On a hot and humid August afternoon, an otherworldly sound suddenly reverberates
from a crumbling concrete building on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Nahalat
People on the busy sidewalk slow down, raise their heads and
glance around, as if someone had called out their name. Then, rising clear and
true above the white noise of the afternoon traffic and construction sites it
sounds again: a lingering and soulful cry, now sighing, now calling out, now
sounding a warning.
Where is it coming from? Attached to the wrought-iron
gate of the modest-looking building and offering the only clue to its identity
is a roughly-made iron sign in the shape of a shofar.
This is Tel Aviv’s
first and oldest shofar workshop. For over 80 years, the same family has been
handcrafting shofarot in this place and shipping them all over Israel and the
Most shofar factories are family businesses. Much of the craft is
shrouded in mystery and legend, and is usually passed strictly from father to
son. The Nahalat Binyamin factory is no exception. It is owned and run by
Avraham Ribak, a well-known and respected local figure.
shofar-making from his cousin, Rabbi Ya’acov Rossman, whose polished ram’s horns
were famous among the shtetls of his native Poland.
When Rossman left
Poland for Eretz Yisrael in 1927, he reestablished his shofar workshop on
Nahalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv’s then brand-new Florentin neighborhood.
has lived there ever since.
Overnight, Rossman became the Hebrew City’s
first shofar maker.
Since he did not have any children, Rossman decided
to pass on his craft and his factory to his 21-year old cousin, Avraham
“And I’ve made shofarot here ever since,” concludes
Now aged 70, Ribak is still very much in charge of the factory he
began working in half a century ago. He is also a savvy businessman, whose
beautifully crafted shofarot are sold all around the world.
When I meet
him, Ribak – a tall, serious man with a blue kippa perched precariously on his
gray hair – is sitting at a tiny desk frantically sorting through a pile of last-minute High Holy Day shofar orders. Most of the desk, and just about every
available surface in the tiny office, is covered in piles of beautifully
polished shofarot of all shapes and sizes.
A colorful poster on the wall
advertises his latest invention: a spray that promises “completely odor-free
“This is just about the busiest time of the year,” Ribak
notes. “I have customers coming every five minutes; I never stop.”
RIBAK’S factory is one of two workshops belonging to the Barsheshet-Ribak
company, which boasts 15 generations of shofar-making. Ribak’s partner, Zvika
Barsheshet, operates a factory in Haifa.
Over the years, some of Ribak’s
shofarot have become famous. One in particular has a fascinating
“In 1963, I went to visit [IDF chief rabbi] Rabbi Shlomo Goren,”
he recalls. “I took him two shofarot as a gift. I told him, ‘Rabbi, it’s my wish
that one day you’ll blow one of these shofarot at the Kotel.’” Ribak’s wish was
not a trivial one: During the long years of Ottoman and British rule, blowing
the shofar at the Western Wall was prohibited by law. So powerful and potent was
this symbol of Jewish might that the authorities were terrified a mere blast
from it would spark a Jewish uprising.
Police patrolled the area, and
anyone found with a shofar was harshly punished: In 1934, The Palestine Post,
the forerunner of The Jerusalem Post, reported that 24- year-old Hayim Reuben
Horowitz had been arrested and charged with the crime of “blowing the ram’s horn
on the Day of Atonement.”) “Then in 1967, a few years after I gave Rabbi Goren
the shofarot, the Six Day War started. And what do you know?” continues Ribak.
“My wish came true. The rabbi sounded one of those very shofarot at the
Rabbi Goren’s Kotel shofar-blowing is an especially poignant
moment in Israeli history. On June 7, 1967, when the Paratroop Brigade
recaptured east Jerusalem and Goren ran to the Wall and blew his shofar, the
blast was a powerful symbol to anyone who could hear it that the Holy City was
now under Jewish rule.
Hopefully, Hayim Reuben Horowitz was around to
Today, Ribak’s factory produces an enormous variety of
shofarot to suit the tastes and traditions of Jewish customers around the world.
