.  What is a shofar, and from which animals may it be taken?


Before we begin, it is crucial to understand the difference between a "horn" and an "antler", as a shofar must be a horn. 


A "horn" is a hollow sheath, made of keratin and other proteins, which covers a small core of living bone.  Horns are generally found on animal from the Bovidae family, which includes cattle, sheep, goats, antelopes, etc.  They begin to grow soon after birth, and continue to grow throughout the animal's lifetime.


An "antler" is a bony, solid outgrowth of the head, worn only by males, which is shed each year after the mating season.  They are large and complex, and they are commonly found on deer.  Incidentally, the word "tzevi," when used in early halakhic literature, refers to a "gazelle," the horns of which may be used for a shofar, and NOT to a deer, the antlers of which may not.


Theoretically, antlers can be hollowed out and used as an instrument.  The Rishonim differ as to why an antler is disqualified.  The Rashba (Rosh Ha-shana 26a), as well as the Ritva (citing the Ramban), explains that the word shofar refers to a hollow horn, not a bone; an antler is therefore inherently not a horn.  The Ramban adds that while an antler is inherently disqualified, as it is simply not a horn, there are other horns which the Gemara may disqualify for other reasons, as we shall discuss.



Which Horns are Valid?


The Mishna (3:2) teaches: "All shofarot are kosher, except for the shofar of a cow, because it is a keren (horn).  Rabbi Yosei said: 'All shofarot are called keren.'"  This mishna SEEMS to present two opinions: Rabbi Yosei apparently sanctions the use of ALL shofarot, while the Rabbanan (the first opinion) disqualify the shofar of a cow.


The Gemara offers a few interpretations of the Rabbanan.  At first, the Gemara suggests that while Rabbi Yosei makes a valid point, the shofar of a cow is unique in that unlike other species, whose horns are called both keren and shofar, the horn of a cow is referred to ONLY as a keren - not a shofar. 


Ula then suggests that aside from the linguistic reason, the horn of a cow should not be used, as it recalls the sin of the Golden Calf.  A Kohen Gadol (High Priest) may not enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to plead the case of the Jewish people while wearing garments of gold, as we say "ein kategor na'aseh sanegor," "a prosecutor cannot serve as a defender," and the gold adornments "reminds" God of the sin of the Golden Calf.  Similarly, a shofar, which symbolically pleads our case before the Heavenly Court, should not be made from a cow's horn, as it recalls the sin of the Golden Calf.  Incidentally, this passage clearly indicates that the shofar functions as a vessel for asking forgiveness. 


Abbayyei explains that there is a physical disqualification of the cow's horn, as it grows in a manner that makes it appear like multiple shofarot.


In any case, both opinions presented in the mishna seem to agree that almost all shofarot are valid, and they disagree ONLY regarding the horn of a cow. 


However, the next mishna, which discusses the various horns used on Rosh Ha-shana in the Temple, fast days and the Yom Kippur of yovel, teaches:


The shofar on Rosh Ha-shana is that of a ya'el (ibex), straight and with a mouthpiece covered in gold…  Rabbi Yehuda says: "The shofar of Rosh Ha-shana is that of a male [ram]."


The Gemara (26b) adds that Rabbi Levi agrees with Rabbi Yehuda, that "the mitzva of Rosh Ha-shana… is to blow a bent [shofar]," and it explains further:


In what do they argue?  Rabbi Yehuda maintains that on Rosh Ha-shana, the more one bends himself, the better… while the Tanna Kamma (the first opinion) maintains that on Rosh Ha-shana the more one is outstretched, the better.


Interestingly, Rashi implies that they disagree regarding the mode of prayer most appropriate for Rosh Ha-shana: hunched over, with one's face towards the ground; or looking up towards the heavens.  Once again, the shofar's function as a vessel of prayer emerges.


Many Rishonim question the relationship between the first mishna, which sanctions the use of all horns, except possibly that of a cow, and the second mishna, which mentions only the straight horn (of an ibex) or the bent one (of a ram)? 


Furthermore, another passage (16a) teaches:


Rabbi Abbahu asked, "Why do we only blow on the shofar of a ram?"  The Holy One, Blessed Be He, says, "Blow for Me a ram's shofar, and on account of it I will remember the binding of Yitzchak [and the ram that was sacrificed in his place].  I furthermore will consider it as if you bound yourselves up before me like Yitzchak."


What does this passage teach us about the permissibility of using horns from other animals?


The Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 1:1) rules that ONLY the shofar of a ram may be used on Rosh Ha-shana.  The commentaries on the Rambam and the Rishonim question this position, especially since the Gemara never even implies that there exists a debate regarding this issue.


