Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Exuberant May 5, 1948 front page of The New Palestine: “World Salutes Yisrael!”

The unofficial first Independence Day – known as Yom Hamedina (the “Day of the State”) – was held on the 20th of Tammuz (July 27) 1948, only a few months after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, because this was the anniversary of Herzl’s death in 1904.

On March 14, 1949, less than two months before the first anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence, Israel enacted the Independence Day Law (1949), pursuant to which:

Special 22 Tamuz (July 4) 1904 edition of Die Welt announcing Herzl’s death.
Was Israel’s first “Yom Ha’Atzmaut” held on the date of his 44th yahrzeit?

If the fifth day of Iyar falls on the Sabbath, Independence Day will be celebrated on the third day of Iyar of that year. If the fifth of Iyar falls on a Friday, Independence Day will be celebrated on the fourth day of Iyar of that year. If the fifth of Iyar falls on a Monday, Independence Day will be celebrated on the sixth day of Iyar of that year.


The law also granted broad authority to the prime minister to “determine the symbols of Independence Day” and “to instruct regarding the waving of flags and celebrations.”

Friday was an obvious problem for Orthodox Jews, who would be engaged with Erev Shabbat preparations and could not participate meaningfully in what was designed to be a broad national celebration encompassing every segment of Israeli society, but Israel’s Knesset exhibited unusual sensitivity to the needs of the observant community by also prohibiting the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day on Monday, lest Jews violate Shabbat by preparing for a Monday celebration. Interestingly, a proposed Knesset bill in 2012 proposed to simplify the structure of the celebration so that Yom Ha’Atzmaut would always fall on a Thursday, but the proposal failed because many legislators and citizens were unhappy about a summary dismissal of the significance of the fifth of Iyar, the date on which Israel had declared independence in 1948.

Exhibited here is a great rarity, the proclamation issued by the Israeli government only a short time before Yom Ha’Atzmaut 1949, regarding the formal establishment of Israel’s Independence Day as a national holiday:

Proclamation by the Israeli Government formally establishing Yom Ha’Atzmaut.


Today, a year has passed since foreigners were removed from our land and the hopes of generations for the renewal of Medinat Yisrael in our homeland have arisen. A year ago, Israel declared the independence of its state and the period of our subjugation ended.

This year has been a bloody year and the sacrifice of seven precious ones, a year of the heroism of the people, thirsting for life and freedom, that is surging toward the decisive struggle for its redemption. This year was one of miraculous victories that the burden of a regime of life befitting a nation that have changed world history. This year all the invaders were wiped out before us. This year, there arose and was strengthened the Israeli Defense Forces. This year, the legislature [Knesset] was elected and the national government was chosen. This year, Israel was recognized by the nations of the world. This year, the period of gathering all the disbursed Jews of the world to the free homeland.

The Knesset of the State has decided to designate this day, the anniversary of our new revival, a holiday.

Today, feelings of pride and appreciation should arise in Israel, the memory of its sons and daughters, the heroes of the nation, who lost their lives in the combat campaigns and in the sweetness of their young lives, the holy and the brave, bequeathed the nation its freedom. Israel should consecrate their memories with holiness and be blessed in the radiance of their courage, and the mourning of the bereaved will be faithfully consoled in that they merited to see that their sacrifice has been gratefully accepted and that the aspiration of their lives and deaths be elevated forever in their hearts. Today, Israel should be elevated on the miracle of the acts of heroism by the Israel Defense Forces, confident in the peace and independence of the newly-arisen state.

Today, Israel should raise its true blessings to the hundreds of thousands of its sons, who have flocked to it this year for all the lands of their dispersion and are still suffering the pangs of their absorption into the Homeland. The nation will unite in all its strata and elevations to promote its brother-olim, and will impose upon itself the burden of a regime of life befitting a nation that gathers its exiles within its midst with blessing.

