B’Yamim Hahem B’Zman HaZeh: Yom Ha’atzmaut & Coronavirus

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“The Narrow Halakhic Bridge” by Rav Ronen Neuwirth
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Yom Ha’atzmaut during Corona times will look very different to anything we have ever experienced. In Israel, total lockdown will replace the endless holiday traffic jams, and a modest home-grill will for many take the place of the traditional ‘Al HaEsh’ barbecue. This year, more than ever, it is imperative to thank Hashem for the great miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel.

By: Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth

Maran HaRav Ovadia Yosef’s approach to Yom Ha’atzmaut was always ambivalent, since Israel is a secular state, and because there is still an existential threat for which many soldiers are still tragically sacrificing their lives. Furthermore, he claimed that since there wasn’t any supernatural miracle like Chanukah or Purim, although one can recite Hallel, it is not permissible to do so with a Bracha.

I wish to consider the approach of one of the other great Sephardic poskim of the 20th century, Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv after HaRav Ovadia. In my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge”, I discuss some of his innovative ideas at length.

One of the other great Sephardic poskim of the 20th century, Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv after HaRav Ovadia. Photo Credit: YouTube

72 years ago, we were a collection of survivors fleeing from the ashes of Auschwitz and from Arab lands, having survived two thousand years of exile, persecution, massacres, and assimilation. Today, Israel is one of the top seven countries leading the fight against the Coronavirus. We are the “start-up nation”–an empire of science and technology that has one of the world’s strongest militaries. While the world’s leading countries are absorbing tens of thousands of casualties from the Corona pandemic, Israel remains one of the safest places on earth, serving as a model for many powerful countries. This year on Yom Ha’atzmaut, more than ever, it is imperative to thank Hashem for the great miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel.

In 1969, after the liberation of Jerusalem and the miraculous victory in the Six-Day War, Rabbi Chaim David Halevi published a book entitled “Dat u’Medina” in which he discussed at length the spiritual, historical and halakhic aspects of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. He said that there is an obligation to recite Hallel with Bracha, and he also suggested reciting the Bracha of “She’Asa Nissim le’Avotenu” on Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, just as we do on Chanukah and Purim.

The major source for his halakhic ruling is the following Sheilta of Rav Achai Gaon: “And the House of Israel must thank and praise the Lord when a miracle is happening to them, as it says: “Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol Him, all you peoples, for great is His steadfast love toward us.’ This is what it means: All nations have to praise the Lord for all that He has done for them, and all the more so, that we, who have seen the grace of G-d shown to us. And so, on a day on which there has been a miracle for Israel such as Chanukah and Purim, we must recite the blessing “She’Asa Nissim le’Avotenu”, as we do during Chanukah on the candles and during Purim on the Megillah.”

Rabbi Chaim David Halevi claims that the magnitude of the miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel ranks no less than the Chanukah and Purim miracles. Hence, we should equate the halakhot of Yom Ha’atzmaut with Chanukah and Purim: “A great miracle was performed for Israel in 1948, when our enemies were trying to destroy us, and in 1967, when all the surrounding countries attempted to annihilate us. Furthermore, another great miracle was done, since until 1948 we were subjected to the nations and finally, we gained our independence, and in 1967 we were able to liberate the occupied areas of Eretz Israel, specifically Jerusalem and the holy place of the Mikdash.”

Rabbi Halevi further claims that a miracle which has long-term implications and ramifications on the lives of the nation is on the scale of Chanukah and Purim, and that was the intention of the Sheiltot: “It all depends on the essence of the miracle. A great miracle whose absence would endanger the whole nation and cause its destruction, like the Purim miracle, or cause the destruction of the Temple like the Chanukah miracle, is designated as a thanksgiving day for the generations, as all generations will benefit from it and feel the miracle, since the entire state of the nation would have been completely different and much worse had it not happened.”

Rav Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana, is author of “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, to be published in May by Urim Publications.

Rabbi Halevi relates to the arguments of Rav Ovadia and says that when the miracle of Chanukah took place and the festival was established, it was just the beginning of the revolt and they still had many wars and battles ahead of them. Our situation, especially after the Six-Day War, is far better than theirs. Moreover, he claims that if we wish to have an impact on Israeli society and bring all Jews closer to Torah, we ought to reinforce the religious and halakhic identity of Yom Ha’atzmaut. Otherwise we are only affirming their claim that the establishment of the State of Israel is a secular event.

Finally, Rabbi Chaim David Halevi quotes a Midrash which criticizes Moshe and the People of Israel for not properly praising G-d: “It is a disgrace for Moshe and the six hundred thousand adult men of the children of Israel that they did not say: “Blessed” until Yitro came and said: ‘Blessed be the Lord.’” (Sanhedrin 94a). Rabbi Halevi strongly suggests that the inability to recognize the greatness of a miracle that has been done for our nation, and that an unwillingness to thank Hashem for his boundless grace with a full heart, is nothing but a disgrace.

When the State of Israel was founded, its population numbered slightly more than six hundred thousand people, a number equal to the census of the people in the Exodus, and a number that, according to our Sages, is the minimum for the establishment of a nation in the State of Israel: “Ulla said, ‘We have a tradition that there is no congregation in Babylonia. The Rabbis taught, ‘A congregation is no fewer than six hundred thousand people.’” (Berakhot 58a) The Gemara presents two conditions to define the Jewish people, a location, and a quantity. The only place that we can live as a nation is in the Land of Israel, and the minimum number to be considered a ‘nation’ is six hundred thousand.

Seventy two years ago, we saw the re-establishment of the State of Israel. Six hundred thousand Jews became partners in the realization of the visions of the prophets. The number of Jews living in Israel today is over 6.7 million, which means that more than six million have been added to the Israeli population since the establishment of the State. Moreover, for the first time since the destruction of the First Temple, Israel is home to the largest population of Jews in the world. According to leading demographers, within a few years the majority of the world’s Jews will reside in Israel, a fact that has profound halakhic implications.

I believe that there is no doubt today that, 50 years after Rabbi Chaim David Halevi published his psak about Yom Ha’atzmaut, we can say without exaggeration that the Jewish people’s successful return to the Land of Israel, is one of the greatest miracles that we have ever experienced. That is why on Yom Ha’atzmaut we must lift our heads, acknowledge the great miracle, and thank Hashem will full intent. As Rabbi Halevi said, there is no more appropriate way to do this than by reciting Hallel with Bracha and saying the Bracha “She’Asa Nissim le’Avotenu B’Yamim Hahem B’Zman HaZeh”.

Chag Sameach and prayers for good health for Israel and the entire world.

Rav Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana, is author of “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, to be published in May by Urim Publications.

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