Posted on

A shofar in Auschwitz

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.

A block at Auschwitz

“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.”

Translation of Rabbi Meisel’s memoirs courtesy of Cross-Currents.

See also:

A Tallit in Auschwitz

Posted on

The Shofar and Jericho: The Voice that Could

by Daniella Lieberman

One of the perplexing stories in the Tanach is the story of how Joshua and his army of desert wanderers conquered Jericho. After finally crossing the Jordan River after 40 years, Jericho was the first city on the map for Bnei Yisrael to defeat. The plans were designed by God — simple and foolproof.

The battle plan: The soldiers would take the Holy Ark and shofars, and circle the walls of the city once a day for seven days. On the seventh day (Shabbat), they should circle the city seven times, blow the shofars, and on the seventh circuit, have all of the people yell simultaneously. Then, the walls of the city would come tumbling down.

Sounds strategic. Well it was, and it worked. But how?

Kate Rosenblatt, in YU’s Derech Hateva Magazine (“The Resonance of Jericho” 2011), has an interesting theory as to how this phenomenon took place. She claims that God gave Joshua a mechanical and acoustic solution to bring the walls down. Simplified into laymen’s terms, she explains that the resonance of the marching, shofar blowing and people shouting could have created enough vibrations in the earth for the walls to fall down on its own. However, enough resonance would only occur if the ceremony was done in a very certain way — starting small and slowly building up power. Looking back at the detailed, and mapped out war plans, this is exactly what happened; starting with marching with shofars once a day for seven days, leading up to the seventh day of seven marches with shofars, and finally ending with the last circuit, same as the others but this time with the addition of the human voice! Scientifically, it is only with this set that the walls can come crumbling down from the vibrations.

Joshua's shofar and the walls of JerichoWhat can this victory, whether miraculous or natural (which is still miraculous) teach us about the power of shofars? After all, they had a key role in creating the resonance for the walls to fall. How do the shofars from Joshua relate to us during the month of Elul?

According to the Talmud, the shofar is meant to sound like a person screaming out from deep emotion. Since the shofar is a powerful instrument, we blow it on Rosh Hashanah to represent the immense noise of our own voices in order to breach the gates of Heaven and tear down the walls (compared to the physical walls of Jericho). However, as we learn form the story in Joshua, although the shofar has the amazing power to build up enough resonance to almost break down a wall, it needs the voices of the people for the final blow.

The shofar cries out for us on Rosh Hashanah, but we cannot rely on its power without putting in our own effort. Whether the walls of Jericho broke down due to a miracle or due to mechanical and acoustic resonance, we know that it could not have happened without our voice, calling out in harmony with the shofar’s.

Posted on

Blast from the past: Shofar history from biblical times thru the Middle Ages

by Libi Astaire

Ever since Har Sinai, the shofar has been associated with momentous events. Nothing can beat a horn’s blast when you want to say “Wake up!”

SOUND THE HORN

After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, shofars and trumpets were rarely used in Jewish public life — except, of course, during the month of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But horn blasts continued to be used in other cultures.

“If the shofar is sounded in the city, will the people not tremble?” The navi Amos might have asked that question almost 3,000 years ago, but it’s as true today as it was then. There’s something about the shofar’s blasts that penetrate to the very core of our being.

But while the shofar remains the ultimate “wake-up call” of the Jewish people, other peoples have also used horns of different shapes and sizes to wake up the populace, whether it was to summon troops to battle or announce the entrance of royalty. And in more recent times, horns are being used to do something ancient musicians and tony classical composers once thought impossible: Make music.

Sound the Shofar

Take a walk through Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter during the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and chances are you’ll hear someone making a few tentative blasts on one of the shofars on sale at the many tourist shops that line the streets. Those blasts might be applauded with a hearty yasher koach or greeted with giggles, but one thing is certain: They won’t send people running for cover.

