Yom HaAtzmaut as a Lasting Holiday

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imageby R. Eliezer Melamed

Excerpted with permission from the official English translation of Peninei Halakha, Zemanim 4:3-5.

Day of Salvation

On Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), the Jewish people were delivered from bondage to freedom – from subjugation to the kingdoms of the world, to political independence. This also brought about an actual resurrection from death to life. Until then, we were unable to defend ourselves against the enemies who pursued us. From that day on, thanks to God’s kindness, we began to defend ourselves and win our battles. True, all the enemies who rise up to destroy us have yet to be destroyed, but after the establishment of the State of Israel, we formed an army, thank God, and we have the strength to fight back and triumph. And even though more than 20,000 holy souls have been killed in wars and terror attacks since the State came into being over sixty years ago, just a few years beforehand, during the horrific Holocaust, more than six million holy Jews were killed in the span of five years – more than three hundred times the amount. This is the difference between having the ability to fight back and being a helpless victim.

That day brought about a salvation for Diaspora Jews, as well. They now have a country that is always willing to absorb them, and even works on their behalf in the international arena. Before the State was established, almost no one paid attention to our complaints against the murderous, anti-Semitic persecutions that raged in many countries. After Israel gained independence, however, even the most evil regimes were forced to take into consideration Israel’s possible reprisals on behalf of the Jews living in their midst. Even Communist Russia had to relent and allow the Jews to leave from behind the Iron Curtain, something that was unfathomable before the State was born.

The establishment of the State also brought spiritual salvation to the Jews. Previous to this, the Jewish nation underwent a profound spiritual crisis since the dawn of the modern era. The opportunity to integrate into the civil and national frameworks of the developed nations, which the Jews were granted, generated a strong desire to assimilate. This is not the place to elaborate on the reasons for this crisis; our master, Rav Kook, zt”l, deals with the issue at length, discussing its various facets. In brief, a dangerous process of assimilation and the abandonment of Judaism developed in all countries that embraced modernization. This process threatened the very existence of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Assimilation began approximately two hundred years ago in Western Europe, spreading gradually to Eastern Europe and the capitals of the more developed Arab countries. Today, most young people in the Jewish community of America marry out of the faith, and even those who marry Jews beget very few offspring. Under these circumstances, Diaspora Jewry is fading away. Only in the State of Israel is the Jewish population growing; and intermarriage is relatively rare. Moreover, the percentage of Jews connected to Torah and mitzvot in Israel is higher than that of any other Jewish community in the world. This spiritual salvation came about in the merit of the establishment of Medinat Yisrael, which enabled the ingathering of the exiles and diminished the temptations of assimilation.

Thus, Yom HaAtzmaut is invested with three sanctities: the mitzvah of settling the Land, the beginning of redemption which created a Kiddush Hashem in the eyes of the nations, and the various salvations that the Jewish people merited with the rebirth of sovereign nationhood in our Land.

 

The Three Oaths

A verse in Shir HaShirim says, I made you swear, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you not awaken nor arouse the love until it desires(Shir HaShirim, 2:7). The Sages explain that God administered three oaths when Israel went into exile amongst the nations: two to Israel, and one to the Gentiles. He adjured Israel not to ascend “as a wall” (some versions read, “against the wall”) and not to rebel against the nations; while He adjured the Gentiles not to overly subjugate the Jews (Ketuvot 111a). Afterwards, the Gemara adds three other oaths that Hashem administered to the Jews: “That they will not reveal the End [of Days], delay the End, or reveal the secret to the Gentiles.” Furthermore, “Rabbi Elazar says, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Israel: ‘If you fulfill the oath, fine; but if not, I will allow your flesh [to be devoured] like that of the gazelles and the hinds of the field.’” (there).

One of the Rishonim, Rabbi Yitzchak De Leon, author of Megillat Esther [on the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot], understands the oaths to mean that “we may not rebel against the nations and conquer the Land forcibly,” and this is the intention of “not to ascend as a wall.” Based on this, he concludes that there is no mitzvah to settle the Land until Mashiach arrives (Gloss on the Ramban’s Addendum to Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 4).

However, the greatest Rishonim and Acharonim hold that the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz is fixed and eternal, as the RambanShulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 75:3-5), and Pitchei Teshuvah (ibid. 75:6) determine. Thus, one should not learn from this aggadic statement that the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz no longer applies nowadays.

Many interpretations have been given for the three oaths. Several of them imply that we must not precipitate the End [of the exile] and ascend to the Land forcibly, without first considering the matter realistically. For there is reason to fear that, because of the hardships of exile and the protracted anticipation for redemption, people will ascend to the Land impetuously, without any practical means by which to build the Land and stand up against the nations of the world. This will lead to destruction and crisis instead of the beginning of redemption. Therefore, God made us swear that we will not attempt to return before carefully calculating our actions. Rather, we should ascend and build the Land gradually, in coordination with the nations of the world, or by way of manifest miracles, which comes to pass if we deserve the “I [God] will hasten it” form of redemption (Yeshayah, 60:22).

