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Sound the Shofar! A Season for Reflection

This month, the British empire suffered a tremendous loss. I dare say, the world at large lost a dedicated and devout leader. Queen Elizabeth’s death touched people from all walks of life, none more so than the Jewish community under her protection.

For over seventy years, congregations across the land concluded their Sabbath service praying that “He who gives salvation to kings and dominions to princes, guard her and deliver her from all trouble and sorrow.” But Jewish prayers for the monarchy, or for any ruling government, are not unusual. After the Israelites first expulsion from Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., the prophet Jeremiah urged the community to pray to the Lord in order for Him to guide their foreign rules with wisdom and compassion. These prayers were eventually incorporated into the siddurim (weekly prayer book) in the 14th century.

However, the supplications were not solely reserved for the Sabbath service. In England, any royal event may have called the community to prayer. Indeed, if Jane Austen attended a Jewish service in 1787, she would have heard a prayer calling for the preservation of King George lll “from the hands of an assassin.” And in 1817, while the empire mourned the death of Princess Charlotte, Hyman Hurwitz composed Israel’s LamentMourn for the universal woe, With solemn dirge and fault’ring tongue, For England’s Lady is laid low, So dear, so lovely, and so young! 

Of course, there were occasions for happier prayers, such as the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 and that of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 and again in 2022.  

Her crown is honor and majesty; her scepter, law and morality. Her concern has been for welfare, freedom and unity, and in the lands of her dominion she has sustained justice and liberty for all races, tongues and creeds.” 

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth

Did you know that the concept of jubilee hails from the Torah (Pentateuch)? According to the Book of Leviticus, a commemoration was held at the end of seven cycles of shmita (sabbatical years). Slaves or prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and “the mercies of God would manifest.” The sounding of a ram’s horn (a shofar) would proclaim the celebration. In fact, the ancestral summons was used to announce a variety of events, including a king’s coronation or the proclaiming of a period of mourning—so apropos during these sad days of September.

This is the moment history stops; for a minute, an hour, for a day or a week; this is the moment history stops.”

BBC NEWS

If we were living in biblical times, the shofar would have certainly announced this momentous occasion and the community would have responded in kind. Today, Jews worldwide recognize the cry of Tekiah as the call to prepare for the new year and the Day of Atonement.

For over 5,700 years during the month of Elul (which usually falls during August or September in the Gregorian calendar), the piercing sound of the shofar has beckoned us to examine our behavior—to ask for forgiveness and to prepare to make amends for the new year.

I came across another blog post about Anglo-Jewry while preparing this article. Naturally, it led me to another post where I discovered an interesting historical figure by the name of Solomon Bennett. For a variety of reasons, Mr. Bennett made it his life’s work to torment Solomon Hirschell, the Chief Rabbi of the German and Polish Jews of England. To be honest, I would say that both Solomon Bennett and Solomon Hirschell were full of themselves! If ever anyone ought to have heeded the sound of the shofar…The series of events that transpired between these two men borders on the ridiculous. Therefore you cannot fault me, dear reader, for immediately envisioning Mr. Collins and Mr. Bennet of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Collins is a clergyman. He is tall and maintains formal manners; he comes across as pompous and grave. He takes great pains to inform everyone about his social status, which mostly stems from his noble patroness. Mr. Collins is excessive in his compliments and excessively snobbish. His counterpart is Mr. Bennet of Longbourn. This landed gentleman has a sarcastic, cynical sense of humor which he purposefully uses to irritate his prey. However, his dry wit and composure in the midst of mayhem serves him ill, for Mr. Bennet is weak and largely ineffective as a husband, father, or property owner.

Solomon Hirschell

I now present Rabbi Solomon Hirschell. He was said to be a tall and imposing sort of man. He was a traditionalist and did not apologize for wanting to maintain ancient standards and customs. The rabbi liked to boast of his long line of impressive ancestors and benefactors, such as Sir Moses Montefiore and the Goldsmids. Although he had no formal secular education, Hirschell was proud of his Talmudic training and made it known that he possessed an impressive rabbinic library.

In 1811, the European Magazine published an interview with the clergyman. Hirschell proclaimed that he was direct descendant of the royal house of David. He believed his election as chief rabbi to be a natural turn of events. His fiercest enemy, Solomon Bennett, had a field day with that announcement. An author, artist, and a Hebrew scholar in his own right, Bennett publicly ridiculed the rabbi by declaring that he was only given the position due to his connections. But it didn’t end there. He claimed that Hirschell was barely competent in the English language and that he hid behind his father’s precious library to mask his illiteracy.

Of one thing you may be assured, Hirschell could only have known my English publications at second hand because he could not even understand them in the original language, of which his knowledge is so slender.”

