Friday, September 21, 2012

How the Shofar Was Blown Openly During the Inquisition: An Inspiring Story

In his blog, The View From Israel, Israel advocate Barry Shaw tells a fascinating story this week about how the shofar, forbidden with all other Jewish ritual objects during the Spanish Inquisition, was blown loudly, in public, and with the full approval of King Ferdinand.

He tells a very personal story, including his discovery of this incident during a cruise to Spain, and referencing an article by Israel's Ashkenazi Rabbi, Yona Metzger, that corroborates the story and relates it to his own family history.

As Shaw tells it,
The timing of our holiday was to get us back in time to celebrate Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, at home in Israel. Reading through the supplement of the Jerusalem Post I stopped to read an interesting personal anecdote from Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.  He described his meeting with the King of Spain. Rabbi Metzger told the newspaper team this story;
“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 Rambam’s birthplace, Cordoba.  Two months beforehand, I traveled to Spain to invite the king to the conference. Before my trip we wondered what gift to give him. I saw this long Yemenite shofar (ram’s horn) partly covered in pure silver, with a crown that had an engraving of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and a menorah on it.  We put it in a glass box and I presented it to the king who asked what was this strange horn.
‘Allow me to close a historical circle with you that began about 540 years ago,’ Metzger explained to King Juan Carlos.  ‘When your great-great-great-great-great grandfather 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. These Marranos were Jews who continued to practice their Judaism in secret, otherwise the Spaniards would have killed them. Before Rosh HaShana the question arose, ‘How do you blow the Shofar quietly and secretly?’ One of them had an idea. He was the conductor of the king’s orchestra, and the king loved music and didn’t know he remained a secret Jew. He went to the king and asked to put on a special concert using all the known musical instruments in history.”
With the king’s approval the conductor arranged to hold the special musical celebration on Rosh HaShana. He invited all the Marranos he knew to attend this concert.
“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.”
Further details of this remarkable event were divulged by Stewart Weiss in another article in the same magazine. It seems that the conductor of the Royal Barcelona Orchestra was Don Fernando Aguilar, a proud Spaniard and a Jew converted to Christianity during the Inquisition. He was a Marrano, a secret Jew, a Christian on the outside but Jewish to his core, a man emotionally torn apart by the conflict of indescribable religious pressure.
According to Weiss, the church, still holding Aguilar under deep suspicion, decided to hold a gala concert In the year 1497 on Rosh HaShana as much as a test of the musical leader as an entertainment. The Don decided to make this concert the most spectacular ever seen in Barcelona. This extravaganza would include every musical instrument, as mentioned by Rabbi Metzger. It was to be, as Stewart Weiss described in his article, ‘a sublime cascade of orchestral delight for the glory of the church.’  It was a sell-out.  Most of Spain’s rich and famous attended, including Queen Isabel. The concert was a masterpiece of orchestral arrangements that climaxed with the appearance of strange curved horns never before seen in a concert hall in Spain. On cue from Don Fernando Aguilar they produced the shrill and tremulous chords of ‘Tekia!’, ‘Shevarim!’, ‘Teruah!’ ‘Shevarim!’ one hundred notes played in unison with one last long note that seemed to go on forever. The audience went wild.
This was the last concert ever given by Aguilar of Barcelona. Weiss is not sure of his fate.  Some say he retired to his country home after his final triumph. Others say that the church learned, or were suspicious, of his deception and quietly executed him.
What is known is that the candlelight of Judaism still burns in the heart of many Marranos and is slowly emerging into the light of day.
A version of this story, The Secret Shofar of Barcelona, writtten for children by Jacqueline Dembar Greene, was published a few years ago, and is available at
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!


  1. We Jews. Always tooting our own horn!

    Thanks Al, a fantastic story. Keep 'em coming.

    Shana Tova.

    b'shollem ben-akiva, a Riminover remnant.

  2. If we don't toot our own horn .....who will do it for us????

    Shana Tova