Establishing a Holiday: The Chief Rabbinate and Independence Day

The fascinating story of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's decisions for celebrating Yom HaAtzma'ut.

Rabbi Shmuel Katz

Judaism לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7

One of the boldest, most important, and most meaningful decisions that the Chief Rabbinate has made since its establishment took place in the month of Nissan in the year 5709 (1949), when it instituted Yom HaAtzma’ut  as a day of religious significance, praise,  and thanksgiving to God, as an obligation for all generations.

W hen this decision was made, Israel’s chief rabbis were Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel.  The two worked together in full harmony and mutual admiration and respect. Their world- views with regard to the redemption process that had unfolded over the last few generations, the spiritual value of the state’s establishment, and the obligation to participate in the nation’s joys and sorrows, allowed them to guide this most meaningful of processes.

Fundamental Questions

The Chief Rabbinate could neither relate to nor voice its opinion about Yom HaAtzma’ut  until the government and Knesset made its decisions. On 13 Adar 5709, the government chose 5 Iyar as the national “State Day,” which would be celebrated annually as a national holiday. This decision was published in the national media and became known to all. On 27 Nissan, the government proposed the “Independence Day Law” for debate in the Knesset. This was the first official debate regarding the character of the day. The members of the Knesset were almost unanimous in their desire that this day should be of traditional Jewish significance like the rest of the Jewish festivals, rather than a regular day. At the end of that same day, it was decided that a Knesset committee would determine this question, but due to time constraints these decisions were passed to the government, together with a suggestion most relevant to our topic at hand: “In regard to the declaration of the festival and its content, the committee has also proposed that this issue be discussed with the Honorable Chief Rabbis” (italics mine).

Thus, the organization of this national festival was passed from the legislative branch to the executive branch – to the government itself. On 27 Nissan the “governmental committee” publicized the program for Yom HaAtzma’ut, which made no mention of the synagogue or any customs regarding a festive meal. The following day, Prime Minister David Ben- Gurion issued special instructions with regard to public transport, post office opening hours, restaurants, and places of entertainment – all purely technical – which failed to contribute to the festive atmosphere of the day as it was to be celebrated within the family, community, or nation. The special proclamation issued in honor of the first Independence  Day was completely devoid of any religious content, and the absence of God’s name or any biblical verses was very pronounced. How did the chief rabbis pre- pare for this historic day? What had they to propose to the aforementioned governmental committee? What guidelines did they offer to the spiritual leaders and the public with regard to the forthcoming holiday?

Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Uziel were faced with new and difficult halakhic questions that no rabbi in Israel or the Diaspora had faced before, and all this took place less than a month before the state’s first National Independence Day. Now the Chief Rabbinate was given the opportunity to fulfill at least part of its vision – to form the religious character of the new Jewish state by giving religious-spiritual guidelines to the new Jewish festival – something that had not been done since the destruction of the Second Temple!

The chief rabbis and the Rabbinate needed to address several fundamental questions:

1.     Is the Chief Rabbinate authorized to establish a festival for future generations? And if so, are they authorized to obligate the Jews in the Diaspora as well?

2.   Is there religious significance to a one-time historical event such as the establishment of a Jewish state, even if it is not run according to the Torah, and its government does not observe the Torah and its commandments?

3.     Is it halakhically appropriate to join the Knesset in its  decision making, and to choose the fifth of Iyar in particular? Perhaps Yom HaAtzma’ut  should have been celebrated on the last day of the War of Independence?

4.    Which passages should be added to the prayer service on this day? Is it appropriate to recite Hallel, with or without a blessing?

5.     Can new prayers be composed in honor of this day, in order to best express its atmosphere?

6.    Does Yom HaAtzma’ut  overrule the recital of Taĥanun in the daily prayer service, the Selikhot recited  on Mondays and Thursdays after Pesaĥ, and the mourning customs of Sefirat HaOmer?

From the very first year, there were various opinions and multiple disputes in regard to these questions. I now wish to discuss the considerations, deliberations, and the decision-making process of Rabbi Herzog, Rabbi Uziel, and the Rabbinate council, which ultimately led to the for- mation of the spiritual and religious character of Yom HaAtzma’ut and the prayer service that is followed by many until this very day.

Initial Guidelines

The first document  I found concerning the Rabbinate’s decisions about Yom HaAtzma’ut is a letter that Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Uziel sent to the extended Rabbinate council on 8 Nissan, 5709.  The letter, sent only three weeks after the government’s announcement that the fifth of Iyar would serve as a national holiday, expressed the chief rabbis’ clear opinions in regard to the many questions they had been asked:

The fundamental turning point in God’s compassion on us, the declaration of our independence in the Land, which saved us and redeemed our souls, obligates us to uphold and keep this day of the fifth of Iyar, the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, for all generations, as a day of joy of the beginning of the redemption for all of Israel, and to exempt  the day of this great miracle from all customs of mourning of the Omer period, and to add thanksgiving prayers and sermons about this great event during the time of the Minĥa prayer in synagogues (italics mine).

