Thoughts on Prayers for Yom HaAtzmaut

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

Over the past months, we have looked at many different prayers, most having their origin either in ancient times, in the Talmud or Midrash, others appearing in Medieval times, in the days of the Babylonian Geonim or the later European communities in pre-Modern times. By now, centuries have passed since the introduction of even the latest of those prayers and they have become more or less accepted into Jewish liturgy and familiar parts of our prayer life. It is interesting to observe how a relatively recent observance becomes integrated into the prayerbook and how new customs and traditions develop. Last week, we marked the 73rd anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel, Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day. In Israel, this anniversary is preceded by Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, commemorating those who died in the establishment of the state, defending it over the years, or in terrorist attacks by enemies of the state. In any other country, this would be strictly a national observance, but for Jews around the world, Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaZikaron have become meaningful religious and cultural events calling for appropriate liturgy.

A volume appeared in 1973, entitled Hilchot Yom HaAtzmaut, the Laws of Independence Day, containing numerous articles by various rabbis on questions raised by this observance. Among them is the question of whether and under what circumstances can we establish a new holiday as a religious observance. Obviously this has happened in the past, most notably with Chanukah and Purim which are not mentioned in the Torah. Can we do the same in modern times? If we can establish this day as a festival, certain prayers seem appropriate to recite on it. Are they permitted? The Talmud teaches that when disaster strikes the Jewish people, once they are saved they should recite Hallel. Is this such an occasion? If so, do we recite the full Hallel or a shortened version as on Rosh Chodesh and the last days of Pesach? Do we say the blessings before and after the Hallel indicating that it is in fulfillment of a mitzvah? On Pesach, in some communities Hallel is recited not only in the day time during the morning service but also after the evening service on the nights of the seder (in addition to the Hallel found in the Haggadah). Should we do the same here?

Because the rabbis were so careful to avoid an unnecessary blessing so as not to take God's name in vain, should we recite Shehecheyanu? What about the blessing of “SheAsah nisim” that we say before the Megillah on Purim and before candlelighting on Chanukah, Should we read from the Torah and add a haftarah and if so, what should be read, how many people should we call to the Torah, and do we recite the blessings for the Torah and haftarah? All of these prayers already exist; we are just asking if it is appropriate to recite them on this day. What about creating new prayers for the occasion or modifying old prayers? Should we create a version of “Al HaNissim” and add it into the Modim prayer and the Birkat HaMazon as we do on Purim and Chanukah?

All of these questions and more have been dealt with at length by various contemporary rabbis and, of course, have led to varying conclusions. I have a small prayerbook from the '70s which indicates what we should say, at least in Israel, in accordance with the opinions of the Chief Rabbis. A more recent volume was published by Koren press in 2013, which pretty much follows the same outline of the service in the form of a Machzor for Yom HaAtzmaut, containing the additions within the full text of the daily prayers. I find it interesting, though, that the editors of this volume are less prescriptive and offer the changes and additions more as suggestions that one is free to follow or not.

In this Machzor, the evening service is preceded by the equivalent of the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers that we say on Friday night (Psalms plus a hymn of welcome). Here we find three Psalms which the instructions say should be chanted in a joyful melody, Psalm 107 which is a hymn on the ingathering of the exiles, followed by two of the joyful Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, 97 and 98. Psalm 98 is to be recited aloud, verse by verse. This is followed by three stanzas of L'cha Dodi (Hitor'ri, Lo tevoshi, and Yamin u'Smol). Instead of the chorus of L'cha Dodi, come my beloved to greet the bride, to welcome Shabbat, we add the line from the Hallel, “Zeh hayom asah Adonay nagilah v'nis'mecha bo, This is the day the Lord has wrought, let us rejoice and be glad on it.” Following this hymn is the first of a number of places in this Machzor printed on a blue background, indicating an optional addition that one may freely include or omit. The first is the singing of lines from the Hallel in the popular song “Kol rinah viy'shuah”. This is followed by the recitation, also optional, of Shehecheyanu.

At this point, we proceed with the usual text of the evening service for weekdays. In the middle of the Amidah, we find, again with a blue background, a version of Al HaNisim in the Modim prayer with the note “Whoever wishes to add a version of Al HaNisim into the silent prayer may do so in this version by Rav Neriah or in one of the other versions in the appendix to this volume.” Interestingly, when this appears in the other Amidahs for the morning and afternoon service where it is customary to repeat the Amidah aloud, it seems that the reader does not make this addition to the repetition.

