A couple of months ago, MyJewishLearning.com asked me for a shofar. More specifically, they asked me to make a shofar, following the advice in their article, How to Make A Shofar.
An odd request. My experience with “workshopping” chiefly concerned college-level writing courses–though I once took a middle-school shop class–and I’ve never had even the slightest run-in with a ram. Still, I agreed to give it a shot. To strengthen my entirely uncalloused hand, I enlisted my wife, who adores home-improvement projects, and my young kids, who have, in their time at preschool and Jewish day school, created an ungodly amount of Jewish-themed arts and crafts.
Who knew? Ram’s horns smell bad.
Where Do Ram’s Horns Come From, Mommy?
“How to Make A Shofar,” which was originally part of The Jewish Catalog, the 1973 volume that bills itself as a Jewish “do-it-yourself kit,” suggests that a ram’s horn can be obtained from a slaughterhouse or a butcher shop. So I wrote to Larry Levine’s Kosher Market, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The response was a terse, “Sorry I have no means of obtaining it.” I quickly answered, “Any chance you know someone who’d be able to help me?” Still haven’t received a reply.
I wrote to other members of the meat-slaughtering industry, and they ignored me as well. Eventually, a shofar-making-friend of my editor told me about a Florida-based taxidermist who was hawking ram’s horns; I sent an email and got, believe it or not, no response. (Question: Do people who slaughter and butcher animals have less time than the rest of us for online communication?)
So I turned to eBay. It wasn’t long before my 21-inch horn arrived from Worldwide Wildlife Products in St. Augustine, Florida. $27.84. Bargain!
Our Shofar Stinks
The brown curly ram’s horn, a rough thing with a significant crack on the top, was odiferous in the extreme. Pick it up for a sniff and you got a profoundly concentrated snort of what a smelly beast a living breathing ram must be. But in fact, the smell got worse–during the boiling. “How to Make A Shofar” suggests boiling your ram’s horn “for at least two hours and probably as long as five.” The boiling is supposed to soften the cartilage inside the ram’s horn for easy picking.
In the course of that stovetop operation, the bubbling water somehow released the horn’s embedded stink into the atmosphere. Fortunately, the smelliness wore off after about three hours… or so Lisa reports. I fell asleep while the five-hour boiling process finished up. My poor wife was up until 2 a.m.
We would-be shofartists were instructed to cut off the tip of the ram’s horn “with a coping saw or hack saw.” May I confess that I had to resort to a Google Image Search to see if the skinny yellow-handed saw we owned was a hack? I may. It was. And it had no blade. So Team Shofar piled into our CR-V and headed for Home Depot.
We also needed an “electric modeling set” for shaping our shofar. The article suggested a “Dremel M #2 Moto- Tool Set,” so I went to Radio Shack (no dice), called up Home Depot (didn’t have it), and finally drove out to a place called You-Do-It Electronics, where I picked up the closest thing I could find: a Velleman Precision Drill & Engraving set for $31.77. I didn’t know if this would work, but I pulled out my charge card and said, “What the hell…”
Cartilage? What Cartilage?
After boiling the horn, we were instructed to clean out the cartilage. “The cartilage can be pulled out with the aid of a pick,” said our shofar Baedeker. “If the horns are small, the cartilage can be removed in about half an hour.”
We looked into the horn, and saw nothing but a hole. I scraped at the entrance of the horn with one of our cheapo steak knives and scratched off some flakes. Truth is, we couldn’t find a damned piece of cartilage obstructing the way. So we moved onto the next step.
Circumcising the Ram’s Horn (Again and Again)
Sawing a ram’s hornis harder than it looks.
The article advised us to do the following: “With a soft wire, measure how far the hollow of the shofar extends. Measure one inch farther on the outside and cut the tip off with a coping saw or hacksaw.” Easier said–much easier–than freakin’ done. We measured the hollow, added an inch, and cut. Then we drilled. Alas, the hole didn’t go through to the hollow. So we drilled with a slightly longer bit. And then another and another. No good.
Then we cut again, thinking that would fix everything. It didn’t. This process repeated itself, two, three, four times. After a while, it became clear that we needed something more heavy duty than our skimpy hacksaw, so I went to the basement and got our very serious Kobalt 15 inch “aggressive tooth” handsaw, which made the back-and-forth act of sawing easier.
By the end of the day, the muscles in my right forearm started to ache.
The End of the Experiment
Have I mentioned that particular sawing-the-ram’s-horn smell? It was a kind of dark burning smell and, as I sawed away in our shadowy basement, it reminded me of the Shoah. Of what I imagined burning bones smelled like. Lisa had a similar thought, she told me later on. We kept it to ourselves while working with the kids.
These grim thoughts led me to thoughts about Rosh Hashanah and the Books of Life and Death. While this seemed like a modest experiment, it was also a mark of the most serious time of year for a Jew–and that I should perhaps pay closer attention to the fact that a living animal gave its horn, and perhaps its life, so that I could write this article.
I could go on and complain about how the Velleman tool set was too weak to shape the mouthpiece properly–it could never get sufficient speed or power to alter the rough contours of the ram’s horn–and how I spent most of Labor Day Weekend working on this but it never really became a shofar…. but that’s not the point.
The point, I thought in the basement, surrounded by all the suburban family junk we store down there–wrapping paper and luggage and the amplifier I once used to run my keyboard through–is that this experiment made me aware of our common mortality, and it made me think that I must use this awareness, in the New Year, to truly improve my behavior. This experiment was a moment for me to wake up and listen. And when a blast of consciousness came, I tried to pay attention. I put down the Kobalt saw and went upstairs to be with my family, and I thought: Tekiah!
Pronounced: sho-FAR or SHO-far, Origin: Hebrew, a ram’s horn that is sounded during the month of Elul, on Rosh Hashanah, and on Yom Kippur. It is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, in reference to its ceremonial use in the Temple and to its function as a signal-horn of war.