The shape, size and subtly different sounds produced offer tiny clues about the
history of the community a specific shofar was made for.
for example, traditionally preferred straight shofarot. Forbidden during times of persecution to even carry a shofar,
let alone sound one, men would hide a shofar under their coats, tucked into the
belt of their trousers. Straight shofarot were, apparently, easier to conceal
In Poland, the locals insisted that the shofar must have a
special weeping, choking tone – perhaps to reflect the suffering of the Jews of
Yemenite Jews went in for big, impressive-looking shofarot
crafted from the long, twisted horns of the kudu, a woodland antelope found in
eastern and southern Africa. The deep, echoing sound this shofar produces is
said to remind people of Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in the
While kudu horns are still used for Yemenite-style shofarot,
according to Ribak, most Israeli-produced shofarot are made from ram’s horns.
“We import the raw horns in bulk from north Africa,” he explains.
shofar-making process itself is, of course, subject to stringent supervision by
the rabbinical authorities to ensure that the end products are kosher.
2008, a “fake shofar” scandal hit the headlines when officials in the Tel Aviv
Religious Council’s ritual objects department revealed that imported horns from
Morocco were glued with polyester, rendering them unkosher. An Israeli
businessman had imported hundreds of these inferior horns and was passing them
off as cheap shofarot.
Ribak was very upset by the scam. “Lots of people
were buying these so-called shofarot from Morocco,” says Ribak. “We asked the
rabbinate to inspect them, and it turned out that about 60 percent of them were
Ribak is still feels strongly about the deception forced on
the Israeli public.
“You know, it’s as if someone started selling
unkosher meat,” he says. “How can people know what’s good, and what’s not?” The
fallout from the Moroccan rams’ horn scandal has meant that the global demand
for high-quality Israelimade shofarot is now higher than ever. To meet this
increased demand, Ribak says he has had to hire an extra factory
How does Ribak turn knobby, twisted ram’s horns into beautiful,
polished shofarot fit to be sounded in shul on Rosh Hashana? While much of the
process is a closely guarded trade secret, Ribak did give Metro a tour of the
part of the factory where the horns are sorted and finally polished.
an impressive sight.
A large hall is stuffed from floor to ceiling with a
mountain of horns. More horns of all shapes and sizes are stacked in teetering
heaps on every available surface. Some of them are still firmly attached to
their original owners’ skulls. A pungent and powdery dust fills the
Will all these thousands of horns become shofarot? No way, says
Ribak. Each horn has to be individually sorted and inspected. Around 70 percent
will not pass the test: Even the tiniest crack or break renders them
NEXT, RIBAK’S experienced workers will remove the bone from
inside the horn. An incredibly skilled process, this is a trade
Afterward, the outer part of the horn – which is keratin, the
same substance as fingernails – is rechecked to make sure it hasn’t cracked. Any
cracked horns are discarded.
The good horns are sterilized in an oven to
kill any living organisms.
Now the horn is straightened, another task
requiring considerable skill (and, yes, that’s another trade
When this is complete, the shofarot are polished to achieve
their beautiful shiny surface. This part we are permitted to watch.
used to polish the shofarot by hand,” Ribak says.
“But now we have more
modern means to do the job.”
The modern means are two huge polishing
machines which workers use to buff and shine the finished horn. It’s a
backbreaking job. The workers stand for hours lovingly polishing each and every
Factory worker Asim shows me how it’s done. By holding sections
of the horn against a rotating buffer (and being careful not to get his hand in
the way), he is able to make it gleam.
“I reckon it’s easy if you know
how, but it takes a while to get the hang of it,” he says.
serious-faced man from Jerusalem, is devoted to his job: He has worked in
Ribak’s factory for 21 years.
His coworker, Yuni, is from Ramle and has
worked in the factory for seven years. He shows me a pile of long, twisted
Yemenite shofarot he has polished that day. “They have to be perfect,” he
After all this, we’re still not finished. The shofar now
AT LONG last, the shofar is ready to be blown on the Days of Awe, to call for
the spiritual awakening of the Jewish people.
Watching an exquisite
shofar take shape from an ordinary- looking ram’s horn is a magical experience.
Jews have been crafting these ritual instruments – which rate 72 individual
mentions in the Torah – since time immemorial.
The ancient Hebrews
sounded the shofar to bring rain, announce war, declare victories, warn of
disasters and herald the coronation of kings.
In today’s fast-paced,
hi-tech world, it is oddly comforting to know that right in the heart of Tel
Aviv’s urban jungle, these ancient instruments are still being individually
crafted with love, care and devotion.