In 1949, a year after the establishment of the state of Israel, the Israeli government declared that the fifth of Iyar should be observed as a national holiday.
In response, the chief rabbis of Israel, R. Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and R. Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, recommended to the Chief Rabbinate Council that the fifth of Iyar be observed as a “day [commemorating] the joy of the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people.”
This establishment of a new “festival” posed a great halachic dilemma. Some suggested that instituting a festive day for the entire Jewish people to celebrate, even those who did not personally experience the miraculous events, constitutes a violation of the biblical injunction of bal tosef, derived from the verse, “You shall not add [to the mitzvot]” (Deut. 4:2).
In the Talmud, we find this prohibition applies to adding parts to already existing mitzvot, such as wearing five tzitzit instead of four, but Ramban implies that this injunction may also include adding a new holiday (see Hilchot Megillah V’Chanukah, 3:1).
Ramban alludes to the conclusion of the Gemara, which describes how the sages found a biblical precedent for the establishment of the reading of the megillah.
Others argued that this view is not cited by other Rishonim. Indeed, we often see that the rabbis instituted mitzvot. Rather, the distinction lies in whether these mitzvot are perceived as biblically obligatory, as Ramban himself mentions.
Furthermore, Ramban may have only questioned the institution of the mitzvah of mikra megillah, and not the establishment of a festive day. Finally, commemorating Yom Ha’Atzmaut was not intended as an addition to the Torah but rather an application of the well-established principles of hakarat hatov and giving hoda’ah to HaKadosh Baruch Hu for saving the Jewish people and giving them a country in Eretz Yisrael.
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In grappling with this issue, numerous poskim looked for prior historical/halachic precedents. Centuries earlier, the Acharonim debated whether a community may establish a personal “Purim,” a day of thanksgiving commemorating a miraculous event that occurred.
R. Moshe Alashkar (1466-1542) rules that a community certainly has this authority to establish a “Purim in order to publicize a miracle that happened on a specific day,” and it is binding upon generations to come.
R. Chezekiah da Silva, in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, the Peri Chadash, confirms that numerous communities have instituted festive days in order to commemorate miraculous events.
He cites R. Alashkar but disagrees. He contends that nowadays we rule that “batla megillat ta’anit” – the days enumerated by the chronicle Megillat Ta’anit, which commemorates joyful events that occurred to the Jewish people during the time of the Second Temple and were celebrated as festive days, are no longer in practice. Therefore, not only are these days not observed but one may no longer institute holidays that commemorate festive events.
R. Moshe Sofer, known as Chatam Sofer, rejects Peri Chadash’s argument. In a responsum written in 1805, he argues that although one may not establish a day that commemorates an event related to the Beit HaMikdash, one may certainly establish days that commemorate other miracles. Furthermore, the Talmud never meant to discourage or prohibit establishing festive days for cities or countries but rather only a festival meant to be observed by the entire Jewish people.
In fact, Chatam Sofer relates that the Sefer Yosef Ometz records a miracle that occurred in Frankfurt am Main on the 20th day of Adar, and they established it as a festive day for generations to come. He relates that his teacher, R. Natan Adler, as well as his community, which was located far away from the city, also observed this festive day.