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. The second most common type is a Yemenite shofar made of kudu horns.
Generally speaking, the horns are bought in bulk from ranchers and only on arrival at the manufacturer are they thoroughly inspected. For this reason, and because rams and kudu 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.
Sterilization and straightening
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. Ram’s horn shofars are 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). Kudu shofars are not straightened; some are curved more tightly than others.
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).
Finally, the shofar receives its ultimate test: It looks great, but how will it sound? The shofar shape, especially the mouthpiece, 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.