Most Rishonim (Tosafot 26b, s.v. "Shel ya'el;" Rashba; Ritva; Ran; Ra'avad, etc.) disagree, maintaining that all horns (except the horn of a cow, according to the Tanna Kamma), are acceptable.  They explain that the second mishna discusses WHICH horn should be used PREFERABLY.  They rule in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda, especially in light of Rabbi Abbahu's comments (16a), preferring the use of a ram's horn.


They explain, therefore, that there are three categories of bony cranial protrusions: those which are disqualified, either inherently (antlers) or by species (cow horns, according to the Tanna Kamma); other horns which may be used when necessary; and the ram's horn, which is preferable.


Interestingly, some Rishonim question whether it is preferable to use the horn of a RAM, in accordance with Rabbi Abbahu (16b); or any bent horn, as the Gemara (26b) implies?


The Ran (6a), for example, explains that Rabbi Yehuda and the Tanna Kamma do not meant to refer exclusively to an ibex or a ram, but rather to any horns which are "straight" or "bent." 


The Mordekhai (714) also suggests that while preferably one should use the horn of a ram, be-diavad (if there is no alternative) one may even use the horn of an ibex or goat, AS LONG AS IT IS BENT.  In other words, despite that fact that the Gemara describes the horn of an ibex as pashut (straight), if it is somewhat curved, it may be used, when necessary, as long as it is relatively straight.


This opinion may help us to understand a difficulty.  The Mishna, as we have learned, contrasts the "straight" horn of the ya'el with the "bent" horn of the ram.  However, the horns of the ibex, seen to this day in the Judean Desert (, are far from "straight"!  Apparently, the Mishna means that the horns of the ibex are straight RELATIVE to the ram's horns (, which are tightly coiled.


Interestingly, modern shofarot, in order to saw off and prepare the end as a mouthpiece, are heated and then straightened somewhat.  It is therefore not as "curved" as described by the Mishna, and its shape has been altered.  Rav Yosef Kapach (1917–2000), a great Torah scholar and Yemenite halakhic authority, challenges the status of these shofarot ("Shofar shel Rosh Ha-shana," Sinai 69, online at  Some of his Yemenite followers use a ram's horn with a full curvature, in accordance with his opinion.  Common custom, however, is to allow the use of the semi-straightened shofarot.


The Shulchan Arukh (OC 586:1) concludes:


The mitzva of the Rosh Ha-shana shofar should be fulfilled with [the horn] of a ram, which is bent.  In extenuating circumstances, all shofarot are acceptable, straight or bent, although there is a greater mitzva to use a bent shofar.  The shofar of a cow is not acceptable in any case; nor are the antlers of most undomesticated animals, as they are made of bone and are not hollow.


Aside from those Yemenites who follow Rav Kapach, and use a fully-curved ram's horn, most Yemenite communities use the horn of a greater kudu, native to eastern and southern Africa (  This custom is especially surprising due to the Yemenite community's general adherence to the Rambam's halakhic rulings.  As we have seen, while most Rishonim tolerate, be-diavad, the use of other bent shofarot, the Rambam seems to disqualify them under any circumstance!  This widespread Yemenite practice has generated much halakhic discussion. 


Rabbi Natan Slifkin, author of many essays and books on zoology and Judaism, has put his article, "Exotic Shofars", online (  He discusses the use of horns originating from exotic animals, and even questions whether there are any non-kosher animals which produce horns!



How Many Notes Must One Blow?


Not only does the Torah not state clearly that the terua must come from a shofar, it also does not explicitly teach what and how many notes must be blown!


The Gemara (33b) teaches that each terua, which we have established must be blown with a shofar, must be preceded and followed by a tekia.  A terua, the Gemara assumes, is a broken sound, while the tekia is a smooth, level sound.  The Gemara offers a few attempts to derive this practice.  One source is Vayikra 25:9, in which the term "ha'avara" (proclaiming) is found both preceding and following the word "terua."  Ha'avara implies a flat, simple sound, described by the Sages as a "peshuta."  This series — peshuta-terua-peshuta, or tekia-terua-tekia — is known as a "tarat" (or "karak," as it appears in some Rishonim). 


How many times must one sound a tarat series on Rosh Ha-shana?  The Gemara derives that since the term terua appears three times in the context of Rosh Ha-shana and yovel, and each one must be preceded and followed by a tekia, one must blow three sets of tarat, or 9 sounds.  The Amora'im debate whether mi-de'oraita (biblically) one must blow two sets or three, which would determine whether all nine sounds are of biblical or rabbinic origin.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 3:1), Tur (OC 590) and Shulchan Arukh (OC 590:1) rule that one must hear all nine sounds, mi-de'oraita. 


