Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzma’ut
By Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
In Israel, Yom ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day), a day of mourning, and Yom ha-Atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day), a day of celebration, are held back-to-back—and very purposefully so: it is a reminder of the heavy price paid for Israel’s precious independence.
Yom ha-Zikaron honors the memories of all those who died in active military duty defending the State of Israel and those who were victims of terrorism. In a country where all but the ultra-Orthodox serve a term in the military, and every family has a close connection to someone who died in one of Israel’s many wars, Yom ha-Zikaron is a day of somber reflection and mourning for the entire nation. It begins the preceding evening with a siren broadcast throughout the country at 8:00 pm and lasting one minute. A second siren sounds at 11:00 am. Everyone and everything comes to a standstill for two minutes; traffic on the roads and highways stops and people get out of their cars to stand in respectful silence. This marks the beginning of official and private memorial services at Israel’s military cemeteries. The primary ceremony takes place at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. Throughout Yom ha-Zikaron, theaters, cinemas, and nightclubs are closed.
As the day draws to a close, a few minutes after sundown, the Israel national flag on Mount Herzl is raised (from half-staff for Yom ha-Zikaron) to the top of the pole, and the mood throughout the country changes dramatically from grief to joy. The streets of major cities are flooded with people, singing, dancing, and waving Israeli flags in joyous celebration of Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. The following day, many Israelis spend the day hiking and picnicking, and army camps are open to visitors. There are official celebrations, as well, including the awarding of the Israel Prize, which recognizes individuals for their unique contributions to the country’s culture, science, art, and the humanities.
The Progressive (Reform), Masorti (Conservative), and Modern Orthodox movements add various prayers in commemoration of Yom ha-Atzma’ut, lending the day religious character and meaning.
Originally, Israel Independence Day included memorials for fallen soldiers, but the decision was made in 1951 to hold a separate memorial day on the day before Independence Day so the two could be fully and separately observed. If either falls on shabbat, Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzma’ut are observed either before or after Shabbat.
Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzma’ut are a time for Jews living outside the State of Israel to express their solidarity with Israel.
Rabbi Scheinerman is the Jewish hospice rabbi in Howard County. She also teaches locally and around the country, and writes extensively.