I spent hours online trying to find a suitable piece of art for this year’s Rosh Hashanah cover, then even more hours for what I might do myself. I really wanted to include a shofar in whatever I did, as a call to hope and action, for myself as much as anyone else.
I stumbled on artist Yitzchok Moully’s Elul Shofar Art Challenge (moullyart.com). Moully’s work is bright, colourful, full of life. As I mulled it over, I received an email from local artist Merle Linde, who generously created art for the JI ’s Passover cover this year and for last’s year Rosh Hashanah issue. She sent me an emotionally charged piece lamenting the countless trees that have been destroyed by wildfires. The base painting was an acrylic pour, and I spent several fun hours learning about and practising the technique, deciding it wasn’t quite what I wanted for my shofar blast.
I eventually came across creativejewishmom.com, the site that inspired my 2020 Passover cover depicting the Israelites (made of corks) crossing the Red Sea, who made a second appearance for Passover 2021, participating in Zoom seders. This time, it was a Tashlich picture made with yarn, coloured paper and felt marker that caught my eye on creativejewishmom.com. Inspired, I made the JI masthead out of yarn and ink, and created the shofar and the hand holding it – I wanted there to be a human presence, as we are critical to any change, for better or worse.
The middle section of the page eluded me for days, and I tried various things that just didn’t feel or look right. Thankfully, a middle-of-the-night couple of hours resulted in the finished cover, albeit with some tweaking in Photoshop. It ended up being more cheerful than I was intending. I am happily surprised at my latent optimism, and hope that readers also find it uplifting.
Ambassadors of Light putting together more than 2,000 packages of matzah at Lubavitch BC. (photo from Chabad Lubavitch of BC)
Ambassadors of Light in Kelowna. (photo from Chabad Lubavitch of BC)
“A little light pushes away a lot of darkness” – this quote from the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) was the impetus for the creation of a new program initiated by Chabad Lubavitch of British Columbia in response to the experiences of the last few years. These have included COVID-19, war in Ukraine, poor economic conditions and political upheaval, leaving so many in loneliness, depression and despair.
Ambassadors of Light is a year-long series of campaigns in commemoration of the Rebbe’s legacy and the 120th anniversary of his birth, which was celebrated in April of this year. It is designed to combat darkness and infuse the Jewish community of British Columbia – as well as other Jewish communities – with light.
The local project is a coordinated effort of the 10 Chabad centres serving the province. It is divided into six separate campaigns that encourage love and sharing, and doing mitzvot with friends and family. Each one is infused with creative materials to enhance the experience.
The first campaign began in March and extended through April, with distribution of Shmurah matzah for Passover. Each participant received free handmade matzah, an activities package and, most importantly, a second set to hand out to a friend. True joy comes when we “pay it forward”!
The second campaign, which took place over May and June, focused on the theme of Jewish books. Every Jewish home shines when it is adorned with books of Jewish learning, faith and prayer. People received the gift of a new Jewish book for their home library and one for a friend.
The current campaign is to ensure that every Jewish home in British Columbia has kosher mezuzot affixed to the doorposts of their homes. There are two parts to this campaign:
Part 1: First-time front-door mezuzah. Be an ambassador and introduce the gift of “Mitzvah Mezuzah” to a Jewish friend, co-worker or family member who doesn’t yet have one on their front door.
Part 2: See the Scribe. For those who already have mezuzot, bring them for a check-up to one of the in-person See the Scribe events. A certified scribe will be at various Chabad centres throughout the province for a full day, and he will be checking mezuzot for authenticity or errors. You will also have the option to book a time for the rabbi to come directly to your home to install your mezuzah – or you can take instructions on how to do it yourself. Check the website ambassadorsoflight.ca for the days, times and locations of these events.
The Ambassadors of Light initiative has already had an effect.
“Thank you for this wonderful gift before Passover. You’ve made our holiday so special!” said Igor, a student in Kamloops, who himself volunteered to become an Ambassador of Light. He distributed Passover matzah and other holiday goods to more than 20 more Jewish families in Kamloops through the campaign.