Various types of shofar hornsYet in days of yore, the sounding of the shofar could be as terrifying as the sirens used today to warn people to run to the nearest bomb shelter. For instance, when Gideon ordered 300 of his men to blow upon their shofars, the noise sent the enemy Midianite troops flying (Shoftim 3:27). And one can only imagine the terror of the people of Jericho, when Yehoshua used a cacophony of shofar blasts combined with shouts to bring down the walls of that city (Yehoshua 6: 1-20).

Of course, not all shofar blasts were associated with war. Shofars and trumpets (chatzotzros) are mentioned dozens of times in Tanach, with the most famous being the shofar blasts heard at Har Sinai during the giving of the Torah. The sounds of a heavenly shofar will also be heard on the future Day of Judgment (Tzefania 1:16), when the exiles are returned to Eretz Yisrael (Yeshayahu 27:13), and when the dead are resurrected (Yeshayahu 18:3). On Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded of both Har Sinai and the End of Days by our own shofar blasts, and promised that Hashem will remember us because of the sound of our shofar.

The shofar was also sounded at joyous times, such as when David Hamelech brought the Holy Ark toJerusalem (Shmuel I 6:15) and when Shlomo Hamelech was crowned king (Melachim I 1:39). Silver trumpets were sounded when Shlomo Hamelech inaugurated the Beis Hamikdash (Divrei Hayamim II 5:13), and on Rosh Chodesh and holidays while the burnt and peace offerings were being offered (Bamidbar 10:10). When Shaul won a battle over the Plishtim, a shofar was blown throughout the land to announce the victory (Shmuel I 13:3).

After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, shofars and trumpets were rarely used in Jewish public life — except, of course, during the month of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But horn blasts continued to be heard in other places, sometimes causing trembling and sometimes great joy, and always making a loud, far-reaching noise.

Natural Talent

The earliest trumpets were either made from the horn of an animal, like our shofar, or from a conch shell. When an animal’s horn was used, the tip from the narrow end of the horn was removed to create a mouth hole. Often there wasn’t any mouthpiece, and so the person would put his lips directly on the mouth hole. A trumpet made from a conch shell might have the tip of the shell removed or have a hole bored into the middle of the shell.

Early trumpets were also made from natural materials, such as clay or hollowed out bark, bamboo, or gourd. These were often just long tubes, without the flaring bell on the end, and were used to amplify the human voice rather than make a horn-like sound.

During the Bronze Age, trumpets made out of metal began to appear. Two of the treasures found in the tomb of the Egyptian ruler Tutankhamen were a trumpet made from silver and one made from copper with gold overlay. Dating back to the 1300s BCE, they’re among the oldest surviving metal trumpets that have been found.

While trumpets were probably always used to assemble people or warn them of danger, wall reliefs from the time of Assyrian King Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) show us another use: signaling to laborers working on massive building projects. In addition to telling the workers, who were often slave laborers, when to start and finish their work day, the trumpet blasts would help them synchronize their movements while moving heavy slabs of stone or doing other heavy labor.

Teutonic tribes in northern Europe, circa the sixth century BCE, had their own trumpet, which was called a lur. The lur had a slightly curved tube of metal with a small mouthpiece on one end and a flat metal disk resembling a shower head on the other. From drawings found in a burial mound, it seems the lur was usually played in pairs. Lurs were also made from wood and some of these wooden ones were used to call to the cattle instead of people.

Battle Cry

By the time of the Romans, trumpet players were an integral part of the army. The Romans had perfected the art of bending brass tubes, which enabled them to create horns with different sounds. A cylindrical trumpet, for example, usually had a more brilliant, piercing sound, while a conical-shaped horn gave out a more mellow tone. There were four main kinds of Roman trumpets — the tuba, the cornu, the buccina, and the lituus — and each was used for a different purpose. For instance, the tuba (not to be confused with the modern brass instrument with the same name) was used to signal both a charge and a retreat — and the soldier had to know in an instant which signal was being relayed.

