Story of a shofar

'Turn this horn into a shofar,' the rabbi told his student in the camp. 'It will ensure your survival.'

September 28, 2006 12:35
4 minute read.
barbara sofer 88

barbara sofer 88. (photo credit: )


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On the day after Rosh Hashana I went to visit a shofar. The blowing of the shofar elicits so many wonderful explanations. The ram's horn itself is, of course, connected to the Akeda, the biblical account of the binding of Isaac that we read on Rosh Hashana. Suddenly a ram appears and takes Isaac's place on the sacrificial altar. The flat bass tone called teki'a is related to wholeness, to life force, to the coronation of kingship. The three treble sobbing notes called shevarim signify brokenness in its many forms. The nine staccato notes of tru'a are usually compared to life's turbulence. The 100 blasts of Rosh Hashana are compared to the sobbing of the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite general, when he dies. Together, the blasts contain both triumph and trembling. The whole is bigger than the parts. All the explanations don't explain the anticipation, the excitement, the mystery and the emotion that the blowing of the shofar elicits. We Jews have prized the mitzva of hearing shofar, and the horns themselves. In a glass case in the Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem is one particular horn. Its story begins with a yeshiva student named Moshe Weintreter from the city of Piotrkow, the same Polish town where Rabbi Israel Meir Lau's father was the chief rabbi. According to Yaffa Eliach in Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, Weintreter enjoyed spending the High Holy Days with the Grand Rabbi of Radoszyce, Rabbi Yitzak Finkler. When the Nazis occupied Piotrkow, both Weintreter and Rabbi Finkler were locked behind the barbed wired in the forced-labor camp of Skarzysko-Kamienna. Despite the danger, Rabbi Finkler managed to continue prayer services in his barracks. In 1943, as Rosh Hashana approached, the rabbi yearned for a shofar. He managed to buy a horn from a Polish guard, but it turned out to be an ox's horn - which he couldn't use. At last, for an additional steep fee, the guard brought him a ram's horn. The rabbi summoned his former student, Moshe Weintreter. The young man had claimed he was a metal worker, and was in fact working in the metal workshop. Turn the horn into a shofar, the rabbi bade him. If you complete this task the merit of preparing the shofar will ensure that you survive the war. Camp workers were scrupulously searched for any extra item they might be concealing. A crust of bread could mean a whipping, or worse. Working on anything but armaments in the metal workshop was punishable by death. BUT THERE was a worse problem. Shmuel Weintreter had never made a shofar in his life. To make a shofar, the horn must be flattened and softened so that it has a turned up bell at the end. You have to heat it, then make a hole from the tip of the horn to the natural hollow inside without cracking it. But he couldn't refuse his rebbe. Weintreter never revealed how he hid the completed shofar and returned it to Rabbi Finkler. But by Rosh Hashana 1943, the sound of the shofar shook Barracks 14. Rabbi Finkler didn't survive the war but, as he promised, his student did. He managed to take the shofar with him to another work camp in Czestochowa, but when he was deported from there to Buchenwald it was left behind. After the war, Weintreter went to Italy, where he helped organize the immigration of Jews by ship to the shores of Palestine. Working with the so-called illegal immigration, he changed his name to Ben-Dov, and married Ida, who had also survived the horrors of the camps. They moved to Israel - first to Lod, and later to Bnei Brak. The loss of the shofar haunted Moshe. He wanted to honor the memory of his rabbi by bringing it to Israel. So he pursued a worldwide search. At last he learned that the shofar had remained in Czestochowa until the camp was liberated, and had been passed on to the local Jewish community. When author Jacob Fet visited in 1945 he'd been given the shofar as a gift, and had brought it to America. In 1977, the shofar Moshe Weintreter molded in Skazysko-Kamienna was transferred to Yad Vashem. In the crowded original building, the shofar was only sometimes on display. In the new Yad Vashem it is part of the permanent exhibit, where I went to visit it during the Ten Days of Repentance. Moshe Ben-Dov died of a heart attack at age 74. Moshe and Ida's son Shmuel Ben-Dov is a retired banker who lives in Bnei Brak. When the youngest of Shmuel's four sons was in Yad Vashem with his IDF officers training class, he showed his fellow officers his grandfather's shofar. Shmuel Ben-Dov himself once borrowed his father's shofar to have it blown at his neighborhood synagogue in Bnei Brak. But cracks that have appeared over the years have raised questions about blowing it on Rosh Hashana. It's fine, he says, for Yom Kippur. BEN-DOV HAS a hard time talking about the shofar, but I had to know how his father had explained his extraordinary courage in carrying out the rebbe's charge. "He always claimed he wasn't brave," Ben-Dov told me. "He was so frightened that his hands were trembling, and he wept the whole time. He always said his tears were in that shofar, that ultimately his faith in God let him go on." Moshe's tears melded with the warm keratin, just as the tears of Abraham fell on the face of Isaac as he lay bound on the altar. Just as the sound of the shofar has always seared our hearts. The first ram's horn was sounded on Mount Sinai, when we received the Torah and pledged to be one nation. The horn will again be sounded to announce the time of the Messiah, when we will know war no more. May it come speedily in our time. G'mar hatima tova.

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