A gemsbok (Oryx gazella) is an African antelope. Both male and females of the species grow nearly straight or gently curving black horns that can be over 30 inches long at maturity. The animal population is considered of “least concern” by the IUCN Species Survival Commission. Horn sheaths are easily acquired via Ebay or through vendors for up to $35 plus shipping, making them more affordable than large sheep horns.
I recently crafted a horn into a shofar. The instrument is easy to sound, has a rich baritone natural frequency, and I have been able to get approximately 5 tones from it.
In Chapter 2-3 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn, I state: “While craftsmanship can be lavished on the horn’s exterior, the most crucial details are in the forming of the horn’s interior: removing the horn’s bone core, drilling a hole into the horn’s cavity, and shaping the blowhole. This is a tangible metaphor for the realignment of the kishkes, our guts or inner composition, that is necessary as we pursue teshuvah. If the horn has enough twist, its inner structure cannot be visually examined, and the crafter must probe the horn to understand its inner nature, a process similar to the self-searching we must do in preparation for atonement.” Even though gemsbok horns are relatively straight compared to sheep horns, I still could not inspect the inside of the horn directly; the interior was deep, dark, and concealed by the gradual curvature. When I compared several raw horns of nearly equal length, I found the depth of the inner cavities varied by as much as 25 percent.
The material of the horn is very different than that of a sheep’s horn. Sheep horn is relatively soft, easy to cut or carve, and has no apparent grain or directionality. Gemsbok, on the other hand, seems denser and more difficult to cut. It has a distinct fiberous quality, with a grain that runs parallel to the length of the horn. When I had cut almost all the way through the tip, the tip fell away, pulling a cluster of fibers with it in the same way as can happen when cutting wood across the grain. I got splinters of horn fibers in my hands and lips before I could smooth out the torn fibers.
I cut the horn where it was about ¾ inch diameter, allowing me to create a blowhole that was relatively large compared to most shofarot. This, plus the nearly round shape of the horn, allowed the creation of a mouthpiece more similar to those in contemporary brass instruments and is very easy to blow.
I used a 3/16 inch diameter drill bit, larger than I have in the past. I was concerned that the larger diameter would reduce the duration of my tekiah gedolah, but this has not been noticeable. The 30 second blasts I can do today are well below my customary 40 to 50 second blasts during the Days of Awe, but this could be because I have not just come out of an Elul’s worth of training. If anybody can explain the physics and physiology of the relationship between bore diameter and duration, please contact me.
The distance from the cut to the top of the cavity was longer than the drill bit I had, so I completed the bore by using a steel rod heated in a propane torch to melt through the horn. It was a slow and smokey process, but did the job.
The Talmud records a debate over whether the shofar of Rosh Hashanah should be straight or curved. Most halachah authorities say that either is acceptable, but the curved horn of a sheep is preferred due to its association with the ram in the Akedah (binding of Issac). Others posit that no Oryx horn can be used as a shofar because they are the animal referred to in Torah as the “re’em”. A discussion about this can be found in Exotic Shofar: Halachic Considerations by Rabbi Natan Slifkin (http://www.zootorah.com/essays/ExoticShofars.pdf)
If you are the designated shofar soloist for your congregation, discuss your choice of species with your rabbi prior to Rosh Hashanah. If you congregation practices group shofaring, I see no problem with using whatever horn moves you. And certainly, there is greater latitude for using exotic horns on other occasions. If you have a choice of horns to blow, consider your own kavenah – intention – for wanting an exotic species instead of a sheep horn. My friend Ed blows a gemsbok horn because he is unable to create the small embouchure required for the typical ram’s horn; using a gemsbok enables him to fulfill a mitzvah that he could not otherwise perform.
A special delight about the gemsbok horn is that the lower half of it is heavily ribbed. I can use the cut-off tip of the horn to strike or scrape along the ribs as a rhythm instrument. The narrow end and the thicker end of the tip produce different sounds. Thus, shofar is both a wind and a percussion instrument.
Illustration of Gemsbock from The Encyclopedia Britannica, New Warner Edition (New York: The Werner Company, 1893)