When I first met Rabbi Moshe Segal – an old man with a white beard and a black hat – someone whispered in my ear, “This is the first man to blow the shofar.” He looks old, I thought, but he can’t be that old!
I had only recently moved to Israel, Rabbi Segal’s story had not yet been told in the States, and I assumed I misheard the whispered comment. But when I asked the elderly gentleman to tell me about his life, I understood that he really was, in a way, the first man to sound the shofar.
Toward the end of Yom Kippur in 1930, the Jews worshipping at the Kotel in Jerusalem were upset when the gabbai told them to go elsewhere to hear the shofar. It was during the British Mandate – before the establishment of the State of Israel – and the previous year, the British authorities ruled Jews could worship at the Kotel but could not sit on benches, put up a mechitzah, sing too loudly, or blow shofar. All these acts, it was feared, would offend Arab sensibilities.
Moshe Segal, then 25-years-old, noticed the sadness of the congregants. British policemen were there to prevent the shofar from being blown, but the crowd refused to disperse. The newspapers later reported that Segal addressed those around him, telling them his ancestors had sanctified G-d’s name and given their lives for religious customs less important than this. He declared the government could issue all sorts of laws but could not restrain religion and conscience.
Segal recalled thinking, “Will we forego the shofar blast, which expresses the kingship of G-d? Can we skip the blast, symbolizing the redemption of Israel…at this holiest of all spots, in this holiest of all moments?”
Segal asked Rabbi Yitzhak Orenstein, who had just been appointed rabbinical supervisor of the kotel area, for a shofar. The rabbi nodded toward a prayer stand and quickly left. Segal found a shofar there and slipped it under his shirt. He borrowed a tallis from one of the older worshippers and said to himself: “Under this shawl, there is no foreign ruler. There is a free Jewish state, and here I am free to do G-d’s will.”
Segal pulled out the shofar and blew it. He was arrested and taken to a police station near Jaffa Gate.
The Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, told the British he would go on a hunger fast if Segal were not released. The British relented and, at about midnight, Segal was greeted by Rav Kook’s students, who escorted him to the home of the chief rabbi’s assistant to finally break the fast.
Over the years, I heard more stories from, and about, Rabbi Segal. His commitment to Jewish rights and freedom had not begun that night. He was born in Poltava, in the Russian Empire, in 1904. When he was seven-years-old, he refused to stand in shul during a blessing for the welfare of the Russian Czar.
One Yom Kippur after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he spent the night trying to convince his communist friends that their attitude to Judaism was irrational. He immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1924. The year before he blew shofar at the Kotel in defiance of the British, he had organized a march to the Kotel at which thousands of Jews sang Hatikva.
Rabbi Segal’s commitment to Judaism and Jewish national aspirations did not end that night, either. A week later, he and Abba Ahimeir, a journalist and historian, organized the first Zionist anti-British rally in Eretz Yisrael to protest British limitations on Jewish immigration; at that event, they and three others became the first Zionists in Eretz Yisrael arrested for anti-British activities.
Segal went on to become national commander of the religious Brit Hashmonaim youth movement, a member of the Irgun High Command, and head of the Stern Group’s Jerusalem unit.
By the time the British left Eretz Yisrael in 1948, Segal had shared jail cells with the Irgun’s commander-in-chief David Raziel, with whom Segal shared his wife’s strictly kosher food, and future Lehi commander Avraham Stern, with whom Segal worshipped on Yom Kippur. After the evening prayers, Stern asked Segal what they should do next, and Segal suggested learning Mesechet Yoma, which describes Yom Kippur in the Beit HaMikdash. So the two spent that night in prison learning mishnayot.
A few years later, when Segal was serving time in the Latrun Detention Camp, he gave Talmud lessons there; one Irgunist told me, “No matter what the subject, Segal always managed to bring it to the conclusion: ‘You have to fight for Eretz Yisrael.’”
In the course of all those years fighting the British, Segal never forgot the Kotel. Often he taught young men to sound the shofar and – along with other members of Brit Hashmonaim, Betar, and the Irgun – ensured that someone would smuggle shofars to the Kotel for Yom Kippur.
