Op-Ed: A Song of Praise for Israel Independence Day
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
Three Levels of Holiness of Yom Ha’atzmaut
Q: Is ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’ (Israel Independence Day) a sacred day, or is it merely a question of nationalism, unrelated to Torah and kedusha (holiness) as the haredim claim? Isn’t the fact that the government and judicial system are not committed to keeping Torah and mitzvot a reason not to be happy on Yom Ha’atzmaut?
A: Yom Ha’atzma’ut is crowned with three sanctities: 1) the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, settling the Land of Israel. 2) The realization of the words of the Prophets, and Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God) in the eyes of the nations, and 3) and the act of being saved from the hands of our enemies.
Therefore, despite significant weaknesses and occasional wrongdoings by Ministers and Prime Ministers, all the same, our joy and thanksgiving for Yom Ha’atzma’ut remains the same, for all three sanctities of the day are still relevant.
Settling the Land
When the establishment of the State of Israel was declared, the Jewish Nation once again merited fulfilling the Torah commandment of yishuv ha’aretz, whose fundamental point is Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, as it is written: “Clear out the Land and live in it, since it is to you that I am giving the Land to occupy” (Numbers 33:53). The Hebrew word used in the verse for ‘clear out’ -- ‘horshetem’,is defined as ‘kibush’ (conquering) and ‘ribonut’ (sovereignty). The word ‘v’yeshavtem’ (‘live in it’) means to settle the Land, and not leave it barren.
Additionally, it is written in the Torah: “When you have occupied it and you live there” (Deuteronomy 11:31). This is how Nachmanides (Ramban) defined the mitzvah: “We were commanded to take possession of the Land which the Almighty, Blessed Be He, gave to our forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and not abandon it to other nations, or to leave it desolate” (Supplement to Sefer HaMitzvoth of the Rambam, Positive Commandment 4. It is also clarified in Beit Yosef and Bach, O. C. 561, M. A. 1, M. B. 2, that the determination of ‘destruction’ is contingent on sovereignty).
Sanctification of Hashem and the Beginning of Redemption
The establishment of the State removed the disgrace of exile from the Jewish people. Generation after generation, we wandered in exile, suffering dreadful humiliation, pillage, and bloodshed. We were an object of scorn and derision among the nations – regarded as sheep led to the slaughter, to be killed, destroyed, beaten, and humiliated. Strangers said to us, “You are hopeless.” That was a terrible situation of ‘Chillul Hashem’ (desecration of God’s name), because we are named after HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and when we are degraded, His name is desecrated among the nations (see, Yechezkel 36).
Furthermore, the Prophets of Israel prophesied in the name of Hashem: “For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land” (Yechezkel 36:24). “And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them”(Yeshayahu 65:21). “You will yet plant vines upon the mountains of Shomron: the planters will plant, and shall enjoy the fruit” (Yirmeyahu31:4). And there are several similar verses. However, after so many years passed without the word of God coming to fruition, the desecration of Hashem’s name in the world increased, and the enemies of Israel concluded that there was no chance the Jews would ever return to their Land. Even our Sages particularly stressed the absolute miracle of the Ingathering of the Exiles, to the point where they said:“The Ingathering of the Exiles is as great as the day upon which the heaven and earth were created” (Pesachim 88a).
And behold, the miracle occurred – Hashem fulfilled His promise! This was an enormous and awesome Kiddush Hashem, which intensified during the Six Day War when we liberated Jerusalem and the holy cities of Judea and Samaria.
This process of the Ingathering of the Exiles and making the desert bloom, received a tremendous boost with the establishment of the State of Israel – the beginning of the Redemption. As Rabbi Abba said: “There is no clearer sign of the Redemption than this verse: ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, will give forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are soon to come”, upon which Rashi comments: ‘When Eretz Yisrael gives forth its fruit in abundance, the End will be near, and there is no clearer sign of the Redemption.” (Sanhedrin 98a).
Salvation of Israel
On Yom HaAtzma’ut, the Jewish people were delivered from bondage to freedom; from subjugation to the empires of the world – with all that entails, to political independence. This also resulted in a veritable salvation from death to life. Until then, we were unable to defend ourselves against our enemies who pursued us. From that day on, thanks to the kindness of God, we defend ourselves, and win battles. True, all our enemies who rise up to destroy us have yet to be eradicated, but in consequence of the establishment of the State, we have our own army, thank God, and have the strength to fight back, and even win.
And although more than 20,000 holy souls have been killed in wars and terrorist attacks since the creation of the State over sixty years ago, just a few years beforehand, during the horrific Holocaust, more than six million holy Jews were killed in the span of five years – more than three hundred times the amount! This is the difference between living in our own land and being able to defend ourselves, and not having the means to do so.
That day brought about a salvation for Diaspora Jews, as well. They now have a country that is always willing to absorb them, one that even works on their behalf in the international arena. Before the State was established, the complaints of Jewish citizens around the world against the murderous, anti-Semitic persecutions that raged in many countries were usually disregarded. After the founding of the State of Israel, however, even the most evil regimes were forced to take into consideration Israel’s actions on behalf of the Jews living in their midst. Even Communist Russia had to relent and allow the Jews to leave from behind the Iron Curtain, something that was unimaginable before statehood.
Did the Zionist Movement Cause Secularism?
Q: Some people argue against celebrating Yom Ha’atma’ut because, in their opinion, the Zionist movement caused the abandonment of Torah and mitzvot.
A: This claim is libel. The truth is the exact opposite – thanks to the Zionist movement, or specifically, on account of the aliyah to Eretz Yisrael that followed as a result of its activities, the Jewish nation was saved – both physically, and spiritually.
