Five months ago, King Juan Carlos of Spain invited me to organize a commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the passing of the Rambam. Born in Cordova, Spain, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) is famous for his summaries of Jewish law and for his profound writings on Jewish philosophy.
When I arrived in Spain, I presented the King with the gift of a shofar. The shofar was long and curved, and part of it was covered in silver adorned with images of a crown, the Wailing Wall, and a menorah.
When King Juan Carlos saw the shofar, he didn’t understand its significance. “Is it from Africa?” he asked.
“No, it’s from the Land of Israel,” I replied. The King thought that perhaps it was used to play torero, a traditional sport involving the deadly pursuit of bulls that is played through the streets of Spain. I explained that Judaism is against such games because of the commandment of tzar baalei chayim, the prohibition against harming an animal without reason. “So what is the meaning of this present?” the King inquired. This is how I answered him.
Dear King of Spain, today with this gift I close a very old circle. More than 500 years ago, your great-great-grandfathers expelled my forefathers from Spain. Many Jews remained in Spain, and in order to avoid persecution they became maranos, secret Jews who behaved on the outside as Christians but in private remained Jews. The maranos made many small minyanim-gatherings of ten men-in underground synagogues, and they prayed very quietly. Once a year on Rosh Hashana, they were faced with a dilemma: how to blow the shofar and remain undetected. How can you fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar if you cannot hear it?
So one year, a marano who was the conductor of the orchestra of the King of Spain approached the King and suggested that he arrange a special concert with old wind instruments. Being very fond of music, the King was delighted at such a novel idea and he instructed the conductor to reserve the largest theatre in Spain. The King told him to speak to his secretary and set a date for the concert. The conductor ran to the secretary and told him, “Please, I want a specific day in September.” That day was Rosh Hashanah.
At the concert, the King, the Queen, the royal children, and the ministers sat in the front rows, and behind them sat hundreds of maranos who came to hear the concert on Rosh Hashanah. The conductor held up the shofar and explained: “Dear King. Before you expelled the Jewish people from your country they used to blow this instrument, the shofar, as a sign of the first day of their calendar year. Before they used this instrument they used to say the following: Baruch atah hashem elokeinu melech haolam asher kidishanu bimitzvotav vitzivanu lishmoa kol shofar. Shehechiyanu vkiyimanu vhigiyanu lezman hazeh- Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar; Who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.” And all the maranos, the secret Jews, answered quietly, “Amen.”
Today, dear King, over 500 years later, I am very happy as Chief Rabbi of Israel to bring you back this shofar. But now I can do so overtly, not covertly, because you treat my brothers with democracy. Here in Spain everyone can pray, build synagogues, and blow the shofar. And everything that a Jew can do today in Spain is because of you, the King.
The King looked at the shofar and said, “Dear Rabbi, you see around me many gifts from all over the world, but I think that this gift contains the greatest historical significance, and I am grateful to you for sharing it with me.”