Should one recite Hallel on Jerusalem Day?

Ask The Rabbi: There remains a strong sense that beyond barbecues, we must manifest gratitude in religious expression.

Man waves Israeli flag in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 reunification.
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 year.
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 commemorations.
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 most holidays.
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 blessing.
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 thanksgiving.
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.
Rabbis Uziel, Roth and Goren advocated reciting the “sheheheyanu” blessing traditionally recited at the beginning of other holidays, although this position has gained limited support.
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 Hakotel.