And Diaspora Jews, with their hearts in Zion and freedom, should be informed today that the fruits of their efforts have developed fully. The exiles of Israel will emerge into acts of construction, living, and rising because [paraphrasing the beautiful verses of Jeremiah 31:15-16], there is a reward for their toil, and the children shall return to their own border.

Today, rest from work in the field, the workshop, the factories, trade houses, and offices. Today is a holiday for Israel. The nation will congregate in their families and communities, in joy and celebration, for commemoration and thanksgiving, for unity and transcendence.

Because on this day Israel will celebrate the holiday of its new independence.



On the evening before the first official celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, Prime Minister Ben Gurion delivered a special speech, which was published on the day of Yom Ha’Atzmaut throughout Israel, and he also hosted officials from abroad at a special Independence Day reception held at his office at IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv. Years before the official commemoration of Yom Hashoah V’Hagevurah – the practice of marking Israel’s Memorial Day on the day before Independence Day, which did not begin until 1951 when the traditional Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony on Mt. Herzl also began – many of the events included memorial prayers for fallen soldiers.

No one was prepared for exactly how to celebrate Israel’s first official Independence Day in 1949, when the fifth of Iyar fell on May 5. Some precedent existed based upon the joyous celebrations after the United Nations Partition Plan was passed on November 29, 1947, when there was folk dancing in the streets with waving the flag of the new Jewish State. Plans were made for broad celebrations across all of Israel, including flag waving; concerts by municipal orchestras; light displays; and marches, torchlight parades, rallies and light displays.

Celebratory prayers of thanks were held on the eve of the festival throughout the country, synagogues were bursting at their seams with thousands of people, and a special ceremony was held in Jerusalem jointly organized by the Military Rabbinate, the religious services branch, and the Ministry of Religion. The evening prayer service in Jerusalem began with the opening of the Ark by Rishon L’Tzion Rav Uziel, who wore a golden badge of honor from his inauguration as Sephardic chief rabbi and, after a festive evening prayer service, Rav Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the IDF, read a parchment scroll inscribed with a special prayer compiled in honor of the first Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Chief Rabbi Herzog was not present because he was appearing as the main speaker at the mass gathering held in honor of Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Madison Square Garden in New York, where his soaring oratory inspired 200,000 attendees at the event.

Much as a large IDF parade had been held in honor of Yom Hamedina the previous year, two ambitious IDF day parades were planned for the 1949 celebration, one in Jerusalem, which proceeded smoothly and exactly as planned, and the other in Tel Aviv, which proved to be a monumental and humiliating debacle, as described below. The prominence of the role of the IDF in the celebratory ceremonies, however, reflected a pervasive ethos, as the “people’s army” model became an essential element in defining the Israeli identity.

 In Jerusalem, a special procession of soldiers and rabbanim, with Rav Uziel afforded a position of honor, marched forward led by two Torah scrolls, a giant seal of the State of Israel, a royal flag decorated with the names of all the kings of Judah, the national flag, and the flags of the twelve tribes of Israel. Masses of reveling Jews accompanied the procession with song and dance through the streets of the capital, arriving at the Yeshurun Synagogue, where thousands gathered for the thanksgiving prayers.

The Tel-Aviv fiasco might best be described by the Hebrew headline in Maariv the next day that characterized it as “The Parade That Didn’t March.” The parade commenced without incident, as IDF representatives marched down the city’s streets, followed by the navy, the medical corps, and veterans of the pre-state Haganah. Jewish and Druze soldiers proudly marched together, military jeeps and artillery guns were cheered by onlookers, and a few old and worn planes from Israel’s tiny Air Force flew overhead.

Reports cited crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, an almost unbelievable turnout in a country with a population of about 600,000 people, but the authorities were simply unprepared for such a throng. The dangerous situation was exacerbated by the fact that the access roads were not blocked off until shortly before the event. As such, at 4:00 p.m., with the anticipated highlight of the Tel Aviv spectacle – the marching band – scheduled to arrive at the stage erected on Dizengoff Street to salute Israel’s leadership, word began to spread through the crowd that the parade had been canceled, causing much disappointment and consternation.

