The sound of the shofar

Rabbi Yona Metzger recalls how he introduced the king of Spain to Judaism and offers a message of hope for the Jewish New Year.

Yonah Metzger 521 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yonah Metzger 521
(photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger radiates the kind of energy that fills a room – just like the blast of a shofar resonates across a synagogue on Rosh Hashana.
In a special Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post in his Jerusalem office on Monday, Metzger moves easily across a range of subjects in the news: drafting haredim into the IDF, the German circumcision controversy and Iran’s nuclear program.
But he begins the interview by telling a true Rosh Hashana tale, and delivers a New Year’s blessing to Post readers for both a good and a sweet year.
Metzger is an impressive, imposing figure (as he points out during the interview, he is 6 ft. 4 in., or over 1.93 meters tall) who exudes moral leadership and personal charm combined with a sharp intelligence and wit. He is also a gifted storyteller, recalling fine details and constantly extracting spiritual meaning from his life experiences.
Born in Haifa in 1953, Metzger served as an IDF chaplain and rose to the rank of captain in the 7th Armored Brigade. He was ordained at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavne, and worked as a religious teacher before becoming rabbi of Tel Aviv’s Tiferet Zvi Synagogue.
He was later appointed rabbi in charge of the northern Tel Aviv area, and wrote 10 books, two of which were awarded presidential prizes.
Since becoming Ashkenazi chief rabbi in 2003 (Rabbi Shlomo Amar is the Sephardi chief rabbi), Metzger has formed good relationships with leaders of other faiths and nations, proposed the establishment of a religious United Nations based in Jerusalem, and pushed for the release of Jonathan Pollard.
He is married with six children.
Rabbi Metzger, what can you share with our readers this Rosh Hashana?
Let me tell you a story that happened to me over seven years ago. It was 800 years since the death of the Rambam [Maimonides] and we organized an international conference in Spain, in the Rambam’s birthplace [Cordoba], and 180 rabbis arrived.
It was really nice. The Rambam’s synagogue had been closed for many years, and they said it was the first time in 800 years that prayers were held there.
We had a ceremony to usher in a Sefer Torah, and the Spanish people didn’t know what we were doing. They are mostly Christians, and by the way, they have the largest percentage of pork-eaters in the world – 97 percent. The anti-Jewish education has been with them since the start of the Spanish Inquisition (1480).
Two months beforehand, I traveled to Spain to invite the king to the conference, and before the trip, my staff and I sat in our office and wondered what gift to get him.
We had consultations about various items, and then I saw this long Yemenite shofar, partly covered in pure silver, with a crown that had an engraving of the Western Wall and a menorah on it.
We put it in a beautiful glass box and flew with it to Spain. When we got there, the king – who was even taller than I, and I’m 6 ft. 4 – invited me to sit in his office.
We had a reception outside with photographs, and then went into the office, where there were shelves filled with presents. I invited him to open our gift, and he did.
“In Israel, you also play Torero [bullfighting]?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “we are against it. We don’t kill animals for sport.”
“What is this strange horn, then?”
“Allow me to close a historical circle with you that began about 540 years ago,” I said. “When your great-great-great-great-greatgrandfather was king of Spain, he decided to expel all the Jews, and among them was my great-great-great-great-grandfather.
“Only the Marranos remained in Spain. [By the way, do you know what ‘Marrano’ means? It means ‘pig.’] These Marranos practised their Judaism in secret, in attics, and not more than 10 at a time. Otherwise, the Spaniards would have killed them.
“Before Rosh Hashana, the question arose, ‘How do you blow the Shofar quietly and secretly? How can you do such a thing?’ And there was a discussion among them.
“One of them had an idea, and he asked to be given a few days to work on it. Don’t forget, these Jews acted like they were Christians on the outside, and they were even afraid of each other.
“He was the conductor of the king’s orchestra, and the king loved music and didn’t know he was Jewish. The king thought he was Christian.
“He went to the king and said, ‘I’d like to put on a very special concert, and play for you the oldest known musical instrument in history.’ “The king said, ‘Go ahead, and don’t forget to invite everyone, including the queen and the princes, and reserve the amphitheater.’ “So he went to the king’s secretary and set a date for some time in September, when for us it’s Rosh Hashana, and he invited all the Marranos to the concert.