Secularism was caused by many reasons – mainly because of the difficulty in dealing with enlightenment and modern society. Aliyah to Israel was not the source of the problem, but rather, the solution. Had we woken up to this fact earlier, we would have been able to save more Jews – both in a physical and spiritual sense.
Let’s compare the situation of the Jews who made aliyah to Israel, as opposed to those who remained in chutz l’aretz (Diaspora): Among those living in Israel, approximately 25% are religiously observant, and in addition, over 30% define themselves as being traditional. Even most secular Jews keep certain mitzvot – such as marriage, circumcision, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Hanukkah. In contrast, amongst the Jews who remained in Europe, the majority were murdered in the Holocaust, while those remaining under Soviet rule were forcibly distanced from keeping Jewish tradition – to the point where most of their descendants eventually married non-Jews.
And from a Jewish perspective, those who emigrated to America and England are no better off. Most of the young people are assimilated, less than 10% are religiously observant, and the connection to religion of those considered ‘traditional’ in America, is on the same level as the secular Jews here in Israel.
Let’s take the Jews of North Africa, for example. The situation of those who immigrated to Israel is immeasurably better off than those who remained in the Diaspora. Amongst those emigrating to France, the assimilation rate has reached over 60%, whereas in Israel, over 70% are religiously observant or traditional.
Demographically, as well, all of the Jewish communities in chutz l’aretz are dwindling due to intermarriage and a low birth rate, while the number of Jews in Eretz Yisrael is constantly growing.
The Mitzvah to Establish Yom Tov on a Day of Salvation
It is a mitzvah to establish a Yom Tov (holiday), to rejoice and praise God, on a day Jews were delivered from distress. This is what prompted the Rabbis to establish Purim and Hanukkah as eternal holidays. Even though it is forbidden to add mitzvot onto those already written in the Torah, nevertheless, on a day in which Jews were delivered from distress, it is a mitzvah to fix a day of joy and thanksgiving.
The Rabbis derived this from a logical inference (a kal va’chomer): When we left Egypt and were delivered from slavery to freedom, God commanded us to celebrate Pesach and sing praise to Him every year; all the more so must we celebrate Purim, when we were saved from death to life (according to Megillah 14a, and also explained by Ritva,ibid).
TheChatam Sofer explains (Y.D. end of 233, O.C. 208) that since this mitzvah is derived from a kal va’chomer, it is considered a Biblical commandment. However, the Torah does not give detailed instructions exactly how to observe the holiday. Therefore, one who does anything whatsoever to commemorate the salvation fulfills his Biblical obligation; it was the Rabbis who determined we read the Megillah, prepare a festive meal, send portions of food to others, and give charity to the poor on Purim, and light the candles on Hanukkah.
Establishing a Yom Tov on Yom Ha’atzma’ut
The Council of the Chief Rabbinate – led by two of Israel’s illustrious Torah scholars –Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Uziel, established Yom Ha’atzmaut as a Yom Tov. This was also the opinion of the majority of Rabbis in Israel.
Similarly, the illustrious Gaon, Rabbi Meshulam Roth, wrote in his Responsa ‘Kol Mevaser’, that it is a mitzvah to establish a Yom Tov on Yom Ha’atzmaut, explaining this obligation based on Ramban, Ritva, and other Rishonim and Acharonim. He clarifies that this is not in violation of bal toseef (“You shall not add”), for the prohibition against inventing a holiday refers only to holidays that do not commemorate a salvation. Based on the kal va’chomer, however, we are obligated to institute holidays that commemorate salvations.
The Custom of Israel through the Generations
This is not a new minhag (custom) introduced for Yom Ha’atzmaut, rather, this was the practice of numerous Jewish communities, who instituted days of joy in commemoration of miracles that happened to them. Many of them used the name Purim in reference to these days, such as ‘Frankfurt Purim’,or ‘Tiberias Purim’. Some communities had a custom to partake in festive meals, to send portions of food to one another, and to give charity to the poor (see Maharam Alshakar 49, M.A. and E.R. 686; Chayei Adam155:41; Yaskil Avdi, vol. 7, O.C. 44:12).
Since one is obligated to thank and praise God for the miracles He performed on our behalf, consequently, it is a mitzvah to recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the day we were delivered from the greatest trouble of all –that of exile and subjugation to foreigners, which caused all of the terrible decrees and massacres we suffered for nearly two thousand years.
Similarly, the Talmud states that after the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, “the prophets among them enacted that the Jews should recite Hallel for each and every time, and each and every trouble– may it not come upon them! – and when they are redeemed, they should recite it [in thankfulness] for their redemption” (Pesachim 117a). Rashi explains that according to this, the Sages of the Second Temple era enacted the recitation of Hallel on Hanukkah (this is also explained in Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:6, Shemot Rabbah 23:12, and Megillah 14a).
The Gaon, Rabbi Meshulam Roth, wrote that it is a mitzvah to recite Hallel with a blessing, and this is our custom. Nevertheless, there are eminent Torah scholars who, owing to various concerns, instructed to recite Hallel without a blessing. Both of these practices are halakhically valid.
However, those who believe that one should not thank God for the establishment of the State of Israel and all the positive things which occurred as a result of it, have no halakhic basis to rely on, deny the goodness of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and are liable, God forbid, to distance the Redemption (Sanhedrin 94a).
May it be His will that as a result of our complete acknowledgement of Hashem onYom Ha’atzma’ut, we will merit the entire Ingathering of the Exiles, the building of the Land and Jerusalem, the return of the Divine Presence, the appearance of Mashiach ben David, and the building of the Holy Temple, speedily in our days.