As it turned out, the route to the main stage on Dizengoff was blocked by mass overcrowding at the corner of Allenby and Ben-Yehuda and the joyful crowds that came to watch the parade had spilled over onto the streets, to the point that all paths by the marchers were blocked and all efforts by the overwhelmed police to clear the way failed. This left the organizers with no choice but to cancel the parade before people got hurt, thus avoiding what would surely have been a tragedy even greater than the heartbreaking events in Meron on Lag B’Omer on April 30, 2021, when 45 Jews were trampled to death, including many children, making this the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history.

A senior IDF officer at the scene was quoted as sardonically observing that “the IDF managed to conquer everything except the streets of Tel Aviv,” and the next day Israeli papers were reporting that a commission of inquiry would be convened to investigate the entire debacle. Following the humiliation surrounding the Tel Aviv parade on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Tel Aviv authorities decided to hold another “State Day” celebration on Tammuz 20 (July 17, 1949), the anniversary of Herzl’s death, featuring a second, albeit a much smaller, parade that would ostensibly compensate for the previously unfinished march.

When the government initially proposed an “Independence Day Law” for debate by the Knesset, the MKs were almost unanimous in their desire for the day to be of traditional Jewish significance like other Jewish festivals, but they passed the question back to the executive branch with a recommendation that the question be discussed with the “Honorable Chief Rabbis.” On April 4, 1949, the government publicized a program for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, which made no mention of the synagogue or any customs regarding a festive meal and, the following day, Prime Minister Ben- Gurion issued special instructions regarding public transport, post office opening hours, restaurants, and places of entertainment, which failed to contribute in any way to the festive atmosphere of the day and was conspicuously devoid of any religious content or thanks to G-d for the miracle and gift of Israel.

One of the most audacious and important acts by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel’s early years was its decision to institute Yom Ha’Atzmaut as a day of religious significance, praise, and thanksgiving to G-d as an obligation for all generations. When this important decision was made in Nissan 1949, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi was Rav Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, and the Rishon L’Tzion was Rav Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel, who worked together with great mutual admiration and respect.

With less than a month to go before the first Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and for the first time since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the two chief rabbis had the responsibility to make crucial decisions with respect to the religious character of the Jewish state. Among the difficult, but intriguing, halachic questions they faced were:

  • Whether the Chief Rabbinate is authorized to establish Yom HaMedina (it had not yet been named “Yom Ha’Atzmaut”) as a festival for future generations (and, if so, may they obligate Diasporan Jews as well);
  • Whether there is any religious significance to a one-time historical event, such as the establishment of a Jewish state, even if it is not run under Torah law and its government is not observant;
  • Which passages, if any, should be added to prayer services on Yom HaMedina and, in particular, whether it is appropriate to recite Hallel – and, if so, with a blessing;
  • Whether new prayers may be composed in honor of Yom HaMedina to best express its character; and
  • Whether Yom HaMedina overrules the recital of Tachanun in the daily prayer service and the mourning customs during the period of the Counting of the Omer.

On April 8, 1949, the chief rabbis sent a joint letter to the greater extended Rabbinate regarding the spiritual character of Yom Ha’Atzmaut and its associated prayer services:

The fundamental turning point in G-d’s compassion on us, the declaration of our independence in the Land, which saved us and redeemed our souls, obligates us to uphold and keep this day of the fifth of Iyar, the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, for all generations, as a day of joy of the beginning of the redemption for all of Israel, and to exempt the day of this great miracle from all customs of mourning of the Omer period, and to add thanksgiving prayers and sermons about this great event during the time of the Mincĥa prayer in synagogues.

