Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Yom Haatzmaut
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

Yom Ha’Atzmaut

Israel Independence Day


Rabbi Gideon Weitzman

The End of the Exile
The Nature and Significance of Yom Ha’Atzmaut
Yom Ha’Atzmaut is the most well known and most controversial of the holidays connected with the State of Israel. Some Jews support and celebrate the day, others ignore it. The way that it is celebrated varies. Many religious people see it as a religious holiday. Secular Israeli Jews see it as a day of national pride and celebration. Some religious people recite the Hallel, the prayers of Divine praise, others do not.

Those who support the State celebrate the day in commemoration of an event that took place one Friday some fifty years ago in Tel Aviv. On the 5th of Iyar, 5708, May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion declared Israel a State against the advice of the Americans and other foreign powers. Even though the threat of war and annihilation from the surrounding Arab States hung in the air, Ben Gurion was still prepared to announce the beginning of the new State.

Those who oppose the State and who have difficulty with its secular nature ask what the celebration is all about. What makes this secular Jewish state something worth reciting the prayer of Hallel over? Others recognize the importance of the State of Israel, but still they question the relevance of the date. Why is the fifth day of the month of Iyar more significant than any of the other dates leading up to the establishment of the State? Was there a particular change in the Jewish world that occurred on that date?

Yom Ha’Atzmaut does not commemorate the end of the War of Independence in the same way that Purim, for example, celebrates the passing of the imminent danger. There was no special miracle that occurred on that specific day as there was on Chanukah, that of the miraculous oil burning.

If so, what makes Yom Ha’Atzmaut special? Why is it a religious holiday that carries with it a requirement to recite Hallel?

Exile, With or Without Repentance?
In order to understand the answer we have to explain what the Exile is and how we are to know that it is over. As always, the rabbis supplied the answer encoded in the pages of the Talmud and other rabbinic literature.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97b-98a) brings an argument as to whether the eventual redemption is dependent on teshuvah, repentance, or not. Rabbi Eliezer is of the opinion that the geulah, the redemption, will come only after the Jewish people repent and change their bad ways. Rabbi Yehoshua disagrees and presents an argument that teshuvah is not a pre-requisite to the geulah. Rather, he maintains that the geulah will come regardless of the behavior of the Jewish people. God will redeem the Jews because the time has come, not because they necessarily earn it through their actions.

The discussion in the Gemara continues, each rabbi bringing proofs and rejections of the other’s claim. Eventually, Rabbi Yehoshua brings a verse to prove his position and the Gemara states, "Rabbi Eliezer was silent," indicating that he presumably agreed with Rabbi Yehoshua. The redemption process will occur at the appointed time and will not be hindered, nor delayed, by the fact that Am Yisrael have yet to correct their ways.

The Gemara then brings what would appear to be a proof for Rabbi Yehoshua’s opinion. "And Rabbi Abba said that there is no greater sign of redemption than this: ‘You mountains of Israel give your branches and bear your fruit for My people, Israel, because they will come back soon’ (Yechezkel 36:8)" (ibid.). Rashi explains that when the Land of Israel will give its fruit then we are assured that the redemption is close at hand.

The problem with this "proof" is that it is no proof at all. Rabbi Abba is an amora, a sage from the period of the Gemara, whereas both Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer were tannaim, sages from the period of the Mishnah. Now, any beginner in Talmud study knows that an amora cannot argue with a tanna, nor can he support a tanna. He can only agree with, and explain the words of, the tanna. So how is it that the Gemara brings an amora to prove the words of a tanna?

It seems that the answer is that the Gemara wants to make a point, that the argument between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer remains unresolved. However, it can be taken to another plane of thought altogether. The sages of the time did not know whether the redemption would be preceded by mass repentance or not, but they knew something else that was equally important. They knew that the redemption would take place and when it did occur they wanted us to be sure that we would know that it had arrived. And so they gave us a surefire litmus test of geulah. When the Land once again produced fruit this would be the real thing, the start of the redemption, and it was almost irrelevant whether the Jewish people were saintly or secular; "the time had come."

This was thus the first sign of the end of the exile: the Land of Israel would once again be full of fruit and fertile.

Fruit in the Land of Israel
In the nineteenth century, the British artist David Roberts was commissioned to go to what was then called Palestine and paint the ancient sites. He produced a portfolio of paintings that show Israel as it was then. It was deserted, a wreck, nothing grew there, and the cities were uninhabited.

Not many years later these desolate lands produce fruit in abundance, and delicious to boot. This is reminiscent of the Talmudic phrase, "there is no greater sign of redemption than this." We are living through the era that the Gemara stated will be the messianic one. We are true witnesses to the fact that God fulfilled His promise and brought us back to an Israel that bears fruit, regardless of our spiritual status.