Rabbi Chalom and Esti Loeub from Chabad UBC shared, “One of our students’ parents (who we had never met before) received a gift of a Jewish book from their son. They were so impressed by the concept that brought their son to share Judaism with them in a creative way … and they loved the book about fascinating Jewish concepts.”
In Okanagan, Rabbi Shmuley Hecht received the following text: “Hello Rabbi Shmuley…. I took only one of the books on Jewish living, but, on reflection, I would like to get another four, if possible – one for each of my children.”
“Now, as we begin the third of six sweeping education and sharing themed campaigns of the Ambassadors of Light program, the impact is growing and the feedback is enormous,” said Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of Lubavitch BC, one of the team members leading the project. “People care, and people are being cared for. The circle continues to revolve, turning each recipient into a giver as well.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg, head director of Chabad Lubavitch of B.C., noted, “The sense of unity that this Ambassadors of Light program has created is incredibly heartwarming … and very telling. People are just so touched by the surprise gifts they’re receiving from their own fellow community members, and that is something that the Rebbe has been encouraging throughout the years as well.”
All in all the project has reached more than 70 cities, attracted more than 200 volunteer ambassadors and impacted thousands of people. Still to come are the shofar and lulav campaign, the menorah campaign and the Shabbat candles campaign.
In just over a week, many of us will be in the synagogue. While listening to the sounds of the shofar, feel their power and reflect. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the synagogue listening to the blasting of the shofar, something many of us will be doing just over a week from now. Feel the power of the sound – the staccato notes, the longer notes, and the really, really long note – reverberate throughout the sanctuary.
The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah serves as a wakeup call for the Jewish people, a chance to start over with a clean slate. Maimonides describes the wakeup call in the Mishneh Torah, a code of Jewish religious law.
“Arise you who are fast asleep, and awaken you who slumber,” he writes. “Search your deeds, repent and be mindful of your Creator….”
Now close your eyes again and, this time, look back at the year behind you.
Did you live a year that mattered, and did you fill it with meaning? Did you laugh easily? Did you connect with someone new? Did you cultivate deeper connections with people you already knew? Did you chat with the barista at your coffee house? Did you smile at children?
Did you look up from toggling between apps on your phone to watch a setting sun or notice a full moon? Were you brave enough to take some risks and leap – even if you were scared? Did you dance? Did you say sorry, and mean it, to someone you hurt? Did you wander slowly through the rain? Did you notice ladybugs?
Did you honor your parents, your grandparents and other people who helped form you into the person you are today? Did you think about how your food gets from the land to your plate? Did you treat your body as a temple, at least some of the time? Did you stand up for the things that matter to you and stick up for people who needed it?
Were you sensitive to the pain and bloodshed of others that you heard about in the news – in your city, in Israel, and around the world? Were you present? Did you teach your children to be kind to people, to animals and to the earth? Did you give tzedakah? Did you give thanks each day for something in your life? When you spoke about other people, were you thoughtful about what you chose to say? Did you appreciate the fact that someone always has it worse than you do, and did you recognize that you’re luckier than most people in this world? Were you honest? Did you trust?
Did you give yourself a break about the things beyond your control? Did you value the sacrifices of your ancestors that made the world a better place? Were you a mentor to anyone? Did you open your mind and listen to people whose beliefs and ideas are different from your own? Did you let a baby’s tiny hand grasp your finger? Did you give big tips? Did you visit someone sick? Did you read and learn about something new? Did you do something you didn’t really feel like doing because you knew it would make someone else happy?
Did you stand and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for someone you loved and lost, or did you say it alongside someone else who lost a loved one? Did you learn a new skill? Did you smell rosemary, pinewood, vanilla or cinnamon? Did you invite a guest to come and share your Shabbat table? Did you dream big?
OK, now that you’ve looked back over the past year, close your eyes again – but this time look ahead to next year.
How will you fill your life and the lives of others with spirituality, meaning and love? Who will you surround yourself with?
We, Jews, are lucky for a chance to take stock – to awaken from our slumber – and then press reset for a new year.
Wishing you and your loved ones a year ahead filled with health, happiness, sweetness, fulfilment and peace. L’shanah tovah u’metukah!
