With the emergence of the State of Israel, four dates have been added to the Jewish calendar. They are: Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day (27 Nisan), Yom HaZikaron-Memorial Day (4 Iyar), Yom Ha'atzmaut-Independence Day (5 Iyar), and Yom Yerushalayim-Jerusalem Day (28 Iyar). All fall in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot ('Pentecost').
Given the depth and breadth of the catastrophe that engulfed (primarily) European Jewry, any day of the year could be chosen to bewail it. But inclusion of memorialization of those much less well known heroes who fought back against the murderous depredations of the Nazis and their non-German collaborators was also believed essential. The most celebrated, but far from only, incident was the Passover Eve Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19, 1943/14 Nisan 5703). Marking that date for grief, on the eve of a joyous holiday, however, would have been problematic and was thus much debated. The date finally chosen, 27 Nisan, falls but a few days after the end of Passover (15-22 Nisan).
Commemoration in Israel commences at sundown at the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial. The national flag is lowered to half-staff, the President and Prime Minister deliver addresses and the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Chief Rabbis offer prayers. The next morning, at 10 A.M., sirens sound for two minutes throughout Israel. The country comes to a complete standstill. Drivers stop and stand by the cars. Throughout the day, places of public entertainment are closed; broadcast material is somber- documentaries, discussions and remembrances.
Throughout the Diaspora, communities hold commemorative programs around this date, often featuring testimonies from survivors. A recent development, an annual international student-led 'March of the Living', culminates in a memorial service on that day at the Auschwitz Death Camp.
Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, by contrast, is devoted totally to memorializing heroic self-sacrifice. The mode of remembrance, though, is quite similar. All entertainment venues and restaurants are shuttered. Radio and TV programming is somber. Twice that day, at its sunset start and prior to public recitation at military cemeteries of special memorial prayers for fallen fighters and security personnel - Yizkor ('May He remember') and El Maleh Rachamim ('God, full of mercy') - there is a two minute siren blast. All activity comes to a halt for its duration.
The Israel Defence Force (IDF) is very much a people's army. It also serves as an important social leveler in an extraordinarily diverse population, drawn from highly disparate cultures of countries from around the world. Men and women are drafted for an initial period of service, with the men remaining in the reserves well into middle age. The fallen in all of Israel's many forced-on-it wars now exceed 23,000. In the 1948-49 War of Independence, alone, 6000 died, fully one percent of the then 600,000 Jewish population. There can hardly be an Israeli family that does not, either directly, or indirectly through acquaintances, painfully feel those grievous losses.
There is however, a measure of consolation in knowing that these soldiers and security personnel died in defense of the State and its people. The date alone of memorialization, coming as it does just before Independence Day, is a stark reminder of just how much is owed them by all.
As Yom HaZikaron ends, Israel's mood almost instantly is transformed from sadness to joy, from memorialization to celebration. Shortly after sundown, at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery, the national flag is raised to full staff. There is a presidential address, followed by a parade and torch lighting. With that, Israelis, very much Americans on the Fourth of July, celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut in a variety of ways - hiking, picnics, free public concerts and the like. The day does have its serious aspects. A concluding event is the award of 'Israel Prizes' to outstanding individuals for their contributions to culture, science, arts and the humanities.
Yom Yerushalayim marks the day, during the June 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem and its eastern environs. How electrifying that day's broadcast announcement: "Ir HaKodesh B'yadenu" (The Holy City is in our hands). After 19 years of division, into West and East, the city once again was united. In gross violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreement, the Jordanian occupiers had hermetically sealed off access to the Old City, with its many religious sites, to Jews and Israeli Christians, and severely restricted access by foreign pilgrims.
Since passage of the U.N. Partition Plan (Nov. 29, 1947), Jerusalem had been bitterly fought over. Israel had barely been able to maintain a narrow corridor to its west. Its most sacred sites, the Temple Mount ('Har HaBayit') and Western ('Wailing') Wall ('Kotel'), remained out of sight but never out of mind. Now, these would be accessible. Just before Shavuot that year, once the Old City was declared safe to enter, some 100,000 Jews streamed to the Kotel. On Yom Yerushalayim, today, thousands march around the Old City's surrounding wall, ending at the Kotel in a scene of great celebration.
The depth of Jewish attachment to Jerusalem cannot be overstated. "If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning", let my tongue cling to my palate, if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy (Psalm 137)". Such sentiments only intensified with post-Biblical dispersion. Jews face Jerusalem in prayer; 'Jerusalem' is ever on the lips of worshippers. The well-known breaking of a glass at a Jewish wedding, a time of "foremost joy", is meant to mourn the city's loss.
While these four days are all of secular origin, they have taken on, to a greater or lesser extent, a degree of religious significance, none more so in Israel than Yom Yerushalayim. Jerusalem's return has been seen as even more miraculous than the re-emergence, after nearly 2000 years, of a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel. How to develop appropriate liturgical expression, though, remains in a state of flux.
Ultra-Orthodox 'Charedi' Jews generally object to any additions to long-standing religious practice and thus do not religiously celebrate any of these days. Modern Orthodox religious Zionists generally follow the lead of the Chief Rabbis, who encourage such commemoration. The smaller Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) movements in Israel have adopted a variety of approaches towards these days' religious observance. Outside Israel, observances vary widely, though tending more to the just celebratory.
The quintessential Jewish expression of Thanksgiving is Hallel (Psalms 113-118). While also recited at times of deliverance from great peril, regular recital traditionally has been restricted to the three pilgrimage festivals - Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot - as well as Chanukah and New Moon. It is recited at night, though in divided form, only at the Passover Seder. On those occasions, it is proceeded with a blessing: "Blessed art Thou, God, our God and King of the Universe, Who has commanded us to recite Hallel". Actually, such recital is rabbinic, based on Torah authorization (Deut. 17:11). In view of the Third Commandment against "taking the name of God in vain", the saying of blessings is not undertaken lightly. While Hallel is widely recited on both Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, both at night and day, whether or not to do so with a blessing remains a matter of dispute.
Yom HaZikaron, as noted above, is infused with traditional religious expressions of remembrance, but little else. Some religious Zionist congregations do add special prayers at the evening ('Maariv') service. As would be expected, the import of the day is most deeply felt within Israel itself.
From a religious perspective, Yom HaShoa is the most controversial of all. Not that sadness at what is being mourned is not universally felt. Rather, there were already existing dates on the Jewish calendar for mourning national calamities: the Tenth of Tevet (marking the start of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem) and Tisha B'Av (date of destruction of both Temples). Many felt, and still feel, that those remain more appropriate days for such grief.
For a people with some 3500 years of history, now more religiously diverse than ever, modes of spiritual infusion into these four dates likely will take some time to fully develop and are almost certain to vary considerably. But what cannot no longer be much in doubt is that such search for spiritual meaning in them will continue assiduously to be pursued.