shofar

Title: Kabala—shofar demonstration; Matthew Fields, shofar. Label: MMC Recordings. Format: CD. Catalogue#: MMC2087. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The shofar (pl., shofarot) is an end-blown natural labrosone of the Jewish people. A sheep’s horn (either from a ram or an ewe) has been the primary source material for this instrument from Biblical times to this day. In the Ashkenazim tradition of Eastern Europe, the shofar is sounded in services only for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For the former service, four named calls (teqi’ah, shebarim, teru’ah, and teqi’ah gedolah) are sounded in various combinations at specified points during the service (Montagu 2014, p. 503). For Yom Kippur, only one of the calls is sounded, and this is at the end of the service (Ibid). According to Montagu, in Orthodox communities, only males over 13 years in age (and after they have entered adulthood following their barmitsvah) can blow the shofar for their congregation; in some liberal and reform communities, this same role can be performed by females after their entrance into ritual adulthood at the age of 12 (2015, p. 40). However, the ba’al teqi’ah (master blower) of a congregation is often much older and is respected more for his/her depth and breadth of religious knowledge and wisdom than for performance technique (see Chusid [2009] to garner a sense of just how deeply this instrument and its blowers are emeshed in the totality of the Jewish tradition). In addition to its close association with Jewish religious observances, shofarot were historically used in secular settings as well as a military instrument, a civil signaling instrument, and to mark important times of the day. In a personal correspondence with Michael Chusid (August 20, 2019), he pointed out an interesting recent phenomenon regarding the shofar: “… most shofarot in US are purchased by Christians as the instrument has been embraced by many charismatic, evangelical, and messianic churches. Where a synagogue will typically have one shofar player who plays it twice a year, these churches will have entire corps of blowers who will sound it weekly.” Therefore, while the shofar can correctly be thought of as a Judaic instrument that has been, and continues to be, integrated into Jewish religious life, it also has, over time, been utilized in other contexts, both spiritual and secular.

Description

The shofar pictured in gallery #1 is made from a sheep’s horn (unclear whether it is from a ram or a ewe) the bone core of which has been removed leaving only its keratin surface. The tip-end of this horn was probably somewhat straighten out (by heating it) before its blowhole was created. In order to create the blowhole (basically an integral mouthpiece) the point of the horn has been cut off a little above the pointed end of the interior cavity, which was created by removing the horn’s bone core. A pilot hole must be drilled or burnt from the flattened tip through to the interior cavity, then this hole must be worked, with drills, burning, or carving, to shape the blowhole’s rim, cup, and desired shank diameter (see detail #1 for a close-up of this shofar’s blowhole). Sandpaper, buffing machines, and or hand rubbing with wax or oil has been used to refine and polish the rim and cup of the blowhole, the rim of the bell (detail #2), and the exterior of the horn. The result of all this work is the creation of a shofar that has a bore-length of about 8.4 inches, a cone-shaped bore that begins at .2 inches in diameter at the base of the blowhole cup and terminates at a rectangular-shaped bell that is on average 2.8 inches long and 1.4 inches wide.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player holds a shofar as small as the one seen in gallery #1 with one hand, which hand depending on whether they sound the horn using the right side or the left side of their embouchure. If the player creates the buzzing necessary to produce sound on the instrument with the center of his/her embouchure, then either hand can be used to hold the instrument and place its blowhole against the lips, its bell end pointing upward or outward. The shofar, being a natural labrosone, is capable of producing a single fundamental pitch and its harmonic partials. A fundamental pitch of approximately F4 is produced on the shofar pictured here, although, for performing the liturgical calls used in Jewish observances, primarily its second and third partials are used (approximately F5 and C6). Shofarot of various lengths (such as those seen in detail #3) will produce different fundamentals and harmonic tones. A demonstration of the four basic liturgical blasts is heard on audio #1: teqi’ah (0:00), shebarim (0:03), teru’ah (0:06), and teqi’ah gedolah (0:11). Each ba’al teqi’ah will have a unique interpretation of these blasts achieved through subtleties of pitch inflection, timing, and dynamics.

Origins/History/Evolution

Montagu calls the shofar “the oldest musical instrument in written history that is still in use”, based on the mention of a trumpet being sounded when God delivered the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, c. 1500 BCE (2015, p. 3). Other Biblical mentions of trumpets are typically interpreted to reference the shofar, even though other forms of trumpets (such as straight ones made of silver) are known to have been in use at that time. Montagu further states that the shofar was in use as an instrument of worship in Judaism before “the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE” (2014: 503). Because no shofarot survive from those early times, it might be safest to speculate that the ram’s horn shofar existed in Biblical times, along with other types of trumpets, and that it was used in both liturgical and secular settings. Over the millennia, and as Jews have dispersed and their religious practices have evolved, the shofar has come to be made from a variety of mammal horns and incorporated into worship in varying ways. The horns of different varieties of antelope (e.g., ibex and kudu) are now, and have been for some time in certain Jewish communities, been used to fashion shofarot, no doubt in part because they were available in the local environments. However, the ram’s horn remains the undisputed original shofar, and, in its several-millennia-long history, an unparalleled body of legends, aphorisms, interpretations, metaphorical associations, and practices has accrued that reveals the deep connection between this simple instrument and Jewish identity (see further Chusid 2009).

Bibliographic Citations

Chusid, Michael T. 2009. Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn. Self-published online manuscript: https://www.dropbox.com/s/ovynuzku6gny6fl/Hearing_Shofar-The_Still_Small_Voice_of_the_Rams_Horn.pdf?dl=0

Montagu, Jeremy. 2014. “Shofar (Heb., pl. shofarot).” GDMI v.4: 503-504. 

________. 2015. The Shofar: Its History and Use. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield.

 

Instrument Information

Origins

Continent: Asia

Region: West Asia

Nation: Israel

Formation: Jewish

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.121.21 aerophone--end-blown natural labrosone with curved or folded tube; without mouthpiece

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over open end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - selecting partials of a single cavity’s fundamental through overblowing

Dimensions

c. 8.4 in. length of bore 2.8 in. average length of bell opening 1.4 in. average width of bell opening

Primary Materials

horn - mammal

Maker

made in Israel

Entry Author

Roger Vetter