Cindy Sheris the executive editor of Chicago’s JUF News. To read more from JNS.org, click here.
Among the coins and other archeological treasures discovered in a ruined Byzantine public structure near the Temple Mount’s southern wall in 2013 was a gold medallion (inset) inscribed with a menora, a shofar and a Torah scroll, reflecting the historical presence of Jews in the area. The items are thought to have been abandoned in the context of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE. Hanging from a gold chain, the medallion is most likely an ornament for a Torah scroll. (photos from Ashernet)
Fleeing the Nazis, the Pesten family found themselves adrift in some nowhere land in the Soviet Union, wandering through the mud of Uzbekistan, remembering all the adventures they had met since deciding to pack their bags and flee. They felt a yearning for home and some envy for friends who stayed. No one knew yet about the concentration camps and gas chambers. In reality, there was no time for longings or regret, as they had to wake up early every morning and search for food.
The woman of the family, Hanna, was worried. It was only a few days before Rosh Hashana and there was no food in their temporary home. She wasn’t only concerned about that. She was troubled that, in this remote place, they wouldn’t hear the shofar and its blasts of t’kia, sh’varim and t’rua. She would miss the holy shudder she always experienced in those exalted moments of the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana.
The situation was not yet hopeless. She walked the long distance to the nearby town until she came to a massive garbage heap. She wasn’t deterred by the foul stench. She began to sift through the garbage for hours, although it seemed like an eternity. Would she even find what she was looking for?
The pounding of her heart increased by the minute until, with a broad smile, she pulled out of the smelly heap, the rotten head of a ram that had been slaughtered a few days earlier and was providentially still there.
The slender moon of the end of the month was slowly traversing the gloomy skies of Uzbekistan. The angels looked down from heaven in amazement at a tiny, frail woman, who was bent over, sitting on a low stool, cleaning a curved ram’s horn with a small metal wire as she quietly sang a melody of thanks to G-d. She kept scraping without stopping and without fatigue. Then, with tremendous effort, she finally managed to completely remove the inner bone from the shofar.
That year, the stirring sounds of the shofar blasts echoed through the narrow lanes of Uzbekistan. Due to Hanna’s devotion, the community of Jewish refugees merited that this beloved mitzva was not missed. (Story excerpted from Jewish Tales of Holy Women by Yitzhak Buxbaum.)
Thankfully, here in Canada, we don’t need to do what this brave woman did to hear the shofar. On Rosh Hashana, we only need to go to a synagogue, Chabad House or community gathering. This year is called the year of Hakhel (Gathering), which takes place every seven years after the year of Sh’mita, where everyone would travel to Jerusalem for the festival of Sukkot and be in the presence of G-d when the Holy Temples stood. This year, it is even more auspicious to gather together on the first days of the new Jewish year, which begins at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 13, and continues through Tuesday the 15th.
So, why do we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana? The Talmud writes that G-d commands us to recite verses of kingship so that we may crown Him upon us, verses of zichronot (remembrances) so that He will remember us for good. And Rabbi Abahu adds that we blow the ram’s horn to remember the Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac).
There are three physical acts associated with the shofar: there is the blowing of the air, the lips that touch the shofar and the physical shofar itself, receiving the air and producing a sound.
The air is known as the hevel (breath) of the mouth. What is this hevel? It’s not just air, it’s something much greater. A person blowing the shofar gives over his entire self, this is the self-sacrifice. What is being produced, however, is not my or the shofar blower’s air, but the sound of the shofar itself. In fact, the blessing recited is “Lishmoa kol shofar,” “To hear the sound of the shofar.” Although human air is producing it, we refer to the sound as coming from the shofar. The person blowing the shofar is not of prime significance, his breath is greater than his limited self.
Our sages explain that the shofar is produced by the hevel from the depths of the heart. The word hevel is comprised of the same letters as the word halev, the heart. When a person speaks, their hevel/breath is affected by the five motions of the mouth that are used to create different vowels. When the shofar is being blown, the mouth is not involved. When one speaks, it is their voice that is heard. With the shofar, there is something much greater going on, much deeper.
