Shofar, so good

For over 80 years, the same family in south Tel Aviv has been meticulously crafting rams’ horns and shipping them all over Israel and worldwide.

shofar311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On a hot and humid August afternoon, an otherworldly sound suddenly reverberates from a crumbling concrete building on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Nahalat Binyamin.
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 world.
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.
Ribak learned 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.
He 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 Ribak.
“And I’ve made shofarot here ever since,” concludes Ribak.
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 shofarot.”
“This is just about the busiest time of the year,” Ribak notes. “I have customers coming every five minutes; I never stop.”
TODAY, 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 story.
“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 Kotel.”
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 witness it.
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.
Spanish Jews, 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 this way.
In Poland, the locals insisted that the shofar must have a special weeping, choking tone – perhaps to reflect the suffering of the Jews of Poland.
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 mountains.
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.
The shofar-making process itself is, of course, subject to stringent supervision by the rabbinical authorities to ensure that the end products are kosher.
In 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 not kosher.”
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 worker.
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.
It’s 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 air.
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 unusable.
NEXT, RIBAK’S experienced workers will remove the bone from inside the horn. An incredibly skilled process, this is a trade secret.
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 secret).
When this is complete, the shofarot are polished to achieve their beautiful shiny surface. This part we are permitted to watch.
“We 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 shofar.
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.
Asim, a 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 smiles.
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.