Though it is impossible to say with absolute certainty when the Messiah will come, in an ancient synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, a shofar and jug of oil are patiently waiting on a high shelf for his arrival. They are replacements for the originals, supposedly rescued from the Second Temple amidst Roman destruction, which disappeared in the heat of the 1967 battle for Jerusalem. Legends and mysteries surround the simple items.
One of the landmark holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue was built at the beginning of the 17th century. The synagogue is believed to stand on the location of the original study hall of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, a major rabbinic and scholarly figure in the Second Temple era, quoted throughout the Talmud.
The synagogue is known for many things, but its most remarkable element could easily go overlooked. On the southern wall, on a glass shelf far too high to be readily accessible, sit a jug of oil and shofar. Tradition has it that when the Messiah arrives, Elijah himself will appear to blow the shofar and anoint him with the oil.
The shofar, or ram’s horn, is usually identified with Rosh Hashana, the upcoming Jewish New Year, when 100 blasts are traditionally blown from the shofar. Usually shofars belong to individuals who practice year-round, not to the synagogues themselves, making the Ben Zakai shofar unusual. They are among the most significant ritual items in Judaism.
The shofar was used regularly in the Temple service, and Jewish tradition holds that the sounds of the shofar will announce the arrival of the Messiah, just as they greeted the ancient kings of Israel.
The story of the Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue shofar is singular. At the end of the 16th century, there were no synagogues in all of Jerusalem, and Ottoman rulers made it illegal to build new ones. After bribing Turkish officials, Jews were able to construct four synagogues in one building with half-hidden entrances. Legend claims there is a secret tunnel connecting the synagogue to the Temple Mount. This tunnel is also waiting for the Messiah, who will use it to travel the last few hundred yards to the Third Temple.
According to the legend, when the Second Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Ben Zakai saved a jug of oil and a shofar that were part of the Temple service, bringing them to his study hall to be used when the Messiah finally arrived. The story holds that the objects were preserved through generations, and that it was this jug and shofar that were installed in the synagogue when it was first built more than 1,500 years later.
For 400 years, the shofar and oil stood ready. But when the Jordanians conquered the Old City in 1948, they went on a rampage, destroying and desecrating Jewish places of worship much as their Roman predecessors had done 2,000 years earlier.
Shimon Gantz, the manager of the synagogue today, told Breaking Israel News that he recently spoke with one of the first IDF soldiers to enter the Old City in 1967 after the Israeli liberation. “He told me that he entered the Old City via the Zion Gate, and immediately sought out the synagogue. His platoon arrived here when the battle was still raging. They were horrified to see the way it had been treated. It was vandalized and full of the worst kind of garbage. But he also said that he was sure he saw the original jug of oil and shofar on the high shelf, untouched.
“Unfortunately, by the time the battle for the city was over and Jews re-entered the synagogue, the shofar and oil were gone,” Gantz told Breaking Israel News.
The shelf stood empty until 1978, when Yitzchak Navon, then-President of Israel, visited the synagogue. Accompanying President Navon was an elderly Jew who had prayed at the synagogue before the Jordanian occupation in 1947. Navon noticed his companion looking up at the empty shelf and asked what he was looking for. The man told Navon about the oil and shofar, obviously pained and disappointed at their absence. Navon promised to replace them. Later that year, a shofar and jug of oil were placed there by the president of Israel, and they remain on the shelf until today.
Anyone can buy or own a shofar, making the Navon shofar special only in its connection to Israel’s modern history. From simple ram’s horns to ornate, silver-plated instruments, the horn of the Messiah is available to all, Ayal Kellman, vice president of judaica store Israel365, told Breaking Israel News. “In the past three years, we have sold hundreds of shofars in the months leading up to Rosh Hashana to Jews and Christians around the world,” he said.
“Many of our customers, especially of Christian faith, are awaiting the end times and are purchasing shofars in order to be able to herald the arrival of the Messiah themselves,” Kellman added.
But that doesn’t mean the Messiah’s own shofar is not still out there, waiting. In fact, a curious anecdote from Dr. Yahav Shmaryahu, the synagogue’s long-time caretaker, adds a new twist to the story. Three years ago, a small group of men approached Dr. Shmaryahu, asking for special permission to pray in the synagogue at midnight. While they were praying, one of the men looked up and at the shelf and shook his head in disappointment, telling Dr. Shmaryahu that the shofar was not the original.
“I knew this was the case, so this didn’t surprise me,” Dr. Shmaryahu told Breaking Israel News, “But then he claimed the original shofar was in his possession, and when the time came, he would return to the synagogue to blow shofar.”
“It could be that he was just telling stories, but the legend of the shofar goes back to the Second Temple,” Dr. Shmaryahu noted. “When the Messiah comes, we will know what is true. For the time being, this shofar is waiting.”