The shofar has long been a central symbol in Judaism, with many meanings and interpretations offered regarding the blowing of the shofar and its hidden message. From a triumphant war cry to a primal cry from the depths of the soul, from a symbol of remembrance to a proclamation of God’s majesty, and from a call to action to a call to freedom, the significances are many and varied. The following is a collection of some of the most poignant and inspirational insights gleaned from the sounds of the shofar.
Call to Teshuva (Repentance): According to the Rambam (Maimonides), the shofar blast contains the hidden message: “…Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator…look into your souls, amend your ways and deeds…” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, 3:4).
Key to the Heart: According to the Baal Shem Tov, the shofar blast has a way of penetrating the human heart like no other instrument or tool: “In the palace of the king there are many chambers and each one needs a different key. There is one key, one instrument, however, which can open all the doors – the ax. The shofar is an ax. When a person passionately breaks his heart before the Almighty, he can smash any gate in the palace of the King of Kings.” Accordingly, the shofar holds the key to the deepest recesses of the heart, allowing us to reach otherwise impenetrable places within ourselves and to thereby achieve an emotional breakthrough in our Avodat Hashem (service of the Almighty).
Intellectual Experience: In Tehillim (Psalms), King David proclaims: “Happy is the people who know the tru’ah [the shofar blast]” (Psalms 89:16), suggesting that knowledge or intellect is the means understanding and benefiting from the shofar.
Infusing the Physical with the Spiritual: Just as God blew breath into Adam, transforming him from a purely physical creature formed from the dust of the earth (“Adam” meaning from the adama or ground) into a spiritual being, so too the shofar begins as merely a physical instrument, the hollow horn of a ram. Once human breath is blown through the shofar, however, it becomes infused with holiness and spirituality, undergoing a transformation similar to the one we hope to achieve by hearing the sounds of the shofar.
Kol Pnimi – Finding One’s Inner Voice: In the blessing over the shofar, we are reminded of the commandment on Rosh Hashanah, which is to “hear the voice of the shofar.” The sages explain that merely ‘listening’ to the shofar blasts is not enough. Rather, we must “hear” the shofar in a deeper and more significant way, in a way which truly affects or transforms us.
This helps us understand a fascinating discussion in the Talmud regarding a case wherein one shofar is placed inside of another shofar. Can one fulfill his/her Torah obligation by hearing sounds from a double shofar? The conclusion brought by the Talmud is: Im kol p’nimi shama, yatza – If the voice of the inner shofar is heard, one has fulfilled his obligation. It is the sounds of the inner shofar which count, just as the goal of hearing the shofar is to affect us from within.
Agent of Forgiveness: According to the Midrash, the blowing of a ram’s horn evokes God’s mercy, serving as a reminder of Abraham’s actions in the story of Akeidat Yizchak, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24). At God’s command, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, only to stopped by an angel of God, whereupon a ram “caught by its horns in the bush” was sacrificed instead.
Reminder of Our Holiness: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, in one of his many insights on the meaning of the shofar, wrote: “Our holy rabbis teach us that the sound of the shofar is the sound of our innermost soul and heart, but also the sound of a newborn baby. It is everything. It wakes us up, gives us strength, reminds us how holy we are and how holy we can be, and also how close we are and how easy it is to be the best and most exalted.” (September 2, 1994)
The blowing of the shofar has many purposes and many layers of meaning.
The blowing of the shofar, which is typically made of a ram’s horn, calls to mind the ram that the Patriarch Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac. And it helps us remember to feel fear of Hashem’s glory, as it says in Amos 3:6: “If a ram’s horn is sounded in the city, can the inhabitants fail to be alarmed?”
R’ Mordechai Housman writes that the word “shofar” is similar to the word shapru, Hebrew for “beautify,” which is to remind us to “beautify” our deeds and correct our actions. The shape of the shofar is very indicative of our relationship with Hashem.
