The shofar, the horn of plenty

We all know the routine. As the ordered blasts — Tekiah! Shevarim! Teruah! — come in quick succession, the congregation holds its breath in anticipation of the dramatic climax. Finally, the longest note of all: Tekiah Gedolah!

The shofar, notoriously difficult to play, is a key part of the Rosh Hashanah services: another name for the festival is Yom Teruah, meaning “the day of the shofar blast”, when the horn’s distinctive sound calls congregations all over the world to prayer.

Two shofars were said to have caused the walls of Jericho to crumble, and the instrument has been blown for thousands of years to remind people to come together in search of teshuvah (repentance).

This reflects the varied historical uses of the horn. In the times of Moses, it was used to indicate a sacrifice and frighten the enemy in battle. It was also sounded during the coronation of kings, the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant and the Havdalah ceremony.

Typically fashioned from a ram’s horn, the instrument has also been made using horns from antelopes and ibex. Cattle cannot provide shofars, because of the association with the idolatrous Golden Calf.

Shofar horns are those that have a covering of keratin — the substance of which human fingernails and hair are comprised — which needs to be separated from the bone underneath before it can be sterilised, straightened, and given a mouthpiece.

This need for a keratin sheath informed the decision described in the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th-century Jewish law book, that horns made of solid bone — such as those belonging to deer and giraffes, which would need a hole drilled through them to operate as an instrument — cannot be used as shofars.

Traditionally, the shofar conjures up emotions ranging from fear, through reverence, to affection. The Book of Amos declares: “The shofar has the quality to stir the hearts and to inspire love, as it is written: ‘If the shofar is sounded in the city, will the people not tremble?’”

Josh Levy, rabbi at North West London Reform Synagogue, believes that the shofar’s power nowadays lies in its ability to indicate the special nature of the occasion.

“For me, the significance of the shofar is Maimonides’s theory of the alarm call. It’s such a raw, passionate sound that it really does have the effect of moving us. There is power in the ritual which is not of the everyday. It says to us: ‘something different is happening around you now.’”

Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky of Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue suggested: “The shofar is a verbal-less prayer. We’re not praying with words, we’re praying with sounds. As opposed to words, which change from culture to culture, the sound of the shofar will always be the same. The same kind of shofar was used when we entered the land of Israel, and when we were at Mount Sinai. It is a sound which connects all of Jewish history, all the generations and the areas.”

As well as its more sacred uses, this unique Jewish instrument has also made its way into popular culture. Macklemore, the rapper behind hit songs Thrift Shop and Same Love, recently blew a shofar in a video promoting the MTV Video Music Awards.

The inimitable sound of the shofar will be heard across the world this month. Like many of our traditions, its crucial role endures.

Last updated: 3:58pm, September 3 2013