Blow Your Own Horn

A man and his ram blow in the new year.

A man and his ram blow in the new year.

I once believed that all you needed for a shofar — the ritual trumpet blown on certain Jewish holidays — was a spiraling horn hacked fresh off the head of an unlucky mountain goat, no assembly required. I should have known that culture is rarely so close to nature: According to the “make your own mitzvah” section of the Jewish Catalogue, the horn is only a raw material.

“Ram’s horns can be obtained from slaughterhouses,” the Catalogue reports. “Butcher store owners may be able to get them from their suppliers.” However you manage to score the big bone, that’s only the beginning: Next you must boil it for a maximum of five hours, scrape out any remaining cartilage with a dentist’s pick, and then rev up the power tools. The bell and mouthpiece are fashioned through the combined use of a hacksaw, hand-drill, and electric modeling kit (Dremel model recommended.) Then, with the sign-off of an “experienced shofar-blower or trumpet-player,” you are ready to buzz your lips to the hole, and thar she blows — like Diz at Birdland — swinging that hot, Semitic be-bop special delivery to the sweet spot of the Jewish soul.

Though we’ll have to wait for a Whole Earth edition of the Jewish Catalogue to learn how they worked it out in the days before the Dremel electric modeling kit, we can be certain that the pre-modern process began with the same sawed-off horn. Actually, despite their lack of power tools, the ancestors seemed to have turned out quite a brass section. We read in tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Mishna that “the shofar used on New Year was an antelope horn and straight, and its mouth was overlaid with gold. There were two trumpets on either side of it…overlaid with silver.” The passage goes on to mention that “a short blast was made with the shofar, and a long one with the trumpets.” It concludes with the contradictory opinion of Rabbi Judah, that a curved ram’s horn was used on Rosh Hashanah, with the straight horn of an antelope reserved for Yom Kippur.

The Gemara — the later, Aramaic strata of Talmudic commentary — feeds off of conflict and ambiguity in the Mishna, the later sages essentially scanning the earlier text for red flags. So when they see Rabbi Judah holding his own against majority opinion, a little hell breaks loose. Why the curved ram on New Year, and the straight antelope on Yom Kippur? Because the more a man bends his mind to God on Rosh Hashanah, “the more effective is his prayer,” and the more he elevates his mind on Yom Kippur, the better his atonement. And why do some argue vice versa? Because the opposite is also true.

We see here two important aspects of rabbinic tradition. The first is the cherished and, in my opinion, hackneyed and overstated truism that Judaism embraces conflict. The second is the tendency to spiritualize the customs we have received as commandments. Why do we blow the shofar? Because it says so in the Torah. To some this means God wills it, to others that it must have had some important purpose in an ancient society — the blasted horn of convocation, or even invocation. Any way you want it, as we receive this tradition from the past, as we accede to those thrusts of culture over which our conscious choice has no authority, we ornament, embellish, or encrust them with interpretation and metaphor that satisfy us.

Personally, I am more fixated on the sound of the shofar, than its appearance, whether curved or straight. From childhood to the present day, I anticipate the moment in the overheated service when murmuring stops and attention shifts to the honored blower, who sometimes manages little more than a muffled squawk, but other times a clear, piercing tone — one long note fractured to three shorter notes splintering like glass into a run of nine or twelve and then recomposed into a single enveloping cry. I close my eyes and let it take me, subsuming the chatter of my mind, consuming the sensations of my body. Mixing my metaphors, I call it the voice of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction for the sake of creation. I want it to shatter my artifice, reveal the living substance of my soul flowing into the essence of existence that goes by the cognomen of God.

I can get a little carried away sometimes.

The rabbis of the Gemara proceed to a lengthy discussion of the circumstances in which a person can truly claim to have fulfilled the commandment of hearing the shofar. A taste of this discussion: “If one blew into a pit or a cistern or a barrel, if the sound of the shofar came out pure, he has performed his duty, but if an echo came out with it, he has not performed his duty.” Then comes the debate about who can and cannot blow the shofar: “A deaf-mute, a lunatic, and a minor cannot perform a religious duty on behalf of the congregation.” There follows a most peculiar statement: “A hermaphrodite can perform a religious duty for a fellow hermaphrodite, but not for any one else.”

Some folks are shocked to find the rabbis even mentioning hermaphrodites, what the Gemara calls androgynus, but the truth is that this being of unusual gender shows up all over Talmudic discourse. Perhaps in the days before the “medical miracle,” when a procedure on the birthing table, a kind of grotesque circumcision, purports to solve this riddle of nature forever, the alternately-sexed were simply more present in everyday life. But what the rabbis lack in surgical technique, they make up for in the rigidity of their intellectual categorization. In every discussion, it is determined whether the androgynus will be treated as a man or a woman, depending on circumstance. Only one sage, the forward-thinking Rabbi Jose (pronounced Yo-si,) offers the suggestion that a hermaphrodite “is a creature unto itself.” According to scholars, the androgynus may blow the shofar for other hermaphrodites because that which is male in one blows for that which is male in the other — it goes without saying that women do not blow.

The rabbis were not terrified by the specter of this strange crossbreed. On the contrary, they file it away quite calmly, dissecting it along the dotted lines of gender normalcy, to deposit its pieces into the appropriate pigeonholes. If there is fear or confusion, it seems buried beneath an icy layer of intellectual artifice.

We might wish it were otherwise. This kind of calm seems incongruous with the ritual under discussion. My imagination reaches for the fire beneath the ice, the almost mythological image of the bi-gendered body, all balls and breasts, blowing the shofar for the impermissible audience, shattering with the explosive power of its call the artifice of certainty and exclusion — bringing the destruction that makes for salvation.

Who better to take the severed horn in hand, and blow our minds?

Micah Gil is a freelance translator and archival researcher.