Blowing the Shofar is an inseparable part of the atmosphere of The Days of Awe and The High Holidays.
The Ram’s Horn
The Shofar is usually made from a ram’s horn. A ram is a male sheep at least one year old. Exceptionally long and twisted Shofars, like the ones popular among Yemenite Jews, are made from bushbuck horns. The bushbuck is a type of antelope, living in the edges of the African deserts.
Some say that the word Shofar is derived from two Hebrew words – Shor + Par (bull and ox); but a bull’s horn can not serve as a Shofar because it would remind us of the sin of the golden calf.
We do not have in Israel rams or antelopes with horns adequate for Shofar making. The horns are brought from various places around the world, mostly from morocco, Algeria and countries in southern Africa.
The Initial Sorting
The horns are bought in bulk – by tons, and are shipped to Israel by sea. The horns arrive in their natural form, as they were on the beast’s head. The horn’s cover is rough and lacks shine and the horn’s bone is still inside it.
There is a lot of waste in horns, any crack or break disqualifies the Shofar. Most horns arrive cracked, and some of them are even rotten. A mere thirty percent of the horns reach the stage of processing, and any scratch in the process of making counts, since it may crack the horn and be wasted.
Shofar makers make the point of receiving strong horns, at least half a meter long, because also during production there is a considerable wear and tear. Each horn weighs approximately 1-2 kg.
Separating the bone from the horn’s covering
After the initial sorting, a complex process begins in which the horn’s covering is separated from the bone inside it. The Shofar is made only from the horn’s covering. By the way, the horn’s covering is the same substance our fingernails are made of.
The separation is difficult, and it requires special skills not to break the Shofar. How is it done? Well, that is one of the profession’s secrets!
Disqualified or Qualified (kosher)
After the covering is separated from the bone, the horn is examined again to see if it qualifies for making a Shofar. Any horn with a crack or hole penetrating into its inner part is disqualified. If the hole or crack is superficial, the horn is “kosher”. No mending is performed because according to the written instructions the horn must be “Hakol Mimino”, i.e. – not having any foreign substance. (Mending a Shofar using the same substance is very expensive, and it is done only in special cases, when a person is particularly attached to a certain Shofar, and is not prepared to give it up).
At this stage the kosher horns are put in the oven to sterilize them from any living creatures that might be left inside them. The horn is an organic substance, so insects, worms and other pests can destroy it in time.
Straightening the Shofar
Now we reach the toughest phase – straightening the horn. The horn is very twisted and should be straightened. The Ashkenazi Shofar is straight at its beginning and twisted at the end, while the Sephardim prefer a straight horn, pointing upwards. Why do they prefer a straight horn? We got an explanation from Zvika Bar-Sheshet, the Shofar maker: In the past, the Jews in spain were not allowed to carry or use a Shofar, and it was necessary to smuggle it in the trousers. A straight shape made this possible.
Mush effort is put in the straightening of the Shofar, thus the Sephardic Shofar is more expensive (threefold). Tear and wear, which is massive anyways, is even greater here, and every second Shofar breaks when being straightened.
Making the Mouthpiece – Sharpening and Polishing
Now, when the horn is straightened, the mouthpiece is prepared according to the various traditions.
In the end the horn is polished with a polishing machine, until it becomes smooth and shiny. The Shofar makers lean for hours near the furnace and the polishing machine, and the work is really tough.
Some customers order an adorned Shofar with an engraving of a Jewish symbol like a Star of David or a Menorah. In the past the sages used to permit the engraving of verses, letters or forms from Shulhan Arukh.
And after all that hard process we finally reach the stage of adjusting the Shofar’s sound!
How is that done? Of course, this is also a professional secret!
The sound is adjusted by the maker according to the customers’ requirements, and according to the preferences of people from the various communities. Each Jewish ethnic community has its own preferred Shofar and preferred sound.
The various Shofars have different sounds: thick, raw, thin and weeping. The process of making the Shofar and its type affect the sound it produces.
Picture 1: A ram’s horn. From the Bar-Sheshet collection
Picture 2: a cow’s horn which is disqualified as a Shofar. From the Bar-Sheshet collection
Picture 3: Raw ram’s horns as they reach the workshop. From the Bar-Sheshet collection
Picture 4: The horn covering after being removed from the bone. From the Bar-Sheshet collection
Picture 5: A ”Kosher” ram’s horn prior to sterilization. From the Bar-Sheshet collection
Picture 6: A ram’s horn after being straightened in comparison to its natural state. From the Bar-Sheshet collection
Picture 7: The Shofar’s mouthpiece after being processed. From the Bar-Sheshet collection