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Book review: The Shofar - its History and Use

All you want to know about shofars

    Shofar from the cover of 'The Shofar - its History and Use'

    Jeremy Montagu
    Rowman & Littlefield, hardback, £54.95

    The shofar is the oldest musical instrument in continuous use, says Oxford musicologist and shofar-collector Jeremy Montagu in his fascinating study of the definitive ritual object of Rosh Hashanah.

    Despite its antiquity, however, archaeologists have yet to find a specimen earlier than mid 17th-century Europe. A shofar doesn't simply arrive straight from the animal to synagogue. It has to be cleaned and prepared, the narrower blowing end may have to be flattened over heat and the surface smoothed.

    Montagu provides a detailed account of the history and the different styles of shofar as well as practical tips on how to blow it and what to look for when buying one, especially if you want it to use rather than simply put on a mantlepiece.

    Although Saadia Gaon and Maimonides both specify a ram's horn, most Western European shofarot originated from goats and other kosher animals may be used, with the exception of cows. While the twisting horn of a kudu, a species of antelope, may look spectacular, the author believes a ram offers a better sound for shul.

    The three-fold set of notes used in synagogue, tekiah, shevarim, teruah, go back to the Talmud, though naturally there are variations in blowing conventions (some use a 12-note sequence rather than nine for teruah).

    The shofar is not confined to the New Year season. Taking a cue from the reference in Psalm 81 to the shofar being sounded on New Moon, women's groups in America are reviving its use on Rosh Chodesh. Montagu recalls even once blowing one into the intercom of the Russian embassy in a Soviet Jewry protest.

    His 30-page compendium of sources on the shofar from biblical and rabbinic literature alone will be handy for anyone asked to give a talk on Rosh Hashanah. A valuable addition to synagogue libraries.

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