Man waves Israeli flag in Jerusalem 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Since 1948, religious Zionists have
debated how to religiously celebrate our national sovereignty. Among rabbis and
laypeople alike, there remains a strong sense that beyond outdoor hikes and
barbecues, we must manifest our joy and gratitude in religious expression. This
sentiment only grew stronger after the grand victory of the Six Day War, when
new questions arose regarding the celebration over Jerusalem’s
One might have expected these debates to have been settled
in 1949 when Israel celebrated its first Independence Day. Yet as Rabbi Shmuel
Katz has documented, a combination of factors, including late planning by the
government and the influence of non-Zionist religious scholars, prevented the
Chief Rabbinate from issuing clear-cut instructions to Zionist synagogues that
More significantly, scholars passionately debated the propriety of
creating a new ritual for this occasion. While somewhat frustrating, one should
remember, as pointed out by Nahmanides, that it took several years before the
Sages determined how to celebrate the Purim miracle. We should also note it
takes many societies time to determine the proper way to establish national
As Prof. Nahum Rakover has shown, a few scholars objected
on a basic level to the whole notion of a new national holiday, arguing that
this violated the biblical prohibition (Deuteronomy 4:2) of adding mitzvot to
the Torah (bal tosif).
Most dismissed this concern, however, by arguing
that one only violates that prohibition if they declare such celebrations as
mandatory and originating in the Torah. They further noted that Jewish
communities historically established local festivals known as “Purim Katan” or
“Purim Sheni” to commemorate miracles that happened in their community which
remained binding for generations to come.
While the establishment of
these local celebrations was not without controversy, most decisors, including
Rabbi Moses Sofer and Avraham Danziger, argued that many communities, including
their own, cherished such days and commemorated them with festive meals, candle
lighting, giving charity and reciting Psalms.
While the vast majority of
religious Zionist decisors supported the establishment of a national holiday,
they disagreed as to how to celebrate the day. One central question related to
the recitation of the Hallel prayer, the set of psalms traditionally recited on
Hallel was instituted either as an expression of holiday
joy, like on Succot, or as an act of thanksgiving for salvation from danger, as
with Hanukka. The commentators debated what level of salvation is necessary to
mandate Hallel’s recitation.
Some argued that the miracle had to be
blatant and undisputed (nes nigleh), as with the splitting of the Red Sea, while
others contended that the miracle had to occur to the entire Jewish people.
Rabbi Menahem Hameiri further ruled that even in such circumstances, Hallel
should not be recited with a blessing.
Beyond these legalistic
considerations, rabbis Ovadia Hedaya, Ovadia Yosef and Moshe Tzvi Neria noted
that Israel’s continued precarious state of security and spiritual shortcomings
must temper our celebrations. As such, they contended that Hallel was not
mandated, and therefore one could not recite those psalms with the traditional
opening and closing benedictions.
A similar position was held by Rabbi
Joseph Soloveitchik, who in general opposed liturgical innovations, even as he
reluctantly allowed Hallel to be recited without a blessing at the end of
services. Partly based on these arguments and partly because of pressure from
non-Zionist scholars, the Chief Rabbinate in 1949, led by rabbis Isaac Herzog
and Benzion Uziel, declared that Hallel should not be recited with a
Other scholars, including rabbis Meshulam Roth, Yehuda Gershuni
and Hayim David Halevi forcefully argued for the full-fledged recitation of
Hallel. They contended that Hallel may be recited over a wondrous event achieved
though seemingly natural means, and that in any case, the military victory over
the surrounding Arab armies was a bona-fide miracle worthy of
They further argued that this victory clearly affected the
entire Jewish people since the State served as a place of refuge while serving
as a source of deep Jewish pride throughout the world. This position was later
adopted by the chief rabbinate under the leadership of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and
is followed today in most religious Zionist congregations.
Roth and Goren advocated reciting the “sheheheyanu” blessing traditionally
recited at the beginning of other holidays, although this position has gained
Rabbi Goren further argued that as on Passover, we
should also celebrate our contemporary redemption with Hallel at night, but this
opinion was widely rejected.
Due to the amazing military victory in the
Six Day War, then-chief rabbis Yehuda Unterman and Yitzhak Nissim, with the
support of rabbis Shaul Yisraeli and Shlomo Zevin, ruled that one should recite
Hallel with a blessing.
Other scholars demurred, and different
communities continue to follow divergent practices in celebrating this momentous
occasion.The writer, online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat