On the 24th of Adar in 1952 (5712), R. Meshulam Rath (Shu”t Kol Mevaser I;21) responded to R. Yehudah Leib Maimon as to whether one should recite a שהחיינו on Yom HaAtsmaut. In answering, R. Rath speaks to the nature of the holiday, the role of Hallel, and then שהחיינו.
Before that, let’s spend a moment on each of the rabbis in question. The Bar-Ilan CD-Rom says R. Rath was born to a noted rabbinic family, was a child prodigy, ordained at eighteen, and then served as a rabbi in several places in Europe, and moved to Israel in 1949, which would put it after the establishment of the State; online, I found a source that said he actually moved earlier, after being spirited out of Europe to escape the Nazis, in 1944.
Either way, despite his relatively advanced age, he became an important rabbinic figure in the early State of Israel. His correspondent, the same age but having gotten to Israel decades earlier, founded Mossad haRav Kook, helped draft the State’s Declaration of Independence, and served in the early governments. He also—how I first came to know him—published a book suggesting that we had an opportunity to renew the original ordination, lost during the time of the Talmud.
The two, in other words, were clearly positively disposed towards the State, and saw it in historic terms. Even discounting for R. Rath’s enthusiasm, there is much of unequivocal content from which to learn.
Who Decides for the Community?
The responsum starts by taking for granted that the 5th of Iyyar was appropriately established as a national holiday, and lists the bodies that designated the day. He names the government, no surprise, but when he mentions the Knesset, he refers to its being the chosen representatives of the majority of the community, a democratic impulse that seems to me quaint in two ways.
It assumes the Knesset produced results that were what the majority of the country wanted. For all that we still have democratic elections, both in the US and Israel, I am no longer sure the general public sees the composite bodies of their legislatures as actualizing what they want.
Second, R. Rath values the opinions and interests of the community at large, despite the State being populated mostly by nonobservant Jews. That the instincts and intuitions of the community mattered to him seems to me remarkable, not something many rabbis today would accept (and I’m not, myself, sure I would have taken that position).
The third group who chose 5 Iyyar as the date of Yom HaAtsmaut he calls “the majority of the great rabbis,” implying that in 1952 it was still true that the majority of great rabbis in Israel were comfortable speaking of that as a day worth celebrating (whatever form that took). Or, perhaps, R. Rath only paid attention to those rabbis willing to engage with the State.
Slavery to Freedom
However the day was chosen, its importance lies in its commemorating the miracle of salvation and freedom. He notes the common tradition for individuals and communities to establish such days when they were miraculously saved from death, and to make that holiday incumbent on their descendants, wherever they might live.
Magen Avraham 686;5 codifies that, and Chatam Sofer Orach Chayyim 191 ratifies it, based on Megillah 14a, that Mordechai and Esther realized they could establish Purim (the first post-Biblical holiday) from a kal va-chomer, arguing that if the Jews said Hallel (which signifies an entire day of celebration) for leaving slavery, all the more so when they went from death to life (as they had, but as Jews throughout history celebrated, when they were also saved).
The Political Independence of the State of Israel
In exile, that was only for salvations from death, but R. Rath notes that when it’s the entirety of Jewry involved, in the land of Israel, even freedom is enough, like the Jews leaving Egypt. The declaration of the State, he assumes, freed the Jewish people from the oppression of the nations, giving national sovereignty.
Let me pause our review of his list of the state’s salvations to note that he might have been overly optimistic: Israel, even today, isn’t quite that independent, since the opinion of the nations (particularly the US, but also the EU) matters to the Israeli economy and, often, to its national security (Israel needs arms and spare parts, e.g., from the US—while we can hope Hashem would help us even if the US cut us off, we’re supposed to function mostly within the world as we see it, unless a prophet specifically tells us otherwise).
He might have been writing in the first flush of excitement, idealistically assuming a higher level of independence than we eventually settled on. But he might have conceded what I’m saying and still (correctly) noted that all independent nations do have certain rights; Israel’s joining the family of nations ccorded those rights might be enough to celebrate.
Even if not, he has two more issues that make the declaration of the State an event worth establishing a holiday.
