Let freedom ring

A new Bible Lands Museum exhibition examines the shofar and its resounding role in Jewish history.

October 12, 2011 23:10
Blowing the shofar

Rabbi blowing shofar 520. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

For TV personality Avri Gilad, the sounds of the shofar bring back memories of his grandfather blowing the instrument in synagogue. Singer Margalit Tsanani is reminded of her mother when she hears the blasts of the horn. Journalist Eitan Haber recalls his time as a military correspondent during the Six Day War, and sitting on an IDF bus, hearing the radio broadcast of the shofar being blown at the Western Wall for the first time in 19 years.

The shofar, and its symbolic place in the narrative of the Jewish people, is the focus of a new exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, entitled “Sound the shofar: a witness to history.”

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“It’s not about the shofar itself but about the history of the Jewish people through the prism of shofar,” says Dr. Filip Vukosavovic, curator of the exhibit.

A wide array of moments in Jewish history have been accompanied by the sounds of the shofar. During biblical times it was used to mark the beginning of battles and inauguration of kings. In the medieval period it was sounded at weddings, funerals, to announce the new moon and the start of Shabbat, and even to signify the herem, or excommunication, of a community member. Today, the shofar is most strongly associated with the High Holy Days, and is blown during the prayers of Rosh Hashana and at the completion of Yom Kippur.

The exhibition begins with a section designed to “dispel the myths” about the shofar, according to Vukosavovic. Firstly, that a shofar must be a ram’s horn. In fact, it can be the horn of “almost 140 different species,” including the oryx, kudu and eland, says Vukosavovic. In addition, though the shofar is mentioned in the Bible 72 times, only one of them includes the mention of a commandment to blow the instrument. That reference is not to Rosh Hashana, as most people think, but rather to yovel, the jubilee year that occurred every 50 years and signified the freeing of slaves and the return of property that had changed hands.

But the focus of the exhibit, which opened last month and runs through the end of February, is the shofarot themselves, and the events they accompanied in Jewish history. From a shofar used in the 17th century to proclaim herem to one made in a Romanian labor camp during the Holocaust, the instrument has accompanied Jews from their darkest periods to their greatest joys.

The emotional and curatorial center of the exhibit is undoubtedly the shofar blown by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then chief chaplain of the IDF, when Israeli troops reached the Western Wall in 1967, for the first time since 1948.

“It’s never been on display before,” says Vukosavovic, adding that the shofar has remained in the Goren family’s possession since 1967, and is still used by them.

“Nobody has ever even asked if they could put it in an exhibition,” he says.

For Vukosavovic, Goren’s shofar illustrates the entire purpose of the exhibition. The artifact is simple and unadorned, the type of shofar that can be found in any Judaica store. “It’s not pretty,” says Vukosavovic, “but what it stands for is something that is priceless.”

The exhibition also shines a spotlight on another emotional period in modern Jewish history, from 1930 to 1947, when Jews were prohibited from blowing the shofar at the Western Wall under the British Mandate.

For each of those 18 years, at the end of Yom Kippur, a group of Jews would smuggle a shofar into the Old City and blow it, tossing the instrument aside and making a mad dash as the British Police closed in on the offenders. Many were arrested.

Six of the surviving men who blew the shofar during that period – most of whom did it as teenagers – reunited last year at the Wall to blow the horns and reminisce about the time they risked arrest to carry out their mission. Their story is chronicled in a video accompanying the exhibit entitled “Echoes of a Shofar,” produced by Toldot Yisrael.

“[Someone] asked me, are you willing to go on a mission at the Wall and be arrested?” says Jacob Sika Aharoni in the film, a man who was jailed for blowing the shofar in 1938 at age 16, “and I said ‘I’m going!’”

“As soon as we blew the shofar, a commotion started,” recounts Avraham Elkayam, who blew the shofar in 1947 at age 13.

“[The British Police] pushed the crowd by force, looking for anyone blowing a shofar,” says Mordechai Shechori, who was caught by the police after blowing the shofar in 1942, at age 21, but escaped after the crowd overpowered the officers.

“I managed to break free, and I escaped to the center of the city.”

Since the shofar has such a powerful symbolism in Jewish life, the museum asked a variety of Israeli personalities to share their most potent memories and associations with the instrument: from former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg to actress Esti Zakheim, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and former basketball player Tal Brody.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Birkat recalls a bar mitzva he attended many years ago at the Wall of a very ill boy.

“We all walked together, the boy, his family and all the attendees... in a moving procession accompanied by powerful singing and the blasts of the shofar,” he wrote.

The boy died the following year, “and until today, when I hear the sounds of the shofar, I recall his character and nobility.”

TV personality Sophie Tzdaka shares a tale of a unique gift she received from her husband. When they first met, shortly before Rosh Hashana, she told him that she grew up religious but now rarely goes to synagogue and usually spends the holidays alone.

“The day before Rosh Hashana of that year, he came to me unexpectedly, rang the doorbell, and when I opened the door I was amazed to see him standing in the doorway with a rabbi!” she wrote. He then told her, “I was looking for a gift for you, and I thought how nice it would be to bring a rabbi to blow the shofar for us and put us in the holiday spirit,” wrote Tzdaka. “The rabbi blew a great blast that rattled the walls of the house; it was magical!” Now every year the couple invites the rabbi to blow the shofar for them before the holiday.

But for one family, it is not a shofar memory, but rather a hope, that provokes the strongest feelings.

“For the Jewish people, the sound of the shofar is a symbol of freedom and redemption, love and brotherhood,” wrote Yoel Schalit, brother of captive soldier Gilad Schalit. “And I can imagine before my eyes the echoing of the shofar declaring that Gilad has come back to us – that finally, he is free.”

The museum invites the public to contribute their own shofar thoughts and memories at shofarot.wordpress.com.

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