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Joy and Gladness on the Ninth of Av and Yom Ha’atzma’ut

As a Zionist and a religious Jew especially on Ninth of Av, I see God’s hand in the rebirth of the Jewish state, and the subsequent restoration of ancient Jerusalem and the Temple Mount to Jewish sovereignty. In fact, while most religious Zionists believe that the State of Israel marks the beginning of the burgeoning of our redemption, my sense is that this rebirth and restoration are the totality of the promised redemption foretold by the prophets of yore, for which Jews have prayed for 2000 years. As the amora Samuel has argued in a dictum cited by Maimonides, the only thing expected to change in the Messianic era is the subjugation of the Jewish people to alien sovereignty (Bavli Berakhot 34b; Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim12:2), and if that is the case, we are already living in the Messianic era. That is not to say that our lives are perfect. There is room for improvement, no doubt, but I believe that striving for transcendence and self-improvement is inherent in the human condition, and even the End of Days should not be expected to tamper with that important aspect of the human soul.

Nonetheless, I have long felt ambivalent about marking Israel’s Independence Day with religious ritual. The widespread practice of reciting the Hallel on Yom Ha’atzma’ut, and preceding that recitation with a ritual blessing asserting that God has commanded us to do so, strikes me as an imprecise application of the law and lore of our tradition. It is true that according to the Talmud, theHallel is to be recited not only on Biblical or rabbinic festivals, but also on the anniversary of a miraculous rescue (Bavli Pesahim117a); however, I would argue that the restoration of the land of Israel to its people is not to be considered a miraculous rescue. On the contrary, it represents a return to “the norm”. The ultimate redemption of the people of Israel and the restoration of their land and holy city are considered by tradition the restoration of the norm after a long and troubling hiatus.

Both the Bible and rabbinic literature do single out a number of days, and one day in particular, as the day on which to celebrate the restoration of the land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem to the Jewish people. But this day is not the day on which the Jews enter the land or recover their sovereignty over it; it is the day, or days, on which the Jews lost their sovereign presence in the land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. According to both Biblical prophecy and rabbinic tradition, when the redemption arrives, it is to be celebrated on the Ninth of Av and the other fasts commemorating the Babylonian exile, the very days which had hitherto been set aside as days of mourning.

If Yom Ha’atzma’ut is a religious festival, it is unique. There are no holidays celebrating previous instances in which God’s promise of the land of Israel to the Jewish people was realized: no festival commemorates the entrance of the Israelites into the land of Israel in the days of Joshua, and no holiday celebrates the return of Babylonian Jews to Judea and Jerusalem in the wake of the Babylonian exile. The Israelites entered Canaan under Joshua’s leadership on Passover, exactly forty years after they left Egypt. Yet how many of us celebrate Passover as the day in which the land of Israel was given, for the first time, to the Jewish people? Surely this is an event even more significant than the Exodus, since it is the day on which the goal of the Exodus was realized. And yet, the Haggadah doesn’t even mention this event. In fact, while Mishnah Pesahim 10:4 seems to indicate that in addition to reciting and discussing verses describing the Exodus at the Passover seder, one should recite and discuss Deuteronomy 26:9, “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”, our edition of the Haggadah omits discussion of this verse. There seems to be something in the Jewish tradition that is averse to celebrating God’s gift of the land”.

In my opinion, it’s not that the land is less significant, from a religious point of view, than freedom or Jewish peoplehood, themes that are celebrated on Passover. Rather, the land is considered a given, like the air we breathe. The disconnect from the land is a serious breach to be lamented; return to the land, however, is a return to the norm, to be celebrated simply by breathing the air of Israel once again, tilling its soil and going about our business – thanking God for every breath we take and every bite we taste, of course, but doing so every day, not once a year.

This lesson is brought home in an even more pointed way in the book of Zechariah. The prophet Zechariah lived in the land of Israel during the restoration of Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile. Shortly after the Temple was rebuilt, a delegation came to the prophet to ask about the fast of Av, which had been instituted seventy years earlier, in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple: “Should I weep in the fifth month [=Av], denying myself as I have these past few years?” (Zechariah 7:3). Zechariah answers with a long prophecy covering the bulk of chapters 7 and8 inthe book. He touches upon the nature of fasting and the importance of acting righteously; he surveys Israel’s disobedience, punishment and restoration, and concludes as follows:

Thus says the Lord of Hosts: the fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months [=Tammuz, Av, Tishrei (the Fast of Gedaliah) and Tevet] will be for the house of Judah joy and gladness, happy occasions [lesason ulsimhah ulmo’adim tovim]. Therefore, love truth and peace (8:19).

