The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was twice destroyed — first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. But one wall remains standing, a living symbol of the Jewish people’s ownership over the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem: the Kotel HaMa’aravi, the Western Wall.
What follows is an excerpt (translated from the Hebrew) from the memoirs of Rabbi Moshe Segal (1904-1985), a Lubavitcher Chassid who was active in the struggle to free the Holy Land from British rule.
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 the other side. The British Mandatory government prohibited placing a Torah ark, tables, or benches in the alley in front of the Kotel. Even a small stool could not be brought there.
The British also instituted ordinances designed to humiliate the Jews at the holiest place of their faith. It was forbidden to pray out loud, lest one disturb the Arab residents. It was 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). And it was forbidden to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The British placed policemen at the Kotel to enforce these rules.
On Yom Kippur of that year , 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 will be impossible to blow here. There are as many policemen as there are people praying...” The police commander himself was there, to make sure that the Jews will not, God forbid, sound the single blast that indicates the end of the Yom Kippur fast.
I listened to these whisperings, and thought to myself: Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar that accompanies our proclamation of God’s sovereignty over the world? 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, “Give me a shofar.”
“I will blow.”
“What are you talking about? Don’t you see the police?”
“I will 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 hint: the shofar is located inside the stand.
When the hour of the blowing approached, I walked over to the stand and leaned against it.
Surreptitiously, 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 person praying at my side, and asked to borrow 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. 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 prevailed, ruling over the people of Israel even on their holiest day and at their holiest place, and we are not free to serve our God. But under this tallit, I thought to myself, 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 Ne'illah prayer — “Hear O Israel,” “Blessed be the Name” and “The Eternal is God” — were proclaimed, I took the shofar and blew a long, resounding blast.
After that, 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 ‘Kishleh,’ the prison in the Old City, and an Arab policeman was appointed to watch over me. Many hours passed, but 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.
As I exited the gate, I met a group of young men from Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the Jerusalem yeshiva founded by Rav Kook.1
“My friends!” I called out to them. “What are you doing here at midnight?”
They told me that immediately after I blew the shofar, some Mercaz HaRav students who had prayed at the Kotel hurried off to tell Rav Kook what had happened. The chief rabbi was happy to hear that someone sounded the shofar at the Kotel, but saddened to hear that I had been arrested.
All this took place before Rav Kook had broken his fast. He did not eat, but on the spot called the High Commissioner’s secretary, demanding my immediate release. When his request was turned down, Rav Kook informed the secretary that he would not break his fast until I was freed. The High Commissioner resisted for several hours; but finally, out of respect for the chief 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.2 The British well understood the significance of this blast. They knew that it would ultimately demolish their reign over our land, just 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 brave men who knew they would be arrested for their part in staking our claim on the holiest of our possessions.
Rabbi Moshe Segal was one of the first Jews to move into the Old City of Jerusalem after its liberation in 1967.
Immediately after the paratroopers captured the Old City, Segal arrived, determined to take up residence there. The soldiers on guard were reluctant to allow him in, explaining that they could not take responsibility for his safety.
Segal replied that he relied on a Higher Power for his safety.
“We have received a gift from God,” he exclaimed. “Do you really expect me to remain outside while the Arabs are still inside?” In the end he was escorted through the streets with an armored jeep. It was inconceivable to him that Jerusalem should be reunited without a single Jew living in the Jewish Quarter.
At the end of Yom Kippur that year, Rabbi Segal once again blew the shofar at the Kotel. This time, though, without fear of arrest by British policemen.
Rabbi Segal passed away in 1985 — on Yom Kippur. Like Rav Kook, he is buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
(Adapted from the Hebrew by Yanki Tauber and posted on Chabad.org, with some additional notes from An Angel Among Men, pp. 220-221, and “The Man Who Sounded the Shofar,” In Jerusalem (Greer Fay Cashman, 5/10/2007). See also The Outlawed Shofar Blower. Copyright and reposted with permission of Chabad.org.)
2 In fact, Segal was determined that shofar-blowing at the Kotel on Yom Kippur would become an annual tradition. He often helped plan these operations, preparing young men to blow the shofar. Since they were different young men each year, the British did not know their identities and could not arrest them in advance.