The sounds made by Roman trumpets have been variously described as horribilis (horrible), raucus (raucous), and stridulus (shrieking), and because the sound was so terribilis (terrible) they were never used to make music. Therefore, after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, and the disappearance of Roman soldiers from European soil, trumpets fell out of use inEurope and people slowly forgot how to make them. It was only after the Crusaders encountered Arab Saracens — and their long metal trumpets — some 600 years later, that the trumpet made a comeback inEurope.

The Romans weren’t the only ones who used trumpets on the battlefield during the time of the Roman Empire. The Celts had an interesting trumpet called a carnyx, which was very long and stood straight up, ending in a shape that resembled a boar’s head with an open mouth. Because it towered over the soldiers’ heads, its tones could travel far — and the sight of the advancing boar heads must have been a frightening sight for the enemy.

Of course, the Romans would never admit to being scared by this “peculiar barbarian kind” of trumpet, which is how the carnyx was described by the historian Diodorus Siculus, whose epic work Bibliotheca historica included a description of Julius Caesar’s capture of Gaul, where the Roman emperor fought the Celts. Instead, the Romans featured the carnyx on their coins and in triumphant sculptures, where it became a symbol of the vanquished Celts — similar to the way the two chatzotzros appear on the relief of the Arch of Titus, among other treasures the Romans stole after they destroyed the Beis Hamikdash andJerusalem.

The Hunt Is On

During the Middle Ages, a favorite pastime of European kings and noblemen was to hunt animals for sport. An important member of the hunt was the person who blew the horn, which signaled to the hunters where to find the animal being hunted. While some hunting horns were made from an ox’s horn, the more upscale horn, called an olifant, was made from ivory. Later horns were made from brass or copper.

Horn players called Waits were also important members of medieval society. The Waits were a castle’s watchmen, standing guard at night and ready to sound the alarm should a fire break out or enemy soldiers be spotted. The Waits would also herald the entrance of an important visitor. While watchmen with horns performed the same function in towns, as well as woke up people in the morning, over the years the term “Wait” began to be used for minstrels who played horns and reed instruments at important civic occasions.

Meanwhile, Europeans were rediscovering how to coil metal tubes with a vengeance, with the result that many new types of horns were being introduced, such as the sackbut, a sliding instrument similar to the trombone; a new-and-improved hunting horn that was coiled; and a strange instrument called the serpent, which had a slithery shape.

Excerpt republished with permission of Mishpacha Magazine
This article may not be used in any form without the express permission of Mishpacha Magazine
© Mishpacha Magazine Inc. All rights reserved

Posted on

Shofar in Biblical verses

The following is a partial list of verses in the Tanach that mention the shofar.

Set a boundary for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain. (Exodus 19:12-13)

The third day arrived. There was thunder and lightning in the morning, with a heavy cloud on the mountain, and an extremely loud blast of a ram’s horn. The people in the camp trembled. (Exodus 19:16)

And when the voice of the shofar sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a Voice. (Exodus 19:19)

And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off. (Exodus 20:14)

Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. (Leviticus 23:24)

And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day of blowing the shofar unto you. (Numbers 29:1)

And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be blown, and they shall come who were lost in the land of Ashur, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27:13)

Therefore the prophet Zechariah said of the time of redemption: And the Lord shall be seen over them, and his arrow shall go forth like the lightning; and the Lord God shall blow the shofar, and shall move in stormy winds of the south. (Zechariah 9:14)

And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying: ‘Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them: When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man from among them, and set him for their watchman; if, when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the shofar, and warn the people; then whosoever heareth the sound of the shofar, and taketh not warning, if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head; he heard the sound of the shofar, and took not warning, his blood shall be upon him; whereas if he had taken warning, he would have delivered his soul. But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the shofar, and the people be not warned, and the sword do come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand. (Yechezkel 33:1-6)

