When Sounding the Shofar Was a Crime in Jerusalem

September 24, 2014

3 min read

There is no more powerful sound than the blast of the Shofar. To the Jewish people, the Shofar is not some primitive trumpet; rather, it is the instrument which accompanied our most glorious national episodes. The Shofar provided the soundtrack for the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) and was Joshua’s secret weapon as he sieged the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6) and in Gideon’s battle with Midian (Judges 7). As we prepare for Rosh Hashana which is referred to as ‘Yom Teruah’ the day of the sounding of the Shofar (Leviticus 23), its important to remember that the Shofar was not merely a source of inspiration in Biblical times, it has a vital role throughout all of history, past, present and future.

Much attention has been paid to the discriminatory practices against Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This past June, a ten year old Jewish boy was nearly arrested for praying on Judaism’s holiest site for fear of provoking local Muslims. Unfortunately, this is not a recent phenomenon and already during the period of the British Mandate, when England controlled Palestine from 1922 to 1948, Jews were forbidden full access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, for fear of offending Arab sensibilities. In 1929, the British increased their discriminatory policy: while allowing Jews to pray at the Western Wall, they distributed pamphlets and hung posters forbidding Jewish worshippers from ‘provoking’ the Arabs, and criminalized the act of blowing the Shofar at the Kotel during the High Holy Days.

Jerusalem’s Jewish population was stunned at the announcement and determined to resist the British orders. In defiance, at the concluding service of Yom Kippur, a member of Menachem Begin’s youth movement snuck in and covertly blew the Shofar. After years of this unlawful behavior every Yom Kippur, British police began stepping up their presence at the holy site, ready to pounce upon anyone caught breaking the law. On Yom Kippur 1943, as the evening progressed, the British guards pressed their way into the mass of praying Jews. When they heard the sound of the Shofar they flew into a frenzy. The young “culprit” who blew the Shofar was tackled while other police beat those who tried to defend him. Israel’s future Prime Minister Menachem Begin witnessed this brutality and was shocked to think this is how Jews are treated on our holiest day of the year, at the holiest spot in Judaism!

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This traumatic sight caused Begin to resolve to turn the tables on the British bullies. With a daring sense of audacity, ten days before Yom Kippur in 1944, Menachem Begin, as the leader of the Jewish underground, instructed his followers to distribute pamphlets and hang posters throughout the streets of Jerusalem warning that any British policeman who would disturb the Jewish prayer services at the Western Wall “will be regarded as a criminal and be punished accordingly.” His warnings became more intense and piercing, causing all sorts of rumors to be circulated concerning the type of punishment the British might expect.

Tension filled the air and increased over the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The fateful night arrived, and at the Western Wall the cantor chanted the final words of Yom Kippur’s closing service while the congregation fervently responded with deep emotion and the British police stood around nervously waiting. Suddenly, the air was pierced by the long, loud, single blast of the Shofar from the lips of the boy who was beaten the previous year for performing the same act. Not a single British officer moved. After a long pause, the commanding officer ordered his men to “Fall out. Return to the barracks at the double – one, two, one, two, one, two.”

With the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel, the Shofar has once again been used as a rallying cry to inspire the People of Israel and the world. We pray that this Rosh Hashana proves to be the final harbinger for the prophetic fulfillment of the ultimate purpose for the Shofar, “and on that day [of Redemption] a Tekiya will be sounded from a great Shofar” (Isaiah 27:13).

This video tells the remarkable story of six young men who courageously risked punishment under the pre-1948 British Mandate, to sound the shofar at the Western Wall at the close of Yom Kippur, and of their reunification years later at the Wall to retell their stories.

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