Celebrating Israeli Independence Day In Prayer


Among the many questions with many answers about Jewish prayer is whether on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (April 23 this year), one adds the special prayers of praise and thanksgiving, Hallel, and/or omits the prayers of serious supplication, Tachanun.

The late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, whose teachings are now at the heart of Modern Orthodox thinking, believed the miraculous events of the establishment of the State of Israel merited expression in the service, and agreed to the recitation of Hallel, albeit without reciting a blessing.

Just published in time for this year’s commemorations and celebrations, The Koren Yom Ha’Atzmaut Mahzor highlights those prayers considered “optional” by some on the day in shaded areas of the page. This is the first bilingual prayer book for Israel’s national holidays, including Independence Day, Jerusalem Day, and the Day of Remembrance, presented from the perspective of centrist Modern Orthodoxy.

The order of prayers for these occasions was established by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in 1949. It is the publisher’s hope that these holidays will fully become part of tradition in English-speaking countries.

The Hebrew prayers are translated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Also included is new commentary on the text (at the bottom of the page) with an emphasis on the Land of Israel by Rabbis Moshe Taragin and Binyamin Lau. They include midrash, biblical references, metaphors and connections to ancient and contemporary history. The phrase “Open for me the gates of righteousness,” toward the end of Hallel, may refer to gates in Israel that haven’t always been accessible. They mention immigration quotas set by the British government in the pre-State period, and the later enactment of the Law of Return, assuring unconditional entry and citizenship to all Jews.

A contemporary version of “Al HaNissim” (“[We thank You also] for the miracles”), which is recited on Purim and Chanukah, is inserted here on a shaded page, under the rubric “some say.” This version speaks of the armies of the Middle East rising up against “your people Israel” and five alternative versions composed in Israel are also included.

There’s much to read in this machzor. In addition to the explanatory notes alongside the prayers, a section of essays at the back probes spiritual, theological and halachic topics by leading scholars and rabbis in Israel and the United States. Among the contributors are Rabbis J.J. Schachter, Jonathan Sacks and Berel Wein, as well as essays drawn from the writings of the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital and the late Rav Kook. Together, the essays are a statement of faith and practice among the Modern Orthodox.

Contributor Erica Brown, a Jewish Week columnist, addresses the challenge and dilemma of celebrating Israel’s Independence Day in the diaspora — it is “a little bit like making a birthday party where the guest of honor fails to show up. It cannot be otherwise,” she writes. Brown suggests practical approaches toward marking the day meaningfully, and to widen the focus beyond Israeli religious Zionists who have served the nation or joyously celebrate.

Mathew Miller, publisher of Koren Press, emphasizes new and more emphatic observance of these special days, following the standards of the community’s rabbinic authority. He calls on Jews everywhere to “commemorate, celebrate and give thanks. For the events of 1948 and 1967 are no less miraculous than those witnessed by Esther and Mordecai, or the Hasmoneans.”

Many of the contributors and editors recognize that the State of Israel is not yet the spiritual ideal, that there is still a long journey ahead, with much to pray for, and, at the same time, there are enormous accomplishments and miracles to acknowledge.