2010-01-01

Making a Gemsbok Shofar

A gemsbok (Oryx gazella) is an African antelope. Both male and females of the species grow nearly straight or gently curving black horns that can be over 30 inches long at maturity. The animal population is considered of “least concern” by the IUCN Species Survival Commission. Horn sheaths are easily acquired via Ebay or through vendors for up to $35 plus shipping, making them more affordable than large sheep horns.

I recently crafted a horn into a shofar. The instrument is easy to sound, has a rich baritone natural frequency, and I have been able to get approximately 5 tones from it.

In Chapter 2-3 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn, I state: “While craftsmanship can be lavished on the horn’s exterior, the most crucial details are in the forming of the horn’s interior: removing the horn’s bone core, drilling a hole into the horn’s cavity, and shaping the blowhole. This is a tangible metaphor for the realignment of the kishkes, our guts or inner composition, that is necessary as we pursue teshuvah. If the horn has enough twist, its inner structure cannot be visually examined, and the crafter must probe the horn to understand its inner nature, a process similar to the self-searching we must do in preparation for atonement.” Even though gemsbok horns are relatively straight compared to sheep horns, I still could not inspect the inside of the horn directly; the interior was deep, dark, and concealed by the gradual curvature. When I compared several raw horns of nearly equal length, I found the depth of the inner cavities varied by as much as 25 percent.

The material of the horn is very different than that of a sheep’s horn. Sheep horn is relatively soft, easy to cut or carve, and has no apparent grain or directionality. Gemsbok, on the other hand, seems denser and more difficult to cut. It has a distinct fiberous quality, with a grain that runs parallel to the length of the horn. When I had cut almost all the way through the tip, the tip fell away, pulling a cluster of fibers with it in the same way as can happen when cutting wood across the grain. I got splinters of horn fibers in my hands and lips before I could smooth out the torn fibers.

I cut the horn where it was about ¾ inch diameter, allowing me to create a blowhole that was relatively large compared to most shofarot. This, plus the nearly round shape of the horn, allowed the creation of a mouthpiece more similar to those in contemporary brass instruments and is very easy to blow.

I used a 3/16 inch diameter drill bit, larger than I have in the past. I was concerned that the larger diameter would reduce the duration of my tekiah gedolah, but this has not been noticeable. The 30 second blasts I can do today are well below my customary 40 to 50 second blasts during the Days of Awe, but this could be because I have not just come out of an Elul’s worth of training. If anybody can explain the physics and physiology of the relationship between bore diameter and duration, please contact me.

The distance from the cut to the top of the cavity was longer than the drill bit I had, so I completed the bore by using a steel rod heated in a propane torch to melt through the horn. It was a slow and smokey process, but did the job.

The Talmud records a debate over whether the shofar of Rosh Hashanah should be straight or curved. Most halachah authorities say that either is acceptable, but the curved horn of a sheep is preferred due to its association with the ram in the Akedah (binding of Issac). Others posit that no Oryx horn can be used as a shofar because they are the animal referred to in Torah as the “re’em”.  A discussion about this can be found in Exotic Shofar: Halachic Considerations by Rabbi Natan Slifkin (http://www.zootorah.com/essays/ExoticShofars.pdf)

If you are the designated shofar soloist for your congregation, discuss your choice of species with your rabbi prior to Rosh Hashanah. If you congregation practices group shofaring, I see no problem with using whatever horn moves you. And certainly, there is greater latitude for using exotic horns on other occasions. If you have a choice of horns to blow, consider your own kavenah – intention – for wanting an exotic species instead of a sheep horn. My friend Ed blows a gemsbok horn because he is unable to create the small embouchure required for the typical ram’s horn; using a gemsbok enables him to fulfill a mitzvah that he could not otherwise perform.

A special delight about the gemsbok horn is that the lower half of it is heavily ribbed. I can use the cut-off tip of the horn to strike or scrape along the ribs as a rhythm instrument. The narrow end and the thicker end of the tip produce different sounds. Thus, shofar is both a wind and a percussion instrument.

Illustration of Gemsbock from The Encyclopedia Britannica, New Warner Edition (New York: The Werner Company, 1893)

6 comments:

  1. Rabbi Moshe Halfon comments about the percussive qualities of this horn:

    Yes, the ribs on this animal's horn do resemble an instrument known throughout Latin America as the guiro [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%BCiro] and in Brazil as a reko-reko (from the sound it makes when you scrape it. You might want to check out the various shapes and sounds made by guiros from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba.

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  2. GEMSBOK SHOFAR as GUIRO and GROGGER
    Joyous Purim wisdom, double Adar 5751.

    As a temple musician-- a passionate performing percussionist and sound healer, I share with you that the Purim grogger, festive ritual noise maker (used to drown out Haman's name in Megillat Esther reading), is similar to a GEMSBOK SHOFAR. A Purim rattle is twirled and spins round the handle, and causes a thin flat piece of wood to flick over (‘to and fro’) a NOTCHED cog wheel set in a frame, making a noise. By cutting off, separating several inches of the slightly curved, black, smooth pointy tip of the long Gemsbok's horn, to create an opening for the shofar mouthpiece, it is revealed that this horn tip can be used as an 'offering'-- as a percussion scraper on the set of natural raised ridges of rings encircling the brown wide end of the raw, rough, splintery Gemsbok horn.

    When rubbed in ‘to and fro’ motion with a PUA *, on the thick transverse rings, rasping percussive sounds are created and ‘heard’ on the horn, as on the grogger. Could it be that the shofar was a signaling instrument in alerting the Persian Jews that they could be saved from the king's edict in Shushan during the reign of Queen Esther, thus making the horn also a culturally authentic grogger? Hearing the Megillah and Shofar are both mitzvot.

