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.