The shofar has one narrow end and one wide end. We blow into the shofar at the narrow, tapered end, and the sound comes out of the wide end, as in some musical instruments. On Rosh Hashana, the verse “From the straits I called upon Hashem, Hashem answered me expansively” (Psalms 118:5) is recited before the Blowing of the Shofar. In other words, when we are in dire straits, in a bind, we pray to G-d for help and support.
According to Leo Rosten, “The bend in the shofar is supposed to represent how a human heart, in true repentance, bends before the Lord. The ram’s horn serves to remind the pious how Abraham, offering his son Isaac in sacrifice, was reprieved when God decided that Abraham could sacrifice a ram instead.”
The shofar has a central place in the Jewish religion and is symbolic of the Jewish People as a whole. Never was this truer than during the birth of Modern Israel…
The shofar as symbol of the Jewish People
The shofar is emblematic in the minds of most Jews – and even many non-Jews – of Judaism and Jewish Ritual. Biblical precepts prescribed the sounding of the shofar both during times of war and also to announce the arrival of the festivals (Psalms 81:4) and the Jubilee year (Lev. 25:9). To this day, the practice of sounding of the shofar during the month of Elul and the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is based on detailed instructions formulated by the Talmudic Sages, based on the Biblical verse about the “day of blowing” (Num. 29) and other verses.
The shofar’s place at the center of much of Jewish ritual and practice gave it a symbolic presence in the minds of the Jewish people. Some of the oldest Jewish artifacts depict the emblematic image of the shofar, for instance a synagogue screen discovered in Ashkelon and a Jewish tombstone discovered in Caesarea (both dating from the 4th–7th centuries CE). The iconic status of the shofar has persisted to the modern day, and a particularly interesting example is as a symbol of national liberation during the creation of Modern Israel.
A shofar-sounding of thanksgiving
It was absolutely forbidden to sound the shofar at the Kotel, the Western Wall, during both the Ottoman rule of Jerusalem and during the British Mandate which succeeded it. During the Jordanian occupation of the Temple Mount, the most sacred site in Judaism, Jews were not even allowed to approach the wall. This state of affairs came to a sudden end with the near-miraculous events of the Six Day War, when, for the first time in over 2,000 years, the Western Wall was returned to Jewish sovereignty. The moment this occurred, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, founder of the IDF Chaplaincy, broadcast a “Prayer of Thanksgiving” that was heard around the country, and shortly afterwards sounded the shofar at the wall.
The shofar in “Jerusalem of Gold”
One of the many people who heard and was moved by the broadcast was Naomi Shemer, a musician and songwriter whose career was just getting started. She had written the song “Jerusalem of Gold” for the 1967 Israeli Music Festival, but the original composition was basically a melancholy dirge, lamenting the still unfulfilled Jewish yearning for Jerusalem, after 2,000 years of foreign occupation. The capture of the Old City, the sounding of the shofar, and the fact that the paratroopers who liberated the ancient sites were heard singing “Jerusalem of Gold” at the Kotel, inspired Shemer to radically alter the song. The newer version celebrated the fact that Jews could once again return to the Kotel, and included the line “a shofar calls out on the Temple Mount,” a tribute to the actual events of June 7th.
This week we received a big delivery of shofars from Jerusalem Shofars: ram’s horn shofars, Yemenite shofars and decorated shofars. I was very impressed with the level of craftsmanship. The shipment included some superb specimens of jumbo shofars.
Jerusalem Shofars is a long-standing company located on the outskirts of Jerusalem in Atarot, near Ramallah and the Neve Yaakov neighborhood. If you were to ride a donkey in the wadi alongside Neve Yaakov, or nowadays drive a car in the road down to the Dead Sea, you would pass by Bedouin tents and soon arrive at Jericho. I think this is a winning combination of locations: Jericho, Jerusalem and Modi’in, where our offices are located. We ship from the Modi’in area, which is where the Maccabees lived.
