Culture, Identity, Israel, Religion

Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut: An American Jewish Story?

This is a guest post by Eliana Fishman, who lives, works, and prays in Washington DC. (See the response by Raphael Magarik here.)
What is the American Jewish story, and how do we tell it?
The question of whether or not to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has become a symbol of the division between religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists. Religious Zionists, in particular followers of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with a blessing, while religious anti-Zionists do not say Hallel at all. On Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgical choice represents political orientation. This binary leaves American Jewish congregations in a bind. Is Yom Ha’atzmaut a day when American Jews can pray together? How can a community committed to a multitude of opinions around Zionism also share liturgy?
I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Not because I am an anti-Zionist (I’m not), not because I have lefty politics (I do), and not because I’m not a daily davener (I am). I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because I am an American Jew. Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not about Zionism, and it’s not about joy over the establishment of a Jewish state. Hallel is about narrative.
One of the earliest references to Hallel’s recitation is in Masechet Pesachim 117a. The Talmud explains that Hallel is not about simple joy, but about the narrative of redemption. A baraita specifies six cases where the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity (e.g. at the Red Sea, when Joshua faced the Canaanites, when Deborah and Barak faced Sisera, etc). In each situation God redeems the entirety of the Jewish people, and a prophet established Hallel. The seventh instance that the baraita brings is either a summary, or a distinct case. The unnamed chachamim state that in each and every era that the Jewish people experience danger, Israel’s prophets establish the recitation of Hallel, and, when the people are redeemed, Israel says Hallel because of their redemption.
In each of these cases Hallel is recited first for extreme danger, and then for redemption. There is never any sense of “redemption is about to occur”, or “redemption is continuous”. Additionally, according to this baraita, Hallel is only recited when the entirety of the Jewish people are redeemed.
Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel? Were American Jews redeemed on May 14, 1948? In order to answer that question we have to explore what redemption may or may not have occurred with the establishment of the State of Israel. I have three possible responses to that question—the Holocaust answer, the Arab army answer, and the continual answer.

1. The Holocaust. This narrative assumes that the entire Jewish people were in danger during the Holocaust, and God created the State of Israel as a way of preventing national destruction. In this narrative, either God established the State of Israel to rescue worldwide Jewry from the Nazis, or Israel was established to give survivors of the holocaust a place to go. There are numerous problems with this narrative: a fair amount of historical abrogation, including that not all Holocaust survivors went to Israel, people were living in Israel and fighting for its existence long before the Holocaust, and, if that was European Jewry’s redemption, shouldn’t the State of Israel’s establishment have taken place three years before the Holocaust instead of three years after. Plus, this narrative excludes most Sephardi Jews from Israel’s redemption.
2. The Arab Army Threat. The second narrative is that the establishment of the state of Israel redeemed the Jewish people from the threat of the Arab armies that threatened to invade Israel with the War of Independence/Nakba. Even if we ignore the academic work of revisionist historians, it’s still hard to make the case that this redemption is about American Jews. Even if every single Jew in Israel were wiped out on May 5, 1948, the Jews of America would still exist. If American Jews survived European Jewry’s annihilation earlier in the century, there is no reason to believe that they couldn’t survive Israeli Jewry’s eradication.
3. Continuous Redemption. The final possibility of redemption is that the state of Israel has saved Jews from any anti-Semitic threats that exist throughout the world. According to this narrative, Israel saved my ancestors from anti-Semitism, not America. This narrative buys into the idea that American Jews still face existential anti-Semitic threats, and we all actually need Israel to save our lives. Is this the crux of the American Jewish relationship? Fear? What is the American Jewish relationship to Israel?
It’s complicated. But it is certainly not about redemption. The establishment of the State of Israel was not a redemptive moment for my ancestors. My ancestors were redeemed from European anti-Semitism when they arrived in the United States. That is ultimately the reason that I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Kinship with Israel, watching Srugim, amazement at Ruth Calderon’s Knesset speech, and following Israeli politics does not equal redemption. My ability to practice my religion as I like, without any fear of government intrusion or persecution, has nothing to do with Israel’s establishment, and everything to do with being American. When American Jews say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut they are displaying ingratitude to the United States, the country that allows them the freedom to practice Judaism. For many American Jews the United States provided redemption from religious persecution. Israel did not.
Doesn’t the continued existence of American anti-Semitism mean that one day American Jews will have to move to Israel?