Bennett continued to write scathing remarks about the shocking lack of rabbinical publications put out by the Hirschell administration. The Magna Bibliotheca shows that the chief rabbi only published three sermons. Of note: one marked the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and another, which warned the community against sending their children to secular schools. The rabbi was so set in his ways, the sermons were given in Yiddish and had to be translated into English for publication.

Sometime around 1815, Rabbi Hirschell endorsed a book of Jewish studies written by another Solomon —Solomon Jacob Cohen. Bennett was highly critical of the work and published a 66-page pamphlet where he called the rabbi “a proud, savage, and tyrannical Pontiff…in his orthodox piety on the one hand, and his ignorant malice on the other.” 

Solomon Bennett

The public did not appreciate Bennett’s wit and he did not succeed in defaming his nemesis. In fact, the project was a complete failure and Bennett lost money— a £100 to be exact. Short of funds, he was unable to pay his publishers and was sent to debtor’s prison—blaming Hirschell for his misfortune all along the way.

For all that was said against him, Rabbi Hirschell appeared to hold England dear. In one particularly poignant speech, the rabbi expressed his gratitude that “providence permitted me to return to this my beloved native Land.” During the Napoleonic wars, Hirschell encouraged his congregants to enlist and to serve their adopted nation. It was also said that the rabbi secured permission for Jews to “stay away from church parades and to be sworn upon the Book of Leviticus—instead of the New Testament.” This was in keeping with his lack of interaction with his Christian counterparts and his sermons against the newly established Reform movement. On the other hand, Hirschell was known for his charitable organizations and worked to help the relatively newer community of Eastern European Jews.

In 1811, he aided the Westminster Jews’ Free School to open its doors. In 1817, the Jews’ Free School was founded. In 1820, the Western Institute for Clothing and Apprenticing Indigent Jewish Boys was opened; and in 1824,  the Society for the Relief of Indigent Poor began providing widows with five shillings per week.

During his administration as chief rabbi, the problem of poverty was investigated, reforms were suggested, and solutions were implemented (certainly not in keeping with a Mr. Collins).  In the face of these good deeds, Mr. Bennett’s cynicism should not have prevailed; however, it did. To this day, Solomon Hirschell’s legacy remains tainted. He has been labeled as a pompous, unwavering traditionalist, ignorant and out of touch.

Without wishing to overstep the boundaries of a simple blogger (who has no right to sit in judgment), it would seem that the call of Tekiah fell upon deaf ears with these two men. Talk about pride and prejudice! Perhaps they ought to have heeded Elul’s message; they should have recognized the error of their ways and made amends. History might have been kinder to both if the had learned to compromise a bit; but to paraphrase Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of these two gentlemen is to recommend tyrannical rivalry or reward stubborn constancy.

May the sound of the shofar awaken us to be kind to one another and to cherish the moments that make up the days of our lives. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life and may the new year be blessed with health, happiness and goodwill.

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Jane Austen & Jewish Themes Part IV

Throughout this series, I have been looking at Jewish themes that can be found in Jane Austen’s work. That’s not to say that the renown author intentionally incorporated Judaic messages in her writing; however, as I’ve pointed out in my previous posts, Austen was raised in an observant environment and would have been quite at home quoting from the Good Book or referencing various biblical storylines. I am enjoying finding the similarities. I hope you are too!

SELICHAH, MECHILAH, and KAPPARAH ~ The different forms of Forgiveness. 

I previously touched upon the subject of repentance, but the matter requires further discussion. The theme of granting forgiveness can be found in nearly every book that Jane Austen penned. Just think for a moment. Elizabeth forgives Darcy, Elinor forgives Edward, Fanny forgives Edmund, and everyone is only too willing to forgive Emma!

Illustration by C.E. Brock

In Persuasion, we are introduced to a couple long separated by distance and pride.  Captain Frederick Wentworth has spent years holding a grudge, nursing his bruised ego and feeling the victim. For those who don’t know the story: Miss Anne Elliot had entered into an understanding with the gentleman, but —for better or for worse—was persuaded to end the budding relationship. Years pass before the two are brought back together again. Captain Wentworth tells his new friends that he finds Miss Anne, “altered beyond his knowledge.” Ruthless, heartless man! The gentleman is still licking his wounds…

He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure.”

It has been eight years and he still didn’t understand her! Had he used the time to reflect and to try to comprehend Anne’s actions, it would have been emotionally and mentally healthier for all concerned. Of course, that would have changed the arc of the story and no one understood that better than Austen.

In Northanger Abbey, we are introduced to a young lady just coming out into society. She has very little to say in her favor; and in fact, our heroine spends her days daydreaming and imagining herself the helpless victim of some gothic novel.