While the sound of the tekia is relatively self evident - smooth and flat — the broken sound of the terua is somewhat unclear.  What type of sound is the terua?  Does it refer to medium, tremolo blasts, what we nowadays call shevarim (breaks)?  Or does it refer to very short, staccato blasts, what we nowadays call a terua?  Or does it refer to a combination of the two?


The Gemara (34a) records that Rabbi Abbahu confronted this question and enacted in Caesarea (c. 300 C.E.) that one should blow all different possible variations.  Since a biblical terua, reflecting human weeping, can be tremolo groaning, staccato wailing, or the former leading into the latter (but not the reverse), we must sound all three variations.


The Rif (10a) therefore summarizes:


Thus it is now the case that we blow tekia-shevarim-teruatekia three times, and we blow tekia-shevarimtekia three times, and we blow tekiateruatekia three times.


These 30 sounds comprise the basic obligation of tekiat shofar.  We will relate to the 30 sounds blown before Musaf, as well as the sounds blown during and after Musaf, totaling the customary 100 sounds.  However, first we must discuss the nature of Rabbi Abbahu's enactment and the definition of the sounds themselves. 



Rabbi Abbahu's Enactment — Thirty Sounds:


The Rishonim question the necessity of Rabbi Abbahu's enactment requiring one to blow 30 sounds.  Rav Hai Gaon (see Ritva, 34a) for example, asks the following powerful question: "Before Rabbi Abbahu came, had the Jewish people not fulfilled their obligation of tekiat shofar?"  He answers:


There is no doubt that the law was clear to them, as it is not possible that regarding a mitzva [such as shofar], which is performed each year, they would not know the truth, and they would not have observed each other, and it would not have been properly transmitted since Moshe Rabbeinu…  Rather the biblical terua may be fulfilled in any of these ways… as the Torah's intention of terua is to create sounds and broken tones, and originally some would blow tremolo and some staccato… as they saw fit, and they would all fulfill their obligation as such…  And then the masses began to believe MISTAKENLY that there is a difference between the sounds and that some could not fulfill the obligation of others…  Therefore, in order to remove doubt from the simple people, and to establish a uniform practice, Rabbi Abbahu established that each group should blow like the other groups as well…  Because it seemed to the simple people to be a debate, the Talmud presents it as if there were a doubt.


This fascinating position of Rav Hai Gaon also implies that no matter which terua one blows, one has fulfilled his obligation, which explains the medieval custom of not sounding each variation during Musaf, as we shall discuss. 


The Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 3:2) disagrees and explains:


Due to the great passage of time and the extended exile, we are no longer sure as to the nature of the terua mentioned in the Torah.  We do not know whether it is similar to the wailing of weeping women; or the slow, deep sobbing of someone heavily burdened; or whether it is like a sobbing which naturally turns into a wailing.  Therefore, we perform all three variations.


According to the Rambam, Rabbi Abbahu responded to a bona fide biblical doubt (safek de-oraita); he therefore enacted to blow 30 sounds in order to be sure that everyone fulfills his biblical obligation. 


Interestingly, the Gemara explains that simply blowing three sets of tashrat would not suffice, as the "wrong" terua would constitute an interruption (hefsek) between the first tekia, the proper biblical terua, and the final tekia.  It seems that we may understand this in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda (Sukka 53b-54a), who rules that one must hear the nine blast of the shofar without interruption.  However, the Gemara rules in accordance with the Rabbanan, that "one who hears nine blasts in a period of nine hours" has fulfilled his obligation, implying that he has performed the mitzva even if he does not hear the nine blasts uninterrupted! 


Rabbeinu Tam (see Ritva, 34b) suggests that Rabbi Abbahu's fear of hefsek, which, according to the Gemara, led him to insist that one blow thirty blasts, as opposed to twelve (i.e., three sets of tashrat), was out of concern for Rabbi Yehuda's position.  He notes that according to Rav Hai Gaon, the idea is to bring about unity among the various customs; therefore, Rabbi Abbahu showed concern for the rejected opinion of Rabbi Yehuda as well.  However, practically speaking, the halakha is in accordance with the Rabbanan, and one might even fulfill the obligation through three sets of tashrat.