In 1938, in secretive “underground” conditions, he trained 16-year-old Yaacov Aharoni. Aharoni, now 98, recalls, “Segal did not tell me that he had blown the shofar at the Kotel, and I did not know. He was humble and modest…He explained the kavanot for blowing shofar…and that I must enable the worshippers to fulfill their obligation.”
Aharoni and his partner, Israel Tevua, were both arrested that night; Aharoni was released on bond, but Tevua was sentenced to four months in jail.
On Yom Kippur in 1942, Segal ensured a large contingent of youth would be at the Kotel and at the ready. When Mordecai Shchori was arrested for blowing the shofar, the youth mobbed his police escort and physically freed Shchori. Shchori was hosted that night by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel, who recited the Priestly Blessing over him, and the next day he was introduced to Segal, who complimented him on how beautifully he had blown the shofar.
Every year, Jews followed Segal’s lead and defied the British by blowing shofar at the Kotel. Some of those who did so later died in the struggle against the British or in the 1948 war with the Arabs: Ovadia Zvi was killed at the age of 16 trying to blow up a British installation for the Irgun. Aharon Zuckerman was killed in the battle for Jaffa in 1948.
Rahamim Mizrachi, who blew the shofar at the Kotel on two Yom Kippurs, was later arrested as a suspected Irgunist and exiled to Africa, where he escaped from British detention camps three times. He reached Israel in the summer of 1948, got married right after Tisha B’Av, and rejected an offered exemption from military service. One week after Yom Kippur, on the 17th of Tishrei, he was killed in a battle near Malha in Jerusalem.
Eliahu Ezra also blew the shofar at the Kotel twice, and he, too, was exiled to a camp in Africa. On Tu B’Shvat in 1946, he was killed when the camp’s guards opened fire on the unprotected prisoners.
The last person to violate the British edict and blow shofar at the Kotel was 13-year-old Avraham Elkayam, in 1947. The next year, the Jordanians occupied Jerusalem and barred Jews from the Kotel for the next 20 years.
When Jerusalem and the Kotel were liberated in the Six-Day War of 1967, Jewish soldiers and former soldiers flocked there even though battles were still raging. Avraham Elkayam, now a 33-year-old reservist, made his way there, found a shofar, and blew it. Moshe Segal was there, too; the two introduced themselves and hugged.
All the celebrants left Jerusalem after their visits, but Rabbi Segal stayed. He became the first Jewish resident of the Old City and, together with his future son-in-law, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, rebuilt its Chabad synagogue. On Yom Kippur, he blew shofar at the Kotel, for old times’ sake.
In 1981, Segal taught one more young man how to blow a shofar. On Yom Kippur, they worshipped with former Lehi commander Israel Eldad in a minyan overlooking the Kotel. Segal blew the shofar to end the fast and handed it to this representative of a new generation.
Fifty years after Segal sounded the shofar in an assertion of the Jewish people’s national and religious aspirations, the man and a friend ran through a half-closed gate onto the Temple Mount and became the first Jews in centuries to end Yom Kippur by blowing the shofar there, where the Yom Kippur service is actually supposed to be held. The New York Times devoted almost all of page 2 to the story.
Segal was always soft spoken but also always stridently ideological. He was respected by politicians who disagreed with his political views and was regularly invited to lecture at secular kibbutzim. He was famously pictured standing with Menachem Begin while Begin was holding a Sefer Torah in a town in Samaria, promising to build more there.
He broke with Begin, though, when Begin agreed to give the Sinai with the Jewish city of Yamit to Egypt. Segal moved to Yamit and gave Torah classes there. When the Israeli army arrived to expel the last residents, Segal was holed up in a bunker with some younger holdouts. As tear gas wafted in, they worried about him and suggested surrendering.
He replied that if they wanted to surrender for his sake, he would not; but if they wished to leave to avoid a battle with their fellow Jews in the army, he would join them.
When Yamit was evacuated and turned over to Egypt, Segal joined the city’s rabbi, Israel Ariel, in setting up the Temple Institute in Jerusalem’s Old City, dedicated to reconstructing sacred vessels for use in the Temple service and teaching the importance of the Beit HaMikdash.
Just as Rabbi Segal’s ties to the Kotel and Temple site lasted his entire life, so did his ties to Yom Kippur. He died in 1985 – on Yom Kippur. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount, after the fast. Around his open grave, the many mourners who had instinctively brought shofars with them sounded one last teki’ah gedolah.