Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim in Halacha and Hashkafa
Rabbi Alan Haber

Everyone knows that Yom HaAtzmaut, and to a lesser extent Yom Yerushalayim, are the sources of much tension and controversy within the Jewish People. “Do you say Hallel? Full Hallel, or Half-Hallel? With a Bracha or without? What about Tachanun? What about dancing with music?” Questions such as these, which on the surface seem to be purely halachic in nature, seem to have the capacity to get people very excited and lead to heated arguments and even fights.

This article will attempt to explain the primary issues in this debate, and to describe the major “shitot” of the various different ideological camps within the Torah world. Later on, in the second part, we’ll discuss halachic questions like those mentioned above. However, before getting into that, we’ll discuss the ideological, “Hashkafic” questions that form the underpinnings of the entire dispute. It is primarily because of these questions that the debate becomes so emotionally charged.


I. The Hashkafic Issue: On the fifth of Iyar, 5708 (1948), the State of Israel was declared. This was followed by the War of Independence (which had actually begun several months earlier), during which the greatly outnumbered, poorly trained and poorly equipped Israeli army defeated the six Arab armies who attacked the fledgling state. This victory resulted in the first sovereign Jewish government in Eretz Yisrael (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) in several millennia. Then, on the 28th of Iyar 5727 (1967), during the miraculous Six Day War, the Israeli army recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem, and the Jewish People heard those immortal words over the radio: “Har Habayit B’yadenu”. In this war as well, the spectacular military victories seemed to have been against all odds.

What is the appropriate spiritual reaction to these events? Many Jews see the Hand of God very clearly in these events, and thus feel it appropriate to commemorate these events each year as days of “Hallel v’Hoda’ah”. Yet others disagree. Why?
On this level, the debate is not really about Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Rather, it’s about the State of Israel itself. What is to be our attitude towards the existence of the State?

Clearly, this question will determine one’s attitude towards Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. If one believes that the existence of the State is a good thing, then he should feel obligated to thank Hashem in some way for this wonderful gift, and especially for the miraculous fashion in which He gave it to us (yet, we will still need to discuss which particular methods would be halachically appropriate for expressing our gratitude – see below). However, if one feels that the State is, for some reason, not a good thing, then obviously there would be no reason to celebrate.

Although there are numerous opinions about this question in the Torah community with various nuanced differences, they can be grouped into three basic approaches:

a) The first approach is the Anti-Zionist position. This position is most clearly articulated in the writings of the late Satmar Rav, Rav Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum zt”l, and is followed primarily by Satmar Hasidim, as well as by a number of other (primarily Hasidic) groups. Simply put, this opinion holds that since God put the Jewish People in Exile, we must wait until He miraculously redeems us. Although it is permissible according to the Satmar Rav for individual Jews to reside in the Land of Israel (and may even be a mitzvah to do so), it is prohibited to organize mass immigration as was done by the Zionist movement, and it is certainly prohibited to organize a Jewish government and army to control the country. Since God put us into Exile, and He has not yet miraculously redeemed us from Exile, taking matters into our own hands and creating our own State is an evil act – nothing less than a rebellion against God.

For this reason, followers of the Satmar Rav hold that it is forbidden to cooperate with the government or participate in any of its activities. They neither pay taxes nor accept government benefits, and do not vote in elections.

It is important to note that the non-religious nature of the modern Israeli government is not significant here. According to the Satmar Rav, even if every member of Knesset, every government minister and official, and indeed every citizen of Israel were to be strictly observant, and even if all activities of the State were in strict conformity to halacha, the entire enterprise would remain severely forbidden, and indeed evil.

The primary source for the Satmar Rav’s position is the Gemara in Masechet Ketubot (111a). The Gemara there tells us that at the time of the Churban, there were three oaths administered – two of them were taken by the Jewish People, and one by the non-Jewish nations. The Jews were made to swear that they would not rise up en masse (and/or by force, depending on one’s interpretation of the phrase) and return to the land of Israel. They also swore that they would not rebel against the non-Jewish nations who enslaved them. The non-Jews were made to swear that they would not enslave the Jews too harshly. The Satmar Rav claims that, by organizing mass immigration to Eretz Yisrael, declaring a sovereign government, and especially by establishing an army and capturing land by force, we have violated the first two of these oaths.

There are a number of responses that can be brought to answer this challenge. First of all, the entire context of the Gemara indicates that the passage in question is an Aggada, not a halachic passage. This assertion is reinforced by the fact that it is not quoted in any of the major halachic codes such as the Rambam, the Tur or the Shulchan Aruch. If this is so, although the Gemara may contain important reasons to question the establishment of the State on a philosophic level, it does not contain a halachic issur.

