Physical Characteristics of the Shofar

  • Rav David Brofsky



Horns and Antlers


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 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.


If antlers can be hollowed out and made into an instrument, why are they disqualified?  The Rishonim offer several answers.  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 Rabbanan (the first opinion) disqualify the shofar of a cow.


The Gemara offers a few interpretations of 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,  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!