The Ramban, and subsequently many of the Sephardic authorities, disagree.  They insist that Rabbi Abbahu's enactment must certainly be according to the position of the Rabbanan.  They explain, therefore, that although the Rabbanan posit that "one who hears nine blasts over a period of nine hours" has fulfilled his obligation, they mean to say that TIME does not constitute an interruption.  However, another blast of the shofar between the opening and closing tekiot of each set would constitute a hefsek.


The Shulchan Arukh (588:3) mentions both views, but, as we will see, he (590:7-8) clearly endorses the stringent one. 



Definition of the Shevarim and Terua:


The Rishonim discuss and debate the precise definition of and relationship between the shevarim and the terua. 


The Mishna (4:9) teaches:


The order or blowing is three sets of three each.  The measure of a tekia is equal to that of three teruot; the measure of a terua is equal to that of three yevavot.


  This mishna is a bit difficult to decipher, as it uses the term "terua" in yet another way and introduces the term "yevavot."  Ultimately, it tells us that the tekia is as long as whatever follows it, be it the three medium notes or nine short ones.  The Rishonim debate the length of these blasts, as we shall see.


The Gemara, however, cites a beraita which seems to contradict our mishna by saying that "the measure of a tekia is equal to a terua," not three teruot.  If so, the tekia should be three times as long as the following sound!


The Rishonim, based upon variant texts, offer different explanations of the Gemara's answer.  According to most Rishonim, the Gemara explains that the tekia must indeed equal the sounds contained within, and the mishna and beraita merely refer to different perspectives.  The mishna means to say that the tekia — i.e., all of the opening blasts — must equal all of the middle blasts — i.e., the terua.  The beraita, on the other hand, means to say that the opening tekia equals the terua of that set. 


Within this version, which requires that the tekia and middle sound be of equal length, the Rishonim disagree as to how long they much last.  Rashi (ad loc., s.v. Shalosh), for example, claims that the terua consists of three short blasts; therefore, the tekia must also equal the length of those three sounds.  This interpretation leads the Riva and Rivam (Tosafot, s.v. Shiur; Rosh 4:10) to warn that one should not blow a shever the length of three short blasts, as then it would equal the tekia which surrounds a terua!  Therefore, a shever, according to this opinion, should not exceed two beats!  Some disagree with this conclusion and interpret Rashi's opinion as referring to RELATIVE lengths. 


Alternatively, the Riva and Rivam agree that the length of the tekia should equal the length of the sound contained within; however, they maintain that a terua should consist of nine short blasts, equaling the length of three shevarim and one tekia.  In fact, some Rishonim add that the quantity of sounds is less important than the length, and one may even blow four or five shevarim, as long as the tekia is as long. 


The Rambam (3:4; see also Maggid Mishneh, ad loc.) has a completely different reading of the Gemara, in which he explains that a terua is twice as long as a tekia.  He explains, according to his version, that the mishna is reckoning the tekiot of all the sets against the teruot of all the sets, and the Beraita is reckoning those of a single set, such that the length of one terua equals that of two tekiot.  The Ra'avad (ibid.) offers another interpretation as well.


In order to illustrate the differences, let us demonstrate how each would blow a tashrat.


Rashi's tashrat would be:

"--------"   "--- --- ---" "- - -"  "---------"


Tosafot's (that of the Riva and Rivam) would be:

"------------------"  "--- --- --- ---------"  "------------------"


The Rambam's would be:

"---------"  "--- --- --- ---------"  "---------"


While Rashi, the Riva and Rivam, and the Rambam disagree regarding the length of the shevarim, they agree that the tekia is measured, somehow, relative to the inner blasts.  The Ra'avad disagrees.


The Ra'avad (ibid.) maintains that one ALWAYS blows a tekia for 9 terumitin (beats), regardless of the length of the terua.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (590) concludes that one should always blow a tekia for a minimum of nine terumitin, in order to fulfill all of the opinions.


The Shulchan Arukh (590:3) cites the first two opinions.  It is customary to follow the second opinion. 



Definition of the Shevarim-Terua — One Breath or Two?


The Ran (Rif 10b) writes that one should blow all the beats of the shevarim or terua in one breath.  Furthermore, he cites a debate regarding the shevarim-terua, which combines both possibilities of a biblical terua.  Rabbeinu Tam asserts that it does NOT need to be blown in one breath, as "people certainly do not moan and then wail in one breath."  The Ramban and the Rosh (4:10) disagree, explaining that the shevarim-terua combination is "one terua;" therefore, one should blow it in one breath. 