Yes, anti-Semitism still exists in America. So does anti-Semitism in Israel. What doesn’t exist in America is state-sponsored anti-Semitism. American Jews do not face persecution for their religious practice.
Don’t you know that American Jewish power exists because of the establishment of the State of Israel?! American Jewry couldn’t even stop the Holocaust from happening, and now American Jews are powerful, all because of Israel!

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Sadly, there is no way to do a double-blind test experiment on history. We have no way of knowing if American Jewish power is related to the establishment of the state of Israel, the increasing wealth of the American Jewish community, Jews becoming white, guilt over the Holocaust, etc.
Ok, so you don’t want to say full Hallel with a bracha. How about a compromise? Half-Hallel? Hallel without a bracha?

Half Hallel and Hallel without a bracha are two separate issues. Let’s address Hallel without a bracha first.
Halachists have long acknowledged that individual Jewish communities have different types of practices. The Meiri, referencing Tosafot on Masechet Sukkah 44b, states that when an individual experiences redemption, he should say Hallel for himself on that day each year, but not recite a bracha. If the entire Jewish people isn’t included in the miracle, then Hallel isn’t completed. Similarly, if the Jewish community of Washington DC experiences redemption, then DC Jews should say Hallel every year without a bracha, while all Jews outside of DC would not say Hallel. The Meiri and Tosafot are acknowledging that despite the national status of the Jewish people, separate Jewish communities have their own identities, and their own narratives. Imposing one narrative on another community does not make sense. Just like different geographic communities made decisions about eating legumes on Pesach, different geographic communities can make decisions about saying Hallel on redemptive moments in their communities.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef cites the Meiri and Tosafot when he responds to the issue of Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. According to the Meiri, if the entire Jewish community says Hallel, then a bracha is required. However, if only some Jews are saying Hallel, then those Jews say Hallel without a bracha. If the entire Jewish community was meant to say Hallel, then Jews in Israel and in the diaspora would both be saying Hallel with a bracha. Since Yosef only allows Hallel sans-blessing, there must be a population not saying Hallel at all. Some Jews must not be saying Hallel.
Isn’t Rav Ovadiah just talking about religious anti-Zionists?

Possibly. However, he does not offer ideology as a reason for limiting the scope of Hallel’s recitation. He does give the minimal scope of Yom Ha’atzmaut’s redemptive power over only a portion of the Jewish people as a reason for saying Hallel without a bracha.

“…Chazal only established the recitation of Hallel on Israel’s redemption if all of Israel was present at the danger, and was redeemed from that danger, but if a community or an entire state of [the people of] Israel was redeemed from their danger, they are not permitted to establish Hallel with brachot, but it is correct to say Hallel without a bracha.” (Yabia Omer Orach Chaim 6:41)

Rav Ovadiah acknowledges the limits of geography in establishing new Hallel. At no point does he specifically discuss what diaspora Jewry should do on Yom Ha’atzmaut, but he uses geographic disparity as a basis for advocating Hallel without a bracha.
On to half-Hallel. The original reason in Masechet Arachin 10a-b for saying half-Hallel on the last six days of Pesach has to do with sacrifices. The accepted myth for half-Hallel is that we can’t say full Hallel because of the midrash in Masechet Megillah 10b about God chastising the angels for celebrating when “the work of my hands” (i.e. the Egyptians) were drowning in the sea. This source, and the myth that associates it with saying half-Hallel on Pesach, offers an opportunity for Israelis who are saying Hallel to express their politics. Lefty Israelis can say half-Hallel without a bracha. Right-leaning Israelis can say full Hallel without a bracha. Americans of all political persuasions should say neither, because the establishment of the state of Israel had nothing to do with their redemption.
The discussion around Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has frequently deteriorated into debates over Zionism and anti-Zionism. While that debate is entirely worthwhile, it is tangential to whether or not American Jews should say Hallel. American Jews should not say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because the establishment of the state of Israel did not redeem us. The United States of America did.

Live in/around Washington DC? Interested in coming to a minyan that won’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut/Nakba? Check it out.

See the response to this post by Raphael Magarik here.

23 thoughts on “Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut: An American Jewish Story?

