Is Independence Day a ‘Jewish’ holiday?

Following the establishment of the State of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate looked to these precedents in establishing Independence Day and later Jerusalem Day as religious holidays.

April 18, 2018 14:12
3 minute read.
PEOPLE WATCH the Israel Air Force Aerobatic team fly over the Mediterranean Sea during Independence

PEOPLE WATCH the Israel Air Force Aerobatic team fly over the Mediterranean Sea during Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv, 2017. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)


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Following the miraculous birth of the State of Israel in 1948 and the dramatic reclamation of Jerusalem in 1967, the Chief Rabbinate, together with leading authorities, established Independence Day and Jerusalem Day as full-fledged festivals, with the recitation of special prayers, including the Hallel.

The question, debated by many, was: is it permissible to add new holidays to the Jewish calendar?

According to Nachmanides, creating a new Jewish holiday violates the prohibition of “adding” to the commandments of the Torah (Deuteronomy 13:1).

But throughout Jewish history, communities and individuals who experienced a miraculous salvation established “Purims,” a festival to be celebrated like Purim in commemoration of the miracle.

Following the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Jewish community of Lepanto (today Nafpaktos), Greece, established a holiday to give thanks to God for sparing them. Members of the community inquired of Rabbi Moshe Alshakar if they could indeed establish a holiday, like Purim, to celebrate their miraculous salvation. They also inquired whether this practice would be binding for those no longer living in the community, and on future generations. Rabbi Alshakar ruled that indeed the community leaders have the authority to establish such a day, and it is binding upon members of the community, present and future (Teshuvot Maharam Alshakar, 49).

Rabbi Hezekiah da Silva, however, was very upset with this practice. He criticized the Jewish communities in Greece and Egypt for establishing new holidays. He based his objection on Megillat Ta’anit, a list of 36 festivals observed during the Second Temple period. On these dates, fasting and eulogies were prohibited. He cites a passage in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) which relates how following the destruction of the Temple, Megillat Ta’anit, together with all of the festivals described therein, became null and void. Accordingly, he rules that neither a community nor an individual has the authority to declare new festivals today (See Pri Hadash, OC 496:14).

Rabbi Moshe Sofer defended the practice of instituting new holidays, and argued that even according to the opinion that Megillat Ta’anit is null and void, the holidays of Hanukka and Purim were never nullified. Accordingly, festivals created to commemorate a miraculous salvation, patterned after Purim and Hanukka, are indeed permissable (Teshuvot Hatam Sofer, OC 191). He concludes by noting how he and his teacher, Rabbi Natan Adler, were careful to observe “Purim Frankfurt,” also known as “Purim Vincenz,” even when no longer living in Frankfurt.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Sofer writes that establishing a festival to mark a miraculous event is a biblical requirement, and one who does not do so is in violation of not preforming a positive commandment (Teshuvot Hatam Sofer, YD 233).

Rabbi Avraham Danziger, a student of the Vilna Gaon, also rules that it is a mitzva for an individual or a community to establish a holiday. He describes how he himself established a holiday on the day when he and his family were spared after a fire destroyed a number of homes including his own, claiming the lives of 31 people (Hayyei Adam 155:41).

The Magen Avraham and Mishnah Berurah (OC 686) both record that a community can create a “Purim,” for themselves and for future generations, on a day in which they experienced a miracle.

And over the centuries, tens of communities and families have established these “Purims,” sometimes with the recitation of special prayers, meals, and sometimes even reading from a special Megillah, written to commemorate the event. (For an exhaustive list, see Yom Tov Levinski, “Purim Sheni,” published in his Sefer Ha-Moadim, vol. 6, pp. 297-321).

Following the establishment of the State of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate, together with other leading authorities, looked to these precedents in establishing Independence Day and later Jerusalem Day as religious holidays. One such authority, Rabbi Meshulam Roth, wrote that is a “mitzva” to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day as a “joyous festival with the recitation of Hallel,” marking the “miracle of our salvation and freedom” (Kol Mevaser 1:21).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) relates that King Hezekiah would have been made the Messiah, but for the fact that he failed to give praise upon the downfall of the wicked Sanherev, King of Assyria. Hezekiah failed to give this profound experience religious expression.

We dare not make the same mistake.

Independence Day and Jerusalem Day posses profound religious significance. These are days of great Divine providence – miracles and wonders – and deserve religious expression. By celebrating them, we express our thanks for the tremendous gifts of the State of Israel and Jerusalem.

The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof’s Kehilat Zichron Yosef.

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