Crafting the Sacred Horn

August 29, 2013
BY Marc Shapiro
Shofar makers explain the delicate process of turning rough animal horns into ceremonial instruments

The sound of the shofar is unmistakable — its loud, triumphant blasts can be heard throughout Rosh Hashanah services and during Yom Kippur when the fast is over. But that hollow, smooth, shimmering, resonant horn heard in synagogue took meticulous handiwork to transform from the crude horn of an animal to a majestic shofar.

“They’re magical instruments,” said Maurice Kamins, a San Francisco psychotherapist who may be one of the only hobbyist shofar makers in the United States who isn’t a rabbi. “… It’s the oldest continuously used instrument we know about.”

While a shofar could be made in about five minutes, it takes some dedicated craftsmanship and practice to make it well.

The first step in making anything is obvious: acquiring the materials. The horn must be from a kosher animal, although the animal doesn’t necessarily need to be slaughtered in a kosher manner. To be a shofar, the horn must be one that grows hollow. While rams’ and goats’ horns are commonly used, shofars can be made out of the horns from kudus, ant-elopes native to Africa with long, curvy horns, ibex, wild goats with long, ridged horns, gazelles, water bucks and black bucks. Deer and bulls’ horns are off limits since they don’t grow hollow, and the latter would remind us of a biblical mistake.

“It’s associated with a baby cow that we worshipped as a people at Sinai, a big mistake,” said Rabbi Hillel Baron, director of the Lubavitch Center of Howard County. “We don’t want to remember a big mistake we made.”

Shofars should also not be fashioned in a way that loses sight of its natural form, which hollowing out a horn would violate. In animals that grow naturally hollow horns, bones from the skull plate grow inside of the horns. Baron likens it to having a finger with a nail that surrounds the entire finger.

Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, director of the Chabad of Owings Mills, said a ram’s horn is preferred because it is reminiscent of Abraham’s sacrifice to God.

Rabbi Baron gets his horns from another rabbi who gets them from a farm in Pennsylvania, the name and precise location of which he does not know. Because the horns aren’t easy to acquire, the rabbi guards his source. Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen (affectionately known as Rabbi K), director of the Chabad of Owings Mills, get his from various farms. Kamins finds his on the Internet and has had luck getting kudu horns from ranches in Texas.

The horns generally come from older animals, which naturally grow longer horns, and are cut off the skull after the animal is dead. Baron said it’s not typical for kosher-slaughtered animals to have such large horns since kosher meat is usually from younger animals. Many of the farm’s meat
customers are from Caribbean and Muslim communities, who prize older animals, Baron said.

If the horns aren’t cleaned out when they arrive, the shofar maker must get the bone and connectivetissue out of the horn. Baron said water with a high concentration of bleach works, Rabbi K said vinegar and acidic substances work, and Kamins said boiling the horns works, too. Sometimes, the insides will fall out if the horn is knocked on something; sometimes you need a vice grip to the insides out. The “most disgusting, but sometimes but most efficient” way, Kamins added, is to get the horn wet, wrap it in a plastic bag and place it in the sun for two to three weeks. The tissue should turn to slime, but he warned that one must cover his nose if using this method.

Soap and water can be used to clean the inside once the bone and tissue are cleaned out. With a hollowed-out horn in hand, the next step is to find where the hollow part meets the solid part. Rabbi K sticks a hanger wire into the wide part of the horn, and makes a mark on the outside of the horn an inch or an inch-and-a-half into the solid part. He then cuts the remainder of the solid part off using a handsaw.

What is perhaps the most important part comes next — drilling the holes for the mouthpiece. The opening at the end should be wide, and the hole should get narrower inside the shofar. To do this, Rabbi K uses a straight drill bit to make the initial hole and then uses a cone-shaped drill bit to widen the mouthpiece.

“Usually a big one, that allows for a larger hole and also has much more thickness to it, so that would be more of a bass shofar — [with a] loud, heavy sound that tends to be easier to blow,” Baron said. “But then if you want sort of a higher note, higher sound, [you make] a smaller hole.”

A grinder or sandpaper can be used to smooth out the mouthpiece. To make the shofar shine, shellac, polyur-ethane can be used.

Kamins said to make a shofar that can make a sound, takes a very short time, but grinding and polishing the shofar can take anywhere from two to five hours.

How can a shofar maker be sure that after all of this work the horn will make a good sound?

“Other than blind, stupid luck, nothing,” Kamins said.

Why go to all the trouble?

There are three reasons we blow the shofar, Rabbi K said. The shofar is
like the sound of a cry, and the Jewish people are crying out to recognize transgressions from the past year and ask God to put us in the Book of Life. The shofar also functions to wake people up to recognize they can and should be better. The third reason is that the shofar is crowning God.

For Kamins, who once considered himself somewhat of an atheist, making 400 to 500 shofars from 19 different animals in the past 20 years has brought him closer to Judaism.

“I get to live in that horn and do everything in my power to carry that sound up and, in that process, bring a thousand people up with me,” he said. “And there’s nothing as magical as that silence when you know everybody is just following that sound.”

Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter — mshapiro@jewishtimes.com</em>


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