Getting back to the new shipment we received, I liked the long, straight flat necks on many of the ram’s horn shofars, as well as the elegant rounded curves. There was one tan ram’s horn shofar with very even coloring, which I liked, but of course shofar coloring is a matter of personal preference. And the sound, especially of the extra large and jumbo shofars, is superb. I tested all of them and found it quite easy to produce deep, clear, powerful tones (except for the very small ram’s horn shofars). In addition to the shaping and polishing, they also put a lot of effort into shaping the mouthpiece properly.
The polished Yemenite shofars are have fabulous purplish-red hues and dark tan coloration. The natural ones, i.e. polished on one side and unpolished on the other, feature a great mottled brown, that reminds you of the savannah where the kudu antelopes roam.
The following excerpt is part of a Rosh Hashanah sermon given in 1933 by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel (then known as Palestine), at a time when Zionist migration to Palestine was increasing in response to growing oppression by Nazi and Stalinist regimes in Europe.
What is the shofar horn made of?
There are three categories of shofars that may be blown on Rosh Hashanah. The first category, the optimal shofar, is made of the horn of a ram. If such a horn is not available, then a shofar made of the horn of any kosher animal (except a cow) may be used. If no kosher shofars are available, then one may blow on any horn, even from a ritually unclean animal. When using a non-kosher horn, however, no bracha [blessing] is recited.
These three shofars of Rosh Hashanah correspond to three “shofars of redemption,” summoning the Jewish people to be redeemed and redeem their land.
The preferred “shofar of redemption” is the divine call that awakens the people through holy motivations — out of faith in God and the sanctity of the people of Israel. This form of awakening corresponds to a shofar made of a ram’s horn, recalling the holy dedication of Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac) — It is for this “great shofar,” an awakening of spiritual greatness, that we pray.
There is also a second “shofar of redemption,” a lower level of awakening. This shofar calls out to the Jews to come to the Land of Israel, to return to the land of our ancestors, our prophets and our kings. It beckons us to live as a free people in our homeland, educate our children in a Jewish environment, and so on. This is a kosher shofar, albeit not a great shofar like the first type of awakening. We may still recite a bracha over this shofar.
There is, however, a third type of shofar. [At this point, Rav Kook burst out in tears.] The least preferred shofar comes from the horn of an unclean animal. This shofar is the wake-up call that comes from anti-Semitic nations, warning the Jews to escape while they still can and flee to their own land. Enemies force them to be redeemed. They sound out the trumpets of war, bombarding them with deafening threats of persecution and torment, giving them no respite. The shofars of unclean beasts are transformed into the messianic shofar.
Whoever failed to listen to the calls of the first two shofars, will be forced to listen to the call of this last shofar. On this shofar, however, no blessing is recited, for “one does not recite a blessing over a cup of affliction.”
Obviously the shofar has its effect in the spiritual realm. What exactly does it do? The Rambam addresses that question, not in Hilchot Shofar, but rather in Hilchot Tshuva. There, in Halacha 4, he notes that blowing the shofar is first and foremost a written statute (“gezeirat hak’tuv“), i.e. the meaning behind the shofar is not necessarily something we need to delve into. However, he explains, a hint to its significance can be found in a Biblical verse.
עורו עורו ישנים משינתכם, והקיצו נרדמים מתרדמתכם
This is a reference, writes the Rambam, to those who forget the truth in the pursuit of emptiness, as time passes by, and in their slumber they chase after emptiness that has no purpose.
The mashgiach of Yeshivat Mir-Brachfeld explains that when a house catches fire and someone is asleep inside, the real danger is if he does not wake up. But once he wakes up, smells the smoke and sees the flames, he leaps onto his feet and runs out the door. Once he’s a wake, he knows what to do. So really all he has to do is hear the shofar, internalize the meaning and the message, and depart on a new course.
However, he adds, citing Rav Yisrael Salanter, waking up is a multi-phase endeavor in our day and age. We’re like people who sometimes wake up in a daze, not sure where we are — or even who we are — and take a while to come to our senses.
Leveraging the Sound of the Shofar
I heard an observant woman say recently, “The shofar has no real effect on me.” It seems she is under the misconception that along comes the blast of the shofar and sets you onto the right course automatically, pushing you along.
