The Shofar: An Awesome Tale for Rosh HaShanah from the Ghetto

To which extend would Jews go to fulfill the Mitzvah of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah and the Yomim Noraim hold a special place in the hearts of Jewish people around the world. These days of awe resonate deeply, not only with those actively practicing Judaism but also with those who may only step into a synagogue during these holy days each year. This phenomenon, often referred to as the “revolving door Jew,” highlights the strong, albeit sometimes latent, connection many feel to these significant times.

In Kabbalah, the shofar holds central importance in the Rosh Hashanah service and has awesome transformative power. Its sound is akin to a primal scream, representing the soul’s deep yearning for reconnection with Hashem.

Interestingly, this sound is not produced through a harmonious musical instrument but through a simple, hollow horn, which is an allusion to the Yesod of Arich Anpin from where the “voices” (kolot) emanate and sweeten the Judgments (dinim). Each blast serves to not only bring Mokhin but also shatter spiritual barriers, allowing the light of the soul of those who are listening to emerge more purely.

The shofar also recalls the “Akedat Yitzhak” (Binding of Yitzhak), where Avraham Avinu sacrifices a ram in place of his son. Kabbalistically, this moment is etched in the fabric of reality as it represents the ultimate submission to Hashem’s will and the transformation of potential extreme judgment into mercy. The sound of the shofar is thus imbued with the power of sacrifice, redemption, and the transformation of judgments into mercy, resonating through the higher worlds.

The Ram in the place of Akedat Yitzhak

A Tale of Courage and Faith Under the King’s Watch

One of the most captivating tales associated with Rosh Hashanah involves Don Fernando Aguilar, a figure from a genre of stories that might be described as “if it didn’t happen, it could have happened.” This narrative shows the resilience and ingenuity of the Jewish spirit throughout history.

During a visit to Spain to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s passing, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yona Metzger, shared a poignant story with King Juan Carlos of Spain, illustrating the secretive yet vibrant practice of Judaism under oppressive conditions.

More than five centuries ago, after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, those who remained had to disguise their faith. On Rosh Hashanah, they faced the dilemma of sounding the shofar without attracting attention. The solution came from Don Fernando Aguilar, a talented Marrano and royal conductor. He proposed a concert of ancient wind instruments to the king, strategically scheduled on Rosh Hashanah. The highlight was the shofar, introduced to the audience under the guise of a historical artifact. This clever arrangement allowed the Marranos to fulfill the Mitzvah, without risk of persecution.

The Historical Echoes of Rosh Hashanah 1940

The narrative of Rosh Hashanah does not only resonate in tales of the distant past but also in more recent history. During World War II, Rosh Hashanah of 1940 presented unique challenges as it coincided with Shabbat, complicating observance for Jewish soldiers. Rav Yaakov Breish of Zurich addressed a poignant halachic question: Could these soldiers travel on Shabbat to hear the shofar if it was the only way they could observe the holiday?

Drawing parallels with halachic rulings on travel before Shabbat, Rav Breish permitted the soldiers to return to their duties on Shabbat after observing Rosh Hashanah. I’m sure many Rabbis would’ve disagreed with this ruling. However, Rav Breish ruled against using technology such as radios or microphones to broadcast the shofar blasts, maintaining that one must hear the shofar directly to fulfill the commandment properly. This is however not a surprise, since it’s basic halacha from a Mishnah that one who hears an “echo” from a tree stump but not the main sound, does not fulfill it.

Reflections and Relevance

These stories from Rosh Hashanah history not only reflect the resilience and ingenuity of the Jewish people but also highlight the profound spiritual connection to this holy day, transcending time and adversity. In telling these stories, we pass down a legacy of perseverance and faith that defines the Jewish experience during Rosh Hashanah and the Yomim Noraim, reminding us of our ancestors’ dedication and the enduring relevance of these ancient practices.