Indeed, the modern return to Zion occurred gradually. The Jewish community in the Land established itself step by step, while the Zionist Organization simultaneously engaged in international diplomatic efforts, until the nations recognized the Jewish people’s right to return to their Land and build there a national home. Accordingly, after the League of Nations agreed in San Remo to return the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, zt”l, wrote that “the fear of the oaths has faded away.”1

 

Establishing Yom HaAtzmaut as a Lasting Holiday

There is a mitzvah to establish a holiday, to rejoice and praise God, on a day when Jews were delivered from distress. This is what prompted the Rabbis to establish Purim and Chanukah as everlasting holidays. Even though it is forbidden to add mitzvot to the Torah, this mitzvah is an exception, for it is derived from a logical inference (a kal va’chomer): when we left Egypt and were delivered from slavery to freedom, God commanded us to celebrate Pesach and sing praise to Him every year; all the more so [must we celebrate] Purim, when we were saved from death to life (Megillah 14a). This is what the Rabbis relied on when establishing Chanukah as well (Ritva, ibid.). The Chatam Sofer explains (Yoreh Deah end of 233, Orach Chaim 208) that since this mitzvah is derived from a kal va’chomer, it is considered a biblical commandment. However, the Torah does not prescribe exactly how to make a holiday; therefore, one who does anything to commemorate these great salvations fulfills his biblical obligation. It was the Rabbis who determined that we read the Megillah, prepare a festive meal, send portions of food to others, and give charity to the poor on Purim, and light the candles on Chanukah.

Many Jewish communities throughout the ages kept this mitzvah of instituting days of joy in commemoration of miracles that happened to them. Many of them used the name Purim in reference to these days, like “Frankfort Purim” and “Tiberias Purim.” Some communities had a custom to eat festive meals, send portions of food to one another, and give alms to the poor on these days. Maharam Alshakar (49) writes that the enactments made by these communities have binding force, obligating all of their descendants to keep them, even if they move to a new community. Other Acharonim concur (Magen Avraham and Eliyah Rabbah 686:5).2

The great gaon, Rabbi Meshulam Roth (Rata), writes: “There is no doubt that we are commanded to rejoice, establish a holiday, and say Hallel on [the fifth of Iyar], the day which the government, the members of the Knesset (who were chosen by the majority of the people), and most of the greatest rabbis, fixed as the day on which to celebrate, throughout the Land, the miracle of our salvation and freedom” (Responsa Kol Mevaser 1:21).3
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  1. The [full] quote can be found in HaTekufah HaGedolah, p. 175. We will mention a few of the sources. Rashi explains [the Gemara’s statement] “They shall not go up as a wall” [to mean], “Together, with a strong hand.” The Avnei Neizer (Y.D. 453) writes that if the Jews ascend to the Land with the permission of the nations, it is not considered strong-handed. Rabbi Teichtal concurs in Eim HaBanim Semeichah, pp. 226-28 [English edition], adding that when the Jews in exile encounter great suffering, it is a heavenly sign that they must ascend to Eretz Yisrael (see the index there). Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook explains this principle briefly in L’Netivot Yisrael, vol. 2, pp. 274-75. The entire, comprehensive work of Rabbi M. M. Kasher, HaTekufah HaGedolah, is filled with sources on the mitzvah ofYishuv HaAretz, the beginning of redemption, and explanations on the three oaths; see pp. 175-76, 273ff.

    Even if someone wants to explain the oaths differently, the rule is that we do not derive halachah from aggadic statements. So writes the Avnei Neizer (Y.D. 454). Hence, the Rif, the Rosh, and all the other early commentators on Tractate Ketuvot disregard the three oaths. On the contrary, they write that there is a mitzvah to ascend to the Land. The Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, as well, leave the oaths out of their works. The author of Pnei Yehoshua (on Ketuvot 111a) points out that the Gemara in Yoma (9b) implies the opposite – that the redemption did not come because the Jews did not ascend as a wall. And since these two aggadic sources contradict each other, we must understand them in some other way, not related to halachah. According to the author of Sefer Hafla’ah (Ketuvot, ibid.), the “wall” only relates to aliyah from Babylonia. The Gra writes in his commentary to Shir HaShirim that the oaths relate to the building of the Temple, [warning us] not to burst forth and build it without Divine authorization, given through a prophet. According to Reb Tzaddok (Divrei Sofrim 14), even the author of Megillat Esther would agree that there is a mitzvah to settle the Land nowadays. For a comprehensive treatment of this issue, see Nachalat Ya’akov by Rabbi Ya’akov Zisberg, vol. 2, pp. 715-815. 