That may be true, to some extent, but only if you have your sail is unfurled!
The Sefer HaChinuch, in Mitzvah 405, explains that Rosh Hashanah is about pleading for clemency. To achieve this, first one must be fully cognizant of the gravity of the situation. To awaken to this reality we have a powerful tool at our disposal: the shofar. The sound of the shofar has the power to stir the heart of those who hear it. And even more powerful is the sound of the terua, the broken blast of the shofar.
Interestingly, in Mitzvah 331, the Sefer HaChinuch seems to take a different tack. There he contrasts the mitzvah of blowing the shofar to declare freedom in the Yovel year to the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashana, which he explains is meant to encourage us to contemplate Akeidas Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac), and to imagine ourselves doing the same for the love of Hashem. As a result, a positive remembrance will arise before Him, i.e. we will be acquitted before Him.
Although blowing the shofar is prescribed by Torah law, under certain circumstances Rabbinical decrees can override it and actually prohibit blowing the shofar entirely. The Sages determined that one must forego a positive Torah commandment if the alternative would be to transgress any Rabbinical prohibition. Therefore if a shofar was buried under a pile of rocks or another type of object that is forbidden to move on Yom Tov, or if was resting on a tree branch or beyond the 2,000 cubits we are permitted to walk, or on the far side of a river, we simply cannot fulfill the mitzvah.
Although a Jew is not permitted to ask a non-Jew to do a Torah prohibition for him on Yom Tov, it is permitted to ask him to do a Rabbinical prohibition when a mitzvah is involved. Thus the Mishnah Berurah (586, 21 s.v. 86), citing the Chayei Adam (140, 19), writes that if a shofar must be brought across a river by boat, it would be permitted to have a non-Jew transport it, if no other option is available.
The Mishnah Berurah adds that even if you had a type of shofar other than a a ram’s horn shofar, it would be permitted to have a non-Jew bring a ram’s horn shofar, which is considered the preferred way to fulfill the mitzvah
Reverberating throughout the month of Elul and climaxing on Rosh Hashana, the sounding of the shofar has changed little since it was first heard millennia ago. The rudimentary animal horn and the primal sound it emits evoke a raw emotion hard to pin down. Humble in origin, the horn used to make a shofar can come from an antelope, a goat or other animal species, although the standard horn is that of a ram.
What is a shofar horn made of?
To appreciate exotic shofars (or shofarot in Hebrew), one has to know a bit about the different types of animal horns. A horn is a protrusion of bone covered with a layer of keratin. Horns differ from antlers, which are made of bone tissue, are shed annually, and cannot be used as a shofar. A kosher shofar is made from a horn removed from a dead animal. The keratin sheath is separated from the bony inner horn, and the resulting hollow shell is what actually serves as the shofar. The wide, open end of the horn was originally attached to the animal’s skull; the narrow end, which is solid, will have a cavity drilled into it to become the mouthpiece. Most shofars undergo a heat treatment allowing the solid part to be straightened for drilling. Otherwise the drill could easily hit the curved part of the horn, perforate it and render the shofar invalid.
Since any horned animal is kosher, any type of animal horn may be used for a shofar – except a cow’s. So the antelope and gazelle can provide valid shofar horns, as can the ibex. Like a medieval trumpet, the horn of an African gemsbok produces beautiful, deep bass sounds. Acoustics notwithstanding, ram’s horns are highly preferable, since Abraham sacrificed a ram in place of his son in the Binding of Isaac.
Although there is little evidence regarding kind of horn was used in antiquity, ancient mosaics and coins give us some clues what shofar horns were made of. The crude, tiny images appearing on coins suggest a short, curved horn such as that of a ram, but the larger size of mosaic images probably affords a better indication. In 1921 a mosaic floor was uncovered just south of Tiberius, in the remains of a small synagogue dating from the 3rd to 5th centuries CE, when the Sanhedrin convened in the city. The shofar that appears together with other ritual items in one of the mosaic’s main panels actually resembles a bull’s horn, which according to nearly all opinions is not permitted as a shofar. Presumably, then, the mosaic depicts a shofar made of a curved ram’s horn.