Additionally, some have argued that our actions that led to the establishment of the state were not in violation of these oaths. We swore that we would not rebel against the nations, and that we would accept the authority of our masters, the non-Jews. However, in this case we did not rebel against anybody. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the U.N. vote of November 29, 1947 both granted the Zionists permission to establish a Jewish State. If so, it cannot be said that we “rebelled” or that we did anything by force. (On this point, it is possible to distinguish between pre-1967 Israel, which follows the broad contours of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, and the conquests of 1967, which did not have any international sanction. However, in 1967 we were being threatened, and the land was conquered in self-defense. This also does not seem to be in violation of the oath.)

Finally, even if one does not accept either of the above points, one can argue that we have been released from our commitments under the oaths, by virtue of the fact that the non-Jews violated their oath. According to the Gemara mentioned above, the non-Jewish nations swore that they would not enslave the Jews “too much”. Although the Gemara does not define exactly how much is too much, it seems obvious that centuries of persecutions, Crusades, Inquisitions, blood libels, massacres and pogroms, ultimately culminating in the Holocaust, must certainly fit that description. The Satmar Rav rejects this idea, claiming that each of the oaths is an independent entity, and that the non-Jews’ lack of adherence to their oath does not give us license to violate ours. However, a number of authorities point out that the context of the Gemara makes very clear that these oaths were a contractual relationship – we swore to accept conditions of slavery and Galut, and they swore to make that Galut tolerable for us. Once one side breaks its commitments, the other side is released from the contract. If so, then we had every right, and perhaps even responsibility, to embark on the mission of recapturing and resettling Eretz Yisrael.

There is one other major question that can be asked about the Satmar Rav’s position. If we were sitting in 1940 and debating whether or not we had the right to establish a Jewish State, he could have brought the same proofs against it, and we could have made the same arguments in favor. But today, 56 years after the State was established, we need to ask a fundamental question: if the Satmar Rav is correct that the establishment of the State was completely against God’s will, then why did He allow it? Indeed, why did He perform such incredible miracles to allow us to commit such an act, which the Satmar Rav defines as evil?

To this, the Satmar Rav has a clear response: he defines all of these miracles as “Maaseh Satan”. In other words, he accepts and acknowledges the Divine and miraculous nature of Israel’s military victories. However, he interprets this as a “Nisayon” that God has given us, to see if we will be tempted to continue our erroneous and sinful ways. He says that our job is to resist this temptation, and to avoid cooperating with the Zionists or the government in any way. Only when we admit our error, and willingly dismantle the State of Israel and return the Land of Israel to non-Jewish rule, can our teshuva be accepted.

According to the Satmar Rav, it obviously goes without saying that Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim are not days to celebrate. Although he DOES recognize the unique miracles that took place on these days, he views these events as great tragedies, when the “Satan” was allowed to interfere with the world. Therefore, some followers of this approach have even observed the fifth of Iyar as a Taanit Tzibur! Although this may seem to be an extraordinarily extreme action, it is consistent with the Satmar Rav’s interpretation of history.

b) However, as we have stated, the great majority of the Torah world and Torah scholars do not accept the Satmar Rav’s position. This is firstly because of the refutations of his interpretation of the Gemara in Ketubot, and also because of the hashkafic difficulty of viewing Yad Hashem as “Maaseh Satan”.

This then leads us to look again at the miraculous events of 1948 and 1967, and to ask how to correctly interpret them. Rabbis in the Religious Zionist camp have consistently pointed out many great accomplishments that the State of Israel has made possible.

First of all, there is the simple fact that the State allows millions of Jews to fulfill the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Furthermore, the existence of a Jewish State and Jewish army ensures that from now on, whenever Jews are in danger anywhere in the world, they will have a place to run, and place that will protect them. (One need only look at the way in which the Israeli government rescued Ethiopian Jews during Operation Solomon in 1991 to imagine how different things would have been had there been a Jewish State in 1941.) Additionally, the Israeli government sponsors tens of thousands of yeshivot, Batei Knesset, mikvaot, kashrut supervision agencies and other Torah institutions. For all these reasons, Religious Zionists view the State of Israel as a very positive thing, and the miracles of 1948 and 1967 as great acts of Divine chessed that obligate us to express profound gratitude to the Ribbono shel Olam. (However, we still need to determine the appropriate halachic methods for expressing this gratitude. See below).

