Ceremonial horn reaches deep into the past

Times Union

Local rabbi helps Jews observe Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur by producing shofars in his home

Rabbi Yaakov Weiss’ shofar factory looks a lot like his family room. That’s because Rabbi Yaakov Weiss’ shofar factory is his family room.

In a booming suburb with no synagogue, Weiss, barely a month in his Loudonville home, set up shop on his first floor Sunday afternoon.

Weiss, who adheres to the beliefs of a missionary branch of Judaism known as Chabad-Lubavitch, was giving a mostly younger audience a lesson about the significance of the shofar — a ceremonial horn that takes a central role in next month’s observance of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year (which begins Oct. 3). It also is used during mid-October’s observance of Yom Kippur.

Crafted from the mostly hollow ram’s horn, the thick, coiled horn emits a bray similar to a high-pitched elephant’s call and is symbolic of cries for forgiveness, said Weiss, who let loose a series of long and short bleats, each with a specific meaning.

Weiss told a parable of a young prince banished from his kingdom by his father, who was let back in once the king heard his son’s cries.

The ram’s importance, Weiss said, dates all the way back to the story of Abraham, in which Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s command. But God, it is said, stopped Abraham and gave him a ram to sacrifice instead.

It is also said the shofar was sounded when God delivered the Torah, Jewish law and teachings, on Mount Sinai. And when the messiah comes, Jews believe he will sound a shofar.

“The shofar,” Weiss said, “is like us crying out to God and asking for him to forgive us, that we may have a good year.”

So 6-year-old Rafi Cohen of Albany spent an hour with more than a dozen other children Sunday sanding and shellacking his own shofar to play next month. His mother, Tina, helped and his 8-year-old sister, Elena, agreed that sanding was definitely the toughest part.

The construction is simple, Weiss said. Saw off a ram’s horn. Soak it in water until the bone slides out, then saw off the tip and drill two holes in it, which Weiss’ assistant, Yaakov Backman, did expertly with a small handsaw and a power drill.

Only a ram’s or goat’s horn is appropriate, Weiss said.

Backman said he has probably made 300 or 400 of the horns this year alone.

All the while, a stuffed ram’s head — which Weiss laughingly said was obtained via eBay “all the way from the holy city of Texas” — watched over the class. Quickly, he added, so not to confuse his young crowd, “Texas is actually a state.”

Once the holes are drilled, the horn is mostly finished. Playing it produces three sounds: the tekiah, which is one long blast; the shvarim, which is three short blasts; and the teruah, which is a series of no fewer than nine blasts. All three symbolize the different sounds people make when they cry, Weiss said.

Weiss said Colonie has about 5,000 Jews but no synagogue. Chabad of Colonie, which has been active since last December, will observe the coming High Holy Days at the Best Western Albany Airport Inn on Wolf Road.

For more information, visit http://www.chabadofcolonie.com.