A “shofar” is a traditional musical instrument, a type of horn, that has great religious significance within Judaism.
There are many specifications for a proper shofar. It must be made from a kosher animal horn, preferably from a ram, and preferably curved. The horn must be naturally hollow. The only sound produced through it must be by human breath. So neither in its construction nor in its use may it be artificial in any way. It should be blown with the open end facing up. It should have no added decorations.
Thousands of years ago, shofars had practical functions in the Jewish nation. They were blown to announce a new moon, to call the people together, to sound the alarm for war or the approach of an enemy, to announce a peace settlement, and other important announcements.
Now the shofar has a purely ritualistic purpose. The shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to mark the start of the High Holy Days (the sacred ten day period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur), and then after Yom Kippur is over, to mark their end. (The exception is if Rosh Hashanah falls on the Sabbath, the shofar is not blown.)
The scriptural basis for the use of the shofar comes from Leviticus 25: “Then you shall transmit a blast on the horn; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, the day of Yom Kippur, you shall have the horn sounded throughout the land…And proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Indeed, some Jewish scholars consider the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and after Yom Kippur to be the most important observance of the High Holy Days, in that it’s the one explicitly specified in the Torah.
The shofar is blown from the “bema” in the synagogue, which is the high place from which the Torah is read. The congregation stands for the blowing of the shofar. The person who is to blow the shofar makes the blessings “That we have reached this special time” and “To hear the shofar blasts,” to which the congregation responds “Amen.” A total of one hundred notes are sounded on the shofar throughout the day. It should be played such that there is no echo, so only the shofar blasts themselves can be heard.
There are various traditions concerning the symbolism of the shofar. The use of the ram’s horn is believed to be related to Abraham’s sacrificing of a ram on the day that he was willing to sacrifice his own son in obedience to a command from God, until God stayed his hand. The ram’s horn is a reminder that a person needs to be willing to relinquish even that which is most precious to him or her when required by religious duty.
The curve in the horn is said to represent how the human heart bends in contrition and repentance before God, as the High Holy Days are a time for Jews to atone for their sins and commit themselves to a more righteous new year.
The sound itself of the shofar is also symbolic of repentance and contrition. There are differing accounts in the Talmud as to whether it should be blown in short bursts close together to represent a person weeping, or in longer sounds to represent a wail or groan. The custom is to do combinations of both.
Nachum Mohl, “The Shofar.” Jewish Mag.
“Rosh Hashanah.” Judaism 101.
“Shofar.” Jewish Virtual Library.
“The Shofar.” Holidays.net.