The Timing of Israel’s Holidays: Coincidence or Significance?
By: Rav Uri Cohen
Life is like a jigsaw puzzle... [Y]ou have to see the whole picture and then put it together piece by piece.
– Terry McMillan <1>
It's Israeli national holiday season! Between Pesach and Shavuot, all four of the following take place: Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut, and Yom Yerushalayim. These are the holidays which have been added since the founding of the State of Israel (and which all start with “Yom,” for some reason). They all take place during the same time period. Coincidence or significance?
For starters, notice that the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot are considered a unit by the Torah itself, when it tells us to count the Omer.<2> The Ramban suggests that this period is a kind of Chol HaMoed between the two major holidays.<3> So we have every reason to expect the other holidays of this period to be connected in some way to Pesach, Shavuot, or each other.
YOM HAATZMAUT AND YOM YERUSHALAYIM
Rav Chaim Druckman, one of the senior Religious Zionist rabbis and the head of the network of Bnei Akiva yeshivot and ulpanot in Israel, argues in his book Kima Kima<4> that the timing of Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim is very significant:
Pesach is Zman Cherutenu, when we were freed from Egypt; Shavuot is Zman Matan Toratenu, when we got the Torah. These two days together comprise the complete geulah (redemption) of the Jews. It’s amazing when you realize the special connection between Pesach and Shavuot, on the one hand, and Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, on the other:
The Exodus is the birthday of the Jewish nation, the day when God granted us our independence. Similarly, Yom HaAtzmaut is the birthday of the Jewish state, when we once again got our [physical-political] independence.
Matan Torah represents the purpose of the Exodus, the destiny of the Jewish nation – spreading God’s name in the world through the amazing light of His Torah. Similarly, Yom Yerushalayim expresses the [spiritual] purpose of the state, the goal of Israeli independence.
The period between Pesach and Shavuot is accompanied by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer, which ties together these two days – the physical basis and the spiritual purpose. . . . [And within that period,] Yom HaAtzmaut takes place close to Pesach (on the 5th of Iyar), while Yom Yerushalayim takes place close to Shavuot (on the 28th of Iyar). That’s when the events happened!<5>
In other words, the timing of these two Israeli holidays is not coincidental but rather Divinely determined. In 1948, Hashem arranged for the State of Israel to be declared just two weeks after Pesach. In 1967, He arranged for Yerushalayim to be reunited just one week before Shavuot. He pulled the strings and manipulated the world’s leaders so that the dates of modern redemption would be juxtaposed with the dates of our ancestors’ redemption. Impressive!
On the other hand, the dates of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron were chosen by people. Could their timing be significant as well?
Let’s discuss Yom HaZikaron first, because its history is simpler. In 1949, when the War of Independence was over, memorial events for those killed in the war took place around Israel. The next year, the bereaved families requested a centralized event. But no date was set for a memorial day, nor was there much public discussion. The Chief Rabbi of Tzahal (who would later be Chief Rabbi of Israel), Rav Shlomo Goren, decided that Yom HaZikaron could not take place on an already-existing day of the Jewish calendar (such as Lag BaOmer or Asarah BeTevet) – it demanded its own day. In a speech decades later, he described what happened:
But the first Independence Day was rapidly approaching, and so we did what we did – without announcing it formally and without setting any specific format for the day. I went to [the] Voice of Israel [radio] studios on the day before Independence Day and read aloud the Chief of Staff’s Daily Military Order, which he wrote according to my request. And so I became the narrator and the one who set Remembrance Day on what became its date.<6>
In other words, the priority at the time was to make sure there would be a memorial day at all. Having Yom HaZikaron take place right before Yom HaAtzmaut was somewhat arbitary. Only afterwards did Rav Goren – and everyone else – realize that the timing was perfect. As he put it in that speech:
