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Chapter 4: Yom Ha-atzma’ut

13. The Siren and Moments of Silence on Yom Ha-zikaron

The Knesset decided that “Two minutes of silence will be observed throughout the entire country, during which all work and travel will cease.”


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Cheshvan 5 5782

In its “Yom Ha-zikaron Law,” the Knesset determined that the day before Yom Ha-atzma’ut shall be:

The Memorial Day for the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who gave their lives to ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel, and for those who fought and fell in the campaigns to create the State of Israel – to meditate upon their memory and extol their acts of courage.… Commemorations, public gatherings, and ceremonies will be held in army bases and in educational institutions. Flags will be lowered to half-mast in all public buildings.

In addition, the Knesset decided that “Two minutes of silence will be observed throughout the entire country, during which all work and travel will cease.” To facilitate the two minutes of silence, a siren wails throughout the country, and people stand still in honor of the fallen. At 8:00 p.m. on Yom Ha-zikaron evening, the siren sounds for one minute, and at 11:00 a.m. the next morning it sounds for two minutes, during which time people dedicate their thoughts to the memory of the fallen. The siren is sounded in the middle of the official ceremonies to begin the commemoration.

Some claim that one may not stand at attention when the siren sounds, because this custom has no basis in rabbinic literature. Rather, we copied it from the gentiles, and one may not follow the ways of the nations, as it says, “Nor shall you follow their laws” (Vayikra 18:3). In practice, however, the vast majority of poskim maintain that the prohibition against following the ways of the gentiles applies only when one of two conditions is met: 1) the custom entails a breach of modesty or humility; 2) it has no apparent reason or benefit, making it clear that it is based on non-Jewish superstition (Maharik, §88; Rivash §158). R. Yosef Karo and Rema concur (Beit Yosef and Rema, yd 178:1). Thus, since the custom in question has a purpose – the siren and the minutes of silence unite everyone together in remembrance of the fallen – it is not considered a forbidden gentile practice.[13]

Others claim that one should not interrupt Torah study on account of the siren. However, my teacher and master, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, writes, “Standing during the siren for the fallen soldiers of the IDF contains within it the holy mitzva of remembering the glory of the holy martyrs.” Moreover, we may add that meditating on the memory of the martyrs and on the mitzva to sacrifice one’s life to save the nation and conquer Eretz Yisrael is tantamount to thinking Torah thoughts. And even those who do not understand this must be mindful of Hillel the Elder’s teaching: “Do not separate from the community” (Avot 2:4).[14]

[13] Despite this, the Vilna Gaon opines that we may not imitate the gentiles even with regard to a custom that has a rationale behind it. Therefore, he prohibits placing branches in a synagogue on Shavu’ot, because the gentiles put trees in their houses of worship on their holidays (Ĥayei Adam 131:13; see Bi’ur Ha-Gra, yd 178:7). Practically speaking, though, most poskim disagree with him and uphold the custom of decorating the synagogue on Shavu’ot, as Rema 494:3 and ma 494:5 state: Since there are reasons for this custom, it is not considered following the laws of the gentiles. Furthermore, if that is their ruling with regard to the custom of placing branches in a synagogue, which is actually done in houses of idol worship, there should certainly be no concern regarding the custom of standing during the siren, which has no hint of idolatry whatsoever. In addition, this custom is almost unheard of among non-Jews today.

[14] Pesikta Zutreta (Lekaĥ Tov) on Shemot 2:11 states:

“Some time after that, when Moshe had grown up, he went out…” – He went out to see the suffering of Israel. This is what Hillel taught, “Do not separate from the community.” If one sees the community in pain, he should not say, “I will go to my house, eat and drink, and all will be well with me.” Rather, one should bear the burden with his fellow Jews.

Midrash Sekhel Tov, commenting on the same verse, adds:

This is what Hillel taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Our Sages taught, “If the community is in pain and someone separates from them and eats and drinks, two ministering angels accompany him, place food (some versions read “coals”) on his head, and say, ‘So-and-so separated himself from the community in their time of trouble; he shall not see the community’s consolation.”’ We learn from a different beraita: When the community is in pain, one should not say, “I will go to my house, eat and drink, and all will be well with me.” And if he did so, the verse says about him, “Instead, there was rejoicing and merriment, killing of cattle and slaughtering of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine: Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (Yeshayahu 22:13). What is written afterward? “Then the Lord of Hosts revealed Himself to my ears: “This iniquity shall never be forgiven you until you die.”

R. Zvi Yehuda Kook’s position is quoted in Teĥumin, vol. 3, p. 388. See also R. Yaakov Ariel’s Responsa Be-ohalah shel Torah, yd 23. R. Ĥayim David Halevi writes in Aseh Lekha Rav 4:4 that one who is involved in Torah study at home should continue learning, for standing silently is an illusory form of honor, which one must practice only when others are watching. R. Halevi adds that in public, one may stand and continue thinking about the topic he was studying. R. Yehuda Henkin concurs in Teĥumin, vol. 4, p. 125. However, I believe that what I wrote in the main text is correct, as contemplating the mitzva of kiddush Hashem is itself considered meditating on Torah, and it is preferable to include oneself in the community with such holy thoughts. 

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