The preparations for the Pesaĥ holiday seem to have prevented the Rabbinate council’s gathering in Jerusalem for a proper discussion of the topic, which led the chief rabbis to ask for their immediate approval in order to announce their decision to the public before Yom HaAtzma’ut. Note the following regarding the above declaration:

1.     The chief rabbis consider the  day of  the  declaration  of   the state – the fifth of Iyar – as “the beginning  of the  redemption.”  This perspective is the starting point of all their decisions in regard to this day, despite the fact that this opinion was not shared by the entire council.

2 .    The holiday was fixed for the generations and for all of Israel, even those in the Diaspora, regardless of how the State’s religious and spiritual character will unfold in the years to come, and how much Torah and mitzvot will be fulfilled by its citizens in the future.

3.    In order for Yom HaAtzma’ut’s greatness and unique festive spirit to be publicized as a crucial turning point in Israel’s history, the chief rabbis decided to cancel the mourning customs of the Omer period. This decision proved to be the center of a heated debate for years to come.

4.    The Chief Rabbinate did not yet propose a specific prayer service for this day. At this stage, they merely emphasized that the Minĥa prayer should be recited with special festivity.

 I have not found any documents that testify to the council’s reply; it may have been given by telephone. I did, however, find a proclamation that the Chief Rabbinate prepared for the public, “with the knowledge of the extended council and the Rabbinate offices in Israel,” in anticipation of “State Day” (as of yet, the holiday had no official name). This time, the Chief Rabbinate’s guidelines were more detailed:

1.  Taĥanun  is not be said during Shaĥarit and Minĥa, and there are to be no eulogies on this day.

2.  During the Minĥa  prayer, before Ashrei, when  the Ark is opened, the prayer leader will recite a prayer for the fallen soldiers of the IDF. After the repetition of the silent prayer, Hallel is to be recited without its blessings before and after, and the rabbi should give a special sermon in honor of the day.

3.   Charity should be given as it is on Purim.

4. The public should celebrate with festive meals, accompanied  by both zemirot and sacred poems by poets such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi between  courses, as well as chapters of Psalms: 30, 144, 146, 149, and 150.

5.  These  meals  have the status of seudot mitzva – meals that are  a mitzva in themselves.

From this document, several important details can be inferred:

1.     There are no guidelines for the evening prayers of the festival.

2.     The recitation of Hallel  was originally intended  for the Minĥa prayer – which is not the case with any other festival! I can only assume  that this surprising instruction  came in order to allow people who worked during the day to participate  in a festive prayer service after working hours.

3.    There is no mention of the mourning customs of the Omer period here.

4.    These guidelines seem to be an attempt to lend this day the same status as rabbinically ordained festivals: Ĥanukka and Purim.

5.     There are precise guidelines as to which chapters of Psalms should be recited at the festive meal.

 This proclamation,  it seems, was not made public.

Haredi Reactions

On 11 Nissan, a short, surprising passage was published in the media in the name of the Chief Rabbinate, without waiting for the official decision of the Knesset, who only convened on this subject the following day:

“State Day,” the fifth of Iyar, which falls during the Omer period, during which certain customs of mourning are observed, will have the same status as Lag BaOmer, and according to the decision of the Chief Rabbinate, [on the fifth of Iyar] all celebrations, weddings, haircuts, etc., are permitted (italics  mine).

This announcement  pleased many of the Chief Rabbinate’s supporters, one of whom  said: “This halakhic ruling is an event in the life of the Torah. It proves in what esteem Torah Judaism and its highest authority, the Chief Rabbinate, hold the day of the establishment of the state.” However, this joy did not last long. It seems that this bold, sweeping decision – to equate this day with Lag BaOmer – aggravated many within the council and outside of it, mostly within the ĥaredi community. After making inquiries in the Chief Rabbinate of Tel Aviv, and with Rabbi Herzog  himself, the Agudat Yisrael journal announced  that this information was inaccurate, and the subject was still under debate.  It also demanded the agreement of all rabbinic authorities in both Israel and the Diaspora before a final decision could be reached, in order to prevent dis- sent within the Torah-observant community and the desecration of God’s name. This demand was not met due to lack of time, especially given the fact that unanimous agreement would not be reached in any case.

Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Uziel reckoned that, as the highest halakhic authority in the state, the Chief Rabbinate had the power to decide this matter itself, even considering that such a decision had ramifications for the entire community in all its different sectors, in Israel and the Diaspora.