The juxtaposition of Remembrance Day and Independence Day is alluded to in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah (31:12): åÀäÈôÇëÀúÌÄé àÆáÀìÈí ìÀùÒÈùÒåÉï, åÀðÄçÇîÀúÌÄéí, åÀùÒÄîÌÇçÀúÌÄéí îÄéâåÉðÈí – “I will turn their mourning into joy, and I will give them comfort, and gladden them from their sorrow.” The “sounds of joy” are not absolute; in the Scriptures, joy always follows sadness and mourning. Independence Day, too, must be connected with sadness, with mourning, with sacrifices, and with the blood-drenched history of the Jewish people. . . . This is our symbol – from sadness to joy – and with this we will go further.<7>
Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg points out that the juxtaposition fits with the well-established pattern in the Jewish calendar of a dialectic (back and forth). He writes in his must-read book on the chagim:
In a remarkable statement of theological continuity, the liturgy established by the secular Knesset recapitulated the classic dialectical move of Jewish tradition from sadness to celebration, from mourning to joy, from death to life, in the wink of an eye. As Purim’s [manic] joy was preceded by the [depressive] Fast Day of Esther with its burden of woe and vulnerability, as Passover’s celebration was preceded by the ominous Fast of the Firstborn, as Sukkot’s celebration followed the sackcloth and denial of Yom Kippur, so [too] Yom HaAtzmaut would follow on the heels of loss evoked by communing with the memory of the fallen soldiers. Thus, the seven days before the anniversary of independence – between Yom HaShoah at the beginning and Yom HaZikaron at the end – became a week marked by deep and reflective sadness.<8>
To sum up, the timing of Yom HaZikaron as the day leading into Yom HaAtzmaut resonates extremely well. It’s like fitting a puzzle piece in place.<9>
In contrast, the timing of Yom HaShoah doesn’t resonate at all, at least on the surface. Its official date is the 27th of Nisan. Trick question: What Holocaust event happened on that day? The answer is: Nothing. The date was just a compromise.
To make a long story short, there was a bitter fight in the Knesset about the timing of Yom HaShoah which dragged on through the 1950s. Ex-ghetto fighters, who wanted to remember only Holocaust resistance, pushed for Yom HaShoah to be on the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But that took place on Pesach! Orthodox members of Knesset pointed out that having a sad day on Pesach would completely undermine the happiness of the Biblical holiday. Instead, they argued for Yom HaShoah to be several weeks later, during the semi-mourning of the Omer. The compromise was Nisan 27th, a day that nobody wanted. It wasn’t early enough for the fighters, because Yom HaShoah wouldn’t be on the day of the Uprising; it wasn’t late enough for the Orthodox, because Yom HaShoah would be during Nisan (when the halakhah prohibits having eulogies and saying Tachanun). Nobody was happy with this compromise.<10>
And yet, having Yom HaShoah take place a week after Pesach<11> turned out to be good timing after all, because the result is that Yom HaShoah is a week before Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. And that turns out to be very meaningful indeed. Rabbi Greenberg elaborates:
Had the Orthodox gotten their way in the final negotiations, Yom HaShoah would have been deferred to the month of Iyar or beyond. Had that happened, there would have been no connection between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzmaut. But, in fact, Yom HaAtzmaut is the fundamental response to Yom HaShoah. Now Yom HaShoah occurs one week away from Yom HaAtzmaut, and nothing could more profoundly capture the fundamental relationship of Holocaust and Israel than that positioning. The State of Israel is not a reward or a product or an exchange for the Holocaust; it is a response. The Jewish people responded to the total assault of death by an incredible outpouring of life. The survivors came and rebuilt their lives. Jewish life was made precious again. The great biblical symbol that, according to the prophets, would some day prove that the covenant had endured is the reestablishment and repopulation of the land of Israel.<12>
A variation on this idea is presented by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who was the principal of Ramaz for many years. He writes:
It is not simply a contemporary coincidence on the Jewish calendar that schedules Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaShoah one week apart. It is not exclusively an historical phenomenon which we commemorate when we observe the anniversary of the rebirth of Jewish nationhood which came three years after the conclusion of the annihilation of six million Jews. The linkage of Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaShoah is, in reality, a basic principle of Jewish thought and halakhah. Purim, for example, is made more meaningful by virtue of the fact that it follows Ta’anit Esther. The celebration is enhanced by reliving the anxiety and struggle that are commemorated by the fast on the day before.