“They all came to the amphitheater, and he showed the king the ram’s horn that he said was the oldest known instrument, from the time of Abraham. ‘Before you expelled the Jews from Spain,’ he said, ‘they used to usher in the New Year with this, and before blowing the shofar, they used to say the following blessing, and he said the blessing for the shofar. And all the Marranos quietly said, ‘Amen!’ “And thus, 540 years ago, my father’s father’s father’s father heard the shofar. And now today, all these years later, I am the chief rabbi of Israel, and I am returning this shofar to you, not under the table but on your table.
“Because today, you allow our fellow Jews to conduct prayers openly, learn Jewish studies and blow the shofar.”
When Tzipi Livni was foreign minister, I met her at an event here in Jerusalem, and she said, “You have regards from Juan Carlos.”
At first, I didn’t realize she was talking about the king of Spain. She said she had also visited the king, and had also given him a gift.
And he took out the shofar, and asked her if she knew what it was.
And she said, “Yes, Jews blow it on Rosh Hashana.”
“No,” he said, “You don’t know the story?” And he then proceeded to tell her the whole story!
Can we talk about some issues in the news? What do you think should replace the Tal Law [which exempted many haredim from military service and expired this year after being deemed unconstitutional by the High Court of Justice]?
I have an idea about the Tal Law, which I think could be acceptable to everyone: taking it step by step. It is impossible to call up everyone.
I served in the IDF. I was a gunner, serving in the 7th Armored Brigade. I fought in the Yom Kippur War and participated in the capture of the Golan Heights. [Avigdor] Kahalani was my commander, and I saw what war is.
I also think that we need people to study Torah. As a believing Jew, I believe that the Torah protects the people of Israel.
Unfortunately, there is a relatively large number of boys officially registered or partially registered at yeshivot, and some of them aren’t registered at all, and they wander around, and sometimes become involved in crime and drugs. There are said to be more than 10,000 such youths today.
They could fill several brigades in the IDF. If they were to be enlisted to do military service rather than roam our streets, and if we gave them the appropriate education, which the IDF does, we could reap the maximum reward from them.
I have just come back from the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in the Old City, which is headed by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. Some 300 dancing yeshiva boys welcomed me on the way to the yeshiva from the Kotel [Western Wall].
Rabbi Aviner told me on the way that they have 160 boys in their pre-army program.
These are boys that society had given up on; some of them were religious, others not.
Most were completely broken, some had become criminals and all had one thing in common: the IDF did not want them, and did not want to take a chance with them. It was not worth investing in them.
Aviner said that after receiving an education at the yeshiva, 40 percent become officers.
So there is a chance of changing people, and bringing them onto a positive, Zionist track. No yeshiva head will shout, ‘Why are they being drafted?’ because they are also studying Torah.
Maybe parents will say, ‘They made a mensch out of my son. Perhaps my second son who studies in the yeshiva will serve in the army too!’ In my opinion, though, we can’t do it all at once. It must be one step at a time.What about bringing more haredim into the workplace?
I think it’s happening. I have a son-in-law who is an IDF chaplain in charge of all the haredim in the army. Next week they are having an event at the Great Synagogue, with the participation of 2,000 haredim ahead of Yom Kippur. You know what 2,000 haredim serving in the IDF is? It’s a revolution.
There are now also all kinds of professional programs to educate haredim to join the workforce. They understand that you can’t have a third generation that doesn’t work. And it is progressing, step after step.
In the US, it is much more noticeable.
You see haredi lawyers, accountants and doctors. There are yeshivot which permit their students to study at universities in the evening, and sometimes the professors even come to them.
We are seeing more openness here in Israel as well, with Touro College, and the Kiryat Ono College, for example. It is amazing to see.
What do you think of the dispute in Germany over circumcision?
As you know, I was in Germany recently.
The whole dispute over circumcision began with a Muslim, not a Jew. Everyone said it was anti-Semitism, but that’s not true – it was not anti-Semitism. The problem is that Muslims get circumcised until the age of 13, and the very religious ones, without an anesthetic. And when you see this on television, you say to yourself, ‘This is inhumane. How can anyone, including Jews, allow this to happen?’ And I had to tell them, ‘Friends, we do it eight days after a boy is born. And I don’t know one Jewish boy who remembers it or suffers a trauma from it.’ We tell a joke about asking a Jewish boy if he remembers his brit mila, and he says no – all he remembers is that because of the trauma, he couldn’t walk for a year! All the research shows that after eight days, you give the boy a few drops of wine, there is no trauma, and the whole thing is forgotten after 15 minutes.
