Are You Listening?

As we approach Rosh Hashana and anticipate the blowing of the shofar during prayers, I would like to present five different shofar soundings from our history. The sixth will be, G-d willing, the shofar that heralds the redemption and the Mashiach.

  1. Shofar During the Inquisition – Sefer HaTodaah, Rosh Hashanah, Eliyahu KiTov

Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. It was the end of the Golden Era of Spanish Jewry. Hundreds of thousands died trying to escape. Many others relocated to Turkey and other locations.  Tens of thousands of others became Conversos – pretending to be Christian in public but keeping Jewish traditions in private, usually in the cellars.  One of these was Don Fernando de Aguilar, a conductor of the royal orchestra in  Barcelona.  He longed to hear the sounds of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana but to do so would be extremely dangerous, worthy of death.  He devised a plan and announced a special concert on Rosh Hashana itself featuring various world melodies and exotic instruments.  In the midst of Church officials and royalty attending the concert, the Shofar was blown  to the secret joy of the conductor and fellow Conversos in the audience.

  1. Shofar at Auschwitz –  Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels ztz”l, Introduction to Responsa Mekadshei Hashem (Included in the Hebrew CD-ROM Rabbinic Prefaces, Michlalah-Jerusalem, Esther Farbstein)

Rosh Hashanah 1944:

“The experience of one transport that left Auschwitz is seared in my memory. With the grace of HASHEM I was miraculously able to bring a shofar into the camp. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I went from block to block, shofar in hand, to sound the tekiyot. This put my life in danger and I had to avoid the Nazis and malevolent Kapos. I thank HASHEM that due to His mercy and compassion I was privileged to sound the shofar that Rosh Hashanah some twenty times, coming to a hundred blasts en toto. This revived the spirits of the shattered camp inmates and gave them some peace of mind knowing that at least they could observe one mitzvah in Auschwitz – that of shofar on Rosh Hashanah.”

Chapter 6 Blowing the Shofar in Auschwitz

The transport of about one thousand souls was sent from the camp on the first day of Rosh Hashanah towards evening. Because of the preparations for the trip and the confusion, they could not hear the shofar. The transport was at the edge of the camp near the gate, ready and waiting to leave the camp. When I reached them with Rabbi R. Mendele I told them I had a shofar with me, and they were brimming with joy and begged me to blow the one-hundred sounds quickly so they could fulfill the mitzvah before the gate opened and they would be on their way to who knows where….

I can still hear reverberating in my ears the sobs that burst forth from those thousand people during the tekiot. I especially remember the trembling voice of the well-known chassid who announced the sounds before I blew them. He was Rabbi Yehoshua Fleischman, may HASHEM avenge his death, from Debrecen, Hungary, who called out the notes in a piercing wail, tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah. I could barely concentrate properly and at that moment I understood the commentary written four centuries earlier by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Hashla Hakadosh) of Prague on tekiah, shevarim, teruah. He explained that it is as if the sound is originally long and straight, a tekiah, but then the sound itself breaks down into shevarim and teruah, just as our holy Jewish congregations that had previously been so straight and upright, were now breaking asunder. But just as the series of sounds ends with a simple, straight tekiah, so too we beseech HASHEM that we shall return to wholeness and heal, and that the crooked be made a straight, simple tekiah and that we may be redeemed soon.

Chapter 7 Tekiat HaShofar for Youths before the Crematoria

The boys who were locked in the block and were about to be sent to the crematoria found out that I had a shofar. I heard shouts and entreaties emanating from their block imploring me to come to them and sound the one hundred blasts of the shofar so they could fulfill this precious mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah in their last moments of life, before they would be martyred for Kiddush HASHEM.