When we celebrate the liberation from Egyptian slavery, Jewish tradition requires us to begin the story of the Exodus with a description of the horrors of slavery. îúçéì áâðåú åîñééí áùáç – Mat’chil bi-genut u-mesayeim be-shevach (Pesachim 116a). Because we describe the pain and suffering, the bitterness and the tears of slavery, “therefore we are obligated to thank and praise God who has liberated us from slavery to freedom, from sadness to joy, from bondage to redemption, and from mourning to festivity” (Haggadah).. . .
My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, once asked why we were privileged to be the generation that moved from servitude to freedom and from exile to redemption. Weren’t there many more worthy generations than ours who would have merited the glorious gift of Jewish independence in our Holy Land? He answered: “We didn’t get Israel because we deserved it; we got Israel because we needed it!” Had Israel not been reborn out of the ashes of the Holocaust, Judaism and the Jewish people as we know them might not have survived. It was finally God who helped us to transform hopelessness into faith.
So in retrospect, the compromise date of Yom HaShoah resonates, even though nobody realized it at the time.
In conclusion, the timing of all four of Israel’s national holidays is meaningful and significant. Perhaps Hashem was pulling the strings not only for the dates of Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, but for those of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron as well. When we see the whole picture, we can appreciate each piece of the puzzle.
1. Terry McMillan (1951-), A Day Late and a Dollar Short (Signet, 2002), p. 46. The narrator is Viola.
2. Vayikra 23:15-16.
3. Ramban on Vayikra 23:36. The idea is formulated more clearly by his student’s student, Rabbenu Bechaye, in his commentary on Vayikra 23:16.
4. The book’s title means “Gradually,” and it comes from the Gemara’s story in which one rabbi said the geulah will happen gradually, like the sunrise. See Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:1 (4b).
5. Rav Chaim Druckman (1932-), Kima Kima (Yediot Achronot, 2012), pp. 228-229, 231. My translation from Hebrew.
6. Rav Shlomo Goren (1917-1994), “Judaism: Independence After Remembrance” (1974 speech). http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/2244
8. Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg (1933-), The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (Touchstone, 1988), p. 390. It should be noted that some people now describe this period as Aseret Yemei Todah (Ten Days of Thanks). The website of this initiative is https://tentoda.org/about-us-2/ See also Jessica Steinberg, “A Season to Remember, Celebrate – and Give Thanks,” The Times of Israel, April 15, 2015. https://www.timesofisrael.com/a-project-to-give-thanks/
9. To appreciate this, consider that other countries have a Memorial Day and an Independence Day, but not near each other and not understood in light of each other. Compare David Breakstone, “Memorial Day Here and There: Stop and Shop,” The Jerusalem Post Magazine, June 10, 2011, p. 33. https://www.jpost.com/opinion/columnists/memorial-day-here-and-there
10. A longer version of this story is in The Jewish Way, pp. 326-339. See also Rabbi Dr. J. J. Schacter (1950-), “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a be-Av: The Debate over Yom Ha-Sho’a,” Tradition 41:2 (Summer 2008), pp. 164-197. https://traditiononline.org/holocaust-commemoration-and-tisha-be-av-the-debate-over-yom-ha-shoa/
11. For the significance of Yom HaShoah taking place soon after Pesach, see Rabbi Stewart Weiss, “Viewing the Holocaust Through the Prism of Pessach,” The Jerusalem Post Magazine, March 22, 2013, p. 35. http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=307311
12. The Jewish Way, p. 339. See also Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky (1945-), “On Iyyar’s Holidays,” Judaism 21:3 (Summer 1972), p. 300.
13. Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein (1932-), “This Week and Last Week: Reflections on the 40th Yom Ha’Atzmaut,” in Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust (KTAV and RCA, 1992), pp. 239, 243. https://download.yutorah.org/2008/1053/723944/ ramaz-aspirations-yom-haatzmaut-2008.pdf
|Additional shiurim from this category can be found in:||Chagim (Yom Ha'atzma'ut)
Chagim (Yom Hazikaron)
|Uploaded:||Wednesday, April 22, 2020|