  1. Hannukah did not involve the redemption of the entire Jewish people – there were significant Jewish populations outside of Israel, probably more than the population in Israel, yet it merits a Hallel. Though I suppose it too was more a matter of narrative.

  2. Isaac,
    Great point. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef addresses Chanukah in his teshuva, and offers three reasons that Chanukah is different from the establishment of the state of Israel.
    1. There was a temple then, there’s no temple now. Rav Ovadiah cites Rabbi Yonah Navon who explains that because the enemies of Israel wanted to destroy the Beit HaMikdash, it was considered the peril of the entire Jewish people, and when [the Maccabees] won, it is was considered the salvation of all of Israel.
    2. Hallel on Chanukah was about sacrifice, and there’s no sacrifice now. Rav Ovadiah also cites Rabbi Natronai Gaon who says that for the original 18 days that Hallel was established (1 day of Pesach+7 days of sukkot+1 day of Shemini Atzeret+8 days of Chanukah+1 day of Shavuot) the congregation and the individual were considered equal to each other. This is because the temple was standing, and Hallel was established for those days because of sacrifice.
    3. Not enough of Israel was involved in 1948. Rav Ovadiah cites the Maharam ben Zerach who says that Hallel is said on Chanukah (and Megillah is read on Purim) because Purim and Chanukah were miraculous either for all of Israel, or for most of Israel.
    Rav Ovadiah concludes this section by allowing for Hallel without a bracha because the miracle was not for the entirety of the Jewish people. What I take from this is that those Jews (and their descendants) who were part of the miracle (i.e. were in Israel at the time of the establishment, or have made aliyah since) can maybe say Hallel. But no one else can or should.

  3. End of the book of daniel. Happy is the one who waits 1290. From rosh hasahanah 1944 until 5 iyyar 1948 Is exactly 1290 days the time period describing a silent devastation is from shabbat zachor March 8 1941 until erev rosh hashanah 1944
    the book of daniel states that 5 iyyar. 1948 is a happy day

    1. Not even close. The time from Rosh Hashanah 1944 to 5 Iyar 1948 was 1334 days (though it was indeed 1290 days from Shabbat Zachor 1941 to Rosh Hashanah 1944).

  4. @Eliana: My guess is that for the same reason you would not suggest Zionist American Jews recite Hallel (with or w/o a blessing) they ought not add ראשית סמיכת גאולתנו
    in the Birkat HaMazon and they should refrain from reciting the traditional Prayer for the State of Israel as it also speaks of “our redemption”).
    By the way, I say שתהי ראשית סמיכת גאולתנו

  5. @meir eynaim–Neither the harachaman in bentching nor the prayer for the State of Israel have the same Talmudic reference to past redemption and narrative construction that Hallel has (Pesachim 117a).
    I do find it strange that liturgical changes based on Kookian religious Zionism have become the norm for nusach America.
    I’m curious–when you say שתהי ראשית סמיכת גאולתנו, are you anticipating the messiah as your geulah, do you think that a modern state of Israel based on halacha will be your geulah, or do you think that a modern state of Israel that oppresses fewer people will be geulah?

  6. @Elina: you ask “I’m curious–when you say שתהי ראשית סמיכת גאולתנו, are you anticipating the messiah as your geulah, do you think that a modern state of Israel based on halacha will be your geulah, or do you think that a modern state of Israel that oppresses fewer people will be geulah?”
    1. I am not anticipating a messiah. I do hope for a messianic age scenario.
    2. I hope that the modern State of Israel will be the start of our geulah as a people.
    3. It is not an either/or as you more than imply in your question.
    I never suggested in my words anything about a modern state based upon Halacha – which, as long as you ask – I oppose.
    Finally, ” a modern state of Israel that oppresses fewer people” will not be Geula but I hope it may hasten it.

  7. The harachaman for the state of Israel is rarely said by Israelis (unless they are card-carrying members of the liberal movements).

  8. @Amit: Not sure that is exactly so. I do not know all that much about Reform liturgy – but the versions of Birkat HaMazon I have seen are all shortened and lack the list of HaRachamans.
    It is generally included in Masorti liturgy.
    But it also appears in the Kiddush for Yom HaAtzmaut in the Machzor produced by the Chief Rabbinate as well as verses they suggest before Alienu on Erev Yom HaAtzmaut. (To be fair, I doubt that today’s Chief Rabbis would agree).
    In addition it was/is recited by many on Kibbutz HaDati.
    So, it may depend on just how one defines “card carrying liberal.”

