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The Battle for the Kotel
by Rabbi Simon Jacobson

On Av 9, 3829 (69 CE), the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed for the second time by the Romans (the first temple was destroyed on the same date 490 years earlier by the Babylonians). One wall—the Kotel HaMaaravi (“Western Wall”)—remains standing, having resisted the torches and battering rams of the Romans and the subsequent attempts to destroy it in the nineteen centuries that the Holy Land was under foreign rule.

The Kotel figured prominently in the struggle over the Holy Land in the first decades of this century, as the Arabs, aided by the British rulers, did everything in their power to keep Jews away from the Kotel, which, more than anything else, was a living symbol of the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. 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 like it does today. Only a narrow alley separated the Kotel and the Arab houses on its other side. The British forbade us to place an Aron Kodesh (ark for the Torah scroll), tables or benches in the alley; not even a single chair or stool could be brought to the Kotel. We were also forbidden to pray out loud, to read from the Torah, or to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Policemen were stationed at the Kotel to enforce these decrees.

While praying at the Kotel on Yom Kippur of that year [1930], I overheard people whispering to each other: “Where will we go to hear the shofar? It’ll be impossible to blow it here. There are as many policemen as people praying!” The Chief of Police himself was there to make sure that the Jews would not, G-d forbid, sound the single blast that traditionally closes the fast.

I listened to these whisperings and thought to myself: can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar that accompanies our proclamation of the sovereignty of G-d? 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 asked him for a shofar. 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 shofar is in the stand. When the hour of the blowing approached, I walked over to the stand and leaned against it.

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 the person praying at my side and asked him for his tallit.

I wrapped myself in the tallit. At that moment, I felt that I had created my own private domain. Outside my tallit, a foreign government prevails, ruling over the people of Israel even on their holiest day and at their holiest place, and we are not free to serve our G-d; but under this tallit 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’ilah prayer were proclaimed, I took the shofar and blew a long, resounding blast. Everything happened very quickly. Many hands grabbed me. I removed the tallit from over my head, and before me stood the Chief of Police, who ordered my arrest.

I was taken to the Kishle, the prison in the Old City, and an Arab policeman was stationed there to watch over me. Many hours passed; 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.

I then learned that when the Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, heard of my arrest, he immediately contacted the secretary of the High Commissioner of Palestine and asked that I be released. When his request was refused, he stated that he would not break his fast until I was freed. The High Commissioner resisted for many hours, but finally, out of respect for the Rabbi, he had no choice but to set me free.

For the next eighteen years, the shofar was sounded at the Kotel every Yom Kippur. The British well understood the significance of this blast; they knew that it would ultimately demolish their reign over our land 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 men who know they would be arrested for their part in staking our claim to the holiest of our possessions.

   
 

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