The Great Tekiyah - Yom Kippur Neilah — 30 September 2017 / 10 Tishrei 5778
Oct 11th 2017

As we enter Neilah, the service that marks the closing of the gates of this sacred and soul-stirring day, I think of the bugle call of the last post that Josette and I heard this summer at Fort Henry in Kingston. The sense of loss, memory and hope that accompanies this music. On Remembrance Shabbat, when Cantor Ezer gives voice to the plaintive notes, we witness tears in the service.

I also recall the criminalisation of the shofar in 1929. The British ruled over what then was called Palestine. The Western Wall was under control of the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority of Jerusalem.  Jews were permitted to gather there informally, but were not allowed a permanent presence. They could not leave anything at the prayer site.  Prayerbooks, Torah scrolls, chairs — all had to be brought on that day and removed upon the conclusion of prayer.

While not identical, we see that the Waqf prohibits Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and the Haredi parties reject the idea of a permanent place for Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jews, even at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel.

In August 24 of 1929, sixty-seven Jews were killed by Arab rioting triggered by rumours that Jews were planning to seize control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The blowing of the shofar at the Wall was prohibited at the small alley-way of the Wall, ostensibly because the Kotel was in a residential neighbourhood. There were no comparable restrictions on the call of the Muezzin to Muslims or church bells for Christians. But British authorities forbade the shofar because it might destabilise the relationships that were in such a tight balance.

Because repeated shofar blowing on Rosh HaShanah was deemed dangerous, Jews went elsewhere for those prayers and rituals. But much of the Yom Kippur ritual centres on the Temple, so it was significant to blow once at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. For all the years between 1929 and 1947,  teens associated with the Beitar youth movement took the risk to sound the shofar at the conclusion of Neilah.

They knew that they might spend time in jail. They would arrive with a shofar hidden in their clothes.  Often a few blowers were designated, so that if one was detained by the police, another would continue the sound.

My colleague Rabbi Robert Scheinberg notes that Jewish law asks whether one can blow the shofar into a pit or a barrel. Why would one do so? To avoid persecution.  But the shofar may not be sounded in secret.  Our history is replete with accounts of shofar blowing even when it was illegal or dangerous to do so — in Inquisition-era Spain, in Nazi concentration camps, in the former Soviet Union —  and at the Kotel during the British Mandate.

There is a video interview of the some of the surviving shofar blowers. They remember the risks, as well as how their determination strengthened and inspired others, a small act that giving hope inspiration to a community that a despised and oppressed people could rebuild. 

There are many comments about various meanings of the sound of the shofar.  But among them is the simple fact that the volume of the blowing of the shofar is a proud announcement:  I am allowed to be where I am.  I belong.  It reminds us to express gratitude to live in a time and place when there are no such restrictions, where our freedoms are protected.

Today, Jerusalem is a place where the sounds of the muslim muezzin, the sounds of church bells, and the sound of the shofar coexist regularly.  Some years, in August, I am awaked by each of these spiritual sounds. As it should always be -- in a place holy to three major faith traditions, all three major faith traditions belong. 

We call the final blast of the shofar the tekiyah gedolah, the great sounding.  What is its greatness?  Perhaps that it brings together and combines into one the tekiyah, the shevarim, and the tru’ah, and can, therefore, represent our hopes to bring together all the parts of our lives that may have been broken in the previous year, the aspects of our physical and emotional being that are in need of repair.

My colleague, Rabbi Samuel Kiefer suggests that the tekiyah gedolah may also represent the need to bring closer our fellow Jews from whom we may feel distant.  The great sounding can reflect the hope to bring together Sefardim with Ashkenazim; Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox; those with shtreimels with those who are bare-headed; Jews who support CIJA and those associated with Jspace; those who are one day a year Jews with those who go to their synagogue EVERY day of the year.  The tekiyah gedolah pronounces the hope that we can all embrace each other and feel that we are all part of one family.

When we can all find our particular place at the Kotel, the great tekiyah will be sounded. As we begin Neilah, let’s pray together and then listen together with hope and joy for that final shofar sound.

References: for video interviews with the shofar blowers