Shabbat 4 May 2019 – Shabbat Ats’maut

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 7 May 2019

In 1945, the Jewish calendar had 9 major festivals: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, Shavuot and Tisha b’Av – and the calendar had been like that for the best part of 2000 years. Yet by 1949 there were 12 festivals. In the space of just 4 years, 3 new festivals had entered the Jewish calendar reflecting some of the most tumultuous and traumatic events in Jewish history.

And on this Shabbat we are in between those ‘newcomers:’ Yom HaShoah last week; Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atsmaut next week.

Traditions can get fixed and established very quickly. Most synagogues have been marking Yom HaShoah by inviting a Shoah survivor to speak. It honours them and their experience to know that we want to hear their testimony. They are witnesses giving evidence about something they have seen – which is, of course, exactly what is intended. But in a very few years there will be no more such witnesses alive. What traditions or rituals will we need to establish to make Yom HaShoah meaningful in those changed circumstances?

I’ve not been in Israel for some years for Yom HaZikaron, the day before Yom Ha’Atsmaut. If you have, you will know how a day of reflection and sobriety finishes with a two minute nationwide silence that is broken by the wail of sirens. The mood shifts abruptly from solemn remembrance to celebration.

In 1948, Israel had to work out an appropriate way to celebrate the establishment of the State. What should, or shouldn’t, be done on that day to express the right mood, sentiments and feelings? It’s clear you wouldn’t have a party on Yom HaShoah – but Yom Ha’Atsmaut?

Within months of the establishment of the State, the Knesset declared 5th of Iyyar as Yom Ha’Atsmaut. Doing that, however, is simply to imitate what most nations do: France has its Quatorze Juillet; the USA its 4th of July and so on.

So while the date might have been fixed, the nature of the day remained undefined. In fact, it seems that Yom HaZikaron was established for the preceding day because Yom Ha’Atsmaut had taken on such a sombre mood.

The official declaration said, “on this day, let all work cease … let the people gather in families and settlements for rejoicing and gladness, for memorial and thanksgiving, unity and inspiration, for on this day Israel will celebrate its new holiday of independence.” But “memorial and thanksgiving” don’t sit too comfortably with “gladness and rejoicing.”

Early on, one educator suggested modelling Yom Ha’Atsmaut on Shabbat. Work should stop at sunset, shops close, traffic stops: it would be a Sabbath of the State. Candles should be lit, as on Shabbat, but put them in the window, as on Chanukah. There should be a service, families should gather for a meal. It should be, he suggested, a “folk holiday, a holy festival, in remembrance of our exodus from slavery to redemption.” Clear shades of Pesach here.

In 1949 or 1950, the Department of Nutrition of the Ministry of Education and Culture proposed a Yom Ha’Atsmaut menu. It was a time when food was in very short supply in Israel.

The first course should be chalamit to remember the siege of Jerusalem. Chalamit, also called chubeza, was apparently something that grew wild in every garden and courtyard in Jerusalem and was the only vegetable available during the siege. Prepare it as one cooks spinach, was the advice.

The second course was a consommé with kreplach, symbol of the blows we inflicted on our enemies in the War of Independence. Jewish tradition, the publicity explained, connects the eating of kreplach with blows delivered on our enemies (on Purim for example.)

The third course was to symbolise the Ingathering of the Exiles and the coming together of East and West. It was a vegetable course cooked in a Western or an Eastern fashion. “Every housewife,” it said, “can prepare this course as she sees fit.”

Dessert was the best one. “A ‘Seven Species Cake’ using the seven species with which our country is blessed. Cut the cake in a square, symbolic of the Ingathering of the Exiles from the four corners of the earth. Our wish is that this cake will become a national food on Yom Ha’Atsmaut which will be purchased in every bakery.”

It has the ring of the austerity menus emanating from the Ministry of Food during WW2 – civil servants sitting in offices with apparently little appreciation for what anybody might find enjoyable – or palatable.

