When the Bolshevik Revolution overtook the Russian landscape, one of the primary objectives of the ruling Communist Party was to dismantle the practice of religion, particularly the Jewish religion. To that end, many decrees were issued against the practice and observance of Judaism, and many Jews were forced to flee their homes or professional practices in secret. Moscow, which had recently become the capital city of the USSR, forbade Jews to reside within its limits, and only certain worker permits were issued to Jews in special cases.
The Chief Rabbi of Moscow for many years had been the renowned Rabbi Chaim Berlin zt”l. With the advent of these new decrees, life in Moscow for a Jew became untenable. As the thousands of Muscovite Jews fled the city, the Chief Rabbi felt it was his duty to remain behind, determined to see that every last Jew found a place to resettle. As Rosh HaShanah approached, only a few dozen Jews were left in the entire city. One of the remaining members produced a shofar, the only one left in the city of Moscow, and was preparing to blow it on the holy day. To his horror and dismay, however, he noticed a long crack along the length of the shofar, which invalidated it. Yom Tov would soon be upon them and there was no time to procure a second shofar. Rabbi Berlin and the remaining Jews of Moscow realized that this would likely be the first time in their lives that they would be unable to perform the mitzvah of T’kias Shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
No amount of halachic ingenuity could procure a heter. With a heavy heart, Rav Chaim resigned himself to his situation. “Well,” he thought sadly, “if I cannot hear the sound of the shofar, at least let me study the halachos of shofar. Maybe in that merit, it will allow me to somewhat make up for the loss of the mitzvah.”
On the first night of Rosh HaShanah, Rav Chaim stayed up all night in the beis midrash, studying all the halachos pertaining to the mitzvah of shofar. At the crack of dawn, he left the beis midrash and headed towards the large shul for the early morning prayers. But as he looked up, he could not believe his eyes: Driving down the empty street right in front of him was a horse-drawn wagon adorned on all sides with unusual crafts, historical artifacts, and an assortment of musical instruments. Hanging off the side of the wagon was a ram’s horn that looked exactly like a...shofar!
The stunned rav hastily ran over to the coachman and asked, “Where did you get this horn from?”
The coachman had been enjoying the peaceful stillness of the early Moscow morning and jumped out of his seat startled. Perspiring heavily, the poor man looked directly at the imposing figure of the rabbi and began sputtering incoherently, until he finally blurted out, “Honored Rabbi, I didn’t know it was yours. I would have never taken it had I known it was yours. Here, take it back. I have no need for it anyway!”
Slowly, the story came out. The gentile coachman had a hobby of collecting all sorts of horns, trumpets, and wind instruments. When the Jews of Moscow began leaving the city en masse, this prospecting thief went rummaging through the old, deserted synagogues looking for anything of value. All the silver and expensive items were gone, but it was there that he came across this ram’s horn and it became one of his valued collectibles. “But, Rabbi,” the gentile pleaded, hoping the rabbi would not report his theft, “take it. It’s yours. It’s the only one I found in the synagogue, but I want you to have it.”
Hashem had heard his call, and Rav Chaim’s joy knew no bounds. That final year, for the synagogue went out of operation soon after, the Jews of Moscow merited the fulfillment of the mitzvah of T’kias Shofar in true fashion, and it would be quite some time before such a sound could be heard again in the city. The selfless act of staying up all night, studying the laws of shofar, was the merit that allowed Rabbi Berlin to obtain and fulfill the mitzvah of shofar.