Is Yom HaAtzmaut a Religious Holiday?
Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, at first glance is similar to the independence days observed in other countries: July 4, Bastille Day, Canada Day etc. People have a day off from work, hang up flags and celebrate with picnics, parties and bar-b-ques.
However, when you take a better look, Yom HaAtzmaut is not just a vacation day, it is a religious holiday. There are actually special siddurim (prayer books) with holiday services including prayers written for the occasion as well as psalms, Hallel in the evening and in the morning, Al HaNisim (prayer for the miracles) and the blessing of Shehechiyanu.
The laws of the Omer, the time of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva who died during this time period are suspended and parties and concerts with live music and dancing are not only permitted, but encouraged.
Just as we were saved in the story of the exodus and we commemorate that momentous occasion by celebrating Passover, it was decided that Purim and Chanuka, where we were also saved would become holidays as well. Now, over 2000 years later we celebrate more miracles. The Jewish people have their own homeland and we have won wars where few defeated many like in the Chanuka story. As well, we now have a place for Jews to escape the anti-Semitism which has unfortunately been lurking around the world since before the time of the Purim story.
In the Talmud, Psachim 117a we learn: Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: Moshe and B’nai Yisrael sang Az Yashir (The Song of the Sea) when they ascended from the sea. The prophets established that Hallel would be sung on every appropriate occasion and for every trouble, may it not come upon them. When they are redeemed, they recite it over their redemption.
After the establishment of the State of Israel it was decided that this was an appropriate occasion to sing Hallel as we were saved from trouble and redeemed not just in 1948, but in subsequent years as well.
Rav Meshulam Rata (Roth) 1875-1962 who was considered by Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook to be the “Gadol HaDor”, the greatest rabbi of the generation, wrote in his responsa, Kol HaMevaser 1:21:
There is no doubt that we are commanded to rejoice, establish a holiday, and say Hallel on the fifth of Iyar, the day which the government, the members of the Knesset and most of the greatest rabbis, fixed as the day on which to celebrate, throughout the Land, the miracle of our salvation and freedom.
Rabbi Rata believed that those who want to should recite the bracha of Shehechiyanu and there is no issue of it being a bracha l’vatala (blessing said in vain). Whoever is happy that the State of Israel was established is obligated to make the bracha on this holiday. They should recite Shehechiyanu after Hallel if they recite Hallel with a blessing (which he recommends). If they recite Hallel without a blessing then they should recite Shehechiyanu before Hallel.
Just as we have had the honor to celebrate the beginning of the redemption, may we merit celebrating the full redemption speedily in our days.
Chag Atzmaut Sameach!