After the evening Amidah, again in blue, we are told that some are accustomed to recite the Hallel prayers at this point and we find the entire text of Hallel with its blessings, though we are told only that “some” recite the blessing. This part of the service concludes with the full Kaddish and then a little ritual, not marked in blue, recited before the open ark. The reader chants the opening line of the Sh'ma and the congregation repeats it. Then, as on Yom Kippur, at Neilah, he chants, Adonay hu HaElohim, The Lord is God, just three times instead of seven and again the congregation repeats. He then says a prayer adapted from the blessing of the new month, “May He who performed miracles for our ancestors and redeemed them from slavery to freedom, may He redeem us with a complete redemption soon, and gather in the dispersed from the four corners of the earth. All Israel is one fellowship, Chaverim kol Yisrael, and let us say, Amen.” The congregation repeats this prayer and then the ark is closed.

Next come a couple of verses from the book of Numbers, that speak of a celebration as one enters the land and defeats the enemies, trumpets are sounded, sacrifices offered, and it is a joyful day of remembrance before the Lord. This part ends with the sounding of a tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar and the proclamation, “L'shanah habaah biy'rushalayim hab'nuyah, Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.” We add a y'hi ratzon prayer, “May it be God's will as we have merited the beginning of the redemption, that we may soon hear the sound of the shofar of our righteous Messiah, speedily in our day.” We end by singing the familiar Shir Hamaalot, b'shuv Adonay et shivat tziyon, Psalm 126, which speaks of the return of the exiles to Zion as if they were in a dream. It concludes, “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy, bearing their sheaves.” This is quite an elaborate service and there are many places in Israel which follow some version of this service. I attended one many years ago at the Yeshiva of Rav Kook, when I was a college student.

In the morning, we have the regular prayers for weekdays. For P'sukei d'zimrah we use the Shabbat and festival version plus Psalm 100 that is said only on weekdays. Then we continue as usual until the optional Al HaNisim in the Amidah. This is followed by the Hallel with a note indicating three differing customs: reciting the full Hallel with a blessing, reciting it without the blessing, or just reciting a shortened Hallel. There is a Torah reading. Before removing the Torah, some say the Ein Kamocha prayers as on Shabbat and Yom Tov and others start from Vay'hi vinsoa, as on weekdays. Those who add Ein Kamocha, also recite the verses of Sh'ma and Echad Eloheinu as on Shabbat.

For the Torah reading, again the editor takes into account varying opinions. Apparently some read the regular portion for the coming Shabbat, at least when it is Monday or Thursday and add from a second scroll, a reading from the beginning of Parashat Ekev in Deuteronomy in praise of the land of Israel. Others substitute this second reading for the weekly parashah and divide it into three aliyot. The last aliyah is the maftir and it is followed by the reading of the selection from Isaiah that we read on the last day of Pesach, the utopian vision of harmony in the world at the end of time. No blessings are said for the haftarah; it is simply a reading from the prophet. Afterwards we offer the prayer for the State of Israel authorized by the chief rabbinate that is part of our weekly prayers. Before returning the Torah to the ark, there are prayers for the Israel Defense Forces, for captives and missing soldiers, Yizkor for the fallen, and El Malei Rachamim for the victims of the Shoah. The Torah is returned to the ark, the closing prayers are said, omitting Psalm 20, as is customary on joyous occasions, and following the Psalm of the Day, the editor has the congregation sing, Ani Maamin, I believe in the coming of the Messiah.

The Masorti Movement, the Israeli branch of the Conservative Movement, has a similar service in its Va-Ani Tefilati siddur which I have only as a phone app. It includes the three stanzas of L'cha Dodi as in the Orthodox volume. It mentions Hallel at night as an option, but is quite definitive in reciting the full Hallel with the blessing in the morning and the special Torah reading and haftarah as well. It offers a version of Al HaNisim which is recited both in the silent Amidah and in its repetition aloud. Following the recital of Hallel, we find the proclamation of Sh'ma Yisrael and Adonay Hu HaElohim, as in the Koren Machzor and then the following statement, “Our brothers the House of Israel, listen. Today is ___ years of the independence of the State of Israel. May God's name be blessed from now and forever.” This is followed by the Shehecheyanu, and the prayer “Sound the shofar for our freedom, raise a banner to gather in our exiles, and bring us all together from the four corners of the earth to our land.” Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem!

The main difference between the two prayerbooks is that instead of providing options for various factions and opinions within the Orthodox community, the Masorti volume makes the decisions for the reader and prescribes the appropriate practice, assuming that this is to be considered a holiday to be celebrated with full appreciation and praise to God who has brought about this miraculous rebirth of the Jewish State.

Outside of Israel, Yom HaAtzmaut is not a day off as in Israel, but always on a workday and the desire to celebrate this holiday is often balanced by a desire to allow the morning minyannaires to head off to work on a timely basis. Customs vary in different congregations and in the prayerbooks of the different movements. I have four representative prayerbooks before me and they each have a different approach.

