Rabbi Levi Raskin on the Craft of Shofar Making

(David Stuck)

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” the old prayer goes. And both annual services include the same iconic sound: the blowing of the shofar.

But how exactly is this piece of organic head ornamentation transformed into an instrument capable of fulfilling one of the mitzvot? Rabbi Levi Raskin, from Chabad Maryland’s JCrafts program and a resident of Aspen Hill, explained the shofar-making process.

Raskin learned the shofar-making trade more than 10 years ago from the then-director of Chabad of Livingston’s Living Legacy project, Rabbi Yisrael Rosenblum, of Livingston, N.J.

The first step is to remove the horn from the head of the animal, Raskin said. Next, in what is perhaps the dirtiest and smelliest step, comes the removal of the cartilage from the horn. This involves soaking the horn in hot water and different chemicals, facilitating the removal of the unwanted tissue. Raskin admitted that this was one step he did not personally do. Afterward, the horn needs to be washed with various cleaning chemicals.

After this, Raskin will stick a wire hanger into the horn to determine at what point to chop off its tip. Once done, different sizes of drill bits are then used to create a clear pathway for the shofar, Raskin said. The mouthpiece is then widened with a cone bit, and then placed in an electric sander to smooth out the corners. Finally, the shofar will often be shellacked to give its surface a glossy appearance.

A ram is often the preferred type of animal from which to acquire the horns needed to make shofarot, Raskin said. This is partly due to the symbolic connection with the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son, Isaac, and partly due to the curved nature of a ram’s horn, which is associated with the act of bowing down to God.

That being said, there are other types of kosher animals that can and are used in the making for shofarot. For instance, the kudu, with its long and curly horns, is often favored by the Yemenite Jewish community, Raskin said.

One kosher animal whose horns are not used to make a shofar, however, are cattle or calves, Raskin said. This stems partly from a reluctance to craft a shofar from an animal so clearly affiliated with the golden calf of the Exodus story.

The price of a shofar will vary depending on its overall size, Raskin said, with larger horns generally costing more. He estimated that a consumer should expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $200 for a shofar.

Raskin regularly gives lessons in shofar making as part of the JCrafts program, which also features programs in olive oil making, a matzah factory and other Jewish activities.

In the past, Raskin said, kings’ coronations were accompanied by the blowing of trumpets. “One of the core themes on Rosh Hashanah,” he said, “is accepting God as our king, which is why the shofar is so central, because we are ‘coronating’ the king.”

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