Some years later, a Minister of Education proposed that the holiday should centre on the home, with a Haggadah of readings focussing on the journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light (may’avdut l’cherut, may’choshech l’afelah) a phrase we read in the Haggadah a fortnight ago. Homes should be decorated with green material, especially olive branches. The green to symbolise the return to the land; the olive branches the desire for peace. There should be a festive meal with a formal reading at the table of the Declaration of Independence. (Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, Summit Books, New York, 1988 pp388-399.)

As early as 1949, a memorial stone was laid in Jerusalem to honour those who died defending the city. In Tel Aviv, on the other hand, there was dancing and singing in the streets. Some synagogues marked it with special prayers and with reciting Hallel. But because you only say Hallel on festivals, it raised the question of whether the establishment of the State was a religious event and was Yom Ha’Atsmaut therefore a religious festival?

This has remained one of the issues with celebrating Yom Ha’Atsmaut. The traditional Shabbat prayer for the State refers to Israel as reshit tsemichat g’ulateinu, “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” So was the establishment of the State of Israel some miraculous act with God being involved in some way? Or was it a secular event, brought about by political and military activity, public pressure, fortuitous circumstance and so on?

So while Hallel might be recited in some traditional synagogues on Yom Ha’Atsmaut, many will not say the Hallel blessing beforehand. In halachic terms, it’s saying that they don’t consider it a festival marking a truly religious event. Hallel without the accompanying blessing becomes simply the recitation of six psalms, but without liturgical or ritual significance.

Orthodox Jews have an additional problem because Yom Ha’Atsmaut falls in the Omer, traditionally a time of semi-mourning. How, therefore, can you have a joyous celebration with singing and dancing?

The first Israeli cabinet proposed that there should be military parades in Israel on the yahrzeit of Theodore Herzl, who died in July 1904. At the last minute the parades were rescheduled for Yom Ha’Atsmaut and they are now a Yom Ha’Atsmaut tradition.

So does that make Yom Ha’Atsmaut a politico-military ferstival rather than a religious one?

That’s the cleft stick in which Zionist thinking has always found itself. On the one hand, the Jewish State was to be like any other modern state. It was to ‘normalise’ the Jewish People. Others nations have a military parade on their Independence Day – so why not Israel? On the other hand, Israel is meant to be a state like no other, setting an example to the rest of the world, embodying Jewish principles and values. On that basis, military parades might seem inappropriate – too much like the practices of the ‘Egyptians,’ of other nations, that last Shabbat’s Sidra warned us about.

In 1949, with much pomp and ceremony, Herzl’s coffin was brought from Vienna to Jerusalem and reinterred on the mountain that would henceforth be called Har Herzl. On the second Yom Ha’Atsmaut, a torch was lit on Mt Herzl and a relay of torches was lit across the country, establishing a tradition of torchlight ceremonies on Yom Ha’Atsmaut – reminiscent of the way the onset of Rosh Chodesh was announced in ancient Palestine. But what has it to do with Israeli independence?

In 1950 the annual Yom Ha’Atsmaut run from Jaffa to Jerusalem was instituted. It, too, is now a Yom Ha’Atsmaut tradition – but again the connection between a marathon and Yom Ha’Atsmaut is unclear.

Haggadot for Yom Ha’Atsmaut have been produced, with readings poems and songs. Some don’t mention God at all – speaking only of Israeli heroism, but none have become the Yom Ha’Atsmaut Haggadah. Perhaps secularists won’t accept one that presents the establishment of the State as a miracle wrought by God; while traditionalists will find equally unacceptable the idea that the state came about purely through human agency.

We will celebrate Yom Ha’Atsmaut again this Wednesday evening. In whatever way we do it, may it be for us a time for refocussing on all the dimensions of what Israel is and means to us; and may our celebrations reflect those levels of consciousness about Israel, our attachment to it and to ahavat Zion, ‘love of Zion.