The secrets of 15 generations rest on Zvika Bar-Sheshet's shoulders. His father, Meir (of blessed memory), brought the secrets to Israel in 1947 when he made aliyah from Morocco. Each day, he carried them up the rickety spiral staircase into the tiny workshop above his store on Herzl Street in Haifa. Was he a secret agent for the infant state? No. In this sweltering room, standing on a carpet of calcium shavings, surrounded by the roar of polishing machines and the bitter smell of burnt horns, Meir Bar-Sheshet established the shofar industry in modern Israel.
Israel's Gift to the World
"Jewish ritual items are made all over the world, even in Hong Kong and China," Zvika says. "But shofarot (plural of shofar) are made almost exclusively in Israel. They are a special gift from Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) to the Jews of the world."
Zvika and his partners, the Riback family in Tel Aviv, are the leading shofar producers in Israel. They make a few hundred shofarot each year. "I haven't been to a synagogue yet, even abroad, where there aren't shofarot that we've made," Zvika says proudly. How does he recognize them? "Every father recognizes his children," he laughs. "There are many identifying characteristics; for example, the type of decoration on the shofar, and evidence of the homemade tools that I used to make the shofar. I can tell you when each shofar was made and where the horn came from."
Interestingly, the best horns come from Arab countries, such as Egypt and Morocco, which trade infrequently with Israel. "I have my contacts," Zvika says secretively. His confidential suppliers provide tons of horns, but because the tiniest crack or hole in a horn invalidates it, only about 30 percent of the horns pass inspection and are ready for the next stages: straightening, sawing, drilling, and polishing.
Little Shop of Shofarot
Zvika picks up a long, twisted horn. He explains that most horns are exceptionally curved and must be heated so they can be straightened. "Too much heat will warp it, and too little heat will leave the horn hard as steel," he says. "The difference is only a matter of seconds." According to Zvika, Sephardim (Jews whose ancestry is from Spain, Portugal, and the Arab countries) generally prefer a straight shofar, which is more expensive because it requires more bending. He thinks this custom developed years ago when local rulers banned Jews from sounding the shofar. Jewish communities resisted the ban by making straight shofarot, which could be hidden easily under their clothes.
Once the horns are straightened, they're ready for the messy process of separating the animal cartilage from inside the horn. Zvika is tightlipped about how he completes this stage without puncturing the horn; it's one of the secrets handed down from parent to child in the Bar-Sheshet family. "I work the way my grandfather worked," he says.Family ties have kept Zvika from moving his shofar factory to one of the modern industrial zones in Israel. "My father moved here," he says, "and sometimes I feel his presence." Therefore, despite the blistering heat and the cramped conditions, Zvika plans to stay put. He and his father worked side by side in this little shop, where the air was always thick with the aroma of burnt horns. "To us," Zvika says fondly, "it was the smell of holiness." For now, at least, the scent of holiness will linger a bit longer at 54 Herzl Street.
Jews from around the world brought different style shofarot with them when they settled in Israel. The Yemenite community, which arrived in Israel in 1950 during "Operation Magic Carpet," prefers a long, curved shofar. Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe- called Ashkenazim- were the backbone of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century and prefer a short, straight shofar. Moroccan Jews made aliyah in huge numbers between 1956 and 1967. They brought Moroccan style shofarot that look similar to the Ashkenazic ones but have a lower tone.
Published: Tishrei 5764, September/October 2003
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