I was beside myself and completely confounded, because this involved a tremendous risk since it was nearing twilight, a dangerous hour, and the Nazis would be coming to take them. If the Nazis were to suddenly show up while I was in there with the youngsters, no doubt they would take me to the crematoria as well. The Kapos, so famous for their ruthlessness, would not let me escape. I stood there weighing the situation and trying to decide what to do. It was very doubtful that I should take the risk to blow the shofar for the boys in such a dangerous situation, and it was not clear that the risk would be justified even if there were some doubt about the danger. But the youths’ bitter supplications were heart-piercing. “Rebbe, rebbe! Please for the sake of HASHEM have pity on our souls. We beg you to enable us to observe this mitvah in our last moments.” I stood there immobile. I was all alone in my decision.

In addition to my doubts as to whether it was justified to take the risk, my dear son Zalman Leib stood next to me, and he too entreated me with bitter sobs. “Father, father! Don’t do this and endanger yourself because this may turn me into an orphan, and leave me stranded and alone. Father, father! Don’t go, don’t enter that block. You aren’t obligated to take the risk. You already blew the shofar so many times, and each time you risked your life. You have done more than enough.” He went on beseeching me not to accede to the boys request. When I gazed at my son, pity and compassion welled up in me and I saw that he was, in a certain sense, correct.

But on the other hand the bewailing of the boys gave me no peace and aroused in my heart tremendous compassion for them. Maybe this mitzvah will give them some protection during the difficulties that lie ahead. I was bewildered. A number of chassidim and other inmates awoke due to the boys’ urgent pleading and they added their voices to the pleas of the youths, saying that there was still much time left, and I would be able to go into their barracks and exit in time, and that someone who is going to do a mitzvah engenders some protective defense.

I reached a decision. Come what may, I cannot turn the boys down. I will ignore the pleas of my dear son. I immediately started negotiating with the vile Kapos who didn’t want to allow me to enter. I thought soon it will be too late, and I won’t have another chance to blow for the boys. So eventually, after some of the other men there interceded, and a sizeable bribe was collected and offered, the Kapos acquiesced to our request but warned me twice that if the bell at the gate sounded, meaning that the S.S. were coming to the camp, then my fate would be sealed along with the boys in the block, because by no means would the Kapos then allow me to leave.

I accepted their conditions and went into the youths. But beforehand I told my son Zalman Leib to stand in the street and watch the gate from a distance. If he sees the S.S. men coming he should run and alert me immediately and I will leave the block even if I am in the middle of the tekiot.

If truth be told, my decision was probably at variance with the strict halachah which rules that you do not endanger yourself, or even put yourself slightly at risk, to perform the mitzvah of shofar. But my underlying reasoning was that either way – whether I sounded the shofar or not – I did not have much of a chance to survive. Who knew in Auschwitz how much more time he had to live? Day in, day out, we saw before our eyes thousands of our fellow Jews murdered and burned, or collapsing in the fields from slave labor. Our lives were not worth a penny. This was the main reason I put myself at risk, even though I knew that there was no strictly halachic justification.

Chapter 8 Sermon before Blowing the Shofar

Where is the pen, and where is the writer who could possibly put on paper my inner feelings when I entered the block. It is a miracle that my heart was not splintered into pieces when I saw the dozens of youthful eyes and heard their terrible sobbing. With tears burning and voices beseeching to the heavens, they pushed to reach me, to kiss my hand, to touch my clothes. All the time bewailing, “Rebbe, rebbe! Have mercy, have mercy” and similar pleas that your ears cannot suffer to hear. Some of them were my students, and others were from my town. When I began to recite the prayer preceding the shofar blowing, Min Hameitzar, “From the depths do I cry out to HASHEM,” they exploded into a cry and demanded that I give them a derashah. They insisted on a sermon and would not even let me continue the prayer. I was so stunned and moved that I was mute, my tongue clung to my palate, and I could not open my mouth. I was also afraid that if there were any further delay this window of opportunity would be closed. Dusk would soon settle and the ensuing danger would be great.

But I acquiesced to their pleading and began a sermon on the verse from Psalm 81, “Blow the shofar at the moon’s removal, at the time appointed for our festive day” emphasizing how much has been removed from our lives and taken away. The despicable oppressors took away our families. What will be our end? Who will come out of here whole? HASHEM is to a great extent now hidden from us. I reminded them that the Talmud teaches (Brachot 10a) that “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.”

