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Rabbi Moshe Segal: The Yom Kippur Shofar of Liberty

Long ago, the mitzvah of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah was performed during Shacharit—the morning prayer. The Jerusalem Talmud[1] explains that the sages moved the shofar blowing to the Mussaf prayer because “One time, when they blew the shofar during the morning prayer, the enemies of the Jews thought the Jews were attacking them and they rose up and killed them.”[2]

Researcher Ze’ev Golan, author of the book, Shofarot of Rebellion writes, “The sound of the shofar has always been used to sound an alarm, and more than once was used to sound the call to rebellion.” Among the many fascinating stories in his book, his book describes what he calls “the longest ongoing campaign” that the underground Jewish military groups conducted during the British occupation of the Land of Israel. Despite the fact that the British forbade blowing the shofar, every year at the end of Yom Kippur, a long shofar blast was nonetheless blown at the Western Wall. This initiative, which became a tradition, was started by Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Segal of blessed memory (HaRav Ginsburgh’s father-in-law), who at the time was a young teenager from a Chabad family.

It all began when the Arabs of Jerusalem, upon direction from the Mufti of Jerusalem, started harassing the Jews who came to pray at the Western Wall. They would intentionally bring donkeys and other large animals to the narrow alleys leading to the Western Wall and block access. Young Moshe Tzvi Segal, who was active in the Beitar movement, led a large protest march on Tisha B’Av of 5689 (1929), in which approximately 2000 Jews marched from the New City of Jerusalem toward the Western Wall.

After the Arab massacres of Jews, which began just a few days after Tisha B’Av, the British decided that no Torah Ark, benches, nor partitions could be erected in the narrow alley at the foot of the Western Wall. They also forbade any shofar blowing there. They stationed many of their officers there to enforce the new rules.

Rabbi Kook Threatens a Hunger Strike

About two months later, on Yom Kippur of 5690 (1929), as the sun was about to set, Moshe Tzvi Segal asked the Rabbi of the Wailing Wall for a shofar. The Rabbi was afraid to anger the British, and made a slight gesture, pointing Moshe Tzvi to where the shofar was kept. From under a prayer shawl that he borrowed from one of the worshippers, Moshe Tzvi blew a long blast from the shofar. The British police arrested him immediately, and brought him directly to the Kishle police station near the Western Wall. At midnight, Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook called the British High Commissioner. He threatened that he would not break his fast and would turn it into a hunger strike if Rabbi Segal would not be released. Rabbi Segal was indeed released and students from Rabbi Kook’s Merkaz Harav Yeshivah accompanied him back to the New City where he broke his fast.

Rabbi Segal later related that under the prayer shawl that covered him while he was blowing the shofar, he was engulfed by a sense that he was in “an independent and autonomous Jewish territory.”

Rabbi Segal’s act of defiance against the British occupation became a tradition upheld every year by the underground groups he was associated with. From that year, 1929, the shofar was blown at the end of every Yom Kippur, until the Old City fell into Jordanian hands during the War of Independence. Rabbi Segal guided many of the underground members who blew the shofar, taught them the proper intentions to have while blowing the shofar, and also waited for their debriefing after they blew the shofar. The young men blowing the shofar each year, played a game of cat and mouse with the British officers. Some of the shofar blowers managed to outwit the British police, but those who were caught were usually jailed for a few months. Later, the British made the sentence for blowing the shofar even harsher. They very well understood the meaning of the supplication in the Silent Prayer, when we call out to the Almighty, “Blow the great shofar of our liberty.”

Renewing Tradition

After the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, Rabbi Segal came to pray at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur of 1967. He was also the first person to dare to return to live in the destroyed Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Without the need to organize them, all the worshippers grouped in a few dozen minyanim (prayer quorums) that were scattered around the newly formed prayer plaza gathered together, waiting for him to complete his prayers and blow the shofar to signify the end of the fast.

In the following years, Rabbi Segal would climb up to the Mugrabi Gate that overlooks the Western Wall Plaza and would blow the shofar from there. The Mugrabi (literally, “the Western”) is one of the gateways to the Temple Mount. When blowing the shofar, Rabbi Segal was met with either a locked gate or sometimes Israeli police officers would stand between him and an open gate. However, one year, in a moment of good will, the gate was opened for him, and the officers allowed the sound of the shofar to roll into the Temple Mount. In 5740 (1980), under Rabbi Segal’s guidance, two youths managed to enter the Temple Mount and blow the shofar there, apparently for the first time in 1700 years, since the days of the Great Rebellion.

Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Segal’s blew the shofar at the Western Wall until 1985, when he passed away, how symbolically appropriate, on the eve of Yom Kippur.

The tradition that was renewed after many long years of disconnection ended in 5746 (1986).  Fittingly, Rabbi Segal ascended to heaven on Yom Kippur night, and the sound of his shofar ascended to be heard in the Jerusalem on high, as well.

[1]. JT Rosh Hashanah 4:8. See also Abudraham, Rosh Hashanah, Teki’at Shofar and Torah Temimah on Numbers 29:1 §6.

[2] Rosh Hashanah 4a.

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