Shofar at the Kotel

In those years, the area in front of the Kotel did not look as it does today. Only a narrow alley separated the Kotel and the Arab houses on its other side.

The British Government forbade us to place an Ark, tables or benches in the alley; even a small stool could not be brought to the Kotel. The British also instituted the following ordinances, designed to humble the Jews at the holiest place of their faith: it is forbidden to pray out loud, lest one upset the Arab residents; it is forbidden to read from the Torah (those praying at the Kotel had to go to one of the synagogues in the Jewish quarter to conduct the Torah reading); it is forbidden to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The British Government placed policemen at the Kotel to enforce these rules.

On Yom Kippur of that year [1930] I was praying at the Kotel. During the brief intermission between the musaf and minchah prayers, I overheard people whispering to each other: “Where will we go to hear the Shofar? It’ll be impossible to blow here. There are as many policemen as people praying…” The Police Commander himself was there, to make sure that the Jews will not sound the single blast that closes the fast!

I listened to these whisperings and thought to myself: Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the Shofar that accompanies our proclamation of the sovereignty of G-d!? Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the Shofar which symbolizes the Redemption of Israel!? True, the sounding of the Shofar at the close of Yom Kippur is only a custom, but “A Jewish custom is Torah”! I approached Rabbi Yitzchak Horenstein, who served as the Rabbi of our “congregation,” and said to him: “Give me a Shofar.”

“What for?”

“I’ll blow.”

“What are you talking about? Don’t you see the police?”

“I’ll blow.”

The Rabbi abruptly turned away from me, but not before he cast a glance at the prayer stand at the left end of the alley. I understood: the Shofar was in the stand. When the hour of the blowing approached, I walked over to the stand and leaned against it.

I opened the drawer and slipped the Shofar into my shirt. I had the Shofar, but what if they saw me before I had a chance to blow it? I was still unmarried at the time, and following the Ashkenazic custom, did not wear a tallit. I turned to the person praying at my side and asked him for his tallit. My request must have seemed strange to him, but the Jews are a kind people, especially at the holiest moments of the holiest day, and he handed me his tallit without a word.

I wrapped myself in the tallit. At that moment, I felt that I had created my own private domain. All around me a foreign government prevails, ruling over the people of Israel even on their holiest day and at their holiest place, and we are not free to serve our G‑d; but under this tallit is another domain. Here I am under no dominion save that of my Father in Heaven; here I shall do as He commands me, and no force on earth will stop me.

When the closing verses of the Neilah prayer – “Shema Yisrael..” – “Hear O Israel”, “Blessed be the name…” and “The L-rd is G‑d” — were proclaimed, I took out the Shofar and blew a long, resounding blast. Everything happened very quickly. Many hands grabbed me. I removed the tallit from over my head, and before me stood the Police Commander, who ordered my arrest.

I was taken to the kishla, the prison in the Old City, and an Arab policeman was appointed to watch over me. Many hours passed; I was given no food or water to break my fast. At midnight, the policeman received an order to release me, and he let me out without a word. I then learned that when the chief rabbi of the Holy Land, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, heard of my arrest, he immediately contacted the secretary of High Commissioner of Palestine, and asked that I be released. When his request was refused, he stated that he would not break his fast until I was freed. The High Commissioner resisted for many hours, but finally, out of respect for the Rabbi, he had no choice but to set me free.

For the next eighteen years, until the Arab conquest of the Old City in 1948, the Shofar was sounded at the Kotel every Yom Kippur. The British well understood the significance of this blast; they knew that it will ultimately demolish their reign over our land as the walls of Jericho crumbled before the Shofar of Joshua, and they did everything in their power to prevent it. But every Yom Kippur, the Shofar was sounded by men who knew they would be arrested for their part in staking our claim on the holiest of our possessions.

As seen in The Jewish Weekly newsletter #211 section: It Once Happened…and slightly adapted from Chabad.org/moshe segal.

*Moshe Segal immigrated with his parents and family from Poltava, Ukraine in 1924 at the age of 20. In 1929, in response to Britian’s decrees limiting Jewish rights and religious observance in Israel proper and in Jerusalem, Segal organized a large demonstration to the Kotel on Tisha b’Av. He became part of the Hagana and founded the Etzel military movement. In 1930, he bravely and boldly blew the Shofar at the Kotel in defiance of the law of the British Mandate, for which he was arrested. Each year following until 1948, when Eastern Jerusalem fell to Jordan, Segal arranged that a Shofar be smuggled into the Western Wall area and he trained young men, some as young as 13, to boldly defy the law and blow the Shofar at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service. To watch a fascinating first-hand account about the Blowing of the Shofar during these turbulent years, please see Chabad.org video: Eyewitness 1948: Echoes of a Shofar. The last young man who blew the Shofar in 1947 was a soldier in Israel and present when Israel captured Eastern Jerusalem and the Kotel in 1967 during the miraculous Six Day War. After 19 painful years, when Jews were not allowed to go to the Kotel (under Jordanian rule), he and Rabbi Segal were among the liberators who blew the Shofar along with Rabbi Goren. It was a very emotional moment for all present and for all Jews!

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