When the Ram’s Horn Sounds

By Raphael Mostel

Published September 28, 2011.
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Originally published in the Forward September 6, 2002.

To adapt the famous categorization of Claude Levi-Strauss, if such wind instruments as clarinets and cornets are “cooked,” the shofar is definitely “raw.” The question arises: Why has this wild horn, the only biblical instrument still in use, come to represent so much to Jews, especially in the holiday season we are entering?

According to tradition, the shofar is the closest thing to the voice of God. Almost every time the Jewish or Christian Bibles mention a trumpet or horn, it means the shofar. Whether it is at the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, Gabriel blowing the last trumpet, the raising of the dead or the tuba mirum (wondrous trumpet) of the Catholic mass — all are referring to the shofar. Composers throughout history have vied to conjure the magic of the biblical shofar, but most have done so fancifully, perhaps the most spectacular being by the 19th-century atheist and genius Hector Berlioz, who dreamed up four spatially separated brass bands for the unforgettably rousing Dies Irae of his “Requiem Mass” to illustrate what the shofars at the end of the world would sound like. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, the sweetly singing tuba mirum of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Requiem,” which seems to have been equally inspired by the call of the wood thrush.

Other composers have been more literal in invoking the shofar. Without doubt the most famous music inspired by the call of the shofar is Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, “West Side Story.” The very first notes of the introduction are nothing but a full-throated orchestral evocation of the sound of the shofar. And this theme is the musical kernel from which Bernstein derived most of the music in this score. In the earliest version, the musical was called “East Side Story” and the female lead was not the Puerto Rican immigrant Maria, but rather a Jewish girl who falls in love with an Italian Catholic boy in Greenwich Village. It was this interfaith conflict that informed the thematic development of the score. Even though the ethnic elements of the plot were changed, the original inspiration in the music remains embedded throughout. But perhaps Maria was secretly a Marrano?

It’s not just Jewish composers who’ve been inspired by the sound of the shofar. Surprisingly, the Edwardian English composer Sir Edward Elgar — yes, the one famous for the “Pomp and Circumstance March” that everyone knows from graduation ceremonies — was inspired by the mystical vision of the shofar sounding to announce the daybreak over the temple in Jerusalem in his oratorio “The Apostles.”

Although there were many composers who imitated the sound or the idea of the shofar in their music, there were very few who had included actual shofars in their compositions when I started to do so almost two decades ago. Now there are many, and currently we’re seeing a renaissance of interest in the musical possibilities of this extraordinary and evocative instrument from composers as diverse as Alvin Curran (shofar and electronics) to John Zorn (“downtown” shofar) and John Duffy (shofar on the “Heritage” soundtrack).

In synagogues, there are two divergent traditions of shofar calls: the Ashkenazi (German), which is dramatic and outward, and the Sephardi (Spanish-Portuguese), which is more tremulous and inward. It is possible that the patterns of shofar calls are derived from military trumpet calls, which are described in several ancient texts, including one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Te’kiah would correspond to “assemble,” Sh’vorim to “advance,” T’ruah (described as “like raindrops”) to “pursue” and Te’kiah G’dolah as “regroup.” (It should be noted, though, that Plutarch, traveling in the Nile delta, sarcastically described hearing a debased version of these calls used for traffic control that sounded to him “like donkeys.”)

Historically, the sound of shofar has always been treated as something in a category by itself — not quite music, but a sound endowed with mystical and magical powers.

My own research has linked everyone’s favorite fantastical animal, the unicorn, to the shofar. The Bible specifically says that when the messiah comes, the “big” shofar (shofar ha-gadol) will sound. This led Maimonides, who was a medical doctor as well as philosopher, to speculate that since the left side of animals is always slightly smaller than the right only the right horn should be used for a shofar. And in medieval times Jews followed this thinking and were careful to use only the right horn for their shofars. Of course one of the major disagreements between Jews and Christians was whether the messiah had already come or was yet to come. My theory is that medieval Christians, as a way to express their belief that there should be no doubt on this question, created the unicorn — so there would be no left or right horn. In this light one can easily see the unicorn in the famous “Lady and Unicorn” tapestry series in the Cloisters as symbolically pre-figuring the Annunciation (that is, the acknowledgment of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus by immaculate conception). Similarly, why else are there the otherwise inexplicable substitutions of “unicorn” in place of “ram” in the King James translation of the Bible? No doubt the translators of the King James Version knew that the original Hebrew text did not say unicorn, but felt the need to use the medieval myth to enforce this eschatological revisionism. There is a Jewish legend that God created the ram at twilight on the sixth day of creation, so that it magically bridges the two worlds: the everyday world and the holy. So what better pasture for a unicorn to graze in? Nowadays Jews use both right and left horns for shofars.

Unicorn or ram, the shofar-bearing animal is one of the most powerful symbols in the monotheistic traditions. The most famous ram of the Bible is the one sacrificed by Abraham in place of his beloved son Isaac, which to many symbolizes the archetypal movement of civilization from human to animal sacrifice. The sound of the shofar is certainly a convincing reminder of those roots. Modern tradition has it that only men are required to hear the shofar calls; women may do as they wish. Surprisingly, however, the Hebrew word “shofar” is feminine. Moreover, it has many feminine associations. For example, Psalm 81 connects the shofar with the cycles of the moon — including the commandment to make a joyful noise and sound the shofar for the new and full moons — which seems to underline this intriguing feminist relationship, as well as a general party atmosphere.

And in seeking the roots for music itself, the Bible claims that all musicians are descended from the great-great-greatgrandson of Cain, Yuval, whose name is related to “mountain goat.” The word “jubilee” derives from the same linguistic root. As an instrument in biblical times, the shofar was used to signal not only the cycles of the moon, but as an alarm for natural calamities such as floods and earthquakes, and to announce the coming of the harvest season and celebrations, especially at the Jubilee. At the time of the temple in Jerusalem, a full orchestra — including winds, brass, strings and percussion — performed. All were played by musicians, but only priests were entitled to play the ram’s horn, underscoring the shofar’s ambiguity: Is it music, or something else?

Of all of the instruments used in the Temple, only the shofar survives today. In this season of remembrance and introspection, the call of the shofar focuses our minds on what is essential, what is eternal. If we are asking who will live and who will die, who will be raised up and who will be cast down, it is a sound that brings us up short, with no possibility of arrogant response. No one can be indifferent to its rude wail. Of how many other musical devices can this be said?

Raphael Mostel has composed 18 works for shofar since 1985, and has broadcast an ongoing series of reports on the instrument on WNYC and National Public Radio. He was the first composer to sound the shofar at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, for which he was commissioned by WNYC-FM to help celebrate the radio station’s 50th anniversary in 1994.


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