And the LORD said unto Joshua: ‘See, I have given into thy hand Jericho, and the king thereof, even the mighty men of valour. And ye shall compass the city, all the men of war, going about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days. And seven priests shall bear seven rams horns before the ark; and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the shofars. And it shall be, that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when ye hear the sound of the shofar, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall go up every man straight before him. And Joshua the son of Nun called the priests, and said unto them: ‘Take up the ark of the covenant, and let seven priests bear seven rams horns before the ark of the LORD. And he said unto the people: ‘Pass on, and compass the city, and let the armed body pass on before the ark of the LORD.’ And it was so, that when Joshua had spoken unto the people, the seven priests bearing the seven rams horns before the LORD passed on, and blew with the shofars; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD followed them. And the armed men went before the priests that blew the shofars, and the rearward went after the ark, [the priests] blowing with the shofars continually. And Joshua commanded the people, saying: ‘Ye shall not shout, nor let your voice be heard, neither shall any word proceed out of your mouth, until the day I bid you shout; then shall ye shout. So he caused the ark of the LORD to compass the city, going about it once; and they came into the camp, and lodged in the camp. And Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up the ark of the LORD. And the seven priests bearing the seven rams horns before the ark of the LORD went on continually, and blew with the shofars; and the armed men went before them; and the rearward came after the ark of the LORD, [the priests] blowing with the shofars continually. And the second day they compassed the city once, and returned into the camp; so they did six days. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they rose early at the dawning of the day, and compassed the city after the same manner seven times; only on that day they compassed the city seven times. Ad it came to pass at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the shofars, that Joshua said unto the people: ‘Shout; for the LORD hath given you the city.’ (Joshua 6:2-16)

Posted on

Sounding the Shofar at the Western Wall in 1967

Below is a transcript of a live broadcast on Voice of Israel Radio, June 7th, 1967, as IDF forces liberate the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. The recording is now housed in the archives of the Avi Yaffe Recording Studio in Jerusalem.

In addition to the sounds of gunfire, commands, singing and weeping, the shofar was sounded, first by Lt.- Col. Uzi Eilam and later by Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Until then, during the Ottoman and the British occupation of Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed to sound the shofar at the Western Wall. The dramatic moment when Rabbi Goren blew the shofar inspired Israeli poetess and song-writerlyricist Naomi Shemer to add a line to her famous song, Jerusalem of Gold, that reads, “A Shofar calls out from the Temple Mount in the Old City.”

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.

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.] 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 fire 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’s nobody 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: Search the area, make sure to enter every single house, but do not touch anything. Especially in 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 Lord God 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; Rabbi Goren sounds the shofar.] El male rahamim, shohen ba-meromim. Hamtse menuha nahona al kanfei hashina, be-maalot kedoshim, giborim ve-tehorim, kezohar harakiya meirim u-mazhirim. Ve-nishmot halalei tsava hagana le-yisrael, she-naflu be-maaraha zot, neged oievei yisrael, ve-shnaflu al kedushat Hashem ha-am ve-ha’arets, ve-shichrur Beit Hamikdash, Har Habayit, Hakotel ha-ma’aravi veyerushalayim ir ha-elokim. Be-gan eden tehe menuhatam. Lahen ba’al ha-rahamim, yastirem beseter knafav le-olamim. Ve-yitsror be-tsror ha-hayim et nishmatam adoshem hu nahlatam, ve-yanuhu be-shalom al mishkavam [soldiers weeping loud]ve-ya’amdu le-goralam le-kets ha- yamim ve-nomar amen!

[Translation: Merciful God 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 God 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!]

Posted on

The shofar in the Holy Temple

The shofar is the only Jewish musical instrument to have survived two millennia in its original form. The sound of the shofar, wrote Rabbi Saadia Gaon,  struck awe in the hearts and souls of the people. According to the Rambam, the sounding of the shofar served as a reminder to mankind of its obligations toward God, while the Holy Zohar notes that the sound of the shofar awakens the aspect of Higher Mercy.

The shofar is the musical instrument most frequently mentioned in the Tanach (72 times). It played a role both in the religious and secular lives the Jewish people. Only Kohanim (priests) Levites were permitted to sound the Shofar in the Jewish Commonwealth.