In this correspondence, R. Herzog and R. Uziel manifested their belief that the rebirth of Israel is “the beginning of the redemption,” a view that was not shared by the entire Rabbinical Council, but most of the rabbanim, led by the chief rabbis, voted in favor. They fixed Israel Independence Day for all generations and for all of Israel, even for those in the Diaspora, and the obligations of the day and its celebrations were to apply independent of the degree of religious observance by the government and its officers. Wanting to promote the unique festive spirit of the day, they cancelled Tachanun and the mourning customs of the Omer (a decision that remains deeply controversial to this day); determined that, during Mincha before the Ashrei prayer, the Ark is to be open while the prayer leader recites a prayer for the fallen soldiers of the IDF; and Hallel is to be recited, without a blessing, after the repetition of the silent Amidah (it was most unusual to designate Mincha for the recitation of Hallel). They further determined that charity should be given as on Purim and that families should celebrate with a festival seudat mitzvah, accompanied by zemirot, other sacred poems, and especially Psalms of Thanksgiving 30, 144, 146, 149, and 150.

On April 11, 1949 – and without waiting for any official decision by the Knesset – a brief note was published in the name of the Chief Rabbinate that:

“State Day” [Yom HaMedina] the fifth of Iyar, which falls during the Omer period, during which certain customs of mourning are observed, will have the same status as Lag BaOmer [which is a day of respite from the Omer mourning period] and according to the decision of the Chief Rabbinate, all celebrations, weddings, haircuts, etc., are permitted.

Although this announcement was met with broad approval amongst the Rabbinate, this audacious and comprehensive decision infuriated the charedi community and, after making inquiries with the Chief Rabbinate of Tel Aviv, including Rav Herzog himself, the Agudat Yisrael announced that the subject was still under debate and that the published information was inaccurate. The Agudah also demanded that all rabbinic authorities, in both Israel and the Diaspora, agree before a final decision could be made and disseminated, but this demand was not met, partly because time was of the essence with Independence Day just around the corner and because, as the charedim knew very well, unanimity on these contentious issues was an impossibility.

Rabbis Herzog and Uziel determined that, as the highest halachic authority in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate had the ultimate authority to decide these questions by itself. The extended Chief Rabbinate Council did not convene for an emergency meeting until April 18, 1949, which constituted a departure from the usual protocol not to hold meetings during Chol Hamoed Pesach, when they provided new religious guidance, including a decision to punt on the question of whether the mourning customs of the Omer would be canceled (noting that the Rabbinate will take up this question when the Old City of Jerusalem would once again be under Israeli rule). As to the festive character of the day and its prayers of thanksgiving, they decided that Tacĥanun would not be recited; that Hallel would be recited during the Shacharit service without a blessing; that a memorial service would be held for those killed during the War of Independence; and the Tefilla L’Shalom Medinah (Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel) would be said. Moreover, a meal of festivity and song should be held and gifts given to the poor.

When these decisions were finally published, additional changes had been made. First, the chief rabbis had proposed that Hallel be recited at Mincha because it was not yet known whether Yom Ha’Atzmaut would be declared an official day off from work and they wanted to ensure that as many people as possible to be able to attend the service; once it was declared to be an official day off, they moved the recitation of Hallel to the morning service. Moreover, there was no longer any mention of the Tefilla L’Shalom Medinah; the prayer for the fallen IDF soldiers was moved to the Mincĥa service; and the festive meal of the day was declared to be a seudat mitzva. The Rabbinate also deferred any decision on whether marriage and haircuts could take place that day, again to a time when “the Chief Rabbinate will make considerations when the entire holy city of Jerusalem, old and new as one, will be restored to Israel.”

 On April 30, 1949, Israel’s national papers published “Prayer and Thanksgiving for Independence Day,” a detailed prayer service issued in the name of the Chief Rabbinate, although most the liturgy had been written by rabbis associated with the Religious Zionist Movement. It included familiar passages of prayer from other festivals and a specific reference to Israel as “the beginning of our redemption,” but with no blessings so as to avoid disputes about the use of G-d’s name.