Zionism was always based on a Jewish work ethic and was seen to be closely linked with the renewal of the Land of Israel as a land that would produce fruit and food. This is true even for political Zionism. Herzl himself wrote, "We have no flag. We need one. If you want to lead many people you must raise a symbol over their heads. I am thinking of a white flag with seven gold stars. The white field symbolizes the new, pure life, the stars are the seven golden hours of our working day. Because the Jews will enter the new land under the sign of labor" (The Jew’s State ‘The Flag,’ italics added).

There were other Zionist leaders and thinkers particularly A.D. Gordon who strongly encouraged and developed the concept of Jewish labor and production.

It is interesting to note Rav Kook’s own thoughts on the subject. He writes, "A nation that has a pure and elevated aim embraces physical work, as only through work and manual labor on a national level will a correct and stable [national] life be established" (Ein Ayah, Bikkurim, Note 29).

This may all be true, but it still does not require a festival. Moreover, as this fruitful nature of Israel cannot be linked to one particular day it does not merit the recitation of Hallel on a specific date in the Jewish calendar. However, there are other indications of the geulah.

Jewish Autonomy and the Redemption
The prophet Yeshayahu describes what will happen in the final redemption using the following words: "On that day God will take the remnants of His people for a second time" (Yeshayahu 11:11).

In Jewish history there were already two redemptions: the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the return to Israel following the exile in Bavel. If this is the case, then the final redemption that the prophet refers to in this verse should be the third redemption. The prophet should have said that God will redeem us "for a third time" and not for a second time. Why does Yeshayahu call the final redemption the second and not the third?

Rashi mentions this discrepancy and offers the following suggestion. "The redemption during the second Temple period was incomplete because [the Jews] were still subservient to Koresh" (Rashi ad loc.). Rashi explains that in truth there will only be two redemptions, that of the Egyptian exodus and the final redemption. The middle one, that of the second Temple period following the Babylonian exile, is disqualified. The reason that Rashi gives is enlightening. The geulah was incomplete and was ignored because one crucial element was absent, namely, true freedom in the form of Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel. The prophet ignores, or at least disregards, any period of history during which the Jews did not enjoy autonomy and self-rule in their own land.

Without autonomy and self-rule, there can be no valid redemption. The opposite assumption of this is also correct. One of the signs that the deliverance is upon us will be autonomy in the Land of Israel. The Rambam agrees and states the following, based on a passage in the Gemara. "The Sages said that there is no difference between this world and the time of the Messiah except for the fact that the Jewish people will be independent and will not be subservient to the other nations of the world" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 12:2).

Since the time of the kings and the first Temple the Jews had never been autonomous in Israel. Possibly the first people to strive for this were the Maccabees towards the evening of the second Temple period, but they were only marginally successful in this effort. The first time since then that Jews achieved self-rule and a Jewish government in Israel was on a Friday in May, 1948, the 5th of Iyar, 5708. When David Ben Gurion had the courage to declare a Jewish State in Palestine and call it Israel, he realized the dream of more than two thousand years, to be able to govern ourselves in our own land.

This event, the establishment of the State of Israel, would dramatically change the entire Jewish world, and it would never be the same again. One can accept and embrace the State of Israel or disagree with her, but it is impossible to deny that she exists and that she is a Jewish State, the only one in the world, and the first for millennia.

The Religious Nature of Yom Ha’Atzmaut
The signs that the rabbis gave us to recognize the redemption dictate that the 5th of Iyar is a special day. The Day of Independence was the day that started Jewish rule in the Land of Israel. This is one of the indications of the geulah. This enabled the other sign to develop as well. When the Jewish people took over the Land, agricultural production increased very significantly.

However, this is not the only reason that we celebrate the day as a religious holiday with all the features of a festival, including special prayers and the recitation of Hallel. Another reason that we do this is because we recognize that it all came from God. We therefore say Hallel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, including the line "This is the day that God made, we will rejoice on it."

God was behind all the events leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel on this special day and it is appropriate to recognize this fact and thank Him. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is not merely a secular day that celebrates the declaration of a secular state by a group of secular Jews. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is the day when the State that God chose for His people was established. It is the day that we thank God for that miracle.

The fact that Ben Gurion was even willing or able to declare the State was itself a mini-miracle. All indications were that this was an ill-fated move. Yet he found the strength to stand up and declare the founding of the new State. He led the nation to statehood, to independence, to freedom.

Where did David Ben Gurion find this strength? Maybe we could say that God gave him the strength and the ability to do so. God chose him as an agent to be another stage in the redemptive process.

The day has something of a religious nature and we apply even more to it by reciting the verse "This is the day that God made." We have to recognize God’s hand in the redemptive process even when it may be difficult and perhaps a little uncomfortable to do so. That is the message of Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

Rabbi Gideon Weitzman is the Head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with the Halacha. He studied for many years in Yeshivat Beit El and teaches in various educational institutions.

This essay is taken from his second book, "In Those Days, At This Time - Essays on the Festivals Based on the
Philosophy of Rav Kook. " The book is available in bookstores or directly from the author.
Contact him at:

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