In addition, many Religious Zionist thinkers, following in the footsteps of Rav Kook, believe that the State of Israel is nothing less than “Atchalta D’Geula”, the Beginning of the Redemption. In other words, the events of 1948 and 1967 were the first steps in a process that will lead directly to the coming of the Mashiach. This position is supported by the many prophecies in Tanach and predictions of Chazal that seem to be happening in front of our eyes. If one accepts this, then these days are endowed with significance equivalent even to that of Pesach!

c) However, many in the Orthodox world do not accept this approach either. Not only are they unwilling to ascribe Messianic significance to the State of Israel, but they do not even view it as an entirely positive thing. Although they will certainly acknowledge with gratitude the many wonderful things that the State has done for individual Jews and for the observance of Torah U’mitzvot, they also note that the State and the government are fundamentally non-religious, and sometimes anti-religious entities. They point out that there is much “state-sponsored” chilul Shabbat, as well as violations of many other halachot (for example, one rebbe of mine used to constantly talk about the tens of thousands of abortions that have been paid for by the Israeli Ministry of Health). In addition, the Israeli secular educational system has educated an entire generation of Jewish children to be largely ignorant, and in many cases hostile, towards their Torah heritage.

For all of these reasons, a large segment of the Torah world takes a position that can be defined as “non-Zionist”. On the one hand, they are not anti-Zionists, they do not accept the Satmar Rav’s absolute rejection of the State of Israel, and they do recognize its positive aspects. They will pay taxes as well as accept government benefits, they will vote in elections and field political candidates (Agudat Yisrael, for example, is currently a party in the Knesset), and they may even serve in the army. But unlike the Religious Zionists, they do not ascribe purely positive significance to the State. So, when it comes to Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, on the one hand they would never consider declaring a Taanit Tzibur like some Satmar Hasidim have. But they would not turn it into a day of Shevach v’Hoda’ah either. Essentially, because of the competing emotions the day generates, it winds up being ignored completely. Not a sad day, not a happy day. Just a regular day.

While this approach may seem to be the most balanced one, it leads to a very serious shortcoming. The Satmar approach and the Religious Zionist one, while they are diametrically opposed to each other, actually agree on several things: they both recognize the incredible historic significance of what happened in 1948 and 1967, they acknowledge these events as manifestations of Yad Hashem, and they agree that these events impose an obligation on us, to respond to these things in a spiritual way. The only argument is over how to interpret these events – as Nissim or Nisyonot.

But the “non-Zionist” approach, while in theory recognizing both the positive and the negative, in practice winds up ignoring the entire thing. This can lead to a very dangerous (although certainly unintended) outcome – that people may not recognize these events as Yad Hashem, and instead view them as mere coincidence. That, of course, would be heresy!

For this reason, in spite of all the problems, we in MMY view the State of Israel as an overwhelmingly positive thing. We accept the Religious Zionist position, and celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim as days of Shevach v’Hoda’ah for the great Nissim that Hashem performed for us. We must now discuss the appropriate halachic means of marking these days.

II. The Halachic Questions: As we stated above, once one arrives at the conclusion that there is a moral/spiritual obligation to express Hakarat haTov to Hashem on the fifth and 28th of Iyyar, we need to ask what is the appropriate way to do that. A number of halachic questions arise.

a) Can we say Hallel? The Gemara in Pesachim 117a states “the prophets created the Hallel, and ordained that when suffering comes to the people, when they are redeemed, they say it on their redemption.” This seems to imply that when Jews are saved from danger or destruction, which was the case both in 1948 and 1967, we have an obligation to recite Hallel.

Furthermore, the Gemara in Megilla 14a asks what gave the rabbis the right to make a new mitzvah of reading the Megilla on Purim, given that there is a prohibition to add anything on to the Torah (bal Tosif). The Gemara answers that it is learned from a “kal vachomer” – if when the Jews crossed the Yam Suf and were brought from slavery to freedom (me’avdut l’cherut) they needed to sing God’s praises, how much more so when they were saved from death (mimita lachaim)! If so, the Gemara asks, why do we not say Hallel on Purim? To this the Gemara gives three different answers. One opinion says that Hallel is only said for miracles that take place in Eretz Yisrael, whereas the miracle of Purim took place in chutz la’aretz. A second opinion states that the reading of the Megilla takes the place of Hallel. The third opinion says that we do not say Hallel because the miracle of Purim was only a partial redemption – although the Jews were saved, they still remained “slaves” to Achashverosh.

Based on these sources, a number of Religious Zionist rabbis in the early years of the State (including Rav Meshulam Roth), said that there is a mitzvah to say Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut, with a Bracha. (Rav Roth actually believed it was a mitzvah d’Oraita). Particularly based on the Gemara in Megillah mentioned above – it would appear that the miracles commemorated on Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim also merit the description of “mimita lachaim”, just like the miracle of Purim. And unlike Purim, none of the reasons given for not saying Hallel apply: this miracle took place in Israel and not in chutz la’aretz, we have no Megilla to take the place of Hallel, and in this case the Jews achieved independence and were not still “slaves of Achashverosh”. Therefore, these authorities rule that one must say Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, with a Bracha.