Chapter 9 Last Words Before the Crematoria

I must continue relating what happened, so that future generations will know the great devotion, mesirut nefesh and holy words I heard that day from those teenagers in the moments before they were taken to their deaths. After I sounded the tekiot I tried to go outside. One boy stood in my way and uttered a mournful cry, “Friends, the Rebbe gave us encouragement; even when a sword dangles at your throat…..” The others responded amidst their tears with a resounding Shema Yisrael…

When I left a few boys followed me. With tears streaming down their faces they asked whether I had some morsels of bread, k’zayit (the minimum amount considered in Jewish law to constitute a meal) in order to fulfill in their last moments another mitzvah – that of the festive meal of Rosh Hashanah. In the twenty-four hours since they had been locked in their block they had not eaten or drunk anything. According to halachah it is forbidden to fast on Rosh Hashanah. I was crestfallen that I had nothing to give them and I would not be able to come to their block again. This was a bitter day for them, all the more so because in addition to everything else, they were forced to fast on a festival as they were being taken to the pyre. May HASHEM soon avenge their deaths.

What happened that terrible Rosh Hashanah flashes through my mind’s eye and reverberates in my ears: young boys with strength of character and bravery who sanctified HASHEM’s name in public with great clarity of mind. I understand why the “binding of Isaac” is read on Rosh Hashanah and why the midrash says it took place on this day. For generations this day has been dedicated for kiddush Hashem in public with the mesirut nefesh and dedication that characterized the binding of Isaac on the altar. These youths sanctified themselves, and sanctified HASHEM in the most dignified way. That is an example for us all.  Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels.

  1. Shofar at the Kotel under British Rule – Memoir of Rabbi Moshe Segal (1904-1985) Excerpt – Shofar of War and Defiance

In those years, the area in front of the Kotel did not look as it does today. Only a narrow alley separated the Kotel and the Arab houses on its other side. The British Government forbade us to place an Ark, tables or benches in the alley; even a small stool could not be brought to the Kotel. The British also instituted the following ordinances, designed to humble the Jews at the holiest place of their faith: it is forbidden to pray out loud, lest one upset the Arab residents; it is forbidden to read from the Torah (those praying at the Kotel had to go to one of the synagogues in the Jewish quarter to conduct the Torah reading); it is forbidden to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The British Government placed policemen at the Kotel to enforce these rules.

On Yom Kippur of that year [1930] I was praying at the Kotel. During the brief intermission between the musaf and minchah prayers, I overheard people whispering to each other: “Where will we go to hear the shofar? It’ll be impossible to blow here. There are as many policemen as people praying…” The Police Commander himself was there, to make sure that the Jews will not, G-d forbid, sound the single blast that closes the fast.

I listened to these whisperings, and thought to myself: Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar that accompanies our proclamation of the sovereignty of G-d? Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar, which symbolizes the redemption of Israel? True, the sounding of the shofar at the close of Yom Kippur is only a custom, but “A Jewish custom is Torah”! I approached Rabbi Yitzchak Horenstein, who served as the Rabbi of our “congregation,” and said to him: “Give me a shofar.”

“What for?”

“I’ll blow.”

“What are you talking about? Don’t you see the police?”

“I’ll blow.”

The Rabbi abruptly turned away from me, but not before he cast a glance at the prayer stand at the left end of the alley. I understood: the shofar was in the stand. When the hour of the blowing approached, I walked over to the stand and leaned against it.

I opened the drawer and slipped the shofar into my shirt. I had the shofar, but what if they saw me before I had a chance to blow it? I was still unmarried at the time, and following the Ashkenazic custom, did not wear a tallit. I turned to person praying at my side, and asked him for his tallit. My request must have seemed strange to him, but the Jews are a kind people, especially at the holiest moments of the holiest day, and he handed me his tallit without a word.