The shofar is first mentioned in Shemos 19:16, at the theophany on Sinai. It was also used to proclaim the Jubilee Year (Yovel) and the proclamation of “freedom throughout the land” (Bamidbar 25:9-10). It was sounded on Rosh Hashana, which is designated as Yom Terua (“A day of blowing” Bamidbar 29:1), and was sometimes used in processionals (Joshua 6:4),  as accompaniment for other musical instruments (Tehillim 98:6), as a signal (Shmuel II 15:10, Joshua 6:12), as a clarion call to war (Shoftim 3:27) and to instill fear (Amos 3:6).

When used in the Temple, the shofar was generally sounded in conjunction with the trumpet (chatzotzra).

The shofar had several religious roles recorded in the Tanach, such as the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Shmuel 6:15, Chronicles 15:28), notification of a New Moon (Psalms 81:4); the start of the new year (Numbers 29:1), the Yom Kippur (Vayikra 25:9), the procession preparatory to Sukkot (Mishnah Chullin 1:7), the libation ceremony (Mishnah  Rosh Hashana 4:9) and the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of a festival (Mishnah Chullin 1:7).

The shofar also served several secular roles, such as coronating a king (Shmuel II 5:10;  Kings I 1:34, Kings II 1:13) and for signaling in time of war to rally troops for an offensive, to pursue enemy soldiers and to proclaim victory (Bemidbar 10:9; Judges 6:4; Jeremiah 4:5 and Ezekiel 33:3-6).

On Rosh Hashana and other full holidays (i.e. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage fesitvals, Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos) a single priest performed two sacrifices in honor of the day.

On Rosh Hashana, something special occurred during the Mussaf sacrifice. According to one opinion, two shofar sounders played the long notes and one trumpet player played the short note. Rosh Hashana, therefore, is referred to as Yom Teruah (the Day of the Blast). Otherwise, the trumpets had “top billing.” Rosh Hashanah 27a, supports this claim: “Said Raba, or perhaps Rav Yehoshua Ben Levi: What is the scriptural source for this? It is written, ‘With trumpets and the sound of the shofar shout ye before the King in the Temple,’ therefore we require trumpets and the sound of the shofar, elsewhere not.”

Indeed, on Yom Kippur, the shofar was blown to announce the Jubilee Year (every 50 years Jews were granted freedom, forgiveness of debts and sold lands reverted to their original ownership. The shofar is first mentioned in connection with the Yovel (Jubilee Year –  Vayikra 25:8-13). Indeed, in Rosh Hashana 33b, the sages ask why the shofar sounded in Jubilee year.  Further support is found in Rosh Hashana 29a, where the Talmud speaks of trumpets for sacrifices, but the shofar in the Jubilee Year does not apply to priests who are exempt from the obligations of the jubilee.

Otherwise, for all other special days, the shofar was sounded for a shorter duration and two special silver trumpets announced the sacrifice.

When the trumpets sound the signal, all the people who are within the sacrifice area prostate themselves, stretching out flat, face down toward the ground.

The shofar was blown at the Temple to usher in Shabbat every week. On the lintel of the wall at the top of the Temple an inscription read, “To the house of the blowing of the trumpet [ i.e. shofar]”.  Every Shabbat two men with silver trumpets and a man with a shofar sounded three trumpet blasts, twice during the day.

On Rosh Hashana, the procedure differed.  The shofar is the primary trumpet. According to Vayikra 23:24 and Bamidbar 29, Rosh Hashana is the day of the blowing of the trumpets.  The original name is Yom Terua (the staccato sound of the horn, which also means  “shout”).  According to the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 16a, Mishnah Rosh Hashana 3, 3), the trumpet used for this purpose is the ram’s horn, not trumpets made of metal, as in Bamidbar 10. On Rosh Hashana a shofar is used for the first blast, a silver trumpet the second, and then the shofar follows with the third.

Posted on

Shofar: Biblical factory whistle

In the Babylonian Talmud we find that the shofar was blown every Friday, at the close of the day.

The academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught: On Friday afternoon we sound six shofar blasts announcing the arrival of the Sabbath.