However, there is a major assumption underlying this position. They assume that the chiyuv of Hallel is automatic, and does not require a particular Takana. It is possible, however, that the chiyuv is not built-in, but rather requires the legislation of a mitzvah d’rabbanan. Unlike in the times of Chanukah and Purim, there is no one today who has that authority. So perhaps in theory one should be saying Hallel with a Bracha, but we lack the authority to institute that practice.

Therefore, the dominant approach in the Religious Zionist community today is to say Hallel without a Bracha. It would seem that this practice is completely justified and unobjectionable. After all, if the authorities mentioned above are correct in their assertion that there is a mitzvah to say Hallel, we are doing so, and would fulfill the mitzvah. (The Bracha is not me’akev). And if there is no mitzvah, we are saying Tehillim and expressing the spiritual idea of saying Hallel, without risking a Bracha L’vatallah. Therefore, the dominant position in Religious Zionism is to say Hallel without a Bracha.

However, there are those who claim that this is also prohibited. What could be wrong with saying Tehillim? It turns out that something can be wrong. The Gemara tells us in Masechet Shabbat (118b) that someone who recites Hallel every day is a blasphemer (mecharef umegadef)! Although this statement at first seems rather strange, presumably the idea is that if one says Hallel every day indiscriminately, he fails to take note of days on which great miracles took place, and presumably robs Hallel of any significance. He thus neglects his obligation to properly praise Hashem for the great miracles He performed, which is tantamount to blasphemy. Based on this, there are some who claim that it is prohibited to recite Hallel (even without a Bracha) on any day other than those days when it is already obligated to do so.

However, upon further reflection, it does not appear that our practice of saying Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim violates this Gemara. We are not saying Hallel indiscriminately, and we are not doing so “every day”. We have added two days in the entire year, on which great miracles took place. This does not seem to be what the Gemara prohibited. Those who are worried about this, however, can presumably satisfy this concern by saying Chatzi Hallel instead of Hallel Shalem.

2) The other major halachic question that requires explanation involves the practice of celebrations involving music and dancing, even though Yom HaAtzmaut falls during Sefirat HaOmer. Many people question how we can violate the long-standing custom of observing practices of mourning – including listening to music and dancing – in order to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut. Because of this, there are some people who may even say Hallel and eat a Seudat Hoda’ah on Yom HaAtzmaut, but do not listen to music or allow dancing.

However, the standard practice in Religious Zionist circles is to have celebrations with live bands and dancing, in spite of the minhagim of aveilut for Rabbi Akiva’s students. This position is endorsed by most of the great halachic authorities in this community, including Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. What is the rationale for this apparent leniency?

First of all, if one accepts the position of Rav Meshulem Roth mentioned above, that there is an intrinsic mitzvah of Hallel (which may even be a mitzvah d’Oraita), then it seems the minhagim of aveilut would automatically be overruled. This is because a minhag cannot override a mitzvah. When Rabbi Akiva’s students died, a minhag developed to observe practices of mourning in their memory, and this was entirely appropriate. However, once these great miracles took place, the intrinsic obligations of Hallel and Simcha override that minhag (just for these days, of course) because of their stronger halachic status.

However, even those who recite Hallel without a Bracha, and thus presumably do not accept the existence of an intrinsic mitzvah, are generally lenient with the practices of aveilut. The rationale for this is that one minhag can override another, if there is a legitimate reason. Instituting practices of aveilut was completely appropriate when these were days of tragedy. Now that they have become days in which miracles occurred, the very nature of these days has changed as a result of these great events. As a result, a new minhag of Simcha can and should override the previous minhag of aveilut. (Additionally, it is important to note that the original takana of aveilut referred only to haircuts and weddings. The practice of prohibiting other forms of dancing and celebrating is of more recent origin). Therefore, the practice in most Religious Zionist communities and institutions is to celebrate with singing and dancing, Shevach v’Hoda’ah.

The Halachic discussions above are of great significance, and each of the shitot we mentioned is valid. It is important, however, to not over-emphasize these differences. For those who accept the importance of Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalaim, the most important thing is to properly express our gratitude to the Ribbono Shel Olam. Whether one does that by saying Hallel with a Bracha or without, or by saying some other forms of praise, whether by dancing with a band or expressing his happiness in another way – all of these things are details. The main and most important point is to express this gratitude, together with our tefillot that He continue to do Nissim for His Nation and bring us the ultimate Redemption.

Moadim L’simcha L’Geula Shleima!!

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