At biblical fauna museum, a blow-by-blow of all things shofar, and more horns to toot

Beit Shemesh Biblical Museum of Natural History director Natan Slifkin’s collection features everything from rams to kudus to African buffalo and even a unicorn

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, with one of the many shofars from the museum collection ahead of Rosh Hashanah 2023 (Courtesy PR)
Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, with one of the many shofars from the museum collection ahead of Rosh Hashanah 2023 (Courtesy PR)

There are some two dozen animal horns displayed in The Hall of Shofars at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, but good luck trying to awaken God’s mercy by blowing into a sword-like ibex horn come Rosh Hashanah.

The tradition is to use a ram’s horn, recalling Abraham’s binding of Isaac and the ram he offered in place of his son.

A ram is a type of sheep, said Natan Slifkin, director and founder of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, and Abraham probably would have used a wild variety, possibly an aoudad or mouflon. There is, in fact, a mouflon horn in the Hall of Shofars.

There are also oryx horns and African buffalo horns, long twisted kudu horns and delicately arched and ridged ibex horns, along with a poster of a unicorn and a taxidermized jackalope.

Spoiler alert: Neither the unicorn horn nor the horns of the mythical jackalope can be used as a shofar.

Slifkin knows the details of each and every horn in this room, as a rabbi with a doctorate in Jewish history who founded this unusual museum that is part zoo, part natural history museum and has an entire gallery dedicated to all things shofar.

Visitors to The Hall of Shofars at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh (Courtesy PR)

It’s this cross-section of nature and Judaism that fascinates Slifkin, who was born in Manchester, England, where he was raised in an Orthodox family and had a passion for animals and nature that wasn’t fully understood by those around him.

It wasn’t until Slifkin was around 20 that he began thinking about what the Torah had to say about animals, finding a wealth of material for the field that has become his calling in life.

Slifkin spent years leading Torah-related tours of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and at zoos in the US. When he had enough of spending time in the Bronx Zoo in the freezing cold or intense heat, he moved to Beit Shemesh, where he founded the museum, renting space in a former ceramics factory in an industrial zone.

The museum was largely a local attraction at first and he wasn’t sure how the ultra-Orthodox population in Beit Shemesh would react to his drawing connections between Judaism and the animal world.

Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi, says he’s been personally banned by the ultra-Orthodox community for his cautious references to evolutionary theory and dinosaurs in articles and books.

A young Haredi visitor at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh (Courtesy PR)

But even if Slifkin is persona non grata in some circles, his museum draws plenty of Haredi visitors, as attested by the flocks of ultra-Orthodox visitors on a Tuesday morning in September.

He points out one of his latest accomplishments, a “kosher” monthly version of the Hebrew National Geographic for Kids called “Niflaot” — stamped to show that is acceptable for the ultra-Orthodox and with no mention of evolution, a sticky topic for the Haredi community. Pigs, however, are fine, said Slifkin. “The Torah discusses pigs!”

Slifkin’s own “The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom,” a weighty, full-color tome, is available in the gift shop situated at the entrance to the museum.

“A big aspect of what we’re doing here is showing people that Jewish identity is not just Shabbat and Yom Kippur,” said Slifkin. “It’s also hyenas and crocodiles and chameleons and the ins and outs of the horn structure of different animals.”

That’s important info that’s relevant for the shofar, usually made from a ram’s horn but often from kudus as well, a species of the antelope that the Yemenite community has long preferred.

There are other horns on display in the museum that can’t be used as a shofar. Cows, for instance, have horns, but because of the negative symbolism associated with the Golden Calf episode in the Bible, they can’t be used for a shofar, which is traditionally blown as part of the liturgy ahead of and during the High Holy Days.

“Prosecution can’t be used for the defense,” said Slifkin, quoting from the Talmud. “Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, these are the days of awe, days of judgment. And the cow is a witness for the prosecution because of the Golden Calf. So you can’t make a shofar from cows.”

Throughout the tour, Slifkin likes visitors to touch and feel the horns and will often place one in the visitor’s hand. The African buffalo horn, for instance, is immense, with the size and heft of three or four baseball bats.

A Scimitar Oryx at The Hall of Shofars at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh (Courtesy PR)

He brought that legally sourced horn in his suitcase from Africa, where he leads a kosher safari every summer, steeped in Jewish law and detail.

The gallery shelves include an example of a horn from an Asian buffalo and another from the American bison. There are other more unusual kosher shofars as well, such as one from the oryx, the animal often considered to be responsible for unicorn legends, because their horns are so straight and symmetrical.

An oryx horn isn’t normally used as a shofar because it’s straight, said Slifkin, but it can be subbed in if no other kosher horn is available.

The shofar should be bent in shape, symbolizing that on Rosh Hashanah, the days of awe, one must bend, subjugating oneself to God, said Slifkin.

Turning a horn into a shofar isn’t straightforward either. Extracting interior bones from the twisted horns, formed of keratin, is done by boiling the former body part, leaving a hollow tube that can then be opened at its end as a mouthpiece.

Collecting the shofars has become something of a hobby for Slifkin, who works his connections in Africa and has spent years going through listings on eBay, waiting for certain horns to become available.

While there are stipulations as to what can be used as a shofar, a ram’s horn — which (shhh) Charles Darwin hypothesized is used to show off for potential mates and to fight off rivals — is still just a horn.

“You can put a shofar on the floor, you can throw it in the garbage,” said Slifkin. “It doesn’t have sanctity, but it is used for a mitzvah.”

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