How are shofars made?

by Adam Ehad

Practically every Jew has seen a shofar and heard it sounded on the High Holy Days. But how many of us know the true intricacy of the process of shofar production?

Selecting horns suitable for the shofar

Although the horns of any animal from the Bovidae family (except for those of a cow) may be used to make a shofar, a ram’s horn is considered preferable and for this reason most shofars are made from rams horns.

Generally speaking, the horns are bought in bulk from cattle ranchers and only on arrival at the manufacturer are they thoroughly inspected. For this reason, and because horns are often damaged during transit and during the actual process of making the shofar, the whole process is extremely wasteful; less than 30% of the horns which arrive at the shofar factory will end up as a usable shofar.

Removing the inner horn

Once the horns have been selected, they are boiled in hot water and sodium carbonate to soften the bone that forms the center of the horn. Once this has been carefully picked out, what remains are the layers of keratin (the same substance that human fingernails are made of) which grow outside the bone. As a result, a hollow tube of keratin has now been produced, narrowing to the tip which can now be sliced off to form the mouthpiece.

To make a kudu horn or ram horn into a shofar, the horn must first be drilled out from one end to the other. The hole drilled is small in diameter near the mouthpiece, but most of the thickness of the main part of the horn is hollowed out completely. Drilling out the inside of horn to form the shofar must be done very carefully because even a small hole in the shofar renders it nonkosher.

Sterilization and straightening

Since most ram horns and kudu horns when removed from the animal are twisted, or even completely looped, the first step is to heat the horn in boiling water to make it pliable. It is then extended until it is straight enough to be drilled. Once the drilling is complete, the shofar is twisted into the familiar curved or spiral shape, and either left in its natural state or polished.

Being an organic, natural substance, the horn may contain bugs or bacteria which can erode it over time. For this reason, it is baked in an oven for a long time, in order to ensure complete sterilization. The shofar is then ready for the most difficult phase; straightening. The shofar is straightened in order to comply to the traditions of the community for which it is being produced (Ashkenazim generally prefer a slightly curved shofar and Sefardim a longer, straighter one).

The final stages: polishing, ornamentation and sound adjustment

It is a lucky shofar indeed that passes successfully through the rigorous processes of selection, hollowing and shaping. However, there are two final stages to complete its journey. First, it must be polished and sometimes carved with designs in order to beautify the mitzva of shofar as much as possible. (Only shofars that are not intended for actual use are ornamented with silver or gold, as this invalidates them for ritual blowing).

Decorative shofar: Not for mitzvah use

Decorative elements are sometimes added to the shofar, such as silver or painted leather coverings. However, decorations that cover any of the surface area of the shofar also make it non-kosher: a decorated shofar serves as a decorative piece, and cannot be used for the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.

The critical mouthpiece area of the shofar remains kosher even if the opening is very close to one edge. This can occur during the drilling if the shofar shifts to one side due to the condition of the bone.

The drilling process may leave the mouthpiece rough or with small pieces of loose bone flaking off. This can be smoothed by lightly sandpapering the rough spots.

Finally, the shofar receives its ultimate test: It looks great, but how will it sound? The shofar shape can also be slightly adjusted at this stage to achieve a perfect sound.

Adam Ehad grew up in London and is a graduate of Manchester University. He lives in Givat Shmuel and is currently pursuing his Masters Degree in English Literature. His father was a shofar maker.

Shofar: Biblical factory whistle

In the Babylonian Talmud we find that the shofar was blown every Friday, at the close of the day.

The academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught: On Friday afternoon we sound six shofar blasts announcing the arrival of the Sabbath.

Rabbi Yishmael was a Tanna from the third Tannaitic generation. His studied with Rabbi Akiva. After their deaths, the disciples of these two Torah giants continued their learning in the name of their famous teachers.

The Tanna (“repeaters” or “teachers”) were the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, from approximately 10 CE-220 CE, a time span also referred to as the Mishnaic period, lasting about 210 years. The first shofar sound summoned those who are working in the outer fields to return to their homes to welcome the Sabbath. These distant workers would then meet the workers in the more proximate fields to enter the town together.

The second blast is an order for commerce  to cease to welcome the Sabbath. At home, hot water would be heating in pots.

The third blast instructed that the pots be removed from the fires and the food should be insulated for the next day’s meal.

After the third blast, the Baal Tekiah (shofar sounder) would wait the the amount of time needed to roast a small fish over a fire, or to attach bread dough to the oven walls.

