A Holiday in the Making

24 Apr

These are the designated holidays of God, considered holy, that you will assign them(otam) at their appropriate times. (Leviticus 23:4)

Said Rav Simlai, “The Hebrew word for themotam – is written in such a way that it can pronounced atem – meaning you – to teach that God is saying, ‘If you (atem) assign them, then they are My holidays – but if you do not, then they are not My holidays.'” (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana 1:3)*****************************************************************

What makes Yom Ha’Atzmaut a Jewish holiday?

 What does it take to establish a Jewish holiday?

Sure, the Torah designates a number of holy days, describes their purpose and indicates the date upon which they are to be celebrated; however, ultimately it is up to us to determine when the holiday falls out.  Depending on what day we declare to be the first day of the lunar month – Rosh Chodesh – that determines exactly when the holidays of that month will fall out. 

Everyone has heard the expression, in reference to the High Holidays – that the “holidays are early this year,” an expression we will all soon be hearing come this summer,b when we realize that Rosh Hashana 2007 (5768)is scheduled to be marked on September 12-13, 2007.  Next year, however, is a leap year – we will add an extra month of Adar – and no doubt we will be hearing the complaints that “the holidays fall out late this year, “as Rosh Hashana 2008 (5769) will be marked on September 30-October 1, 2008. (Of course, ask anyone, the holidays are never on time!)

These swinging dates are a function of our own establishment of the Jewish calendar.  It is we who have decided, for instance, on what day to blow the shofar, what days to fast, and which week of the year will carry with it a very serious prohibition against the eating of chametz.  In other words, we determine the holidays, be they early, late, or otherwise.

Rabbinically established holidays represent even greater empowerment.  Purim and Chanukah are the result of human initiative to recognize miracle.  And, while we take their observances for granted, it wasn’t so easy creating a national holiday. 

For instance, the miraculous victory of Chanukah took a long time to find itself a place as a national Jewish observance. 

The Rambam writes that “the sages of the same generation established that these eight days that begin with the twenty-fifth of Kislev are to be days of joy and praise….”(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chanukah 4:3), and the First Book of Maccabees, written in Judea around 120 BCE, 45 years after the event, records that “Judah and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.”(4:49)

However, the Second Book of Maccabees was written in Greek, in the second half of the first century BCE, and it appears to have been written for the benefit of the diaspora Jews in Egypt, primarily to inform them about the restoration of the temple and to encourage them to celebrate the miracle. Interesting to note that the author of this book describes the establishment of the holiday in different terms – “They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe they days every year.” (10:8)

This next source is incredible!

As an indication of how long it seems to have taken for the national celebration of Chanukah to take off, we have the words of Josephus. Writing about the holiday, in the year 94 C.E., two decades after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, he recorded the following:

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days….And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights.  I suppose the reason was because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence the name was given to the festival.

Incredible!  Josephus relates that it was called Lights, but isn’t sure why!  Wasn’t it obvious?  Apparently not.  Apparently in his time the custom of candle lighting wasn’t as widespread then as it is in our day, since ask any Jeiwsh preschooler today, and he or she will tell you why some call it the holiday of Lights!

Anyway, this brings me back to Yom Ha’Atzmaut – Israel Independence Day.  Just 59 years into our modern independence, we are all participating a holiday in the making. As described in the Second Book of Macabees above, this modern holiday called Yom Ha’Atzmaut was “decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe they days every year.” Read this:

Independence Day Law – 5709 (1949)

(Unofficial translation)

(A) The Knesset proclaims by this that the fifth day of Iyar is “Independence Day” which will be celebrated each year as a national holiday.

(B) If the fifth day of Iyar falls on the Sabbath, Independence Day will be celebrated on the third day of Iyar of that year. If the fifth of Iyar falls on a Friday, Independence Day will be celebrated on the fourth day of Iyar of that year. If the fifth of Iyar falls on a Monday, Independence Day will be celebrated on the sixth of Iyar of that year.

(C) Independence Day will be a public holiday.

In 1949, the Knesset passed into law the national observance of Israel Independence Day.  They even spelled out the different days it might be observed, based on conflicts with Shabbat and Erev Shabbat (side point – I cannot undertand how Jews in the Diaspora were celebrating this week on the 5th of Iyar – this past Monday –  while we here in Israel are celebrating today, on the 6th.  The law as set down here in in 1949 is very clear!  Does it make sense that while we were shedding tears for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror, that Jews in the diaspora were dancing and eating falafel?  But that’s a subject for another blog…)

I saw a headline from the 3rd of Iyar, 5709 (1949) Palestine Post(predecessor of the Jerusalem Post) that read: Shofar will be sounded as Symbol – and then went on to describe the various observances, including the prayers to recited in the synagogue, and that “evening meals will be conducted as they are on holidays, following services, and candles will be lit.” This ritual didn’t exactly catch on, while others have.

The point is, in making a holiday, it seems to me that there are two major ingredients that are necessary if the holiday is going to catch on:

1. Rituals

2. Observers

 Yom HaÁtzmaut can only become a Jewish holiday – rather than just an Israeli national holiday – if there are specific rituals associated with it, and people committed to observing those rituals.  Dancing the hora, eating falafel (in the diaspora) or making a BBQ here in Israel just don’t cut it.  I would like to see generations to come recognizing the holiness of this day – no less that the holiness of Purim and Chanukah.  Chanukah has its candles, Purim its Megillah and other mitzvot – In  my opinion, Yom Ha’Atzmaut has not yet found its powerful ritual expression….

Any suggestions? 

I would love to hear them, and maybe by next Yom Ha’Atzmaut we can generate interest in the observance of a worldwide ritual that goes beyond the flags and prayers in the synagogue. A ritual unique to this day, not borrowed from another holiday (please , not another haggada – that has already been suggested – and it didn’t catch on) A ritual that everyone can do, so that everyone can play a role in the making and sanctification of this modern Jewish holiday commemorating a miracle that our ancestors could only dream about for nearly 2000 years…

Chag Sameach!


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