  2. The Pri Chadash (Orach Chaim 496, Kuntras HaMinhagim 14) disagrees with Maharam Alshakar, writing that we should not establish new holidays after the destruction of the Temple, when the Rabbis canceled the already-existing holidays enumerated in Megillat Ta’anit. However, the Chatam Sofer (O.C. 191) proves that we should create new holidays; saying the fact that they canceled, after the destruction, the festive days mentioned in Megillat Ta’anit is no proof, for they canceled only the holidays that were connected to the Holy Temple. The Chatam Sofer adds and relates that he himself celebrates “Frankfurt Purim,” on the 20th of Adar, because he was born there, even though he had since moved elsewhere. It is also well-known that the Rambam established holidays for himself and his offspring in commemoration of salvations that he experienced – for example, surviving a storm at sea. A similar account is found in Chayei Adam (155:41). The author of Yaskil Avdi (vol. 7, O.C. 44:12) cites many examples of the institution of “Purim” days in various communities and consequently rules (vol. 8, omissions 4) that we may establish Yom HaAtzmaut as a holiday. Two more important sources on this issue from the Rishonim are: Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 10:10; Rabbeinu Tam, cited in Tosafot Ri to Berachot (8a in the Rif pages). 

  3. In his Responsa Kol Mevaser (vol. 1, 21:2-3), the brilliant Rabbi Meshulam Roth (about whom our master HaRav Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook said that he was the gadol ha’dor after the passing of HaRav Kook, zt”l,) explains – based on the Ramban, the Ritva, and other Rishonim and Acharonim – that the foundation of the mitzvah to establish Yom HaAtzmaut as a holiday is the kal va’chomer [mentioned above]. Therefore, establishing it was not in violation of “You shall not add [to the commandments]” (Devarim 13:1), for the prohibition against inventing a holiday refers only to holidays that do not commemorate a salvation. Based on the kal va’chomer, however, we are obligated to institute holidays that commemorate salvations. Rabbi Roth adds that a prophet is forbidden to establish a new holiday based on prophecy. The need to come up with a special scriptural exposition regarding Purim (Megillah 7a) was [only] in order to canonize the Scroll of Esther.

    Pay attention to Rabbi Meshulam Roth’s reliable statement that Yom HaAtzmaut was instituted by the majority of the greatest rabbis. Granted, they argued about reciting Hallel with a blessing, but the majority of the greatest rabbis agreed on the basic obligation to give thanks and rejoice. The Chatam Sofer writes (O.C. 191, s.v. mihu) that one might violate the prohibition of adding on to the commandments by establishing a holiday for all of Israel. This does not contradict our thesis, because he means that one may not establish a nationwide holiday to commemorate a miracle that happened to one individual community. We are, however, obligated to establish a holiday for all of Israel for a miracle that happened to the Jews as a whole. See also Rabbi Rakover’s Hilchot Yom HaAtzmaut VeYom Yerushalayim, which includes articles on the mitzvah to establish a holiday on Yom HaAtmaut written by the Chief Rabbis and other great Torah scholars.

    Some ask, why did Yehoshua neglect to establish a holiday to celebrate the conquest of Eretz Yisrael? The answer is that the holiday of Pesach commemorates both the redemption from Egypt and Israel’s subsequent entry into the Land. This corresponds to the fifth expression of redemption [see Shemot 6:6-8]. Reb Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin posits that the holiday of Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of Av) was established for this reason. 

About Eliezer Melamed

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. His works include the Peninei Halacha series on Jewish law and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. Some of Rabbi Melamed's books are currently being translated into English. These articles are excerpts from the authorized translations, with occasional brief introductions by the editor.

4 comments

  1. “Even Communist Russia had to relent and allow the Jews to leave from behind the Iron Curtain, something that was unfathomable before the State was born.”

    I’ve been reading a bit about the release of Soviet Jews since the recent passing of Yakov Birnbaum. R Melamed’s take crediting the existence of Israel for their release is surprising. Is it shared by any historians?

  2. Emma,
    He was key, but without Israel as a place to go, do you think any other country would have said send them all, we will take them?

  3. “He was key, but without Israel as a place to go, do you think any other country would have said send them all, we will take them?”

    Not clear-remember there were times when the vast majority of freed Soviet Jews did not want to go to Israel and went to other countries and Israel put pressure on those countries to not let them permanently settle outside of Israel.

  4. Interesting angle, Joel, though I’m not sure it’s so clear given that hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews in fact emigrated to non-Israel countries… Also, R Melamed put this in the context of “Israel’s possible reprisals,” which is what I found truly surprising.

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