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”

Catherine is invited to stay with family friends in Bath, and finds herself, quite suddenly, in over her head. With no real experience of socializing with others who have more—shall we say—life experiences, her naivete and imagination run wild. She wrongly suspects General Tilney (the father of the young man she comes to admire) of a crime he did not commit. In the end, she is somewhat exonerated, but the acknowledgment doesn’t come without some distress.

Your imagination may be overactive, but your instinct was true. Our mother did suffer grievously and at the hands of our father…No vampires, no blood. But worse crimes, crimes of the heart.”

Like any biblical story that focuses on Teshuva, Catherine experiences growth through pain. She recognizes her failings, repents, and determines to improve her behavior. The arc of her story is in keeping with Austen’s philosophy. The mean-spirted and conniving Thorpe siblings, however, do not see the error of their ways and they suffer for it. Austen uses their storyline to illustrate her point once again. Those who merit a HEA (happily ever after) will be rewarded in the end.

My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.”

I can’t help but think of the period leading up to the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We begin by commemorating the holiday of Selichot and use the time before “the gates begin to close” to think of those we have wronged.

Asking for forgiveness, for selichah, is the first step we must take. This is where we realize our error, we apologize to the injured party, and we show remorse.

When our poor behavior has caused much pain, we speak of mechilah. We ask that our transgressions be wiped away. We want things to be as they were; or better yet, to go on stronger than before. This can prove to be difficult for the injured party; for though many of us can forgive, it is very difficult to completely forget.

If the wrongdoing is of biblical proportions, a person may feel they are not worthy of forgiveness. They believe that there can’t be a positive outcome, no matter the excuse, no matter how many promises are made. Most people are not capable of forgiving an act of this magnitude. In fact, the forgiveness we seek, the kapparah, is beyond human capacity. The atonement, in fact, comes from a higher source, such as on Yom Kippur. This is when G-d looks into your heart, sees your repentance and says, “Be comforted.”

Illustration by C.E. Brock

In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents us with a scenario that is just as relevant today as it was three hundred years ago. Secure in his righteousness, Captain Wentworth needlessly wallows in Anne’s perceived betrayal. Obstinately holding on to his resentment only succeeds in polluting his view of the truth! Their meeting again gives them both a second chance to speak their heart. It’s a story full of angst and it is sometimes intolerable to witness their pain. When the captain overhears Anne speaking of love and loss to another gentleman, he finally comes clean. Captain Wentworth writes to Anne and bares his soul—as he should have done years ago.

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”

In the ensuing paragraphs, Austen satisfies our need for the couple’s reconciliation. Anne and Frederick speak honestly to one another, exposing their vulnerabilities and the various misunderstandings that led to such despair. They forgive one another (selichah), their love is stronger for it (mechilah); and because they merit a HEA, they are comforted (kapparah). Quintessential Austen. Brilliant. Just brilliant!

In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, it is clear that Miss Abigail Isaacs shares similar characteristics with her newfound friend, Captain Wentworth. Fear and resentment have colored her view, not only of her ever-changing circumstances, but of a certain gentleman. As Mr. Bennet— of Pride and Prejudice fame— urges: read on, friend, read on…


A soft scratch upon the door shook her out of her musings, miserable and disheartening as they were. Abigail bade the interloper to enter, as she wiped away her tears.

“I have brought you some broth, my dear,” said Mrs. Frankel. “I thought you might be hungry, as we had not had to opportunity to dine. Do you think you might take a little?”

“I am much too shaken to eat, though I thank you for your concern. Will you not have it in my stead?”

“I have had some sent to my room, Avileh. I will leave you to rest then—oh, but I nearly forgot!” Mrs. Frankel exclaimed. “I have a letter for you, my dear. It is from Mr. Gabay.”

“Mr. Gabay! Whatever could he want? He barely spoke two words together in my presence. I fear his affections have been won over by Miss Kendall, Frankie dearest. They must have quarreled, for he was scowling all evening. Did you not notice?”

“No, indeed. However did you come to such a conclusion? Truly, my dear, you can see clear into the heavens but you cannot see what stands right before you.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Never you mind. Have a bit of your soup and read your letter,” she insisted, placing the envelope upon the bed. “Good-night, my dear.”

Abigail watched as Mrs. Frankel closed the door behind her. She eyed the broth with little interest and settled her gaze upon the letter instead. What could he have to say? Another jest? Another commentary on the state of the new union? Upon closer inspection, she noted that he had hastily folded the missive, it had not been sealed and it had not been addressed. Though she had had her fill of surprises to last a lifetime, her curiosity would not be neglected. She would read his letter and be done with it. For what could he possibly have to say that would lighten her heart?


What do you think? Will Mr. Gabay’s words cause more harm than good? Will Abigail be able to forgive past transgressions, even if that means forgiving herself? I invite you to read the story and come to your own conclusions. Until next time, thank you for stopping by!