One might ask whether Rabbeinu Tam believes that the shevarim-terua MUST or MAY be blown in two breaths.  The Mishna Berura (Sha'ar Ha-tziyyun 590:19) is inclined to believe that Rabbeinu Tam would agree that it MAY be blown in one breath. 


The Shulchan Arukh (590:4) cites both opinions and then writes that one who is "God-fearing" should try to fulfill both opinions and blow the shevarim-terua in one breath during the tekiot BEFORE Musaf and in two breaths DURING Musaf.  The Rema records that the common custom is to blow the shevarim-terua in two breaths and that one should not diverge from this custom.


The Acharonim differ as to which custom people should follow.  The Mishna Berura (Sha'ar Ha-tziyyun 18) notes that the Chayyei Adam omits the Rema's ruling; indeed, it may be preferable to follow the Shulchan Arukh's ruling, as it covers all of the opinions.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (590:13) testifies that this is the custom of many communities. 


Rav Soloveitchik, as recorded by Rav Herschel Schachter (Nefesh HaRav, pg. 206), believes that the shevarim-terua should be blown in one breath, as it constitutes one sound, and he had the toke'a (the one sounding the shofar) blow with one breath throughout the entire Tefilla, until the tekiot AFTER the repetition of Musaf, during which the toke'a would blow three tashrat sets with two breaths, totaling 102 sounds.


What if one blows the entire set of tarat in one breath?  The Yerushalmi (Rosh Ha-shana 4:10) rules that if one blows "bi-nficha achat" (in one breath), one has fulfilled one's obligation.  The Tosefta (2:12) differs — and the Rosh (4:10) rules in accordance with it — that one has NOT fulfilled one's obligation.  The Shulchan Arukh (590:5) cites both opinions.



The Sound of the Tekia, Shevarim and Terua:


The Shulchan Arukh (586:6) rules: "If the sound is particularly thick or thin, it is still acceptable, as ALL SOUNDS ARE ACCEPTABLE FOR THE SHOFAR".


The Acharonim differ on the following question: what if the sound changes in the middle of a specific tekia, shevarim, or terua?  Rav Yehoshua Yehuda Leib (Maharil) Diskin, a leader of the Old Yishuv community in the late 19th century, is extremely stringent regarding this question.  He believes that the Shulchan Arukh is referring to DIFFERENT sounds and blasts, but he would not rule in this way if one would alter the sound within one specific terua or tekia.  While common practice is in accordance with the Chazon Ish and others, who are not concerned with this change of tone, scrupulous individuals are strict regarding this issue (see Piskei Teshuvot 586:5). 


Regarding the shevarim, there are different customs concerning its sound.  Some communities blow smooth/ flat sounds.  Others break each "shever" in the middle, creating a "tu-a-tu" or "a-tu" sound, often described as "oleh ve-yored," "ascending and descending." 


Being that there are so many variations and opinions, regarding both the length, sound and number of breaths, many, especially in yeshivot, are accustomed to blow extra sounds after Musaf, in order to fulfill many, if not all, of the opinions. 



Interruptions (Hefsek) Between the Sounds:


Although we noted above that the Rishonim differ as to whether or not one must hear the shofar blasts uninterrupted and that the Shulchan Arukh (588:2) cites both opinions, elsewhere (590:7-8) the Shulchan Arukh assumes that one may NOT interrupt between the sounds with invalid notes. 


Assuming that one may not interrupt in this manner, what constitutes an invalid note?  And if one must "return," to where would one do so?


The Shulchan Arukh (590:7) rules that if one inadvertently inserts the wrong sound, such as a terua instead of a shevarim, one must return to the opening tekia.  The same would apply even if one repeats the SAME sound, such as an extra shevarim (after taking a breath) after the required shevarim.


However, if one, for example, successfully blows two sets of tashrat and errs during the third, one need not repeat all three sets, but rather only the final set (590:9).


The Taz (588:2), citing the Levush, argues that only the toke'a fails to fulfill his obligation if he inserts the wrong sound into a set.  However, for the listener, he argues, this extra sound should not constitute an interruption, even according to the Ramban, but rather a "pause."  The Acharonim do not accept the Taz's distinction.


What if one began to blow a terua or shevarim but cannot produce the proper sound?  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (590:20) and the Mishna Berura (590:34) rule that this does NOT constitute an interruption, and one should return to the beginning of that specific sound. 


Knowledge of these laws is crucial for the toke'a, as well as for the makri, the one who announces and approves each sound.



Next week, we will address the tekiot sounded before, during and after Musaf, and we will discuss the relationship between them and Musaf. 

[1] All citations are from Tractate Rosh Ha-shana unless otherwise noted.