    1. meir eynaim writes:
      @Amit: Not sure that is exactly so. I do not know all that much about Reform liturgy – but the versions of Birkat HaMazon I have seen are all shortened and lack the list of HaRachamans.
      HaAvodah Shebalev (the Israeli Reform movement’s siddur) contains the full birkat hamazon with the list of harachamans, and does in fact include ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו.

  9. @BZ – out of 2634 total days, he’s off by 54… off by 2.05% is “not even close”? (Can’t 1290 be read as “at least 1290”? I have no strong opinion on this matter but it does seem kinda cool.)
    @Eliana – Will take a look at Yabia Omer, but for now, here’s my question about R’ Ovadia’s perspective on Hallel: on diaspora Simhat Torah, eg, not all Jews say Hallel, yet it is not shortened nor is the blessing omitted…
    Finally, @Eliana, according to your expressed history/theology, shouldn’t American Jews say Hallel (at least sans blessing) on 4 July (or some other day appropriately representative of the redemptive quality of USA?) I think HaGrash Lieberman paskened that Tahanun not be said on Thanksgiving but that is for very different reasons.

    1. Matt Carl writes:
      Finally, @Eliana, according to your expressed history/theology, shouldn’t American Jews say Hallel (at least sans blessing) on 4 July (or some other day appropriately representative of the redemptive quality of USA?)
      And if so, should it be said on the Hebrew anniversary of July 4, 1776 (17 Tammuz)?

  10. Oh, and @Eliana, does R’ Ovadia Yosef make note of the fact that on no day, ever, does the _entire_ Jewish people say Hallel? Even if we were to say Hallel on RH & YK, still not all Jews would say it, all the more so those “unobserved” holidays where we actually say it… with a Brakha!

  11. I find the question of “Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel? Were American Jews redeemed on May 14, 1948?” severely lacking. Were exiled Jews redeemed in the times of Chanukah? Most Jews of that time lived outside the land of Israel you know, yet it’s salvation that is considered to have happened to all of klal yisrael. I see the State of Israel as having at the very least an equal affect. Regardless, while I disagree with much of what you have to say, I respect point of view and hope we will soon all be celebrating a State of Israel and a peaceful Messianic world in Eretz Yisrael very soon!!!

  12. 1) R. Ovadia’s rationale for not reciting a bracha is based on the standard Sephardic approach to brachot over optional observances. For example, Sephardim do not recite a bracha over the recitation of Hallel when it is merely customary, such as on Rosh Chodesh and the last 6 days of Pesach. Additionally, according to this approach, women who sit in a sukkah, don a tallit, or shake a lulav do so without a bracha. This divergence between Ashkenazic and Sephardic practice is rooted in a dispute between Rambam and Rabbenu Tam. While I certainly would not criticize anyone who adopts the Sephardic position, and generally think that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I think that in this case it is worth pointing out that ROY’s responsum really only covers one side of that dispute. I would imagine that most readers of this article fall on the Rabbenu Tam side of the dispute.
    2) Rambam as the beginning of the laws of Chanukah implies that one reason for the establishment of that holiday and its recitation of Hallel is the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. One can argue that this is not an independently sufficient reason to establish Hallel, but one would need to make the argument.
    3) I will end with a line from a non-Jew and non-rabbi who manages to succinctly sum up why I feel the establishment of the State of Israel is Hallel-worthy: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you.”
    The security of having a home does not depend in the slightest on statistics and the possibility of things turning south in the US.

  13. This post saddens me.
    It saddens me because clearly Eliana feels so little emotive connection with the centre of the Jewish world, the centre today, and the centre of the Jewish world of our forebears.
    Eliana may say that she is simply making a halakhic point, but the deeper point is to say that Israel is peripheral to the American Jew.
    well, I am sorry. I think you are mistaken.
    If one imagines that Judaism , even in the US, would have rehabilitated itself so powerfully after the Holocaust without Israel, I think one is lacking perspective.
    If one understands the honor and respect bestowed by Barack Obama to small country of 8 million people, just a month ago, that is Israel.
    The centre of Jewish creativity, and of every denomination, from ultra orthodox, to Reform and secular — the life-source is Israel.
    If you don’t feel it and perceive the centrality that is Israel, I probably cannot persuade you.
    I sense that something deep is eating you that you wrote such a learned and lengthy post just to justify not saying Hallel. Most people would just not say it out of laziness, but you seek to actively disconnect from Israel.
    Here is a short 10 minute lecture from a famous US Rabbi who has a greater historical perspective, who disagrees with you.

