By Chaplain Nissan E. Shulman, USN. Excerpt taken from Rabbis in Uniform.
Before reporting to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, I decided to procure a shofar. When I arrived in Chicago, therefore, my first stop was the office of Ed Rosenberg, Armed Services director of the National Jewish Welfare Board. From his store of treasures he unveiled a ram’s horn which I took with me and stored away for safekeeping.
Shortly before Rosh Hashanah I decided to begin shofar-blowing practice. To my grievous disappointment, I found the shofar impossible to blow. If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed it was once the horn of a stubborn mule. I was barely able to coax a croak out of it.
Two days before Rosh Hashanah, Sam, the tailor, found me huffing and puffing. He is the head of the Base tailor shop and remembers many interesting things. He remembered, for instance, that long ago in Europe, when a shofar wouldn’t blow, they pickled it in vinegar. Well, it was worth a try. So we pickled it in vinegar.
The afternoon before Rosh Hashanah I tried out my vinegar-pickled shofar. Lo and behold, not a sound. Not even a hoarse croak. But the effect was tremendous. With the first blow everybody ran out of the office holding his nose. The concentrated vinegar spray was overwhelming.
Something had to be done in a hurry. We aired out the shofar on the window sill. We fanned it. We shook it. We blew and we blew, and still nothing. That night I took the shofar with me to my room at the Bachelor Officers’ quarters. I left it on the window sill, hoping that the cold Lake Michigan air would dry it out.
The next morning I tried again. Still no sound. Suddenly, an inspiration struck. I took the shofar under my arm and hurried to the Naval Exchange garage.
“What’s your problem, Chaplain?”
“Well, I’ll tell you. I have a stubborn shofar and I would appreciate your blowing it out with your air pump.”
The Navy rises to any reasonable emergency. But this shofar was unreasonable. It would not blow. But the garage attendant recommended that I try the fire station since they had a much more powerful air compressor. Service time was nearing and I was open to all suggestions.
The first attempt with the fire station’s air gun blew the shofar across the room. We picked it up tenderly and saw, thank G-d, that it was not damaged.
“Give me that Scotch Horn again, Rabbi,” urged the fire chief.
We held it down together. We forced the air through. We shot a sweetening agent into it; we gave it a dose of perfume. I lifted it to my lips, and lo and behold, there came forth the blast of the shofar. But the overpowering vinegar aroma was still very much there.
I thanked the fire chief and hurried to the chapel. I kept wondering how to keep the vinegar from overpowering the congregation. In the middle of services, a revelation came to me. When the time for blowing the shofar arrived, I put my tallis over my head and, in the manner of our tradition, I draped it around the shofar. Then and there I understood several things about our faith that I had not understood before.
The Bible says: “The voice of the shofar was exceedingly loud” (Exodus 19:7). They must have pickled that shofar in vinegar, too. And the “voice” the Bible mentions must really have been the “effect.” The Bible further states, “and the people swayed and stood afar” (Exodus 20:15). No wonder they stood afar—to escape the aroma of the vinegar-pickled shofar. And no wonder every ba’al tokei’ah (shofar blower) puts his tallit over his head!
Published in the Tishrei 5783 Jewish-American Warrior