    Ethnic scraper percussion rhythmic instruments are spiritually used in most world cultures for sacred moments. (Scrapers and shofars are in LA’s Howard Ethnic Instrument Collection, Watts Tower Arts Center.) Performing world-beat percussion, I use a frog shaped wood guiro (Vietnamese or Thai), and also a Gemsbok-like guiro (Latin American) made from hollow gourd, aka calabazo, with parallel carved out grooves, along with a fragrant sage branch stick PUA, a scraper/wand, to make long and short raspy, ratchet (and croaking) sounds.

    Biblical Miriyahm HaNeviah, the Prophetess, a percussionist, Exodus 15:20, was also known as "Puah"*, Genesis, Shemot 1:15, a mid-wife, who sang soft cooing sounds as she gently rocked ‘to and fro’ and stroked with her voice and hand-- like a wand, the baby boys she saved from Pharaoh's edict against the Jews. Gemara Sotah 11a. As Puah with (po'ah) she drowned out the sounds of the murder edict.

    My friend, and ritual teaching partner, ARIELLASHIRA LEWIS created (with Michael Chusid's guidance) her GEMSBOK shofar for rituals, by carving the opening, the hollow 'inside' mouth piece. She is a healer, and a Ba’alat Tekiah/shofar blower for Simchat Chochmah ceremonies (www.simchatchochmah.blogspot.com), and for women's Rosh Chodesh/New Moon rituals, as is traditional. With her soulful breath/Ruach, and holy kavanah/intention, AriellaShira beautifully and with awesome rich sustained sound, plays her new Shofar. AriellaShira created this personal ceremonial tool during her Simchat Chochmah, and shamanic journey. I think her shofar is from a female Gemsbok.

    AriellaShira joyously demonstrated to me, as she stroked her new Gemsbok horn's wide end and long length of ridges of rings with her PUA/wand--horn tip, that she transformed her Shofar to be used in holy ritual and ceremony, also into a scraper PERCUSSION instrument. AriellaShira fashioned the horn’s cut tip into her wand for her musical playing pleasure. (See photo collage of AriellaShira playing her Gemsbok shofar as a wind and percussion instrument. http://hearingshofar.blogspot.com/ 2011-02-21) AriellaShira Lewis, from South Africa where the Gemsbok roam, informed me that Gemsbok is pronounced with a gutteral 'ch', ‘Ch’emsbok’. The sacrificial ram, the 'offering' in Torah's Genesis 22:13 Akeidah, may have been crying out for us to hear, "Use me, don't abuse me. I shall make music for you."

    BlesSings for magical healing sounds, health, wholeness, shalom and joy,
    JOY Krauthammer
    Serve G*d With Joy

    www.joys-music.blogspot.com
    Enjoy http://joyous-chai-lights-march-2011.blogspot.com/

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  3. Before I realized that I, too, can create a shofar and GEMSBOK horn grogger to use in my spiritual music, I purchased my foot-long Purim grogger in Jerusalem where I also purchased my shofar. Now I joyously look forward to having the "Hearing Shofar" maven, Michael, guide me in creating my own percussive shofar.

    What excites is that I can create a PUA/wand from a Gemsbok horn, and play the shofar as percussion. This will enhance and amplify my spiritual playing. See my earlier COMMENT on AriellaShira Lewis regarding this transformational experience.

    I love that the PUA is also a name, PUAH, for Miriyahm HaNeviah. Genesis 1:15. This connection is meaningful to me-- joining woman's voice in Torah to percussion.

    I include PUAH teachings shared from one of my rebbes, Rahmiel Hayyim Drizin:

    'Puah' This was Miriam (called Puah) because she cried and talked and cooed to the newborn infant in the manner of women who soothe a crying infant. Puah is an expression of crying out, similar to “Like a travailing woman will I cry " (Isa. 42:14). Rashi on Sotah 11a explains that she played with the infant to soothe and amuse him. Rashi to Shemot 1:15, citing Gemara Sotah 11a

    ‘Pu'ah’ is Miriam; and why was her name called Puah? Because she cried out (po'ah) to the child and brought it forth. Another explanation of Pu'ah is that she used to cry out through the Holy Spirit and say: ‘My mother will bear a son who will be the savior of Israel’. Sotah 11a
    ~ ~ ~

    During the High Holidays, 1995, Makom Ohr Shalom held services at UCLA. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Aleph and Jewish Renewal movement founder) officiated along with Cantor Monty Turner. (I am one of their musicians.) Reb Zalman knew that I was trained by my husband, Marcel Krauthammer, z'l, in blowing shofar. I felt good that I could play all the ritual notes. Prior to Rosh Hashanah, Michael Chusid demonstrated to me another technique for blowing shofar that I continue to share when teaching others to play.

    Reb Zalman, during the Days of Awe service, called upon me to come to the bima and play my shofar and "to represent the women of the world". He was aware that a major international conference on women had just finished in China. He wanted that powerful energy to come through the voice of the ram. With great kavanah, I sounded the shofar for the congregation.

    As a mitzvah, and in my husband's zechut/merit, I continue to play shofar, even over the telephone, especially for those Jewish friends who miss my husband playing shofar for them. May his soul continue to have an ilui neshamah/soul elevation.

    Have a joyous Adar and
    BlesSings for hearing shofar, rhythm, having gratitude, health, shalom and joy,
    JOY Krauthammer
    Serve G*d With Joy
    www.joys-music.blogspot.com

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  4. Joy Krauthammer revised her initial post, above. I have retained both drafts because they each offer different insights that deserve to be shared. MC

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  5. References in comments above to Genesis 1:15 should be to Exodus 1:15.

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  6. I expand on Joy's teachings about Puah at

    http://hearingshofar.blogspot.com/2011/03/breath-that-is-puah.html

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