The Religious Status of Yom Ha'atzmaut

Within Israel and in the greater Jewish world there are differing views as to whether there is a religious nature to Israel's Independence Day.

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Despite the fact that Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel's Independence Day) is a national holiday in Israel, the exact character of the day has not yet been determined. Concerts, festivals, religious services, fireworks, picnics, and recreational activities all play a role in the day. In the Diaspora, very few treat it as a full holiday, although most communities offer special Israel focused programs on this day.  

For many Jews, Yom Ha'atzmaut is not only a national or political holiday, but a religious one as well. What this means is still evolving and open to debate. It is a special day, but is it a yom tov, a festival like the biblical holidays, in which special prayers are recited and Jewish law prohibits working?

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has been at the forefront of creating new liturgy that expresses the special meaning of the day from a religious Zionist perspective. Over the years the many chief rabbis have written or sanctioned a number of different Yom Ha'atzmaut services that can be found in various siddurim (prayerbooks), most notably the Siddur Rinat Yisrael, a popular prayerbook that integrates Yom Ha'atzmaut into the liturgy alongside all other holidays, including the recitation of Hallel--the psalms of praise said on most holidays--and special psalms and the blowing of the shofar.

religious zionistFor some, the innovations of the Chief Rabbinate did not go far enough. In the 1950's, the Religious Kibbutz Movement began a process of creating a special machzor (holiday prayerbook) for Yom Ha'atzmaut. The last version was published in the 1970s with notes by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren.  While Rabbi Goren blessed the kibbutzim for their efforts to sanctify the day, he wrote that many of the innovations went too far. While his recommendations were published in the machzor (out of respect), most of the kibbutzim did not change their practices.

As the character of the day develops from year to year, it is important to note that not all Jews are in agreement about the nature of Yom Ha'atzmaut. For many there is no question that Yom Ha'atzmaut is to be celebrated as a full holiday. On the other hand, there are those who actively refuse to celebrate this day. Between these two extremes are the Jews who celebrate the existence of Israel but hesitate to institute liturgical or ritual changes in honor of this day. Each point of view represents different attitudes toward the meaning and significance of the State of Israel for the Jewish people.

Celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut

A visitor entering the synagogue of the religious Kibbutz Lavi on the Eve of Yom Ha'atzmaut would be hard pressed to find an outward difference between this service or that of any other major Jewish festival. Everyone is dressed in their white shirts and holiday best. The synagogue is filled with the sound of voices singing the holiday tunes. Following the service, everyone gathers in the communal dining room for a meal that rivals the best Shabbat or holiday fare. 

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.