    1. Alex writes:
      well, I am sorry. I think you are mistaken.
      If one imagines that Judaism , even in the US, would have rehabilitated itself so powerfully after the Holocaust without Israel, I think one is lacking perspective.
      If you don’t feel it and perceive the centrality that is Israel, I probably cannot persuade you.

      Alex, is your real name Bob Sheffer?

  14. @Matt Carl—Masechet Arachin 10a-b specifies 21 days that chu”l Jews should say full Hallel with a bracha. That includes Simchat Torah. I don’t think that Rav Ovadya Yosef has a problem being normative and saying that everyone should say Hallel on Yom Tov and Chanukah. He’s not about to account for non-regular daveners in his psak.
    Re: Fourth of July—I actually think that Thanksgiving would be the more appropriate day, because ultimately my ancestors were redeemed because of the immigration story, and not because of American nationalism. Conveniently, Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate the American immigration story. Hallel on Thanksgiving may still be problematic, for reasons that I address briefly in my second post.
    @Elli—Rav Ovadya doesn’t cite “standard Sephardic practice” as one of the reasons for not saying a bracha, though of course it influences him.
    I haven’t seen that Rambam—please send a citation!
    Your definition of home explains why I define America as my home. Also, your definition may create a problem for the American Jewish community, if we have to check who the rabbanut defines as a Jew before davening on Yom Ha’Atzmaut morning.

  15. Should African-American Jews whose ancestors were freed during the Civil War say Hallel on Juneteenth? (Beli berakha, bevadai.)
    For the Rambam reference, Check Sefer Zemanim Hilkhot Megilla veHanukka Ch. 3.

  16. With or without a bracha, there are reasons to acknowledge escape of most or many or some of us from life-threatening disasters. Is there a duty to recite Hallel on certain occasions? Or merely no prohibition? If an Americsn minyan shared Eliana’s understanding of Halacha but recited Hallel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, of what would we be guilty?
    Help me understsnd appropriate responses by Jews to some life-saving occasions in the 1940s.
    After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, he exterminated many of us, but millions of others were saved because the Soviet Government moved Jews among others eastward. Do survivors and their descendants, have a day to recite Hallel wherever they now live?
    As Hitler’s armies moved across North Africa into Egypt, and the British Empire prepared contingency plans to abandon Egypt, the Near East, and perhaps more, many of us, including the Yishuv in Palestine, faced life threatening disaster. May Jews who lived in Egypt, Palestine, and possibly beyond and their descendants wherever they now live recite Hallel on the anniversary of General Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein?
    Or is Yom Ha-Atzmaut a collector or surrogate, recognizing multiple events during a few decades which profoundly affected our people? If we don’t sing thankful praises to the QBH — little as we understsnd — on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, when do we recite Hallel in gratitude for survival of our Jewish people in the face of this most recent attempt to exterminate us?

  17. David,
    For some reason I only saw your response today–sorry for the delay!
    When American minyanim say Hallel with a bracha on Yom Ha’atzmaut, I think they have made a bracha levatala. I also think that American Jews saying any form of Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut are acting as a kefuyei tovah (ingrates), and are voluntarily ignoring their place in Jewish history.
    If individual communities want to say Hallel after surviving an anti-semitic event, they should do that! But picking one day for the entire Jewish community to do that universalizes that anti-semitic event to all Jews. Allowing the Israeli rabbinate to do that gives the rabbinate an unbelievable amount of power in creating a Jewish historical narrative. I’m not comfortable giving them that power. I’m also not comfortable telling the Jewish story as a continuous loop of “they tried to kill us, but they failed”. Yes, anti-semitism is part of our history, and should be acknowledged (see the 9 days of Av), and so is redemption (see Passover). Why do we need another day to do commemorate generic anti-semitism and/or redemption?

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