The Artscroll Prayerbook, even in the Rabbinical Council of America edition of the daily and Shabbat and Festival Siddur, does not seem to recognize Yom HaAtzmaut or prescribe any rituals or prayers for that day. It seems that this book sees Yom HaAtzmaut as an Israeli holiday at best and does not provide for observance outside of Israel.

A different Orthodox volume, the Koren Siddur with translation and commentary by the late former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, does acknowledge the holiday and provide a full ritual for the eve of the holiday, similar to what we saw in the Israeli machzorim`` While there are some variations from the Israeli version, it includes the recital of Psalms and the three rewritten stanzas from L'cha Dodi prior to the evening service. It instructs the reader to chant the evening service to the festival melody. Afterwards there is the ritual before the open ark including the shofar blast as in Israel.

In the morning, we are told that many congregations in Israel and outside Israel recite the full P'sukei d'zimrah for Shabbat and festivals and that the Song of the Sea is recited verse by verse. They do not provide a text for Al Hanisim in the Amidah, but prescribe the full Hallel after the Amidah. The Torah is read only if the holiday falls on Thursday and the haftarah is read on all days and is the passage from Isaiah. This is followed by the prayers for the State of Israel and for the Israel Defense Forces, and a memorial prayer for fallen soldiers. After the conclusion of the service, Ani Maamin is to be sung.

The Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, the most recent weekday prayerbook by the movement does not provide a special service for the eve of Yom HaAtzmaut specifically. In the morning, there is no expansion of the P'sukei d'zimrah. The service runs as usual for a weekday, however, in the Amidah is the version of Al HaNisim that we encountered in the Israeli Masorti siddur. There are instructions to recite the full Hallel after the Amidah and there is the special Torah reading and haftarah reading for Yom HaAtzmaut printed in the back of the volume. It seems that one is to recite the usual blessings for the haftarah as well.

In a separate section of the siddur there is a “newly created liturgy” for Yom HaAtzmaut that we are told may be used independently or in conjunction with a regular service. This section begins with Shir HaMaalot, Psalm 126 which we saw in the Koren machzor. It is followed by a couple of selections from the book of Jeremiah. After this, one finds three poetic selections, one by Yehudah Halevi, from the 13th century, a second by Menahem Mendel Dolitzki, an early Zionist, from the end of the 19th century, and the third by a contemporary poet Naomi DeMayo. After the poetry is the official proclamation of the anniversary of the establishment of the state that we saw earlier, a shortened version of the prayer for the State of Israel, and finally Hatikvah.

Turning to the latest Reform prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, we find a passage to include in the Amidah which though it does not begin with Al HaNisim, provides a version of the second paragraph of that prayer, basically the historical background of the observance, without the supernatural trappings of miracles. In addition, Mishkan Tefillah offers a full section for Yom HaAtzmaut around a candlelighting ceremony utilizing seven candles, one for each section of the liturgy. It begins with the preamble of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and then the lighting of the first candle. Next are excerpts from Psalm 122, 'I rejoiced when they said to me, we are going up on the House of the Eternal.” The next page presents three short quotations from Hannah Senesh, Albert Einstein, and Theodor Herzl. Herzl's quote has been set to music. Another piece of the declaration is read and a second candle lit. This is followed by a quote from the book of Numbers and another from rabbinic sources. The next page adds short quotes again from Hannah Senesh, one from A.D. Gordon, and part of Naomi Shemer's well-known song Yerushalaim shel Zahav. The service continues taking excerpts from the Declaration of Israeli independence, lighting a candle and then citing quotations or short songs related to Israel. After the seventh candle has been lit with its readings ending with the song Al Hadvash v'al Ha-Oketz, for the honey and the stinger, the service concludes with a shortened version of the prayer for the State of Israel, the singing of Hatikvah, and a quotation from Chaim Stern. Clearly, while it could be included as a kind of cantata in the midst of a regular service, it might also be a stand-alone service for celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut.

Thus we see the gradual development of a liturgy to mark this significant event in 20th century Jewish history. For some it means incorporating the celebration into the existing rubrics of the prayerbook, while others have gone further to create a program of important thoughts and statements about the entire Zionist enterprise. As the years go by, the prayers become more established and the rituals more familiar until ultimately they are absorbed into our ongoing tradition just as the variety of Simchat Torah customs have become a regular feature each year since they were introduced over the course of the past millennium. However we choose to mark this significant day on our calendar, we rejoice in the existence of a Jewish homeland, not only as a refuge from persecution, but as a center of Jewish knowledge and tradition.

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