But the conventional ram’s horn has occasionally been exchanged for something else – and not always deliberately.
Goat, antelope and rams horn
A surprising anecdote was recounted in a letter by Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Mulhausen and quoted in 1869 by Abraham Berliner in the Zionist daily Ha-levanon (35, 26 Elul 5629).
A colleague of Rabbi Mulhausen’s, Reb Zamlin HaKohen, visited a nearby workshop where a non-Jewish father and son made shofars used throughout Germany. There he stumbled upon the terrible secret that all these shofars were made from goat horns! Even when a Jew handed them a ram’s horn to be fashioned into a shofar, they substituted a goat horn. The reason was very simple – goats’ horns are straighter than rams’ horns, therefore the mouthpiece can be drilled right through with no heating or straightening involved. Mulhausen bemoans the shocking revelation that for 40 years, all the Jews of Germany had been blowing goat horn shofars! (Several years ago, goat horns were also used in Chabad shofar-making demonstrations in the United States – hopefully by mistake.)
Mulhausen arranged for Reb Zamlin to teach Jews the trade, and for two years they manufactured ram’s horn shofars. These were apparently dire times, which Mulhausen attributed to the “curse of Rabbi Isaac” (Rosh Hashana 16b), according to which tragedy strikes whenever the shofar is not blown – or blown improperly. Mulhausen attempted to put things right by publicly cursing anyone making or using a shofar produced from anything other than a ram’s horn. This curse applied whenever a ram’s horn was available, even if it was smaller or produced a poorer sound than other kosher horns.
Mulhausen had other complaints. He pronounced all the Torah scrolls of his generation defective, contending that the scribes didn’t know how to spell or space the text. It’s hard to believe that among Jews as organized as the Germans, both the shofars and the Torah scrolls were invalid, so Mulhausen’s quibbles should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But the use of goats’ horns instead of rams’ has certainly not been limited to his time.
Sound of the kudu horn
The best-known example of the sounding of a shofar not made from a ram’s horn is also the most puzzling. Yemenite Jewry generally follows the rulings of Maimonides, who clearly states in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Shofar 1:1) that the commandment of blowing the shofar requires a ram’s horn. Yet the “Yemenite shofar” is made from the long, twisted horns of the greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), a type of antelope.
Rabbi Jacob Sapir of Jerusalem recounted in his book Even Sapir (1990, p. 165) how he spent Rosh Hashana 5620 (1859) in the Yemenite town of Mocha, and recounted the difficulty he encountered blowing the local shofar. He described it as the meter-long, twisted horn of an ibex, which produced a loud, frightful blast. Ibex horns are curved, however, not twisted, so he probably meant a kudu horn.
Although the late Rabbi Joseph Kapah (1917-2000, Yemen and Jerusalem) asserted that most Yemenite Jews did use rams’ horns, he admitted that the kudu horn was also blown, particularly in the city of Sana’a. When challenged, those using the kudu shofar claimed an ancient tradition among Yemenite Jews, in accordance with the basic law that all horns may serve as shofars, as long as they don’t come from a cow.
Whether it’s used exclusively in the period leading up to Rosh Hashana or for other purposes as well, and whether it sounds the deep notes of the kudu antelope horn or the higher, nasal pitch of the ram’s horn, the shofar continues to resonate in the Jewish consciousness. There’s a growing tendency to embrace a variety of horns – some easier to blow, some harder – sounded with different degrees of virtuosity. But however and wherever it’s blown, the various types of shofar reflect the Jewish people’s long and varied history.
