Horning in on a seasonal sound
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Horning in on a seasonal sound

Turning an animal's horn into a shofar takes over a year

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Seventh-graders at Boys Town Jerusalem take a deep breath before testing their prowess at the complex art of “shofar” sounding. A shofar can be made from any kosher animal, with ram’s horn popular with Ashkenazim, while many Sephardim and Mizrachi (especially Yemenites) prefer the curvy horns of the kudu antelope. Courtesy Boys Town

Rishon LeZion, Israel – The primitive music of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is supposed to stir reflections on repentance. This year, when you hear the plaintive notes, you might also think of Avi Mishan sorting through antelope horns in South Africa.

Mishan, 44, owns one of Israel’s four major shofar production facilities (the others are in the Golan Heights, Haifa and Tel Aviv). He and his 14 employees turn out thousands of shofarot (the plural of “shofar” in Hebrew) to sell here and abroad. “Right now, we have new clients from Paraguay and Mexico,” he says.

“Shofar” is often translated as “ram’s horn,” and indeed the most common shofar is made from the horn of a male sheep that is at least a year old. It can come from any kosher animal, however. Yemenites prefer the long, curvy horns of the kudu antelope, and Mishan has prepared 2,000 or more of these each year since starting his business six years ago. He also makes an equal number of the traditional Ashkenazic shofarot.

“I have a vision to give to everybody the opportunity to use the shofar,” he says. “The shofar is a connection with the Master of the Universe.”

The shofar is mentioned in the Bible more than 80 times, a fact that is prominent on the website of The Great Shofar (www.thegreatshofar.com), an Internet-based business owned and operated by Aaron and Michal Shaffier of Tekoa, a small town south of Jerusalem to which they moved in 2007 from California. The shofar was sounded before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, and its blast toppled the walls of Jericho for Joshua. It is also heard on the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and at the end of Yom Kippur. In biblical times, it was also sounded to announce the beginning of a jubilee year.

“We sell about 100 per month all year,” says Aaron Shaffier. “Surprisingly, before Rosh Hashanah we have only a slight spike in sales. That’s because the majority who buy them are not Jewish. We have customers in Arkansas and Louisiana, and all kinds of small towns, because apparently Evangelical Christians interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity like to have a shofar to display or to blow in church.”

The Great Shofar products, which range from $33 for a plain ram’s horn to $400 for a silver-encased show model, are shipped primarily to North America. Customs regulations on animal-made products make it difficult to send them elsewhere. “A lot of people in Korea want to order from us, but we haven’t figured out a way yet,” says Shaffier, a scribe who is his synagogue’s shofar-sounder.

Shaffier sources his horns from Mishan’s factory, which uses methods that have not changed much for thousands of years, except for the polishing machines.

The process begins in South Africa, where Mishan and his counterparts sort through horns sawed off animals slaughtered for meat. Right now, there is a shortage, he says, due to an epidemic keeping the animals from growing old enough to sprout horns. Still, he is able to put aside at least a few hundred to be shipped to his facility, where each one has to sit for a year to allow the soft bone tissue inside the hard keratin casing to dry out and shrivel for removal. After that, the horns are sterilized and the workers can begin the three- to four-hour process of readying each one for ritual use.

Along the way, many horns will have to be discarded. That is because Jewish law requires a shofar to be completely intact, without any cracks or holes. It cannot be patched – which is why many Jewish customers prefer buying a shofar that is certified, sort of like kosher food, assuring it has not been fixed with invisible epoxy.

The horns are heated carefully in order to straighten and shape the tip slightly as a mouthpiece before drilling a hole for the air to go through. Then they are polished, although many are left at least partially rough to preserve the natural look. Each is tested for sound quality as a final step.

Shaffier likes to use a large horn because it makes a nice sound and it is easier to sound. The smallest shofarot make a less pleasing squeak and are best as souvenirs.

“Anybody with any experience with wind instruments should have no problem with a shofar, but people who have never blown an instrument think it’s like blowing through a straw and don’t realize you have to vibrate your lips to get a sound out of it,” he says. “The sound is created by causing vibration. Put your lips together first and make that noise, and then bring the shofar to your lips.”

Mishan appears on Israeli Channel 2 every Yom Kippur eve for 10 minutes to explain the ins and outs of the shofar.

“You can watch me on the Internet as you prepare the meal for before the fast,” he says.

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