Object of the Month - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Object of the Month

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September 2019

Six Shofars Mark Podwal Acrylic and colored pencil on paper Gift of the artist Skirball Museum; ©Mark Podwal, 2017. 

 

Most holy days in the Jewish calendar have a symbol connected to them. At Passover, it is the unleavened bread, or matzah; at Sukkot it is the lulav, composed of the palm branch, myrtle and willow. At Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it is the sounding of the shofar, or ram’s horn, that calls to awaken the individual to personal responsibilities, both ethical and ritual. The commandment to sound the shofar is found in Leviticus: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts” (Lev. 23:24), and in Numbers: “You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded” (Num. 29:1).

One of the earliest musical instruments, in ancient days the sound of the shofar accompanied the procession that carried the ark back to Jerusalem after it was recaptured from the Canaanites. Subsequently it ushered in the Sabbath, announced the new moon and the festivals, and celebrated the accession of a king. The shofar may be the horn of any animal ritually acceptable according to biblical law. The ram’s horn is a figural reminder of the story of the akedah, the Binding of Isaac, when Abraham was permitted to spare Isaac and sacrifice a ram in his stead (Genesis 22:13). This portion from the Torah is read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. The shape of the shofar varies considerable with the animal whose horn is used. The twisted shofar is traditional with Indian Jews. This remarkable example was presented to Joseph Horwitz, the collector who amassed a large portion of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection, by the Jewish community of Bombay.

Shofar Ram’s Horn Bombay, India, 20th century Gift of Joseph B. and Olyn Horwitz B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection of the Skirball Museum 

Artist Mark Podwal was inspired by this twisted shofar to create Six Shofars in the shape of a Star of David. Unlike the shofar, the Star of David was never a uniquely Jewish symbol. Its earliest Jewish usage was by Kabbalists, or mystics, who borrowed the symbol from medieval Arabic literature. The symbol was used in Christian churches as a decorative motif many centuries before its first known use in a Jewish synagogue. It became widely used as a Zionist symbol in the late 19th century and is the symbol on the flag of the modern state of Israel.