I wrapped myself in the tallit. At that moment, I felt that I had created my own private domain. All around me, a foreign government prevails, ruling over the people of Israel even on their holiest day and at their holiest place, and we are not free to serve our G-d; but under this tallit is another domain. Here I am under no dominion save that of my Father in Heaven; here I shall do as He commands me, and no force on earth will stop me.

When the closing verses of the neillah prayer — “Hear O Israel,” “Blessed be the name” and “The L-rd is G-d” — were proclaimed, I took the shofar and blew a long, resounding blast. Everything happened very quickly. Many hands grabbed me. I removed the tallit from over my head, and before me stood the Police Commander, who ordered my arrest.

I was taken to the kishla, the prison in the Old City, and an Arab policeman was appointed to watch over me. Many hours passed; I was given no food or water to break my fast. At midnight, the policeman received an order to release me, and he let me out without a word.

I then learned that when the chief rabbi of the Holy Land, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, heard of my arrest, he immediately contacted the secretary of High Commissioner of Palestine, and asked that I be released. When his request was refused, he stated that he would not break his fast until I was freed. The High Commissioner resisted for many hours, but finally, out of respect for the Rabbi, he had no choice but to set me free.

For the next eighteen years, until the Arab conquest of the Old City in 1948, the shofar was sounded at the Kotel every Yom Kippur. The British well understood the significance of this blast; they knew that it will ultimately demolish their reign over our land as the walls of Jericho crumbled before the shofar of Joshua, and they did everything in their power to prevent it. But every Yom Kippur, the shofar was sounded by men who know they would be arrested for their part in staking our claim on the holiest of our possessions.

 

  1. Shofar at the Liberation of the Kotel – Archives of the Avi Yaffe Recording Studio in Jerusalem.

June 7th, 1967 – Shofar of Victory and Liberation

Colonel Motta Gur [on loudspeaker]: All company commanders, we’re sitting right now on the ridge and we’re seeing the Old City. Shortly we’re going to go in to the Old City of Jerusalem, that all generations have dreamed about. We will be the first to enter the Old City. Eitan’s tanks will advance on the left and will enter the Lion’s Gate. The final rendezvous will be on the open square above. [The open square of the Temple Mount.]  [Sound of applause by the soldiers.]

Yossi Ronen: We are now walking on one of the main streets of Jerusalem towards the Old City. The head of the force is about to enter the Old City.

[Gunfire.]

Yossi Ronen: There is still shooting from all directions; we’re advancing towards the entrance of the Old City.

[Sound of gunfire and soldiers’ footsteps.]

[Yelling of commands to soldiers.] [More soldiers’ footsteps.]

The soldiers are keeping a distance of approximately 5 meters between them. It’s still dangerous to walk around here; there is still sniper shooting here and there.

[Gunfire.]

We’re all told to stop; we’re advancing towards the mountainside; on our left is the Mount of Olives; we’re now in the Old City opposite the Russian church. I’m right now lowering my head; we’re running next to the mountainside. We can see the stone walls. They’re still shooting at us. The Israeli tanks are at the entrance to the Old City, and ahead we go, through the Lion’s Gate. I’m with the first unit to break through into the Old City. There is a Jordanian bus next to me, totally burnt; it is very hot here. We’re about to enter the Old City itself. We’re standing below the Lion’s Gate, the Gate is about to come crashing down, probably because of the previous shelling. Soldiers are taking cover next to the palm trees; I’m also staying close to one of the trees. We’re getting further and further into the City.

[Gunfire.]

Colonel Motta Gur announces on the army wireless: The Temple Mount is in our hands! I repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands!

All forces, stop firing! This is the David Operations Room. All forces, stop firing! I repeat, all forces, stop firing! Over.

Commander eight-nine here, is this Motta (Gur) talking? Over.

[Inaudible response on the army wireless by Motta Gur.]

Uzi Narkiss: Motta, there isn’t anybody like you. You’re next to the Mosque of Omar.

