Yom Haatzma'ut: The dawn of redemption

History is full of events which in retrospect, with the benefit of historical hindsight, fit in with G-d’s design for Israel’s redemption

Daniel Pinner ,

ילדה מניפה דגל ישראל
ילדה מניפה דגל ישראל
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The Talmud tells us that “Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta were walking through the Arbel Valley at daybreak, and when they saw the first rays of dawn, Rabbi Hiyya the Elder said to Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta: Beribbi [1]! Such is Israel’s redemption. At first it comes slowly by slowly, and as it progresses its light increases” (Yerushalmi, Berachot 1:1 and Yoma 3:2).

There are several stages to redemption, and when it happens, it begins as gently and as unobtrusively and as naturally as the breaking of dawn. And as it gathers pace, it still seems to follow the natural way of the world.

Since the Talmud relates that this seemingly inconsequential conversation between Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta occurred in the Arbel Valley, that detail is presumably relevant. After all, the fact that the Talmud saw fit to specify the location would seem to indicate that the location was significant. So let us look at the geographic location of these two Torah-giants to begin our attempt to understand what they were implying.

The Arbel Valley is in the Galilee, about 4 km (2½) miles west of the bulge on the western side of the Kinneret. To take another reference-point, about 6 km (3½) miles north-west of Tiberias.

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta was a fifth-generation Tanna (late 2nd century), and Rabbi Hiyya the Elder lived in the transition period between the Tannaim and the Amoraim, so they were contemporaneous around the year 200, around the time that Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi was redacting the Mishnah. Thus at the time when they were perambulating through the Arbel Valley, looking eastwards towards the breaking dawn, they were facing towards Tiberias, which was at the time the seat of the Sanhedrin.

And behind them, still in the pre-dawn darkness, lay the cities of Sh’faram and Usha, which during the preceding generation had both been locations of the Sanhedrin.

I suggest that when Rabbi Hiyya the Elder saw the slowly breaking dawn and said to Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta, “Such is Israel’s redemption. At first it comes slowly by slowly, and as it progresses its light increases” – he referred not only to the physical description of sunrise, but also to the light of the morning of redemption illuminating the city of the Sanhedrin.

Israel’s redemption comes about through seemingly natural means. Like the redemption from Persia, as recorded in the Book of Esther, the process of redemption through which we are living in our generation has not [yet] had any open miracles. But human history, and particularly in the last couple of centuries, is full of events which only in retrospect, with the benefit of historical hindsight, turn out to fit in with G-d’s design for Israel’s redemption.

The English word “history”, taken from the Greek “historia” meaning “enquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation”, has been adopted into Hebrew in the form הִיסְטוֹרְיָה, “historiya” As is usual when foreign words are imported into Hebrew, the T-sound is transliterated using the Hebrew letter ט.

However Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the doyen of religious Zionism and first Chief Rabbi of Israel, used to spell the Hebrew word הִסְתּוֹרְיָה with a ת. The word, he explained, denotes הֶסְתֵּר יָ-הּ, the secrets of G-d. That is to say, according to Rav Kook, history, the chronicle of human events, is really the story of how G-d controls and directs the world, His providence being hidden.

Until the First World War, the Land of Israel was entirely under the domination of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Islamic Caliphate, which had invaded and conquered the Land from the previous Egyptian occupiers in the summer of 1517. After almost a thousand years of Islamic colonisation, and after four centuries of Turkish rule, and with the Turkish Ottoman Empire one of the great imperial powers of the world, continued Islamic colonisation and occupation of Israel seemed unshakeable.

But more than a century ago in the summer, what began as a minor conflict in the Balkans began to shake the entire world. Most of the world reckoned the year as 1914, but in the Jewish calendar it was 5674, in Hebrew תרע"ד, or תִּרְעָד – “she will shake”, “she will shudder”.

Within a few short months, that conflagration engulfed most of the world. Ultimately it was the British Empire, perhaps the mightiest military force in the world at the time, which was pitched against the Caliphate and which defeated the Ottoman Empire.

The history of the First World War is tortuously complex. But Britain’s role in it can be traced directly back to the Treaty of London of 1839, in which Britain recognised and guaranteed Belgian sovereignty and neutrality. And 75 years later, when Germany invaded Belgium, Britain and Belgium invoked this 75-year-old treaty, and Britain declared war on Germany to defend Belgium.

The result was war between Britain and Germany. As an ally of Britain, France was dragged into the conflict when Germany invaded on Sunday 10th Av 5674 (2nd August 1914).

The same day, the Turkish Ottoman Empire (meaning the Caliphate) and Germany ratified the Ottoman-German Alliance, inevitably bringing the Ottoman Empire into the conflagration. On the morning of the 9th Marcheshvan 5675 (29th October 1914), Turkish warships attacked the Russian coast and navy, thrusting the Turkish Ottoman Empire into the war as an active belligerent.

Russia declared war on Turkey three days later, on Sunday 12th Marcheshvan (1st November). Faced with the consequences, and realising the strength not only of Russia but also of Russia’s allies, Britain and France, Turkey apologised. But it was too late, and on the 16th Marcheshvan (5th October), Britain and France both declared war on Turkey.

The ultimate result was the defeat of Turkey, the dissolution of the Caliphate (which went back to the earliest days of Islam), and the remains of the Ottoman Empire being divided up between the victorious Allies.

On 17th Marcheshvan 5678 (2nd November 1917) Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, recognising Jewish historical claims to the Land of Israel: this was the first time that a major world power officially and unequivocally recognised the ancient Jewish national right to its homeland since Rome had implicitly extended that same recognition to the Maccabean government in 161 B.C.E..

And two-and-a-half years after the Balfour Declaration came the San Remo Conference, 100 years ago precisely. That conference ratified the Balfour Declaration as legally binding under international law (and also established the basis for almost all the Arab countries which exist today).

I suggest that it is no idle coincidence that the Treaty of London, which would drag Britain into the conflict after 75 years, was signed on Friday the 5th of Iyyar 5599 (19th April 1839), the same date and the same day of the week on which Israel would become independent precisely 109 years later.

And the San Remo Resolution was passed on 7th Iyyar 5680 (25th April 1920): that year, too, the 5th of Iyyar was a Friday, again the same date and the same day of the week on which Israel would become independent precisely 28 years later.

Rabbi Hiyya the Elder said, “Such is Israel’s redemption. At first it comes slowly by slowly, and as it progresses its light increases”. Israel’s redemption begins slowly by slowly, with natural historical events which seem totally unrelated. As the light of the dawn of redemption increases, so does the pace of events, so does their clarity.

And so, too, their inevitability.


[1] “Beribbi” – a title of deep respect and affection, usually applied to the Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi’s disciples. An event recorded in Shabbat 152a indicates that Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta was especially beloved by Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.