According to the Jewish mystics, the letters comprising the word hevel (and halev) represent the five books of the Torah. In lev (heart), the letter hay is equal to five, followed by the numerical value of the remaining letters of lamed (30) and vet (two). These are the first and last letters of the Torah. The hevel of the heart is so much more than words. The sound of the shofar can’t have anything added to it that will make it appear more beautiful – it is pure and is capable of bringing pure spirituality down from above.
The shofar is greater even than prayer. Rosh Hashana is called Yom T’rua, Day of Blasts, not Yom T’fila, Day of Prayer. Prayer may be straight from the heart, especially on the holy day of Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish year, but it is our mouths that form the words. The breath of the shofar is spirituality; there is nothing physical intertwined with it.
We can ask, “Why do we need a shofar at all? Why do we not just shout out loud without uttering any words?” It is because we want to remind G-d of the great near sacrifice of our father Abraham and our patriarch Isaac to arouse G-d’s mercy on us on Rosh Hashana as He did for them. It is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
We find in Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer that the ram, which our sages teach us was “caught by its horns in a thicket,” (Genesis/Breishit 22:13) is the one that was used. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa adds that it was a special ram. Its skin was the belt used by Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet); its left horn was blown at Mount Sinai upon our receiving the Torah, while the right horn will be blown with the coming of the Moshiach. It will usher in a time of peace in Israel and throughout the world.
May we all be written and inscribed for a year filled with many blessings for our families and communities, “ktiva v’chatima tova.”
Esther Taubyis a local educator, writer and counselor.
Paul Harnett felt “compelled to understand the nature of the shofar, and what it embodied.” (photo from Paul Harnett)
In 2000, Paul Harnett was living in Vancouver. On the day before a flight to the East Coast for a family reunion, his mother asked him to purchase her a shofar. He found one at Temple Sholom. He didn’t know it at the time, but that purchase would lead him on a journey of personal transformation, turning him – 14 years later – into one of the Lower Mainland’s main shofar producers.
Harnett, 53, who lives in Abbotsford with his wife Iris, is inspired by Judaism but not halachically Jewish himself. When asked what brought him to shofar making, he said, “The shofar picked me, I felt drawn by it.” Moreover, he felt “compelled to understand the nature of the shofar, and what it embodied…. Shofar making requires lots of practise and perseverance and getting the horn blown properly takes many months to perfect the art.”
In 2009, an Orthodox Jewish friend from Montreal claimed Harnett’s shofars were not kosher due to the type of horn used. Concerned, Harnett wrote to Rabbi Eliezer Danzinger of chabad.org, who responded, citing Orach Chaim (586:1), that they are indeed kosher because his horns come from kosher animals. With renewed confidence, Harnett committed to producing the highest quality shofars that he could for his customers around the country.
Harnett sources raw horns from Israel, England, Africa and the United States. Each horn has a unique sound and, if properly tuned, can be used as musical accompaniment. Composer Herman Berlinski, for example, and others have explored the dynamics of this ancient instrument.
On two occasions, Harnett has blown the shofar for visiting dignitaries from the Knesset, once in order for them to honor and recognize the Tsawwassen First Nation. Among other events, he also accompanied a blowing of the shofar at a Holocaust memorial hosted by Beth El Synagogue in St. John’s, Nfld.
In addition to the command to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, there are other reasons to own your own. “The shofar is not only a prayer without words,” said Harnett, “it is a visible testament of our identity when displayed as a beautiful ornament in your home.”
As accessories, he makes custom stands out of granite for the shofar, while his wife makes shofar bags from chintz.
Prices for Harnett’s shofars range from $50 to $500, depending on the quality of the horn itself and the time spent making the shofar; shofars can be shipped, upon request. For more information, Harnett will soon have a new website, beharshofars.com.
Gil Lavieis a freelance correspondent, with articles published in the Jerusalem Post, Shalom Toronto and Tazpit News Agency. He has a master’s of global affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
On the right track to finding a place to purchase shofarot. (photo from Steven Finkleman)
Heading down the B2 from Swakopmund to Windhoek, I could see by the road signage that this would be a prime location to search for the perfect shofar. As you can see from the signage, with each kudu, one would have two shofars to blow on Rosh Hashanah.