As a final alarm, the shofar sounder (who is attached to the synagogue) ends his blasts with a Tekiah, Teruah and another Tekiah ushering in the Sabbath.

Thus we have six blasts paralleling the number of work days in the week. On the seventh you shall rest.

This article was based on material provided by Arthur Finkle

Jumbo shofar

Kudu horns are the largest and most striking shofar horns currently available. But another contender in the giant shofar category is a species of sheep. Not the famous American bighorn sheep, whose horns are indeed enormous, but are short and impractical for making shofars.

Rather the most massive horns are found on a wild sheep from the mountains of Asia. Standing up to four feet high and weighing in at 400 pounds, the argali (Ovis ammon) boasts a pair of prodigious horns. The longest on record measured 75″, two inches longer than the longest kudu horns.

Large kudu horns

Kudu

The record-breaking horns were taken from a Marco Polo argali (Ovis ammon polii) although another rarer subspecies, the Altai (Ovis ammon ammon) has shorter horns, but which are even more massive.

The Shmoneh Esreh prayer refers to the shofar gadol (“the Great Shofar”) which will be blown to usher in the Final Redemption.

Likewise a verse in Yeshayahu mentions a “great shofar.” “And it shall be on that day that a great shofar shall be sounded, and those lost in the land of Assyria shall come, as well as those expelled to Egypt; and they shall bow down before G-d, on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem (Isaiah 27:13).

Invariably these references are not to a literal shofar, but the spiritual concept of shofar. Still, seeing and hearing the types of giant shofars mentioned above could help us visualize that day, may it comes speedily in our times.

Let the shofar do the talking

There are a number of situations in which halacha requires us to refrain entirely from talking. For example, you cannot speak between laying the tefillin Shel Rosh and the tefillin Shel Yad. In fact, the Gemara tells us that if someone does speak then, he is unfit to serve as a combat soldier on the battlefield! Likewise, according to some opinions, you cannot speak while checking for chametz on the night before Pesach (בדיקת חמץ).

Another no-talking time is from the time the first set of tekios (shofar blasts) is sounded, until the last set of tekios during Mussaf, a period totalling an hour or two, or even more.

After reciting a brachah on a mitzvah, you must immediately engage in the mitzvah. On Rosh Hashana there are two main sets of shofar sounds referred to in the Gemara as תקיעות דמיושב and תקיעות דמיועמד. The terms imply that the first set is done sitting, but in fact today all of the shofar blowing is done with both the shofar blower and the congregation standing.

When do we recite the brachah on the mitzvah of hearing the shofar? Before the Tekos D’Meyushav, before the Tekios D’Meyumad or both? The halacha is to recite the brachah before, but in order to have the brachah apply to the latter tekos as well, we refrain from talking, or any other distraction, until the Tekios D’Meyumad are complete, toward the end of the Mussaf repitition.

The Shulchan Aruch states this halacha explicitly (O.C. 592, 3). The Rif asks whether someone who does speak should then recite the brachah a second time before the Tekios D’Meyumad. He says that prominent rabbis reprimanded those who spoke, but held that the blessing should not be repeated before the latter tekios.

The Ran then launches an extended inquiry, saying that the case of tefillin differs, since the transgression is to cause an additional, superfluous blessing to be recited. In the case of the shofar blowing, there is no additional brachah involved. And we do not see, continues the Ran, that once one begins a mitzvah he cannot speak until it is complete. As an example he cites Bedikas Chametz. He disagrees with the poskim who forbid speaking throughout Bedikas Chametz, saying if that were true then after reciting HaMotzi we would be forbidden from speaking throughout the meal, and after Leishev B’sukkah we would be forbidden from speaking throughout the time we do the mitzvah of eating, drinking, sleeping and relaxing in the sukkah.

The case of speaking after the first set of shofar blasts would appear to be less problematic than speaking during Bedikas Chametz since after the first set of shofar sounds we have already fulfilled the mitzvah in principle.

Despite the argument he presents, the Ran concludes that in deference to the opinion of the Reish Mesivta cited in the Gemara, one should still refrain from speaking.

Gideon’s might, military prowess and the shofar

But the spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon; and he blew a shofar; and Abiezer was gathered together after him. Judges 6:34

At first glance this verse seems to merely record how Gideon called up the troops, using the shofar like a bugle or another type of horn. But note that the summons to battle is juxtaposed with a profound spiritual change in Gideon. The classical commentators explain that Gideon was “enclothed” with a spirit of might and courage from G-d. Then he blows the shofar.