Order of Services held at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv for the First Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

While not widely adopted in the Diaspora, special liturgies of Yom Ha’Atzmaut are generally common in Israel, where government leaders regularly attend the festive prayer services. Exhibited here is the Order of Services for the First Yom Ha’Atzmaut held in the Great Synagogue in Tel-Aviv. [Unfortunately, I can only exhibit the front page because of shaimos.] The evening service begins with Psalms 30, 126, and 122 followed by Maariv; the recitation of Atah Hareta La’Daat, followed by taking out all the Torah scrolls and dancing a single hakafa, following the Simchat Torah form of service; and the singing of Alenu.

The morning service includes the recitation of the full Hallel, without the blessing, and the reading of the haftarah (again, without a blessing) from Isaiah 10:32 to 11:12. The choice of this particular prophetic reading suggests the Rabbinate’s belief that Israel’s independence is in fact a redemption comparable to the Exodus itself, since the same haftarah is read in the Diaspora on the last day of Passover. Next, the last of the Rambam’s 13 essential principles, the belief in the coming of the Messiah, is sung by the entire congregation, followed by the recitation of several additional psalms as a “Prayer of Thanksgiving.” Next is the reading of the Tefilla L’Shalom Medinah, which includes a specific prayer for the welfare of Prime Minister Ben Gurion. The closing prayer of the Yom Kippur service is then recited – i.e., the verse of Shema said one time, Baruch Shem K’vod three times, and Hashem Hu Ha-Elokim seven times; followed by a Tekia Gedola blast on a shofar and the congregational proclamation “Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!” Finally, the service closes with a joyous singing of Hatikvah.

Judeo-Tripolitanian Order of Prayer in the Tripoli Synagogue in Libya for the first Israel Independence Day.

Exhibited here is a printed leaf in Judeo-Tripolitanian with instructions from the Committee of the Hebrew Community, the Rabbinical Court, and the Chief Rabbinate of Tripoli regarding additions to the prayers for the First Israel Independence Day, 5 Iyar 1949. The Grace After Meals should include Psalms 122 and 126 and the Arvit prayer should include Mizmor Simchat B’Omrim Li and Mizmor Beshuv Hashem et Shivat Tzion. In Shacharit, Nishmat Kol Chai should be recited; a prayer for the peace of Israel should be said when the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark; the Torah reading is in Ki Tavo and the haftorah is Kumi Uri from Isaiah; and a sermon is to be delivered after the repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei. At Mincha, the Torah reading shall be read from Parshat Kedoshim and the haftorah is from Zechariah, Ko Amar Hashem Hineni Moshia et Ami.

There were about 20,000 Jews living in Tripoli when Israel was born, but about 14,000 made aliyah or migrated to Italy during the years 1948 – 1952 following several Libyan riots. Judeo-Tripolitanian Arabic, a variety of Arabic spoken by Jews formerly living in Libya, differs from standard Libyan Arabic in that it closely resembles the original dialect of the sedentary population, whereas much of Libya’s population now speaks Bedouin-influenced varieties of Arabic. The vast majority of Libyan Jews have made aliyah – most of the remaining 6,000 Jews left after Libyan rioting during the 1967 Six Day War, and there were only a few dozen Jews living in Tripoli by 1970 – and they now use Hebrew as their primary language.

Finally, many rabbanim, mostly charedim, remain disinclined, if not loathe, to put Yom Ha’Atzmaut in the same category as other rabbinically declared holidays, such as Purim and Chanukah. As such, the battle over whether to recite a blessing for Hallel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut – or even whether to recite Hallel at all – continues to rage on to this day. At the core of the “anti-blessing” camp is a belief that Israel’s rebirth in 1948 after two thousand years of bitter exile is not the ultimate historic redemption for which we have been waiting because the Messiah has not arrived and, as such, making a blessing that includes the statement that we are commanded by G-d to recite it would constitute a bracha l’vatalah (a blessing using G-d’s holy name in vain). With most charedim not observing Yom Ha’Atzmaut at all, and with many who actually mourn the establishment of Israel – and others even going so far as to fast on that day – we will, indeed, need to wait until Messianic times for all of Israel to be united on what should not be a contentious and divisive issue.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].