Yossi Ronen: I’m driving fast through the Lion’s Gate all the way inside the Old City.

Command on the army wireless: Comb the area, discover the source of the firing. Protect every building, in every way. Do not touch anything, especially in the holy places.

[Lt.- Col. Uzi Eilam blows the Shofar.  Soldiers are singing ‘Jerusalem of Gold’.]

Uzi Narkiss: Tell me, where is the Western Wall? How do we get there?

Yossi Ronen: I’m walking right now down the steps towards the Western Wall. I’m not a religious man, I never have been, but this is the Western Wall and I’m touching the stones of the Western Wall.

Soldiers: [reciting the ‘Shehechianu’ blessing]: Baruch ata Hashem, elokeinu melech haolam, she-hechianu ve-kiemanu ve-hegianu la-zman ha-zeh. [Translation: Blessed art Thou L-rd G-d King of the Universe who has sustained us and kept us and has brought us to this day]

Rabbi Shlomo Goren: Baruch ata Hashem, menachem tsion u-voneh Yerushalayim. [Translation: Blessed are thou, who comforts Zion and bulids Jerusalem]

Soldiers: Amen!

[Soldiers sing ‘Hatikva’ next to the Western Wall.]

Rabbi Goren: We’re now going to recite the prayer for the fallen soldiers of this war against all of the enemies of Israel:

[Soldiers weeping]

El Maleh Rachamim: Merciful G-d in heaven, may the heroes and the pure, be under thy Divine wings, among the holy and the pure who shine bright as the sky, and the souls of soldiers of the Israeli army who fell in this war against the enemies of Israel, who fell for their loyalty to G-d and the land of Israel, who fell for the liberation of the Temple, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and Jerusalem the city of the Lord. May their place of rest be in paradise. Merciful One, O keep their souls forever alive under Thy protective wings. The Lord being their heritage, may they rest in peace, for they shalt rest and stand up for their allotted portion at the end of the days, and let us say, Amen.

[Soldiers are weeping. Rabbi Goren sounds the shofar.  Sound of gunfire in the background.]

Rabbi Goren: Le-shana HA-ZOT be-Yerushalayim ha-b’nuya, be-yerushalayim ha-atika! [Translation: This year in a rebuilt Jerusalem! In the Jerusalem of old!]

 

  1. Shofar at Secular Kibbutzim – Shofar of Teshuvah

Torah Students Sound the Shofar for Secular Kibbutzim By Ezra HaLevi (Arutz Sheva)

A core-group of religious-Zionist yeshiva students based in Kfar HaRo’eh founded a two-year-old outreach group, which operates in Emek Hefer, the Hefer Valley, in northern Israel. Though Israel’s Kibbutz movement has traditionally distanced itself from religious tradition, instead moving its educational system toward universal concepts, the students have found that parents and children alike are eager to embrace the new Jewish educational programs.  Last week, local children fashioned their very own shofars – ram’s horns used in the High Holiday services. Yehuda David, one of the Gar’in Torani (literally “Torah seeds”), described the project to Israel National Radio’s Yishai Fleisher and Alex Traiman. “We brought 1,000 ram’s horns to the local schools and we showed the kids how to smooth and polish the horns, hollowing them out,” he said. “They had a ‘blast’ and 1,000 kids came home that day with a 3,000-year-old Jewish symbol in their hands. The parents asked about it, and it created excitement among the children to bring it to synagogue and even find out more about what it means within our tradition.”   David sees the shofar as a metaphor for the Torah Seeds project itself. “The shofar is shaped so that the end we blow into is quite small, but projects great sound through the large end. Our actions in this world may seem small, but small things done here on earth have a great effect in Heaven.”

…….  “Last Rosh HaShana one of the Kibbutzim asked us to come, but nobody showed up in the end. Instead we went door to door with the shofar, asking people if they wanted to fulfill the mitzvah to hear the sound of the shofar on Rosh HaShana. We blew the shofar for nearly every family individually. They were really into it – especially the young people. It was incredible.”

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