What makes a shofar kosher? The Gemara discusses this issue at length in Tractate Rosh Hashana. The main requirements are as follows:
the shofar must be made from a kosher animal
the shofar must be a minimum length
it should not have any holes, cracks or plugs
it should be uncoated
When a horn is formed into a proper shofar, it can be rendered pasul (unfit, nonkosher) at various stages of the production process. According to Rabbi Moshe Flumenbaum of HaSofer, most of the shofars produced in Israel are made by workers who are paid by the piece, not by the hour. The worker may inadvertantly make a hole in the shofar or cause it to crack. To avoid incurring a loss, an unscrupulous worker may then take some horn dust, mix it with glue that becomes invisible when dried and patch the horn. He can then twist it into a shape that further hides the defect, and then sand and polish the horn to the point where it looks and sounds like a kosher shofar. The only ways to ensure the shofar was not patched is through on-site supervision or an X-ray!
Adding silver or leather decoration to a shofar renders it nonkosher because even a slight change in the sound the shofar produces renders it unfit. The same applies if a lacquer coating is applied.
Likewise a shofar may not be painted (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 586, 17). The only permitted decoration is carving into the keratin itself — as long as this does not significantly alter the shofar’s sound.
Shofar: Kosher Supervision
Sometimes a shofar will have kashrut certification, but the supervision merely ensures that the shofar was made from a ram’s horn or checks for cracks, patches and lacquer coating — only after the shofar is completed, when these problems are very hard to detect.
Keep in mind that the larger shofars are more difficult to make and frequently have problems during production, which is why the larger shofars are considerably more expensive than smaller ones.
When Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, known as the Veitzener Rav, was a prisoner in Auschwitz, where his wife and several relatives perished, he managed somehow to get a shofar and blow it on Rosh Hashanah.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1944, a group of 1,400 teenage boys scheduled to be sent to the crematorium the next day heard that Rabbi Meisels had a shofar and was a skilled baal tokei’ah (shofar blower). They begged him to come into their block and sound the shofar for them. At the risk of being discovered and being killed with the boys the next day, he bribed the guards and entered the block, shofar in hand.
“The boys who were locked in the block and were about to be sent to the crematoria found out that I had a shofar,” Rabbi Meisels recounted in his memoirs. “I heard shouts and entreaties emanating from their block, imploring me to come to them and sound the 100 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; 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 God, have pity on our souls. We beg you to enable us to observe this mitvah in our last moments.’ I stood there frozen. 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.
“As I gazed at my son, pity and compassion welled up in me, and I saw that in a certain respect he was correct.
“But on the other hand the boys wailing gave me no peace and aroused in my heart tremendous compassion for them. Maybe this mitzvah would 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 youths’ pleas, saying that there was still much time left, and I would be able to enter 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 could not turn the boys down. I would ignore the pleas of my dear son. I immediately started negotiating with the vile Kapos, who didn’t want to let me in. I thought it would soon be too late, and I wouldn’t have another chance to blow for the boys. So eventually, after some of the other men there interceded and a sizable bribe was collected and offered, the Kapos agreed 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 terms and went into the youths. But first I told my son Zalman Leib to stand in the street and watch the gate from a distance. If he saw the S.S. men coming he should run and alert me immediately and I would leave the block, even if I was in the middle of the teki’ot.
“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 of survival. 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 strictly speaking there was no halachic justification.
“Where is the pen, and where is the writer who could possibly put on paper my inner feelings when I entered that 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 pressed toward me, to kiss my hand, to touch my clothes, wailing, ‘Rebbe, rebbe! Have mercy, have mercy,’ and similar pleas that your ears cannot bear to hear.
“Some of them were my students and others were from my town. When I began to recite the verses preceding the shofar blowing, Min Hameitzar, From the depths do I cry out to Hashem, they burst into a cry and demanded that I deliver a drashah. 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 shut. 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 moons 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 would be our end? Who would 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.
“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 teki’ot 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 reverberating Shema Yisrael.
“As I left, a few boys followed me. With tears streaming down their faces they asked whether I had some morsels of bread, a kzayit [the minimum amount halachically considered to constitute a meal] in order to fulfill in their last moments another mitzvah that of the festive meal of Rosh Hashanah. In the 24 hours since they had been locked in their block they had not eaten or drunk a thing. 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 minds 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 marked 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 serves as an example for us all.”
