For Rosh Hashana, a tradition spanning millennia

"Local institution" shares simple but meaningful tradition

The prayer books were put away, the history lessons finished, and 10-year-old Mackenzie Ryan was reminded again that she doesn't attend an ordinary Hebrew school.

In a tree outside hung the head of a deer. On a picnic table nearby lay a hoof and a pile of sheepskins. And 21 classmates looked on as Mackenzie worked a hacksaw noisily back and forth with a bearded, middle-aged rabbi.

Mackenzie and Rabbi Hillel Baron were cutting the tip off a recently harvested sheep's horn — a final stage in the creation of a shofar, the simple, curved wind instrument blown to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins Sunday.

The exercise was part of a workshop in shofar-making that Baron has offered at Gan Israel, the Hebrew school of the Lubavitch Center of Howard County, for more than 25 years.

At a time when many synagogues have taken to using highly polished versions of the ceremonial instrument — often made from the sizable horns of the African antelope covered in polyurethane — Baron has built a tradition of teaching children the simple, sometimes messy method used by the Jewish people as far back as the time of Moses.

Each child who visits the "Shofar Factory," as Baron calls it, ends up going home with the kind of instrument Israelite priests are said to have blown to bring down the walls of Jericho — modest in size, hewn from the horn of a simple animal, effective if you learn how to use it.

Neal Einsidler's four sons — who are now grown — all took part in the activity as children.

"Most of the time, the shofar experience for the young kids amounts to hearing this funny horn get blown on Rosh Hashana, or reading about it in books," the West Friendship man says. "With Rabbi Baron, they get their hands into the process.

"Nearly all the Hebrew schools in the area take a field trip there to see how it's done. Rabbi Baron is an institution around here."

For millenniums, the shofar has been central to the celebration of Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday that turns the Jewish calendar and opens the High Holy Days, the 10-day period of prayer and repentance.

The Hebrew name for Rosh Hashana is Yom Teruah — literally, the Day of Shouting or Day of Blasting. Jews blow the shofar four times during services on the holiday.

They blast it again 10 days later on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — at the end of the High Holy Days.

The Hebrew Bible mentions the shofar more than 70 times. In the Book of Exodus, shofar blasts are heard on Mount Sinai as God gives Moses the Ten Commandments.

The central mitzvah, or commandment, of Rosh Hashana is to hear the shofar's blast, and its use on Yom Kippur traces back to an ancient tradition: the instrument was played that day every 50 years to announce the Jubilee Year, when Jews were granted forgiveness of their debts.

Baron, 54, the director of the Lubavitch Center, has no serious objection to the newer trends that have evolved around shofars.

Synagogues can order the instruments from manufacturers around the globe, paying anywhere from $35 for a curly 20-inch ram's horn to $500 or more for the heavily lacquered 4-foot horn of an African kudu, or antelope.

They're all kosher — shofars may be fashioned from the horn of any cud-chewing animal with cloven hooves — and Baron says he appreciates any rites or items that attract followers. But he has always seen special value in teaching tradition and its meaning.

"It's like buying a chicken at the supermarket," he says. "You can get a cleaned-up version of a chicken, or you can get it in a form that lets you know what you're really eating. That's what I like to do with the Shofar Factory."

It takes time to make a shofar from scratch — and the maker must have a strong constitution.

Baron starts his annual cycle in the summer, when he and another rabbi visit one or two Pennsylvania farms that supply the sheep and goats whose horns he'll turn into half-completed shofars.

The farmers raise the animals for their wool and meat, Baron says.

Beyond a certain age, they become less salable. The farmers then harvest the horns for shofars and the meat for niche markets. The rabbi picks the parts up, and the less-pleasant part of his mission begins.

As Baron told the children at a workshop this week, the horns we see on goats or rams aren't actually hollow. What we see are the layers of hard keratin — the material in hair, hooves, claws and fingernailsthat enwrap a bone of the same shape.

Much of shofar-making consists of separating that outer layer from the bone. Baron does it by tossing the items in a tub of bleach and water, where they sit for several months. This allows the bleach to break down the tissue that connects the bone and keratin.

He stores the vats on the property far away from the schoolhouse.

"I can't keep them any closer than this; the smell is too just strong," he says, and lifts a lid to peer in at the few horns that remain in the solution.

After cleaning and drying the items — bones still inside the shells, but no longer attached — he has hundreds of shofars-in-the-making to use and distribute at his workshops.

The children at the Lubavitch Center, ages 4 to 14, knew little of this as they spilled out of the schoolhouse at 10 a.m. last Sunday, cheerful on a sun-drenched morning.

They flocked to an animal trailer. Inside, a mother goat nuzzled its daughter.

"Are you going to cut their horns off?" one child asked.

"No, we only use the horns of animals that are no longer alive," Baron says.

He turned to an adult.

"At least they see shofars don't grow on trees, and they aren't made in China," he whispered.

Baron led the children to his staging area: five picnic tables in the shade of a tree.

The deer's head became a prop for discussing horns. The goat hoof on a table was cloven, which the kids agreed qualified it as kosher.

Baron picked up one of his prepared horns and tapped it.

"'Shofar' in Hebrew means 'hollow,'" he said. "The antlers of a deer are not hollow. Same with the horns of a bull. They can't be shofars."

He asked for volunteers to pull the bones from one horn, and two stepped forward to do the job with pliers.

He then placed the horn in a vise, held up a saw and asked for another volunteer — Mackenzie — to help him cut off the tip to open a hole for blowing.

Mackenzie grabbed one end, Baron the other, and they sawed until the tip fell off.

Each child then lined up to choose their horn, performed the same steps, and brushed, cleaned and oiled their instrument.

Few had practiced the lib-vibrating technique required to blow the shofar properly. They certainly don't know the elaborate array of blowing styles passed along in the Jewish oral tradition.

Their first attempts sounds a bit like a band of kazoos.

By the end of the session, though, each held a small yet authentic shofar that any bal tekiah, or shofar blaster, could blow for the High Holy Days.

Some call Baron's workshops — he also teaches traditional matzo-making for Passover and how to squeeze olive oil to use in menorahs on Hanukkah — a blessing.

"If he ever stopped doing it, I don't know how he'd be replaced," said Robert Horwitz, an Ellicott City man who learned to blow the shofar from the rabbi. "It perpetuates what's important. Maybe these kids will become inclined and pass it along, too."

For Baron, it's enough to know that the workshops expose the kids to what is most important, and most poignant, about this time of year.

"During the High Holidays, we are reminded that no matter how far we've strayed, we can always cry out to God, even if we don't have the right words to do it," he says. "And God always listens.

"In a very real sense, we're like his sheep."

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