A little known historical fact about the founding of the State of Israel, whose 70th anniversary we celebrated this past week, is that the very first act of the government of the nascent state was to recognize the importance of the Shabbat.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to adopt the Partition Plan dividing the land of Palestine then controlled by the British into a Jewish and Arab state. Shortly after this vote, the British government decided that British rule would end on midnight May 14th, 1948. The Jews would have the right to declare a state at 12am, May 15th, 1948 which falls out on the 6th of Iyyar on the Jewish calendar.
Fast forward a few months to the 5th of Iyyar, Friday May 14th, 1948. Debate raged in the Jewish council convened by David Ben Gurion about the new Jewish state’s Declaration of Independence. Religious members of this Jewish assembly insisted that this declaration mention the God of Israel while many secular Zionists felt any mention of God would be blasphemy. One political party even insisted the declaration be signed at midnight when the British mandate officially expired. The religious parties asserted that such a situation would mean that the state would be “born in sin” and threatened to leave the convention as the Sabbath approached. A compromise satisfying both the secular majority and the religious delegates seemed impossible.
David Ben Gurion realized that to succeed any declaration of Jewish statehood required all the stakeholders to agree. He proposed that rather than refer to God, Israel’s declaration would end with a mention of placing trust in Zur Yisrael, The Rock of Israel, a biblical term used as a synonym for God but one that could be interpreted differently by members of the assembly possessing a more secular outlook. When this compromise was agreed upon by all members, they proceeded to declare the Jewish state which was called Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, at 4PM Friday afternoon, the 5th of Iyyar, 8 hours prior to the 12am deadline with enough time before sundown for the religious members of the Jewish assembly to sign the declaration and make it home before Shabbat.
This recognition of the importance of the Shabbat continues in the festivities of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day until today. Whenever Yom Haatzmaut falls on a Friday like it did this year, it is moved up to Thursday to prevent any celebrations into the night resulting in a desecration of the Sabbath. (I am intimately aware of this since my Hebrew birthday is the 5th of Iyyar while my English birthday is on April 19th. This year, although the 5th of Iyyar fell out on Friday, April 20th, we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut on my English birthday, Thursday, April 19th.)
When I pointed out to a colleague the primacy of Shabbat in determining the date of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, he commented that since David Ben Gurion was not religiously observant he likely only moved the signing to Friday afternoon for cynical reasons, to please the members of the Jewish assembly who were Sabbath observers, not for religious ones. I countered that this was besides the point. Ben Gurion’s sensitivity towards the feelings of others is a paramount Jewish value and in this case this value further influenced a sensitivity towards the importance of the Shabbat for the Jewish people.
I believe that this brilliant compromise by Ben Gurion represents a model for us to aspire towards. There is no way to know whether David Ben Gurion himself would have objected to Israel’s declaration taking place on the Shabbat from a religious sense. It was not his relationship Bein Adam LeMakom, between Man and his Creator, that prevented him from allowing the declaration of the State of Israel to take place on the Sabbath. Rather it was his sensitivity to Bein Adam LeChaveiro, to the importance of Jewish unity which was the greater influence on his decision.
In halacha, when they don’t come in direct conflict, a Mitzvah Bein Adam LeChaveiro actually takes precedence over a mitzvah that is Bein Adam LeMakom. The medieval Talmudist Rabbenu Asher known by his acronym as the Rosh writes in his commentary on Mishnah Peah 1:1 that God wants humanity to fulfill interpersonal mitzvahs more than mitzvot relating to God. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman explains the reasoning behind this in his work, Kovetz Maamarim pages 42-43 positing that every Mitzvah Bein Adam LeChaveiro is actually two mitzvahs in one, both an interpersonal mitzvah and a mitzvah towards one’s creator, the source of all commandments, while a Mitzvah Bein Adam LeMakom is solely a mitzvah towards one’s creator. (Note, this is only true about interpersonal situations that do not directly contradict a commandment between one and God. In such a situation, the Mitzvah Bein Adam LeMakom which is inherently of greater import would take precedence over the Mitzvah Bein Adam LeChaveiro. For example, if one’s parents tell a person to violate Shabbat in order to service them, one is obligated to keep the Sabbath against one’s parents wishes.)
If a Mitzvah Bein Adam LeChaveiro leads one to be more careful about a Mitzvah Bein Adam LeMakom, as in the case when they did not sign the declaration on the Sabbath out of a sensitivity towards the religiously observant members of the Jewish council, this would certainly be a very positive development.
This is a sensitivity that I aspire to in my role as a Jewish educator. Often Mitzvot Bein Adam LeChaveiro, our sensitivities towards each other, can be an important factor leading us to a more meaningful relationship Bein Adam LeMakom as well.
For example, Jewish prayer is a highly personal experience. The dilemma faced in Jewish day schools where prayer is a required part of the day, is how does one encourage a serious approach to prayer amongst adolescents who might be struggling with their relationship with God? I believe that the formula postulated by David Ben Gurion provides an answer. Couching prayer in terms of Bein Adam LeChaveiro, reminding students to be sensitive to those around them who wish to pray and would be distracted by talking or by people who are not at least going through the motions of prayer, standing and sitting when appropriate, wearing the proper dress, can be an effective approach to fostering a meaningful prayer experience with the Almighty. Students will work together to create an environment allowing an aspiration to a relationship with the divine once they first are sensitive to their relationships with their fellow classmates.
It is my hope that as we aspire to a unified Jewish people in our homeland, this in turn will strengthen our relationship both towards each other and our creator and “There shall be rejoicing as when they march with flute, with timbrels, and with lyres to the Rock of Israel on the Mount of the LORD.” Isaiah 30:29