Rabbi Yishmael was a Tanna from the third Tannaitic generation. His studied with Rabbi Akiva. After their deaths, the disciples of these two Torah giants continued their learning in the name of their famous teachers.

The Tanna (“repeaters” or “teachers”) were the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, from approximately 10 CE-220 CE, a time span also referred to as the Mishnaic period, lasting about 210 years. The first shofar sound summoned those who are working in the outer fields to return to their homes to welcome the Sabbath. These distant workers would then meet the workers in the more proximate fields to enter the town together.

The second blast is an order for commerce  to cease to welcome the Sabbath. At home, hot water would be heating in pots.

The third blast instructed that the pots be removed from the fires and the food should be insulated for the next day’s meal.

After the third blast, the Baal Tekiah (shofar sounder) would wait the the amount of time needed to roast a small fish over a fire, or to attach bread dough to the oven walls.

As a final alarm, the shofar sounder (who is attached to the synagogue) ends his blasts with a Tekiah, Teruah and another Tekiah ushering in the Sabbath.

Thus we have six blasts paralleling the number of work days in the week. On the seventh you shall rest.

The Gemara (Sukka 53b and Shabbat 35b) describes a series of six shofar blasts sounded shortly before Shabbat, alerting people to stop working, prepare food and light candles. One of the more fascinating finds originating on the Temple Mount is a stone from the southwest corner of the Temple platform (then one of the highest points in Jerusalem), with an engravement reading: “For the place of trumpeting.” Close to both the Upper City (now known as the Jewish Quarter) and the Lower City, this spot would have been an ideal place to herald the start of the Sabbath – and the daily Temple service.

Shofar in Jerusalem shortly before Shabbat
Shofar blowing late Friday afternoon on a balcony in Jerusalem’s Me’ah She’arim neighborhood, circa 1935

The Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 256), the 16th-century codex compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo, reports that this pre-Sabbath tradition no longer existed in its author’s day, although he had heard of it. In Krakow, Karo’s colleague Rabbi Moshe Isserles recommended the practice accepted in his community, which had replaced the pre-Sabbath shofar blasts with a town crier. One of the few vestiges of this custom is music and an announcement played through the emergency loudspeakers in certain towns and neighborhoods in Israel 20 or 30 minutes before candle-lighting time.

Ongoing Shofar Tradition

The Tunisian island of Djerba is a rarity: a flourishing and even growing traditional Jewish community in a Muslim country. Every Friday one of the local Jewish residents circulates among the one- and two-story homes in the Hara Kabira neighborhood (hara is a Berber word of Greek origin meaning “segregated place”) where most Jews live, encouraging shopkeepers to lock up before Shabbat. Similar procedures were common in Jerusalem, Haifa and other localities in Israel circa 1900, except that in Djerba they also blow the shofar.

Shofar heralds onset of Shabbat in Djerba
Rabbi Biton on a Djerba rooftop. Photo: Ari Zivotofsky

The Rosh Hashana sequence of ten shofar blasts (various combinations of tekia, terua, and shevarim notes) is sounded twice – once about 10 minutes before candle-lighting, to remind people to halt all business, and once when the candles are to be lit. According to the locals, the practice was suspended in other communities for fear of the non-Jews. Living as they do in an essentially all-Jewish district, Djerba’s Jews have no such concerns.

Community rabbi Chaim Biton has been the shofar blower for almost 50 years, having inherited the role from a cousin while still in his teens. To this day, if you take up a listening position in the town square or a rooftop, you will see Rabbi Biton start glancing at his watch and then put the shofar to his lips. He repeats the shofar sequences for several minutes. Everyone in Djerba has watches and cell phones, so the Jews all know exactly what the time is, yet they savor this charming anachronism.

This article was based on material provided by Arthur Finkle and an article published in Segula Magazine

Posted on

Gideon’s might, military prowess and the shofar

But the spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon; and he blew a shofar; and Abiezer was gathered together after him. Judges 6:34

At first glance this verse seems to merely record how Gideon called up the troops, using the shofar like a bugle or another type of horn. But note that the summons to battle is juxtaposed with a profound spiritual change in Gideon. The classical commentators explain that Gideon was “enclothed” with a spirit of might and courage from G-d. Then he blows the shofar.

