Sunday, February 28, 2010

Difficulty in Translation "Shofar"

In H-Judaic a listserv for Jewish studies, someone asked about the translation of "shofar" as used in the Tanach.

There is a difficulty because words have connotations and associations that change over time. One can explain a word based on it usage in context and etymology, but sometimes current usage interferes with that meaning. The person asked why Jewish translations use "horn" most of the time while non-Jewish translations all use "trumpet."

In a modern band or orchestra trumpets and its cousin the cornet have valves that enable a full chromatic scale. Before valves were added in the mid 1830's the players used several trumpets in the keys the music required or used variable tubes. Trumpets trace their roots back as far as 1500 BCE. Bronze and silver trumpets were found in Egyptian tombs. ("The Trumpets of Tut-Ankh-Amen and Their Successors Percival" by R. Kirby in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 77, No. 1 (1947), pp. 33-45 ) A definition of a modern trumpet would be a metal instrument that uses lip vibrations to produce a variety of sounds. Thus horns from animals, bamboo, reeds, and shells would not qualify.

The word, "shofar" in the Tanach may refer to a metal instrument or an animal horn. There is another word, hotzotzerah, that is never used as a ritual instrument and was most likely made of silver. Ritually we only use horns from kosher animals. Thus today, "shofar" only refers to a ritual instrument.

Job 39.24-25 is talking about a battle. It does surprise me that the word "trumpet" is the translation.

Cyrus Adler in the article, "Shofar" in the Jewish Encyclopedia ( claims "trumpet" is a mistranslation according to the words' etymologies. Adler did not know Howard Carter's discoveries in Egyptian tombs in the 1920's.

In my humble opinion when the Tanach is referring to a horn used by soldiers, "trumpet" is an adequate translation. However, in modern usage, "trumpet" has very little resemblance to that kind of military horn. If you were translating according to how the instrument is used, "military bugle" would be more correct, but no one would use that translation. "Bugle" and "trumpet" have connotations that make translating "shofar" difficult or imprecise.


Michael C. said...

For insight into translation of "shofar", please see my book, "Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram's Horn" available at, and my blog at

While your post makes many valid points, I take exception your view that, "when the Tanach is referring to a horn used by soldiers, "trumpet" is an adequate translation." While this may be adequate for common usage, it ignores the Biblical significance of the horn instrument as a call to arms and as a weapon. From the exodus to the Judges, and into the Kingdoms, most of the soldiers of Israel were farmers or shepherds that used a common horn for signaling, drinking, and as a daily implement. Besides practicality, the shofar had a tribal totem significance that would have been meaningful to warriors. While a king or general may have had a metal hotzotzerah, the rest of the troops had shofarot.

Contact me if you would like to discuss this, my contact info is on my websites.

Michael C. said...

After sending the preceding comment, I spent some time on your blog, and realized your are a librarian. Perhaps you can help me with a question.

I published my book on shofar online when I got tired of pursuing publishers. I am happy with my decision, but a worry about how the work can be made available to future generations. If it had been printed on cellulose, I would expect some copies to end up in stacks in some research institution. But how do I assure that the work remain in cyberspace in whatever formats evolve.

Is there a digital genizah? An online eternal care service?

This is important to me. As I wrote my book, I felt in conversation with authors from three thousand years ago. I want to feel I am part of a chain of tradition that lasts for another three thousand years.

Any ideas will be appreciated. Contact me at shofarot [at}

afinkle221 said...

Sounding of the Shofar or Trumpet?
Arthur L. Finkle

There are, nevertheless, several ambiguities in whether the written
words a trumpet and a Shofar. A case in point are the Hebrew words
“Keren” (Horn) and “Jubal” (Jubilee)

The word ‘Shofar’ comes from an old Semitic root (cf. Akkadian
‘sapparum' meaning wild sheep or goat). At first, as has been
indicated, the word ‘karen’ does not seem to have been used by itself.
Later through the explanation of the Mishnah c 200CE), a horn could
become a Shofar if it were constructed according to Mishnaic and later
Talmudic direction.

The hatzotzerot, in contrast, seem to have been interchanged with the
Shofar. In Tractate Rosh HsShanah, when it termed when 'duty days' were
taken in turns, the Shofar and trumpets played the same calls.

Confusion by Performing the Same or Similar Tasks

The Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 54 provides a description of the priests
lowering trumpets during pauses in the Levitical singing in the Second
Temple, signaling to worshippers to prostrate themselves.

Further there is a curious reference in I Chron. 5:13 instructing the
trumpeters and singers being 'as one, to make one sound.’ It bespeaks
the possibility that the trumpets played a sustained note over which
the singers chanted as opposed to the trumpets and singers having
separate parts. Moreover, one of the common words for 'fanfare' is
“teru'ah” meaning 'a shout'. Accordingly, this fanfare could be described
to have been the imitation of a shout. Sometimes this ambiguity
between a vocal or instrumental meaning is difficult. A case in point
is the famous passage in the Vulgate edition (Official early church
version of the Holy Scriptures) of Joshua 5, ‘where the priests were
to blow the Shofars, while the peoples shouted: and it came to pass,
when the people heard the sound (‘kol’) of the Shofar the peoples
shouted with a great shout (teru'ah) so that the wall fell down flat.’
The Vulgate cannot be blamed for glossing because , by this time,
there was a lack of distinction between the Shofar and trumpet.

History of the Uses of the Trumpet and Shofar Reverse Roles

The marshalling signals are described in Numbers 10, though in war the
Shofar seems to have been the signaling instrument par excellence. All
these functions, and their calls, seem later to have been appropriated
by the Shofars. The encyclopedic Psalm 150, for example, makes no
mention of the trumpet. Only lately (in the last century or so B.C.)
do trumpets appear to come back into their former favor; but, due
to Greco- Roman influence, their use is primarily military. Indeed the
roles of the two instruments seem to have become reversed; the Talmud
says 'what was called a trumpet has become a Shofar, and what was
called a Shofar has become a trumpet' (Bab. Talmud Shabbat 36a; also
Sukkoth 34a; and Rosh HaShanah 36a; Targum version of Hosea 5:8). A
passage in the Mishnah (Gittin 3:6) indicates much the same thing, in
saying that a 'trumpet' can be made of animal horn. So the Shofar
eventually took on the ceremonial function originally performed by the

This confusion of usage makes the task of reconstructing the trumpet
and Shofar calls simpler rather than the reverse, for the instruments
and their traditional signals may be treated summarily. Since the
Shofar calls themselves are the subject of some differences in our own
times and were disputed in Talmudic times.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

Thank you for your comment Arthur. The blog entry was just a taste of the full article that I am preparing.
The Vulgate uses bucinae or tubae for shofar.

My whole point is that translation is not an easy task.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

From Arthur L. Finkle via e-mail.

I believe that, in the Scriptures, chatzorot were actually trumpets (as depicted on Titus’ Arch) and Shofar was a Shofar. Then, Rabbinic literature confuses the issue, as well as one of the Psalms (which came out of a different school from Moses’ (Joshua’s) six books.