When I explained this to the Germans, the German justice minister told me it was the first time she had heard this explanation, and even asked me why we didn’t do it to girls.
I told her this was liable to cause harm, but I told her that if they stopped piercing babies’ ears to put rings in without the child’s permission, we would reconsider the issue of brit mila.
Ultimately, we convinced them that only trained mohalim should be allowed to do circumcisions on eight-day-old boys, but at a later stage, doctors should do the operation.
And, I said, doctors can even come from Israel to teach them.
Do you know there are only eight mohalim in Germany for a population of some 200,000? It’s enough. They don’t need more than that.
The law is now being changed, but the conditions are still being discussed. By the way, the German minister of family affairs, who is close to the chancellor, and the justice minister, canceled their August vacations just to meet with me to discuss the problem. It is that 200,000? It’s enough. They don’t need more than that.
The law is now being changed, but the conditions are still being discussed. By the way, the German minister of family affairs, who is close to the chancellor, and the justice minister, canceled their August vacations just to meet with me to discuss the problem. It is that much of a critical issue there.
You sound so optimistic about everything. And yet the State of Israel faces many threats, including from Iran. Are you optimistic about that too?
Yes, for two reasons. One is technical. I was recently the guest of the head of the IAF Flight School, a kibbutznik. He said his father had been observant and acted as the kibbutz rabbi, and all his seven sons had become pilots and officers. In other words, it was a special home. And he said, ‘Rabbi, we have an amazing answer to every challenge the Iranians pose. We just need the okay.’ The second thing is this. I have to tell you another story.
The Yom Kippur War was a war that surprised everyone. People were pulled out of synagogues to fight. I will never forget that I was a soldier in the regular army and Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan came to visit our base on Rosh Hashana, 10 days before Yom Kippur. It was a routine visit to see what we could see on the Syrian side from our observation tower. There was a kind of tension in the air, but who dreamed of a war? On Yom Kippur eve, we saw forces going up to the Golan Heights, but no one really knew there was going to be a full-scale war. On Yom Kippur, the war broke out, and there was a balagan [mess] like we’d never seen before. It was a complete surprise.
In my synagogue in Tel Aviv – I’m a Tel Avivian – there is a man named Gershon Hacohen, the commander of all the military colleges and the major-general whom Arik Sharon appointed to be in charge of the disengagement [from Gaza]. He told me that when he was in charge of the 6th Division, he had taken a delegation of some 15 retired Russian officers in their sixties on a tour of the Golan Heights. The Russians had supported the Syrians in those days, as they still do.
After two days, when they become friendly, two of them asked Hacohen over lunch, ‘During Yom Kippur, we were on the other side, in Syria. Tell us, how did you know about all our plans? How did you know what we were going to do?’ Gershon Hacohen and his aide looked at each other. They knew what a balagan it had been. But the Russians saw it as if we had known their plans beforehand.
And the only explanation they could give is that someone above was looking after us.
Indeed, it is not logical. We don’t have a logical explanation for how we, such a small nation, have survived against all our enemies.
We have one big gift, which Hashem [God] gave us, and that’s the Jewish brain. The air force officer told us that when we get a fighter plane from the US, they give us just the body. The whole of the interior is provided by the Jewish brain. They themselves don’t know what we have. That’s our gift.
What is your Rosh Hashana message for our readers?
I’m very happy to bless you for the New Year. We have a custom every year to take an apple, and dip it in honey, and say: ‘May it be His will for it to be a good and sweet year!’ Why do we need to say ‘good’ and ‘sweet?’ Isn’t something good always sweet? No, the answer is that when something is good it is not always also sweet, and not always when something is sweet is it also good. For example, if the doctor says you need to have an operation, it’s good but it’s not so sweet. And if you like to eat too much cake and chocolate, it’s sweet, but it’s not good for your health. Therefore, we wish ourselves a good year and a sweet year. The good is symbolized by the apple, and the sweet by the honey.
So I bless all of you. First of all, that you read always The Jerusalem Post. We grew up with The Jerusalem Post. The Jerusalem Post is celebrating 80 years this year, 10 years after the creation of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. We are celebrating 90 years this year.
We know that we now get all the information from the Holy Land, Israel, direct to you through the Internet, and you get to be involved and be part of our experience here as citizens in Israel.
I wish for you to continue to read this newspaper, to enjoy it, and to have a good and sweet year.
Shalom from Jerusalem, the holy city!