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.

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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.

Where do shofars come from?

Where does a shofar come from? Ram’s horn shofars, which are traditionally used on Rosh Hashana by almost all Jewish communities, are made from sheep horns, while kudu horn shofars, sometimes referred to as a Yemenite shofar, are made from the horns of the kudu antelope. Kudu are found almost exclusively in southern and eastern Africa.

Unlike deer antlers, these true horns from rams and kudu antelopes have a bony core that is really an extension of one of the bones from the animal’s skull. The skin layer that covers this core of bone contains the protein keratin that makes the horn, and later the shofar, extremely strong and durable.

No two animal horns look exactly alike and no two shofars sound exactly the same. As a ram or kudu grows older, the horn gets larger and becomes more and more twisted, forming a curve or even a spiral. Horns of older rams or kudu antelope may form two or three complete loops.

Today larger ram’s horn shofars are more difficult to obtain due to widespread animal diseases and strict veterinary requirements of the Israel Ministry of Health, which oversees their import, but long jumbo Yemenite shofars are quite common.

What did the original shofars look like?

The Talmud  states that the trumpet was made of silver while the processed horn of one of the five animal species — antelope, gazelle, sheep, goat and mountain goat — was used to carry out the ritual commandment of the sounding of the shofar (Rosh Hashanah 27a).

It also notes that preferrably the shofar should be made of a rams horn or wild goat horn, because they are curved. Rabbi Judah says, “The shofar for Rosh Hashanah must be made of the horn of a ram, to indicate submission.”

Traditionally a ram’s horn is sounded on those days because of its association with the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac (the Akeidah), which serves as the Torah reading for the second day of the festival.

Conversely, a cow’s horn may not be used because of the incident of the golden Calf (Rosh Hashana 3:2). The shofar may not be painted, though it can be gilded or carved with artistic designs, as long as the mouthpiece remains natural.

A shofar with a hole in its side wall or a chip in its mouthpiece is deemed halachically unfit, though it may be used if no other one is available (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 586).

How a Shofar is 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. 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.

Yemenite Shofar Price Survey

If you’re in the market for a shofar, the most significant cost factor is length, which is typically measured around the outer curve (not end to end). Ram’s horn shofars range from 10 inches for a compact shofar to 24 inches for an extra large shofar, with several more shofar sizes in between. Typical online prices for short shofars can run as low as $30. For a medium shofar, expect to pay $40-$90 and for a large shofar $60-$120. An extra large ram’s horn shofar will set you back $130 or more.

The same principles apply to Yemenite kudu shofars as well, though these shofars are considerably longer, of course. A 30-inch kudu shofar will cost around $100, while a jumbo kudu shofar, which is typically about 48 inches (yes, that’s right, four feet long) can cost $200 or more.

A natural finish is slightly less than polished.

In the exotic shofar category, gemsbok shofars typically range in length from 26-32 inches and cost between $80 and $150.

If you’re in the market for a decorative shofar, expect to pay anywhere from $100 for a silver-plated ram’s horn shofar, to $400 or more for a sterling silver plated Yemenite shofar. Anointing shofars are typically $100. Note that decorative shofars are not kosher and should not be used on Rosh Hashanah.

If you are ready to order a shofar and prefer to buy from Israel, you can find links to several dealers based in Israel listed on our Yemenite Shofar Price Survey page. You can also find shofars at your local Judaica dealer, but prices are often marked up significantly.

When it comes to shofar accessories, a basic velvet shofar pouch may cost just $15 and up for a ram’s horn pouch, but a long pouch for a Yemenite shofar can be over $40. A simple shofar stand can be found for as little as $10, while a hand-painted wooden shofar stand can cost $35 or more.

Info on prices of shofar for sale>>