Shofar Sheep


By Philologos

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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Shofar… Judaism: A trumpet made of a ram’s horn, blown by the ancient Hebrews during religious ceremonies and as a signal in battle, now sounded in synagogue during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur. Etymology: Hebrew shofar, ram’s horn; akin to Akkadian sapparu, sappar, fallow deer… from Sumerian segbar, fallow deer.” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.)

Akkadian and Sumerian are two long-extinct languages once spoken, in the millennia before the Common Era, in what is now called Iraq and historically known as Mesopotamia or Babylonia. Akkadian belonged to the Semitic family. Until recently, Sumerian was considered one of those rare tongues, like Basque, for which linguists were unable to find relatives at all. Since the 1970s, however, an impressive body of evidence has accumulated, linking it to the Dravidian languages of southern India, such as Tamil.

We are told, then, that our shofar derives its name from the Sumerian word for a fallow deer. This may not seem like much of a problem to you, but having looked into it, I can assure you that it is. The fallow deer, Cervus dama, is a medium-sized ruminant, originally native to West Asia and the Mediterranean region of Europe, which stands about a meter high at the shoulder and has broad, palmate antlers. In a photograph, these look like two narrow branches that end in large, spiky leaves. You could make drummer’s sticks from the branches and bone cymbals from the leaves, but I doubt whether you could make a shofar from either. How, then, did the segbar get to be the shofar’s etymological ancestor?

My research suggests two possible answers, one taking us westward from Babylonia to ancient Palestine, the other eastward to India. The westward path is the simpler one. We have in biblical Hebrew the word tsafir, meaning a male goat. Since the horns of goats, as of rams, make excellent shofars, it seems logical to connect tsafir with shofar; to derive both from Akkadian sapparu, and to assume that in the course of time and distance, as often happens when words age and change languages, the Sumerian-Akkadian word for “fallow deer” came to designate in Hebrew first a goat, then a goat’s horn and then a ritually used ram’s horn. Indeed it’s even possible, as we shall see, that Sumerian segbar already meant “ram” in ancient Babylonia.

Yet traveling eastward suggests another possibility, too. This has to do with Cervus unicolor, the sambar or sambur, a wild deer found widely in India and elsewhere in Asia. The sambar is a large animal, much bigger than the fallow deer, and it is likely that its name, traced to Sanskrit sambara, ultimately derives from, or is connected to, Sumerian segbar.

Does the sambar have horns suitable for shofars? Not at all. Its antlers are branched like the fallow deer’s, though without the latter’s palmate endings, and could not easily be turned into wind instruments. The sambar does have something else, though: a distinctive warning or distress call, described as an “alarming foghornlike noise,” which is sounded upon the detection of predators. Its most dangerous Asian enemy is the tiger, and sambars are valuable aids, used by Asian safari guides, for locating tigers, since they most frequently voice their alarm when one is in sight.

Can the Sumerian segbar, then, have been not the fallow deer but the sambar, its name given to the shofar because of its unusual warning blast? Scholars could have told us more about the segbar had they recovered from the ruins of an ancient Sumerian temple in Ur, dated to about 2200 BCE, the sculptures or drawings spoken of by the priestess Enhudu Anna. The priestess described them in a hymn, the text of which was found at the site. One line of this hymn goes, E an-se seg-bar ki-se dara-mas, translated by the Indian Sumerologist K. Loganthan as, “Temple [i.e., the sculptures or drawings in this part of the temple are]: at the top, a wild ram; at the bottom, a deer.” Langanthan renders segbar as “wild ram” because he takes it to be a cognate of Tamil cemmari, “sheep,” while relating dara-mas to Tamil taaraimaan, “striped deer.” Yet had he chosen to compare segbar with Sanskrit sambara, he might have reached a different conclusion. Alas, the drawings or sculptures to which the hymn referred are lost, so that we never will know just what a segbar was. (The German Semiticist B. Landsberger, in his Die Fauna des alten Mesopotamien, guessed that it was a Thar or Hermitragus jemlahicus, a magnificent goatlike creature of Asia with eminently shofarike horns.)

At any rate, the shofar you hear blown this Rosh Hashanah almost certainly will have been made from the horn of a domestic male sheep — unless, that is, you attend a synagogue frequented by Yemenites, whose shofar traditionally comes from an antelope called the kudu. Kudus are much more like fallow deer and sambars than like sheep… but let’s not get started all over again!

Have a sweet and happy new year!

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