Shofar So Good

A South Tel Aviv shofar maker offers a glimpse into the ancient craft his family has been practicing for generations.

Eli Ribak is a patient man, with lots of air in his lungs.

The 40 year-old scion of Barsheshet & Ribak – the South Tel-Aviv-based Shofar company – has been asked to demonstrate the different pitches and sounds of nearly a dozen horns, and he obliges.

"This one is much harder to blow," Ribak explains, holding aloft a shiny, brown-colored curved model measuring 105 centimeters. He blows into the horn, which produces a deep, bass-rich sound. "This is from an antelope," he says.

It is just another day at the office for Ribak, who is assisting his 73-year-old father, David Ribak, with orders and sales in the lead-up to the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah, which begins September 16 at sundown.

Of the thousands of traditional shofar models Eli Ribak says the company produces, many will probably be sounded during the two-day holiday's synagogue service, with its traditional blasts invoking the biblical story of the binding of Isaac and stirring Jews to repentance. The horns will be sounded again, ten days later, at the conclusion of the Fast of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.

Fortunately for Ribak, he doesn't have to blow for everyone. Discriminating professional shofar blowers – who will sound upwards of 200 different blasts during the holiday, with the exact number depending on local custom – wouldn't dare leave the task of testing to anyone else. They insist on sifting through crates of shofars and blowing scores of models, turning the company's cramped 85 year-old office building on Nacahalat Binyamin Street into a veritable horn section.

"We throw them out eventually," jokes Ribak, who says some of his "crazier customers come with decibel readers. "But some stay for as many as five or six hours. For them, it's important to have a shofar that not only sounds good but that will be easy to blow."

As hundreds of Jewish laws govern shofars – from when they must be heard to what sizes are acceptable to the precision of their sounds – the company produces a line under the supervision of rabbis, who examine the horns for flaws and certify their worthiness for ritual use.

The 25-year-old company is a merger of the Polish Ribak and Moroccan Barsheshet families, with each staking a claim to shofar-making dynasties going back generations.

"My father was born in this building," says Ribak, looking at his Hebrew-speaking father, who inherited the business from his late cousin, Rabbi Yacov Rossman, an immigrant to Palestine from Poland in 1927. "It's one of the oldest buildings on the block."

The company imports its shofars from Africa, explains Ribak, making his way toward the back of the store through ceiling-high piles of sacks overflowing with horns. In the workshop, employees demonstrate how they work as a team to remove the internal marrow and bone fragments from animal horns, before shaping and refining them in a furnace and then drying them. High-powered sanders are used to scrape away the horns’ extraneous keratin layers, leaving glazed finishes of various intensities.  

Ribak says the company ships to places as far away as Australia and Asia, and to a customer base that includes evangelical Christians. The company's shofars range in price from NIS 100 to NIS 1,000 and include a line of silver-plated models.

"The Yemenites have their preferred shofar and the Moroccans have theirs," says Ribak, caressing the custom-made indentations that are the hallmark of the flat, Moroccan model. "There are even Italian, Babylonian and Iraqi-style models. It's all about tradition."