Note that he used the shofar to summon Aviezer, but to summon troops from elsewhere he sends messengers. The Aviezer clan was devoted, and apparently joined him instinctively upon hearing the call of the shofar.

The shofar appears again in Chapter 7. After Gideon pares down his troops to an elite fighting force of 300 shock troops, he equips each soldier with a shofar. These shofars were not intended merely as a tactical combat tool, but to gain spiritual advantage as well. As Rashi notes (Judges 7:13), they carried shofars and torches as reminders of the merit of the Giving of the Torah.

In From Dan to Megiddo, Rabbi Benjamin Fleischer writes that the Sages placed Gideon on a level with Moses and Samuel, and as a general, alongside Joshua and Barak. His brilliant tactic of using shofars and torches to confound the enemy transformed his soldiers “as if by magic, suddenly, in a super-natural manner into heroes and fearless fighters, revived by a spirit of celestial fire and zeal, with an awakening of higher national consciousness of their pure and Divine faith.”

From a practical military perspective, Gideon’s battle plan was based on a knowledge of the composition of the enormous Midian army, with its fierce cavalry 150,000 strong. He took into consideration the fact that the barbarian army was a heterogeneous amalgamations of various races and nations, with no unifed command and no uniformity of discipline or military conduct. Likewise they were unaquainted with the lingual customs of the various tribes and divisions that constituted the army.

When confronted by Israel’s surprise attack in the middle of the night, breaking into the center of the camp, general panic ensued. As their military order vanished, they fled like a terrified mob, trampling their own men and scattering in all directions.

Shofar as a primal experience

Blowing the shofar is an intensely primal experience that connects you with earth and sky. There is a lot of sensory engagement in keeping mitzvahs, but the shofar takes this to a very high level. It’s a ram’s horn or a kudu horn, it smells like an animal horn.

“There’s something very primal and earthy and wild about it,” writes Jordia Gerson. “It has a similar smell to the smell that you get when you open a Torah scroll, since a kosher Torah scroll is made of animal skin. They both smell like animal…”

So many areas of our lives are unnaturally sanitized today. We live in closed, climate-controlled environments, with air filters and ionizers. In fact, some scientific research, the Hygiene Hypothesis, even suggests that our super clean and sanitized environments may actually be making us sick!

In high school and college, I used to go on three- and four-day backpacking trips. One summer a friend and I went into the Sierra Nevado Mountains for a 10-day jaunt. After about a week of zero exposure to cleaning solutions, car exhaust, air conditioners, etc. I started picking up subtle smells in the world around me. Not just pine needles and fields, but even tree bark and boulders from several feet away. The kinds of smells dogs and cats and horses are attuned to, but which escape the senses of modern man.

Perhaps the shofar is a hedge against becoming overly sanitized, something like working in the garden and getting dirt under your fingernails.

Blowing the shofar bonds you with nature. Arguably, the shofar is meant to be blown outdoors. All of the shofar blowing described in Tanach occurred in the open air. The shofar horn is a signaling device meant to be heard over long distances. There would be no need to sound it in the generally small rooms of Biblical-era structures.

Shofar tones and pitch

The Shulchan Aruch states that the pitch of a shofar can be high or low (586, 6). This ruling is derived from the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 27b), which states as follows:

היה קולו דק או עבה או צרור כשר שכל הקולות כשירין בשופר

Here we see that not only high- and low-pitched shofars can be used to fulfill the mitzvah, but even a “hoarse” tone, which Rashi describes as a “dry” tone.

Sometimes the pitch of a shofar will change midway. A tekiah starts high and then in the middle suddenly changes to a lower note. Or it may start as a clear tone and then suddenly shift to raspy. The custom is that the tekiah is acceptable, and does not have to be repeated.

There are two notable cases where the tekiah may have to be repeated:

  1. If there is a break that can be detected by the listeners
  2. If it trills

Note that if a shofar shound is not produced and air can be heard passing through the shofar, this is not considered קול שופר and therefore does not affect the order of the required shofar notes.

When looking at shofars for sale, keep in mind that you will find it easier to play it well if the sound is clear, not raspy, and the notes are easy to hit, without skipping up or down.

Yemenite shofars are typically able to produce a wider range of notes than rams horn shofars. Long kudu shofars may have an especially wide range.