The government of the fledgling state of Israel was quick to establish an annual Independence Day. That proclamation merely designated its date as the fifth of Iyyar, the Hebrew anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, declaring it a day on which businesses and institutions would be closed. It said nothing about the manner in which it was to be celebrated.
The official religious response to the new holiday was somewhat slow in coming. The body responsible for such questions was the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Israel had inherited from the Ottoman and British Mandatory eras its system of separate Sephardic and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbis; the former position was filled at the time by Rabbi Benzion Ouziel and the latter by Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog. The first announcement on the topic was a letter circulated by both Chief Rabbis to the Chief Rabbinate Council on April 3 1949. In it they acknowledged that the miraculous rebirth of Israeli statehood warranted the creation of an annual festive commemoration. They declared that the new holiday was to override the traditional mourning rites that would otherwise be in force during the “Omer” period. The letter did not specify a liturgy for Yom Ha-Atzma’ut beyond a vague reference to “prayers of thanksgiving and sermons expounding the event in the afternoon services in the synagogues.” The short and innocuous afternoon service seems like an odd choice for the purpose—it seemed to presuppose that most Israelis would be going to work in the morning.
The Chief Rabbis applied to Israel’s independence the talmudic expression “atḥalta di-ge’ula,” (the beginning of redemption). In the Talmud’s apocalyptic scenario, the advent of the messianic era would be preceded by a great war; and it was in this context that the sages declared “war too marks the beginning of redemption.” The terse letter does not clarify what its authors had in mind in using this terminology, and it is likely that they meant it as a hopeful prayer rather than ascribing messianic significance to Israel’s creation.
Unlike the tone of the discourse that would develop after 1967, when many religious Zionists became convinced that the advent Israel was a step in the larger messianic process, the rabbis in the earliest days of independence recognized that the creation of the state was itself of momentous religious significance. This theme appear consistently in pronouncements and responsa by Rabbis Ouziel, Herzog, Meshullam Rath and other prominent authorities of the time. They made it clear that what ought to be celebrated was not military victory or territorial conquest, but the renewed sovereignty of the Jewish people as embodied in its Declaration of Independence. That historic milestone made possible the successful revolt against British imperialism, the repelling of massive Arab invading armies and the opening of the gates of sanctuary to the scattered remnants of our people. All these, they insisted, were worthy occasions for instituting a day of religious celebration in the homeland and abroad. Rabbi Rath considered it obvious that on a day of such great importance the full Hallel selection from Psalms must be recited with its accompanying blessings, along with the “Sheheḥiyanu” blessing that is invoked on days of special rejoicing.
Other documents that were circulated among members of the Chief Rabbinate Council spoke of the omission of penitential prayers (Taḥanun), and of the inclusion of memorial prayers for fallen soldiers—this was before the establishment of a separate Memorial Day. Although there was a general and understandable tendency to observe the holiday in the manner of Purim or Ḥanukkah, this was offset by a reluctance to fully implement the joyous practices as long as Jerusalem remained divided.
And indeed the question of how to celebrate Yom Ha-’Azma’ut did return to the rabbinic agenda in 1967 after the the Six Day War brought the old city of Jerusalem under Israeli rule. A new generation of rabbis were now charged with setting halakhic guidelines for the holiday, as well as initiating a celebration of the unification of Jerusalem. The discussions after 1967 were not unlike those that had taken place two decades earlier. Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Unterman extolled the miraculous dimensions of the recent victory and the obligation to proclaim it publicly (pirsuma de-nissa, even as Jewish law assigns major importance to the obligation of publicly proclaiming the miracle of Ḥanukkah in order to promote the sanctification of God’s name in the world: “As regards the obligation to publicly proclaim the great wonder that the Holy One performed on our behalf in this war against our enemies, all of whom sought to destroy us, and thanks to his help we emerged from death to life and from darkness to a great light—all agree that there is an obligation to recite the Hallel.”
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as Chief Rabbi of the I.D.F. during the Six Day War, was quite militant in his political views; nevertheless, he was scrupulous to dissociate his halakhic stance on the celebration of Independence Day from theological perceptions about the state’s supposed messianic dimensions. He too urged that the holiday be celebrated because “it symbolizes the rescue of the nation from total destruction, its emergence into independent life, to the national revival and the restoration of Israel.” He cited talmudic texts that required the recitation of Hallel “on every occasion and each trouble that befalls them; whenever they are redeemed they should recite it over their redemption.” In halakhic discussions prior to 1967 the term “ge’ulah” [redemption] was not usually employed in its messianic connotation, but rather in its more concrete sense of being rescued from adversity, and especially from impending death.
In light of the above statements by various Chief Rabbis, it is surprising that the official position of the Chief Rabbinate continued to shy away from requiring a blessing over the Hallel. The reasons they gave tended to be technical ones and easy to refute: the struggle was not yet over, or it did not embrace the whole Jewish nation; there was no specific precept to which the blessing could be attached analogous to the reading of the Megillah or the lighting of Ḥanukkah candles. The great Talmud scholar Rabbi S. J. Zevin reported that the Rabbinate had reluctantly yielded to external pressures when they refrained from mandating the recitation of a full Hallel with the accompanying blessing.
At that point in history, the religious Zionist movement was undergoing a radical transformation. Its most vocal segments subscribed to the eschatological vision preached by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, an ideology that stressed settling the historical land of Israel as a prelude to ultimate redemption. Some advocates of this ideology were ambivalent about recognizing the secular democratic state of Israel. It is symptomatic of this change that recitation of full Hallel with its blessing was now reserved for Jerusalem Reunification Day.
The older approach was articulated succinctly by Rabbi Zevin:
The independant state of Israel qualifies as a miracle and a wonder, and it ranks as the most important development in recent Jewish history. Nevertheless I avoid voicing opinions regarding the rise of Israel as to whether it is the “beginning of the redemption.” We are not privy to God’s plans and we haven’t the vaguest conception of how the future redemption will take place. Therefore it would be stupid to equate the reestablishment of Israel as expressed in the Bible with the redemption of Israel at the present time. Autonomous Jewish sovereignty is undeniably a wondrous prospect, and we are therefore commanded to give thanks and praise to the Lord.