Commentators disagree as to what Zechariah means by this. Is he answering the delegation’s question by ruling that the Ninth of Av and the other fasts commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem seventy years earlier have been abolished? Or is he promising that these fasts will be abolished in the future, when the redemption is complete? Apparently both interpretations were invoked during the Second Temple period, since there is evidence that some people fasted on these days and others did not.

Whether or not Zechariah was abolishing the fasts for his contemporaries, the ultimate message is clear. The restoration of Israel is not to be celebrated with new festivals marking the days on which God’s redemption was made manifest, but by reversing the character of the fast days that had been instituted to mourn the loss of the Jewish sovereignty and presence in the land, the holy city, and the Temple – turning those days themselves into “joy and gladness, happy occasions”. Why is that? Obviously, redemption is not cause for celebration in its own right, since it is simply the restoration of the norm. The day or days that must be marked are the days of the extraordinary reversal of the norm, the days marking the outrageous separation of the Jews from their land, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. It is these days – the Ninth of Av, and the lesser fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the fast of Gedaliah and the Tenth of Tevet, which had been observed during the exile with mourning and fasting, that are now more than neutralized by the redemption: they must become days of gladness and joy.

In the Talmud, the Babylonian amora Rav Papa (basing himself on a statement of the earlier amora Rabbi Shimon Hasida) reiterated Zechariah’s prophecy, translating it into the language of halakhah:

Said Rav Papa: It means as follows – when there is peace, these days are to be joy and gladness; when there is persecution by [foreign] sovereign, they are to be fast days; when there is neither persecution by [foreign] sovereign nor peace, if they wish to do so, they may fast, if they do not wish to do so, they need not fast.

If so, [fasting on] the Ninth of Av, too [should be optional when there is neither persecution nor peace]? Said Rav Papa: The Ninth of Av is different, since troubles were multiplied on that day. (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 18b)

To sum up Rav Papa’s rulings:

When the Jews are experiencing persecution by foreign empires, fasting on all four fast days commemorating the Babylonian exile is mandatory.
When there is neither persecution nor peace, fasting is mandatory on the Ninth of Av but optional on the minor fasts.
When the “peace” of redemption arrives, these very days of fasting, including the Ninth of Av, are to become the days of joy and gladness celebrating the redemption. The breach in the natural relationship between the Jewish people and their land is over – and that very sadness should turn into our joy.
The word “peace” in this passage is used as a synonym for “redemption”. It is variously defined by commentators on the passage, but it is interesting that none of them seem to insist that we wait for world peace before turning the Ninth of Av into a day of celebration. According to Rabbenu Hananel, the word “peace” refers to the rebuilding of the Temple. According to Rashi, it refers to a time when “the hand of the Gentiles is no longer overpowering Israel”; when the Jews are sovereign in their land or are treated by non-Jews as equals, the fast days, including the Ninth of Av, are to be turned into days of celebration.

Whether this “peace” has arrived in our day is debateable, just as it was in Second Temple times. The Jews of Judea in Zechariah’s day had the rebuilt Temple, but they lived under Persian rule; we are sovereign in the State of Israel, but the Temple has not been rebuilt. If the rebuilt Temple is essential to redemption, this time of “peace” has apparently not yet arrived. If, however, Jewish sovereignty or equality among the nations is the essence of the “peace” of the Messianic era, as argued by the amora Samuel, Rashi and Maimonides, it would seem that we are living in the time of “peace”.

Israel is a modern nation, and as such it can and should decide when and how to celebrate its national day. Religious and secular Israelis and Zionists alike ought to join together in celebrating Yom Ha’atzma’ut in any or all the beautiful ways which have come to mark the day on which Jewish sovereignty in Israel was restored: ceremonies, parades and Bible contests; hikes, picnics and barbecues. Religious people should of course be grateful to God every day, and especially on the anniversary of Israel’s independence, much as they are especially grateful to God on their wedding anniversary and other joyous occasions without specific religious ritual.

Nonetheless, the Jewish tradition does not seem to consider the day on which Israel’s sovereignty is restored as the day set aside for religious celebration of the end of exile and the onset of redemption. The traditional view seems to be that making much of this day would undermine the notion that Israel’s sovereignty in its own land should be thought of as the norm, rather than something to get excited about. The days the tradition has set aside to give thanks for the restoration of the norm are the very days that hitherto marked the breach in the norm. It would therefore seem that ritual marking the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount – including Hallel – should be reserved for the days of joy and gladness ordained by the Lord of Hosts for this purpose: the Ninth of Av and the other mo’adim tovimof Zechariah 8:19.

Moshe Benovitz is a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Image Credit: Kimon Berlin

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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