The extended Chief Rabbinate council did not convene for an emergency meeting until 18 Nissan, during Ĥol HaMoed Pesaĥ (meetings were not usually held at all during Ĥol HaMoed).  The protocol testifies to the reservations about this decision, with clarification that when the Old City of Jerusalem will once again be under Israeli rule, the Chief Rabbinate will debate whether the mourning customs of the Omer will be canceled on this day. Concerning the festive character of the day and its thanksgiving prayers, it was decided that:

1 .     Taĥanun  is not to be recited on this day.

2 .    During the morning prayers, Hallel is to be recited without a blessing, a memorial service is to be held for those who fell during the War of Independence, and a blessing is to be recited for the state.

3.     A meal of festivity and song is to be held, and presents should be given to the poor.

These definitions show fundamental changes: Hallel (still without blessings) is to be recited  during  the morning prayers, and there is an important addition: the Prayer for the Welfare of the State. When this decision was published, further changes  were made: there was no mention of the Prayer for the Welfare of the State; the mention of the fallen soldiers was moved to the Minĥa prayer service; and it was emphasized that the festive meal has the status of a seudat mitzva. Concerning  marriage and haircuts on this day, it was decided that “the Chief Rabbinate will make considerations  when the entire holy city of Jerusalem, old and new as one, will be restored to Israel.”

The Formation of the prayer service

These guidelines  were too general and too brief to enhance the festive atmosphere of the synagogue  prayers. Indeed, on the 30  Nissan, the national papers published a detailed prayer ser vice:  “Prayer and Thanksgiving for Independence  Day,” which listed additional prayers to be recited on this day and the special festive customs to be fulfilled. This service included  familiar passages of prayer from other festivals in an attempt to project the festive atmosphere of the established festivals onto this new day, and also expressed that this day is only the “ beginning of the redemption,” and we must continue to believe in the full redemption and the coming of the Messiah. These additions did not contain any blessings, so that there would be no halakhic questions concerning the utterance of God’s name.

This message, which was published in the name of the Chief Rabbinate, seemed to imply that they were the ones who created the new prayer ser- vice, but this was not the case. Careful research has revealed that rabbis associated with the social-political organization HaPo’el HaMizrachi, who were not satisfied with the Chief Rabbinate’s guidelines published after Pesaĥ, were the ones who compiled the service. In a letter to the Chief Rabbinate, they requested that the Chief Rabbinate lend their authority to the proposed prayer service as the universal prayer service for the new festival. In the event of insufficient time to hold a meeting on the subject, they would settle for the Chief Rabbinate’s authorization of the service as an optional program, so that local rabbis would be able to publicize the service in their communities.

The rabbi of Kfar HaRo’eh,  Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, and his neighbor, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah, the head of the Bnei Akiva yeshiva there, seem to be the ones who compiled most of the service’s content. Rabbi Yisraeli met with Rabbi Uziel in order to obtain his approval. Rabbi Uziel deleted several passages from the original proposed  service, including: “Hineni mukhan umezuman, I am prepared and ready to hear the sound of the shofar on the day of Israel’s independence”;  “Sound the great shofar for our freedom…blessed is He who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel”; the blessing,  with shem umalkhut (God’s name and kingship, i.e. a full blessing), “He who performed miracles for us in those days and at this time”; and a Torah reading from Deuteronomy 30:1-20, over which three people were to say blessings. Rabbi Yisraeli made two additions in his own handwriting: in the evening prayers, “He who performed miracles for our forefathers and for us”; and in the morning prayers, “ We are obligated to thank and praise…and we will say a new song before Him, Hallelujah.” After the service was edited and corrected, it was sent to the newspapers for publication.

The authority of the day

In order that the religious community  accept the Chief Rabbinate’s confirmation of the Knesset’s decision to institute the fifth of Iyar as a festival, there was a need to justify the importance of this day – 5 Iyar, 5708 – from the point of view of Halakha and emuna, faith. After all, this day did not mark any particular victory; on the contrary, the declaration of statehood caused the armies of the surrounding countries to attack the newborn state the very next day. Before the first anniversary of Israeli independence, Rabbi Herzog was in the United States, and Rabbi Uziel, therefore, took on this important mission. He issued a special proclamation in honor of the first Independence Day of the state:

“On this day, you became a people unto the Lord your God!” (Deut.27:9) – these words are worthy to be said on this day, the day of the declaration of our independent state in the Land of Israel. For on this day, we have shaken loose the yoke of submission to foreign rule in the Land of Israel, which took the form of the [British] Mandate, which desired to strangle [Israel] to death, and from the threat of war from the surrounding nations, who wished to enslave us forever. This bold declaration, which all nations of the earth scorned, rendered the entire nation of Israel, in the Land [of Israel] and in the Diaspora, into an independent,  autonomous  nation in its own land and in all areas of its life; gave courage  and lion-strength to the army of God – that is, the Israeli army – in its fight for redemption, when they prevailed against all those who rose up against us; opened the gates of our Land, the portion of God, to the nation of Israel from wherever it was scattered and exiled; and awarded the nation of Israel its honored place amongst the nations….  This day is a festival for Israel, who dwell in their Land,  and for all those scattered throughout the Diaspora,  for our generation and  for all generations, to thank the Lord for His kindness and to praise Him with song, joy, thanksgiving, and glory – “This is the day the Lord made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (italics mine).

Rabbi Uziel’s uplifting words clarify several important points regarding the nature of the day. In his opinion, Yom HaAtzma’ut’s importance and halakhic significance – and its institution on this particular date – is derived from the following factors:

1 .     the lifting of the yoke of foreign domination and obtaining inde- pendent rule over the Land of Israel, together with the authority of the British Mandate in the Land ending at the midnight of that same Shabbat;

 2 .    victory  in the fierce war that ensued in the Land, the victory of few over many, rescue from death, and overcoming the danger of annihilation;

3 .     the courage of the nation’s leaders to declare the  establishment of the state on that day, despite  the dangers  it  entailed, which transformed  the nation of Israel – including  those outside its borders – into an independent, autonomous nation;

4.    the opening of the gates of the land on this day to Jews from all over the world, and especially to the survivors of the Holocaust, indicating that this day marked a kind of ending to the exile;

5 .     the achievement of an honorable place among the nations, after years of humiliation  throughout  their long exile,  which  culminated in the Holocaust;

Yom HaAtzma’ut, therefore, is also a festival for the Jews of the Diaspora, for from the day independence was declared, all Jews are able to move to the Land of Israel whenever they want, especially in times of trouble. Furthermore, for all these reasons, Yom HaAtzma’ut is a festival for all time and all generations to come!

These inspiring words were written on ƦƬ Nissan, but for whatever reason they were not published until the very morning of Yom HaAtzma’ut  itself, on 5 Iyar. If they had been published just a few days before, they certainly would have contributed to the anticipation of this festival and lifted the spirits of the general public, clarifying the greatness of the day to all. This statement was signed by Rabbi Uziel himself, not by the Chief Rabbinate, and it effectively served as a counterbalance to the government’s statement, which did not at all relate to the religious-spiritual aspect of the day.

The first celebration

Celebratory prayers of thanks were held on the eve of the festival all over the country. The synagogues  were bursting with thousands of people. A special ceremony was held in Jerusalem, organized by the Military Rabbinate, the religious services branch and the Ministry of Religion. This event opened with a thanksgiving ceremony for “the resurrection of Israel and the Ark’s return from the battlefield to Jerusalem.”

 A special procession of rabbis and soldiers marched forth, led by two Torah scrolls, a giant seal of the State of Israel, a royal flag emblazoned with the names of all the kings of Judah, the national flag, and the flags of the twelve tribes of Israel. Myriads of celebrating Jews accompanied the procession with song and dance through the streets of the capital, arriving at the Yeshurun Synagogue, where thousands gathered for the thanksgiving prayers.

The prayer service began with the opening of the Ark by Rabbi Uziel, who wore a golden badge of honor from his inauguration as Sephardic chief rabbi. After a festive evening prayer service, the chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, read a parchment  scroll inscribed  with a special prayer compiled in honor of the first Yom HaAtzma’ut. Rabbi Uziel gave a speech; after wards, the verses “ When you come to war” (Num. 10:9-10) and “This very day they will halt at Nob” (Is. 10-12) were read out, and a memorial prayer was recited in honor of those who fell in the War of Independence. This service differed slightly from the order of prayers that the Chief Rabbinate itself proposed.

The next morning, an impressive military parade marched through Jerusalem, with Rabbi Uziel seated in a place of honor. A similar parade that was to be held in Tel Aviv was canceled because of the sheer numbers of the crowd and the vast multitudes that thronged the streets. Rabbi Herzog was the main speaker at the mass gathering held in honor of Yom HaAtzma’ut in Madison Square Garden in New York. His moving speech made a lasting impression on the 200,000 people who came to hear him.

The Koren Mahzor for Yom HaAtzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim, , the first English-Hebrew prayer book for Israel’s national holidays, was released in time for the holidays. It is available online and at local Jewish booksellers. Rabbi Shmuel Katz is school rabbi in Ulpenat Horev and the religious-Zionist school in Har Nof, and a researcher on the Chief Rabbinate.



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