Rosh Hashanah and the whole gamut of the Yomim Noraim occupy a distinctive niche in every Jewish heart. Even Jews who have strayed cling obstinately to these days, leading to the heartbreaking “revolving door Jew” phenomenon of Jews who enter the shul’s portals only three days a year, and lehavdil, Jews throughout history have observed these times with utter messirus nefesh.
Under the King’s Nose
Although Don Fernando Aguilar, the protagonist of the famous Rosh Hashanah tale that follows, is known to us by his name, in reality, the story has little historical basis and belongs to the inspiring “if it didn’t happen it could have happened” genre.
Six years ago, when the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yona Metzger, was visiting sunny Spain in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s passing, he presented King Juan Carlos of Spain with a long, curved shofar covered with silver depictions of the Kosel, a menorah, and a royal crown. When the king mistakenly surmised that the shofar was an appurtenance used for the cruel Spanish sport of Torero that entails inebriated Spaniards chasing raging bulls through the streets, the Rav enlightened him with the following story:
Over five hundred years ago, when your great-greatgrandfathers expelled my forefathers from Spain, thousands remained in Spain pretending to be faithful Catholics, while practicing their faith underground. Every Rosh Hashanah they were faced with the same dilemma: how to blow shofar in a locked cellar and ensure that none of its piercing notes broke out into the street. One year, one of them came up with a unique solution.
Don Fernando Aguilar, a talented Marrano who served as royal conductor, suggested to the king that it would be a wonderful idea to arrange a historical concert using ancient wind instruments. Delighted at the idea, the king instructed him to reserve the largest theatre in Spain for the occasion, and with the king’s royal imprimatur the conductor reserved a specific day in September – Rosh Hashanah.
When the big day arrived, the king, his family, and the greatest ministers sat in the front rows, while behind them, hundreds of Marranos waited impatiently for the “show” to begin. Before starting, the conductor held the shofar high for all to see and explained: ‘Revered King. This horn is a historical artifact the Jews used to blow on the first days of their year before you expelled them from your country. You will now be privileged not only to hear its strange chords, but also the blessings the Jews recited beforehand.
Then, the conductor recited the blessing and lustily blew the hundred blasts to exempt his brethren among the audience.
Deeply moved by the story, King Juan Carlos of Spain told Rav Metzger, “Dear Rabbi, you see around me many gifts from all over the world, yet I think that this gift is of the greatest historical significance, and I am grateful to you for sharing it with me.”
The Third Day
Like Rosh Hashanah this year, so the two days of Rosh Hashanah 1940, in the second year of World War II, began on Wednesday night and were followed by Shabbos. At that time, when unprecedented thousands of young Jewish men were drafted into the armed forces of their respective countries, Rav Yaakov Breish of Zurich (Chelkas Yaakov O.C. 61) was asked the following shailah:
“This year, Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday and Friday. Many Jews, due to the terrible conflict, are in the army where they cannot daven in tzibbur or hear the shofar. The government is permitting them to travel home for the two days of Rosh Hashanah on condition that on the day after Rosh Hashanah, that is, on Shabbos, they return to the army. I was asked if it is permitted for them to accept this furlough for two days… since the Shulchan Aruch rules in chapter 586:21 that one may not desecrate Yom Tov even with a shvus derabanan such as climbing a tree, in order to hear the shofar.”
In reply to this shailah, Rav Breish compared the situation to the halochah that requires someone to set off on a sea voyage three days before Shabbos when there is a risk that he may be forced to do melocha en route. If a person is on his way to do a mitzvah, however, he may set off even less than three days before Shabbos. Based on this precedent, Rav Breish permitted the soldiers to take their furlough in order to fulfill the mitzvos of Rosh Hashanah even if this might lead to issurim when they returned afterwards on Shabbos.
To another question, he gave a negative answer (O.C. 82). Asked whether it was possible to blow via a radio or microphone for soldiers who were unable to hear the te- kiyos, he ruled that this would be invalid since the microphone or radio would be assisting in the propagation of the shofar blast and they would not be hearing the pristine sound of the shofar itself.