Gideon used the shofar to summon Aviezer, but to summon troops from elsewhere he sent messengers. The Aviezer clan was devoted, and apparently joined him instinctively upon hearing the call of the shofar.

gideon's men sound the shofar during battleThe shofar appears again in Chapter 7. After Gideon pares down his troops to an elite fighting force of 300 shock troops, he equips each soldier with a shofar. These shofars were not intended merely as a tactical combat tool, but to gain spiritual advantage as well. As Rashi notes (Judges 7:13), they carried shofars and torches as reminders of the merit of the Giving of the Torah.

In From Dan to Megiddo, Rabbi Benjamin Fleischer writes that the Sages placed Gideon on a level with Moses and Samuel, and as a general, alongside Joshua and Barak. His brilliant tactic of using shofars and torches to confound the enemy transformed his soldiers “as if by magic, suddenly, in a super-natural manner into heroes and fearless fighters, revived by a spirit of celestial fire and zeal, with an awakening of higher national consciousness of their pure and Divine faith.”

From a practical military perspective, Gideon’s battle plan was based on a knowledge of the composition of the enormous Midian army, with its fierce cavalry 150,000 strong. He took into consideration the fact that the barbarian army was a heterogeneous amalgamation of various races and nations, with no unifed command and no uniformity of discipline or military conduct. Likewise they were unaquainted with the lingual customs of the various tribes and divisions that constituted the army.

When confronted by Israel’s surprise attack in the middle of the night, breaking into the center of the camp, general panic ensued. As their military order vanished, they fled like a terrified mob, trampling their own men and scattering in all directions.

Posted on

Shofar as a primal experience

Blowing the shofar is an intensely primal experience that connects you with earth and sky. There is a lot of sensory engagement in keeping mitzvahs, but the shofar takes this to a very high level. It’s a ram’s horn or a kudu horn, it smells like an animal horn.

“There’s something very primal and earthy and wild about it,” writes Jordia Gerson. “It has a similar smell to the smell that you get when you open a Torah scroll, since a kosher Torah scroll is made of animal skin. They both smell like animal…”

So many areas of our lives are unnaturally sanitized today. We live in closed, climate-controlled environments, with air filters and ionizers. In fact, some scientific research, the Hygiene Hypothesis, even suggests that our super clean and sanitized environments may actually be making us sick!

In high school and college, I used to go on three- and four-day backpacking trips. One summer a friend and I went into the Sierra Nevado Mountains for a 10-day jaunt. After about a week of zero exposure to cleaning solutions, car exhaust, air conditioners, etc. I started picking up subtle smells in the world around me. Not just pine needles and fields, but even tree bark and boulders from several feet away. The kinds of smells dogs and cats and horses are attuned to, but which escape the senses of modern man.

Perhaps the shofar is a hedge against becoming overly sanitized, something like working in the garden and getting dirt under your fingernails.

Blowing the shofar bonds you with nature. Arguably, the shofar is meant to be blown outdoors. All of the shofar blowing described in Tanach occurred in the open air. The shofar horn is a signaling device meant to be heard over long distances. There would be no need to sound it in the generally small rooms of Biblical-era structures.

Posted on

What did the original shofars look like?

The Talmud  states that the trumpet was made of silver while the processed horn of one of the five animal species — antelope, gazelle, sheep, goat and mountain goat — was used to carry out the ritual commandment of the sounding of the shofar (Rosh Hashanah 27a).

Shofar blow in synagogue on Rosh HashanaIt also notes that preferrably the shofar should be made of a rams horn or wild goat horn, because they are curved. Rabbi Judah says, “The shofar for Rosh Hashanah must be made of the horn of a ram, to indicate submission.”

Traditionally a ram’s horn is sounded on those days because of its association with the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac (the Akeidah), which serves as the Torah reading for the second day of the festival.

