A shofar is an ancient musical instrument made from the horn of an animal, typically a ram. It is associated with traditional Jewish holidays, especially Rosh Hashana. It is not, however, usually associated with modern-day concert halls.
Shofar virtuoso Amit Sofer is here to prove that the ram’s horn can be more than a religious instrument and can play more than the usual few sounds.
The shofar master
“Playing the shofar is like walking in the dark; it takes a lot of skill. You have to be obsessed with it, like me,” Sofer tells ISRAEL21c.
The 51-year-old musician from the central Israeli city of Modi’in began playing the trumpet when he was only seven years old at a music school. But he was intrigued by the shofar blown at his local synagogue on Rosh Hashana.
“They would blow the shofar, but sometimes the sound wouldn’t come out,” he laughs.
So, when he was eight, Sofer decided that if a regular person with no formal music training could be a shofar player, then a professional musician could be the best shofar player ever. “I decided that I must become the shofar master.”
Sofer received a shofar at 13, as a bar mitzvah gift. “It didn’t work because my grandfather — who bought it for me — had no idea what he was buying.”
The musician set out on a quest to find the perfect shofar. And so he did when he was 16 years old. “I played it at my synagogue. Someone heard it and said to me, ‘This Rosh Hashana you will blow the shofar here.’” The honor was highly unusual because it is normally reserved for married men with children.
“I was thrown into deep waters at 16, it was rare. Since then, for the past 35 years, I have been playing the shofar at various synagogues on Rosh Hashana in Israel and abroad.”
From synagogues to music halls
Despite his infatuation with the shofar, Sofer kept playing the trumpet in professional settings as a musician.
When he was 23, during a municipality-organized concert, Sofer was approached by someone who had seen him play the shofar and asked if he could perform a piece with the ancient instrument at an upcoming High Holiday ceremony.
“I grabbed the shofar and played Avinu Malkeinu [a Jewish prayer recited during High Holiday services]. That was my breakthrough,” he admits.
Sofer began getting booked for more and more non-religious events and ceremonies, which culminated in an invitation to play with the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra.
“To this day, I am the only person to have played a five-minute piece on the shofar with the orchestra. You can fact check that,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
The virtuoso also plays for crowds overseas — primarily Jewish communities and Evangelical Christians. “Shofar for Evangelicals is like a mezuzah [a piece of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah and affixed to the doorpost] for Jews.”
Despite all his success, Sofer has no plans to stage solo concerts anytime soon. “I am not an artist that comes on and riles up the crowd. I play at ceremonies attended by presidents and prime ministers. I’m there to connect because shofar is an instrument that crosscuts sectors — left-wing, right-wing, secular and religious.”
Among Sofer’s current repertoire are Avinu Malkeinu, Adon Ha’Selihot, Jerusalem of Gold (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav), Hava Nagila, Aram Khachaturian’s classic Sabre Dance, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
He’s not planning to expand it significantly any time soon. “I’ll be honest with you, shofar is not an instrument you can listen to for an hour, you’ll lose it,” he laughs.
Guinness Book of Records
The musician has also set out to break the Guinness World Record for owning the longest shofar — 1.74 meters (5’8”) long.
Sofer not only plays the shofar. He also sells the instruments, which he gets from suppliers from Morocco. In the latest shipment, Sofer received a horn of an antelope buck.
“It weighs around six kilograms [13 pounds]. I have never seen anything like this,” he says.
Sofer covered the shofar with pure sterling silver, partly to fix a fracture in the horn.
“I began scrolling the web, and discovered that the world’s longest, registered shofar is 1.42 meters. Three months ago I approached a lawyer that specializes in Guinness Records and we applied to set the new record.”
Guinness officials usually take around six months to examine each entry, but as Sofer puts it, “It’s a horn, not a tomato that goes bad with time. I’m not rushing.”
The musician sees a divine sign in the shofar “finding” him. “That horn could have ended up at the hands of any other buyer. But it fell into mine. Someone from above pointed it in my direction.”