So, I went on the prowl for the perfect shofar in Namibia. When I was in Windhoek last spring and was at the airport awaiting my return flight to the big city of Johannesburg, I happened to notice a Chassidic man on my flight carrying several long, Yemenite-style shofarot. Although I didn’t speak to him at the time, it was clear that with an abundance of African antelope, Namibia could be a good source of shofarot for Jews all over the world.
Apparently, there are two types of shofarot that are kosher to use. The original was a ram’s horn, which is linked to the biblical account of the near sacrifice of Isaac. At the last moment, a ram tangled by its horns in the bush appeared to Isaac’s father, Abraham, and he sacrificed the animal instead of his son. The other style comes from Yemen, where there was an abundance of antelope, or more specifically kudu, from which the Jews in that country were able to make shofarot.
Both styles are used today, and indeed in my own synagogue sanctuary is a painting by Gertrude Zack of a rabbi blowing a Yemenite-style shofar. Whether there are still kudu in Yemen is unclear to me. Perhaps, it is too dangerous for Jews to fly into Sanaa looking for kudu horns. Therefore, why not come to the safe locale of Namibia, known among tourists as “Africa lite” for a safe supply of kudu-horn shofars.
I was fortunate to have a work project this April in Windhoek and, clearly, one of my main goals, besides work, of course, was to track down that supply of kudu horns. It sounded like a great article: “In search of the perfect shofar, direct from its source.”
I made contact with Zvi Gorelick of the Windhoek Jewish community, and visited the synagogue, now about 80 years old, took some great pictures and attended the Friday night service. Theirs is a small community, very diverse and welcoming. Indeed, the second Shabbat, I had arranged to lead the service in my Reform style, with lots of traditional and vibrant Shabbat songs, probably quite distinct from the South African Orthodox service that the congregation was used to. Indeed, after services, I was fortunate to be invited to Barbara and Alexandra’s home for Shabbat dinner. All were welcome to join.
Once there, I was able to ask Zvi the all-important question in order for me to continue my quest for the perfect shofar. I was directed to the Nakara Tannery in the North Industrial area.
The two-dollar cab ride took me directly to the factory and the factory shop. Trying to keep things low-key and not to come across as a camera-happy tourist snapping four million pictures, I kept calm as I checked out the warehouse and then the factory store. The warehouse was filled with hides of all kinds, the most distinctive being the piles and piles of Zebra hides. Quite a sight. And, we think in Canada, it’s cool to have a bearskin on the wall!
As I entered the factory store, I noticed some kudu horns on the ground, polished, and some of very gaudy colorations – blue, orange, red, etc. Obviously not suitable for a shofar.
Trying to play it cool, I asked the sales lady at the desk, Marie-Louise, if they sell vuvuzelas made of kudu horns. Do you remember all those horns at the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa a few years ago? She replied in the affirmative, and as I stammered away asking for a kudu-horn sort of trumpet, she responded in her Afrikaans accent, and asked if I was interested in buying a shofar for Rosh Hashanah! I knew immediately that I was at the correct spot. I coolly ordered four, but subsequently placed an order for another three. Darn good price … perhaps I ought to import them. I wonder who is making the 10 times mark-up in North America!
I then asked to see the factory where the shofarot are made. Starting with raw skulls, the horns are removed, soaked in water to remove the central core, then polished, and finally the tip is cut off in order to turn it into a shofar. I took my usual million pictures of the workshop and the production line, and, of course, tested a few shofarot out.
As I packed up my multiple shofarot, I began to wonder what sort of grief the customs officials might give me with my suitcase of kudu horns. After all, I would be crossing multiple borders, into Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the United States and, finally, home to Canada. I’d tell them the truth, of course, that these are religious article; I was unlikely to run into any trouble. Right?
Steven Finkleman, originally from Winnipeg, is a retired pediatrician living in Kelowna. He travels extensively and often researches and visits remote Diaspora communities on his adventures.