The Kovno Ghetto
Far more drastic shailos (MiMaamakim 2:11) were brought to Rav Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003) who was the decisor of many life and death questions during the existence of the Kovno Ghetto during Nazi oppression. In one teshuvah, he describes the courage of the Kovno Jews on Rosh Hashanah, and discusses whether someone who was rendered physically flawed through Nazi brutality could be a shliach tzibbur on Rosh Hashanah:
“Question: ״.It was decreed that every public prayer is forbidden and that whoever violated this order would be liable for the death penalty, and how much more not to gather and bless Hashem publicly on Yom Tov. The cursed Germans enacted this decree about two weeks before Rosh Hashanah 5703, when the Jews imprisoned in the Kovno Ghetto were intending to blow the shofar according to halochah, and to daven that Hashem take them from dark to light and be their shelter at this time of tribulation״
“Despite their decree and the mortal danger involved in disobeying this decree, countless minyans were arranged in the ghetto, and even those whose hearts had strayed and never davened, joined their believing brothers in prayer, that He who dwells on high should hear our voices and save us״ Even in the ghetto hospital the director, Dr. Zacharin, organized a minyan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even though he was always assimilated and far from Jewish matters. At that time, a question was brought to me״”
In brief, Rav Oshry’s shailah involved a Jew who was supposed to serve as the chazzan at the hospital minyan, but had now become a baal mum at the hands of the Germans. According to some sources, it would seem that such a person is invalid to serve as shliach tzibbur. After analyzing the sources, Rav Oshry permitted this specific case and even joined the minyan: “I too davened with that minyan in the hospital, and I delivered a derosha after Kol Nidrei to inspire people’s hearts to their Father in heaven, that He should have mercy on His nation and speedily save them.”
Another shailah Rav Oshry addressed was whether some prisoners could use a partially split shofar if nothing else was available.
“Question: On the day before Rosh Hashanah of 5703, I received a question from the prison camp known as the Kashederer Lager, asking whether they could fulfill the mitzvah of listening to the shofar with a shofar that was slightly cracked longitudinally at its wide end, as they cannot get hold of any other shofar to fulfill their obligation.”
After demonstrating that the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 27a) only invalidates such a shofar when it is split along its whole length, Rav Oshry concludes, “How much more so will this apply in our case where there is no greater sha’as hadechak (emergency situation) as they have no possibility of getting another shofar, and especially as they want to fulfill this mitzvah so long as they remain alive. Who knows what the morrow will bring and if they will ever manage to fulfill this great mitzvah due to destructive death and murder of these cursed, wicked people. Therefore, it seems clear that they can fulfill the mitzvah of shofar with a shofar that is partially cracked as in our case.”
Blowing in Auschwitz
Perhaps the most famous Rosh Hashanah incident of those dark times was related by Rav Tzvi Hirsh Meisels who served as the Rav of Weitzen, Hungary, until 1944, and was then sent to Auschwitz together with many of his congregants and talmidim. In the introduction to his sefer, Mekadshei Hashem, he describes how he risked his life to help fellow prisoners fulfill the mitzvah of tekias shofar for the last time. The following transcript (once cited in Rav Meisels’ biography) is abridged.
“I had managed to bring a shofar into the camp and on Rosh Hashanah I went from block to block with the sho- far in order to blow, even though this was a great danger,” he writes. “Baruch Hashem, I managed to blow the hundred blasts about twenty times and this was a great relief to people, to fulfill the mitzvah of shofar blowing even in Auschwitz.”
In addition, Rav Meisels endangered his life when some youngsters begged him to enter their block and enable them to hear the shofar for the last time:
“The youths about to be burnt cried out bitterly that I should come in to blow the hundred blasts before them in order to fulfill the mitzvah in their last moments. I was uncertain what to do in this life-threatening situation. It was close to evening when the Nazis might come to take them; if they arrived suddenly when I was among them there is no doubt that I would be taken as well. In addition to these doubts, my son, Zalman standing at my side begged me, ‘Father, father, do not do this for Hashem’s sake so that I do not remain orphaned!’ Nonetheless, the youths’ cries gave my soul no rest.
“I decided that no matter what, I would not refuse their request. In return for a large sum the kapos allowed me to enter, warning me that if I heard a bell ring at the gate, this would indicate that the S.S. were arriving at the camp and they would no longer allow me to leave. I went inside after ordering my son, Zalman, to stand outside and watch the camp gate. If he saw the S.S. drawing near the gate, he should immediately run and inform me.
“After I finished blowing, one youngster got up and shouted, ‘Dear friends, the Rebbi has told us that even if a sharp sword lies over a person’s neck, you should not give up hope of Hashem’s mercy. I tell you, we can hope for the best, but we must prepare for the worst. For Hashem’s sake, brothers, let us not forget in this last minute to shout out Shema Yis- roel!’ They all loudly shouted the verse Shema Yisroel with tears and great feeling.”
May the z’chus of the teki’os of Klal Yisroel blown in times of danger and stress soon bring us to the shofar blasts of Eliyahu Hanavi.