Many years ago in Moscow, in pure Russian tradition, the government enacted decrees against Jewish practice, culminating in the expulsion of all Jews from the city. All Jews – except those needed by the regime for their special skills. The vast majority left the city, but Rabbi Chaim Berlin, the city’s Chief Rabbi, refused to desert his flock. He remained in Moscow, seeing it his duty to assist his fellow Jews in whatever way he could. Of course, religious practices had to be carried out with extreme discretion. The Rabbi and his diminished community went to great lengths to continue their devoted Jewish life.
Rosh Hashanah is Coming
As Rosh Hashanah was approaching, Rabbi Berlin went to take the Shofar out of its place. To all the onlookers’ shock, the Shofar was cracked all along one side, deeming it pasul – unfit for fulfilling the mitzvah of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The community was profoundly disappointed, particularly the Rabbi, who could not imagine Rosh Hashanah without the traditional blowing of the ram’s horn.
When Rosh Hashana came, the Rabbi faced the realization that this year, he would not be listening to the Shofar blowing. Not one to wallow, the great rabbi sat down to contemplate what to do.
“What does G-d want from me now? True, I cannot hear the Shofar, but I can study the laws regarding the Shofar.”
So, that was what Rabbi Chaim Berlin did that year. He stayed up the whole Rosh Hashanah night researching all the ins and outs of the Shofar.
An Unusual Sight
Just before dawn Rosh Hashanah morning, the rabbi headed towards the synagogue. As he quickly made his way, he saw something unusual in an approaching wagon. Incredulous, the rabbi got closer, just to make sure his eyes weren’t fooling him. But it was really true! The wagon was decorated with all kinds of interesting ornaments, and hanging just above the wagon driver’s head was a genuine Shofar!
Rabbi Berlin asked the driver where he had obtained the ram’s horn. The eccentric driver hastily blurted out, “I’m sorry, Rabbi. I didn’t know it was yours!” After more prodding, the driver admitted that he had an obsession with trumpets and horns, and when the Jews had been expelled from the city, he grabbed the opportunity. He stole into the synagogue and snatched the Shofar that he had been eyeing for years.
Certain that Rabbi Berlin was the rabbi of that synagogue, the wagon driver quickly handed him the Shofar, before the police would throw him into jail.
Rabbi Berlin’s joy knew no bounds. His devotion to the mitzvah of Shofar, his willingness to stay awake all night to at least study its laws, even if he couldn’t actually carry them out, earned him this amazing miracle. Surely the Shofar in Moscow that year sounded sweeter than any melodious trumpet or clarinet ever blown. Because it was a blast of devotion to Rosh Hashanah, to Jewish tradition, and to God.
(Adapted from Aleynu Leshabeiach, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, Vol. II, p. 343)
Kudu shofars, sometimes called a “Yemenite shofar,” are certainly magnificent in appearance and can produce a wide range of tones, but are they kosher? Yemenite Jews generally adhere to the rulings of the Rambam, who maintained that any animal other than a sheep cannot be used for a shofar. How did the custom of using a kudu horn arise in Yemen?
Rabbi Amram Korach, the last chief rabbi of Yemen, suggests one answer: “The shofar of Rosh Hashana that they were accustomed to blowing was long and twisted, two or three twists, and its sound was pure and eerie. Some said that is was from an animal that was similar to sheep. Therefore they did not concern themselves with the [Rambam’s] stringency that only sheep horns are kosher, since they saw that this shofar beautifies the mitzva and its sound was greater than that of a sheep’s [i.e. ram’s] horn. To this very day they blow the mitzva blasts with this shofar, according to the rulings of the Geonim that all twisted shofars are kosher lechatchila” (Sa’aras Teiman, Jerusalem 1954, p. 99).
Ironically, it is more legitimate for non-Yemenite Jewish communities — which follow the Shulchan Aruch rather than the Rambam — to use a “Yemenite shofar” (i.e. a kudu horn) than for the Yemenite community.