Yom Ha’atzmaut, ‘She’Hecheyanu’ and the Coronavirus

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 charcoal barbecue. But this year, more than ever, it is imperative to thank Hashem for the great miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel.

72 years ago we were a collection of survivors, dry bones that had survived the Holocaust and the pogroms that preceded it. Today, Israel is one of the top seven countries in 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 absorbing tens of thousands of casualties from the Corona pandemic, Israel remains one of the safest places on earth. Specifically this year on Yom Ha’atzmaut, I believe we should recite the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing – “Who has given us life, sustained us, and helped us to reach this moment.” We ought to thank G-d for this great miracle.

According to the Gemara in Eruvin, the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing is said on every festival that originates from the Torah – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On the rabbinical festivals, Chanukah and Purim, the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing is also said on the special mitzvah related to these days – the lighting of the Menorah or the reading of the Megillah. There is a dispute among the later poskim as to whether we can bless ‘She’Hecheyanu’ on Chanukah and Purim when the commandments of the day cannot be fulfilled. In other words, do rabbinical festivals have the same status as Torah festivals, and should the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing should be recited without the special mitzvah attached to them? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rejected this possibility and concluded: “It is clear to me that we should not recite the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing on the day itself of Chanukah, nor even on the day of Purim [rather on the special mitzvot of these days].” (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim, 5:20).

So, what about Yom Ha’atzmaut? There is a psak of the Chatam Sofer that a community that experienced a salvation miracle could designate a special Yom Tov in memory of the miracle: “This is the custom of some communities and a few great individuals, who establish a holiday for themselves in commemoration of a miracle that was done to them…However, this is valid only to a great miracle of salvation from death to life, as happened in the days of Mordechai and Esther”. (Chatam Sofer Responsa, Orach Chaim 1:191)

Rabbi Meshulam Rata, a Dayan in the Great Rabbinical Court and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council during the days of the establishment of the State of Israel, claimed that the halakhic ruling of the Chatam Sofer is most relevant to Yom Ha’atzmaut:  “There is no doubt that this day (5 Iyar) that was set by the government and the members of the Knesset (who represent the majority of the population) and the majority of the great rabbis to celebrate in all the land as a memorial of the miracle of our salvation and freedom, it is a mitzvah to make it into a day of rejoicing as on a holiday and to say Hallel… And it is obvious that in our case, relating to the entire community of Israel –that this involves a redemption from slavery to freedom, for we were redeemed from subjugation to other nations and became a free people achieving national independence, and also this is a case of redemption from death to life, for we were saved from the hands of our enemies who arose to destroy us – certainly, there is an obligation to set the day as a holiday.” (Kol Mevasar Responsa, 1:21).

Further on, Rabbi Rata discusses the possibility of blessing ‘She’Hecheyanu’ on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Rabbi Rata argues that anyone who feels genuine joy at the rebirth of the State can make the Bracha. He bases his ruling on an earlier ruling by the Bach, Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, that there is no concern of making an unnecessary blessing of ‘She’Hecheyanu’ when a person feels genuine joy in his heart. The conclusion of Rabbi Rata, for those who rejoice about the miracle of independence, that this blessing is mandatory:

“Anyone who wants to bless ‘She’Hecheyanu’ has permission to do so, and there is no concern of a blessing uttered in vain. Furthermore, those who genuinely enjoy and rejoice in the event of the State’s revival … their blessing is not just an option but rather an obligation.” Finally, Rabbi Rata ruled that it is appropriate to attach the blessing of ‘She’Hecheyanu’ to the Hallel, as we have seen in the cases of Purim and Chanukah where the blessing of ‘She’Hecheyanu’ is attached to the special mitzvah of the day.

More than sixty years prior to the establishment of the State, the Sfat Emet, the Gerrer Rebbe, predicted Yom Ha’atzmaut In his commentary, each festival of the Torah gave our nation the power to establish a parallel rabbinical festival: “… by the merit of the Israelites in properly observing their Torah holidays, a significant impression remained in them from each Yom Tov and empowered them to establish their other corresponding festivals. Chanukkah is a reflection of Sukkot, and Purim is a reflection of Shavuot. And regarding Pesach, we hope to establish another corresponding festival as it was said, ‘I will show him wondrous deeds as in the days when You left the land of Egypt.'”(Sefat Emet, Chanukah, 1881). For two thousand years, we waited for the third rabbinical festival to complete the series with the second festival of independence, which derives its power from Pesach, the ancient festival of liberty. The halakhic parallels between Yom Ha’atzmaut and the festivals of Chanukah and Purim is compelling.

Seventy-five years ago, the Holocaust ended when six million Jews were brutally murdered. Three years later, the State of Israel was founded and 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.

More than seventy years ago, we saw the re-establishment of the State of Israel. Six hundred thousand Jews, among them many survivors of the Holocaust, became partners in the realization of the visions of the prophets, establishing a State that against all odds has become a country that leads the world in many spheres.

The number of Jews currently living in Israel 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 some of the leading demographers, within a few years, the majority of the world’s Jews will reside in Israel, a fact that has profound halakhic implications.

There is no doubt that, without exaggeration, we can say today that the Jewish people’s successful return to the Land of Israel, after two thousand years of exile, persecution, massacres, and assimilation, is one of the greatest miracles the Jewish people has ever experienced. That is why on Yom Ha’atzmaut  we must lift our heads, acknowledge the great miracle, and bless the Almighty will full intent: ‘She’Hecheyanu’ – “who has given us life, sustained us, and helped us to reach this moment.”

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren also ruled that one should say the blessing ‘She’Hecheyanu’ on Yom Ha’atzmaut. One year, Rabbi Goren celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut in one of the religious kibbutzim and made the bracha with great enthusiasm.  When people asked him for the reason he recited the blessing, he replied with typical sarcasm:  “Don’t worry, I have a new tie.” Anyone who is still unsure whether the resurrection of the State of Israel is sufficient reason to bless ‘She’Hecheyanu’ is welcome to purchase a new tie!

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

This article will be published in The Jewish Press on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

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