Conversely, a cow’s horn may not be used because of the incident of the golden Calf (Rosh Hashana 3:2). The shofar may not be painted, though it can be gilded or carved with artistic designs, as long as the mouthpiece remains natural.

A shofar with a hole in its side wall or a chip in its mouthpiece is deemed halachically unfit, though it may be used if no other one is available (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 586).

Posted on

History of the Yemenite shofar

Is the Yemenite shofar a brand new development, or does it have roots in ancient tradition?

On a social media site a user posed the following question:

Growing up I only saw short shofars that actually looked like horns from a ram. At some point these very long shofars showed up. Are they naturally from a ram?

Jay Gurewitsch posted an interesting reply from a social-historical perspective:

The really long, curlicued shofarot (plural for shofar in Hebrew) are from the Kudu and is the standard shofar for the Yemenite Jewish community.

The fact that they “showed up” as you put it is actually quite a tale of religious intolerance being overcome. They became the “in” shofar in Israel in the 60s and 70s and their popularity has spread worldwide since then, I assume through Jewish tourists buying them and bringing them home. The Yemenite community was airlifted en masse to Israel in 1949 in a secret operation known as Operation Magic Carpet. After years of severe discrimination by the European born Jews in charge of religious and secular Israeli institutions, they eventually gained enough political power in Israel so that their traditions and community standards were accepted, and as with their shofar, even became popular with Jews worldwide who saw it as the cool, new thing. Personally, I love the fact that Ashkenazi Jews worldwide now use a Yemenite traditional shofar. Perhaps if more people knew the background of that shofar they might be more tolerant of differences within the Jewish community.

The problem with his answer is that it’s inaccurate to say that the kudu shofar is “standard” in the Yemenite Jewish community. Many Yemenite Jews rely predominantly on the Rambam in halachic matters, much like Sephardim rely primarily on the Shulchan Aruch and Ashkenazim rely on the Shulchan Aruch with the glosses of the Rema. And guess what? The Rambam holds that a shofar must be made from a ram’s horn, not a kudu horn. So it would seem the Yemenite shofar is not so Yemenite.

However, a large segment of Yemenite Jewry did not accept the Rambam as the main decisor of halacha, and they do have a custom to use a kudu horn on Rosh Hashana.

According to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, today the majority of Yemenite shofars are made from a kudu horn, and he argues that ironically, since a significant segment of Yemenite Jewry adheres to the Rambam’s rulings, a kudu shofar is actually more kosher for use among Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews (who follow the Shulchan Aruch) than for Yemenite Jews.

Kudu Horn among Yemenite Jews

What is a Yemenite shofar? A Yemenite shofar is made from the horns of the greater kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros, a large antelope whose horns, with up to three full twists, are among the largest of any animal. Owing to their magnificent appearance, they are often used outside of the Yemenite Jewish community, but because they originated there, they are commonly referred to as “Yemenite shofars.”

Yemenite shofar made from a kudu horn
Yemenite shofar

The last chief rabbi of Yemen, Rabbi Amram Korach, writes that Yemenites were accustomed to blow a “long and twisted [shofar], two or three twists, and its sound was pure and eerie. Some said that it 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 enhances the mitzvah in its stature and its sound was stronger than that of a sheep’s horn, and to the present day they blow the mitzvah blasts with this shofar, according to the rulings of the Geonim that all twisted shofars are undoubtedly kosher” (Sa’arat Teiman, Jerusalem 1954).

Rabbi Ovady Melamed argues that rams’ horns are easier to obtain than kudu Yemenite shofar horns, and this proves that there must have been an ancient Yemenite tradition that predated the Rambam, according to which kudu horns are acceptable, and perhaps even preferable because of the greater number of curves.

However, Rabbi Shlomo Muchrar, an elderly Yemenite who now lives in the Haifa area, says he recalls that the kudu horn was only used because in certain parts of Yemen sheep with usable horns were virtually non-existent.

Buy a Yemenite Shofar>>

Buy a Traditional Ram’s Horn Shofar>>