Death to Life
The State, R. Rath says, also saved many Jews from death, in that there were enemies poised to destroy the Jews. The tough choice to declare—in the face of pressure to hold off— resulted in recogmition by major powers, easing victory in the War of Independence.
Beyond that, having a State meant that many Jews who would have been excluded under the British Mandate made it to Israel. 1948-51 were years of influx of Jews, refugees from Europe and from Arab and Muslim countries, in large numbers. Their arrival, a fulfillment of prophecies of the ingathering of exiles, also saved lives, furthering our recognition of the need to celebrate.
What Biblical Obligation?
Not only can we establish a holiday, R. Rath notes that Chatam Sofer sees it as a full Biblical obligation to do so, since the Gemara had Mordechai and Esther derive it from a kal va-chomer, one of the thirteen accepted ways to derive new ideas from an existing Biblical text. (R. Rath knows of others who disagree, seeing it as “only” Rabbinically obligated, or even that the case of Purim was an exception, but feels that he disproved their views).
The reasoning assumes we all know of a Biblical example of Jews establishing a day of praise for being saved from slavery. Rashi thought it was the Song at the Sea, but Turei Even notes that there is no permanent obligation to sing that Song. He suggested instead that it was the recitation of Hallel on the first day of Pesach. R. Rath notes that according to Ramban in his glosses to the Sefer haMitzvot accepts that Hallel in general is a Biblical obligation, so it could be the daytime Hallel of the first day.
But the author of Turei Even, in his more famous Sha’agat Aryeh, had rejected that, and asserted that Hallel was rabbinic. He did, however, see the Hallel said at the Seder as a Biblical obligation, so that could be the basis for the kal va-chomer.
Convinced as he is that this is the right course of action, R. Rath hesitates to set up an halachic practice of such magnitude—a new national holiday, the first in thousands of years—without broad rabbinic support. Rather than saying it’s because he wants the reassurance of others agreeing with him, he says he wants to avoid לא תתגודדו, fostering subgroups among Jews. To have some Jews celebrate Yom HaAtsmaut with Hallel and a brachah, and some without (or even no Hallel) was not the unified action the Torah seems to want of us. A reminder that Jewish unity is more than a slogan, it’s a Torah ideal, one that requires give and take on all sides.
Reciting שהחיינו presents further complications. First, some opinions do not allow making that bracha unless one is about to perform or witness an act of mitzvah. Pri Chadash ruled against saying שהחיינו unless one was lighting or witnessing Chanukkah candles, and Magen Avraham did not allow saying it on Purim without a Megillah.
In each case, others disagreed—Meiri allowed it on Chanukkah, and R. Ya’akov Emden on Purim. Mishnah Berurah thought Magen Avraham only disallowed it when the person had already said it Purim night with a Megillah, and then didn’t have a Megillah in the morning. Any Jew who had not made the blessing at all could say it on the day, even according to Magen Avraham, claims Mishnah Berurah.
Ordinarily this would mean we wouldn’t say it, since we are especially leery of unnecessary blessings. Except that Bach Orach Chayyim 29 makes an exception of Shehechiyanu. Since it expresses a person’s joy, anyone feeling that joy should say it, Bach says.
Chatam Sofer demurred that we cannot leave it up to each individual, because people might choose to say it where it was clearly not relevant. He concludes, however, that where a person is sure that s/he is enjoying Hashem’s bounty, it becomes obligatory to make that blessing.
If so, the diffidence he had expressed about Hallel with a bracha fades regarding Shehechiyanu (although, ironically, no one I’ve heard of says this blessing, even as many recite Hallel with a bracha). Any Jew who experiences Yom HaAtsmaut as a day of Hashem’s salvation from slavery to freedom, from death to life, and with the ingathering of the exiles, can and should say שהחיינו, preferably right before Hallel (a mitzvah act for the שהחיינו to hang on).
He closes, as will I, with a prayer that it be the Will of the One Who resides in Zion to remember us with salvation and compassion, and that as we’ve merited seeing the beginning of the redemption, we merit seeing the full redemption, speedily in our days.