The Kovno Ghetto: A Test of Faith and Resilience

During the harrowing days of the Kovno Ghetto under Nazi oppression, the Jewish community faced unimaginable challenges that tested their emunah and resolve. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003), who was revered as a leader, was confronted with life-altering decisions that highlighted the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people during World War II.

As Rosh Hashanah approached in 5703 (1942), the Jewish community in the ghetto was faced with a cruel decree from the Nazis prohibiting all public prayers under penalty of death. Despite the grave risks, the Jews of Kovno showed remarkable courage. Rabbi Oshry recalls how multiple secret minyans were organized, demonstrating the community’s unwavering commitment to the Torah.

One poignant query addressed to Rabbi Oshry involved a Jewish man who had been disfigured by Nazi brutality, raising the question of whether he could lead the congregation in prayer as the shliach tzibbur (prayer leader). Despite some halachic opinions suggesting that a person with physical blemishes might be disqualified from this role, Rabbi Oshry, understanding the extraordinary circumstances, permitted him to serve.

Shofar in the Ghetto

The Shofar’s Echo in the Ghetto

Another profound dilemma arose concerning the use of a damaged shofar. Just before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Oshry was asked whether a shofar that was slightly cracked could still be used for the essential mitzvah of hearing the shofar blasts. After careful consideration and citing halachic precedents, he ruled that in such dire circumstances (sha’at hadechak), where no other shofar was available, it was permissible to use the cracked shofar to fulfill this commandment.

One of the most stirring accounts of Rosh Hashanah observance during the Holocaust comes from Rav Tzvi Hirsh Meisels, who served as the Rabbi of Weitzen, Hungary before being deported to Auschwitz with many of his congregants and students. In his sefer, Mekadshei Hashem, he recounts the extraordinary risks he took to perform the mitzvah of tekias shofar (the blowing of the shofar).

Rav Meisels managed to smuggle a shofar into Auschwitz, a place where the mere act of observing Jewish traditions could lead to death. Despite the immense danger, he moved from block to block, blowing the shofar for those who yearned to fulfill this crucial mitzvah. “Baruch Hashem (Blessed be Hashem), I managed to blow the hundred blasts about twenty times,” he recalls in his writings, describing the deep relief and spiritual solace this brought to many, even in the darkest of places.

The tale grows even more poignant as Rav Meisels narrates an encounter with a group of young prisoners. These youths, facing imminent death, implored him to blow the shofar for them one last time. Despite the profound risk to his own life and the heart-wrenching pleas of his son Zalman, who feared becoming orphaned, Rav Meisels was moved by the desperate cries of these young souls. He decided to honor their request, a decision that exemplifies the profound faith and bravery that characterized his spiritual leadership.

As he prepared to leave the block after fulfilling their wishes, a young prisoner rose to remind everyone of the power of hope and faith. Together, they recited the “Shema Yisroel” (Hear, O Israel), a prayer affirming their unwavering faith in Hashem, even in the face of imminent death.

DALL·E 2024 05 13 10.09.55 A poignant and dramatic scene in a concentration camp showing a Jewish man blowing a shofar. The background features the stark and barren landscape o

Legacy of Hope and Redemption

The shofar’s call is not just a sound; it is a spiritual alarm that awakens our deepest selves, urging us to strip away the superficial and reconnect with Hashem through genuine Teshuva.

From the teachings of the Kabbalah, which show us the shofar as a tool to shatter spiritual barriers, to the moving stories of its sounds piercing the air of Auschwitz, we see a thread of unyielding strength and faith. These stories and teachings highlight not only the power of the spirit of those who clung to the Torah in the most horrifying conditions but also serve as a powerful reminder of the human capacity for courage and resilience.

May the merit of these teki’ot, blown in times of peril, indeed lead us to a time of ultimate redemption and peace, heralded by the shofar blasts of Eliyahu Hanavi (which will happen soon). As we listen to the echoes of the shofar this Rosh Hashanah, let us remember its call to Teshuva, reflect, and recommit to a life aligned with our highest, most sacred selves.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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