Is “Jerusalem Day” a Religious Festival?



When I refer in this letter to the view of the National Religious communities or the view of the Chareidi communities, I am referring to the view of the majority in each group.

Dear Friends,

After 1948, Jerusalem was divided. Jordan ruled over East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and Israel ruled over West Jerusalem (the New City). During the Six Day War of June, 1967, after Jordanian forces in East Jerusalem had attacked West Jerusalem, Israeli forces took control of East Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was once again united. The Israeli government later established an annual holiday called Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – to commemorate this historic event. The Chief Rabbinate office, an agency which is sponsored and funded by the Israeli government, endorsed this decision, and it views this day as an official religious festival.

The National Religious communities view “Jerusalem Day” as an official religious festival which should be observed by all Jews; however, the Chareidi communities do not view this day as one of our official religious festivals. I have some friends who identify with the view of the National Religious communities, and they have asked me to explain why the Chareidi communities do not recognize the government-established “Jerusalem Day” as an official religious festival for our people. My friends are aware that both Chareidi Jews and National Religious Jews have a great love for Jerusalem and that both groups are also deeply concerned about the current dangers facing Jerusalem. They are therefore asking their question in a respectful manner, in order to understand the other point of view on this issue. And when Jews who disagree with each other attempt to understand each other, we are a step closer to the unity that we need during this dangerous and challenging period. Throughout most of my life, I have tried to help Jews in different communities to better understand each other, and I therefore will attempt to answer their question.
Their question can be made stronger by an awareness of the following historical information: There are Chareidi neighborhoods in Jerusalem that were established before the rise of the secular Zionist movement. In addition, the Chareidi men and women who lived in the Old City of Jerusalem during the last half of the 19th century began to develop the New City of Jerusalem through establishing Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City walls. Given their historic roots in the Old City and their pioneering role in building the New City, they must surely rejoice at the unification of Jerusalem; thus, we need to understand why they do not view the government-established “Jerusalem Day” as an official religious festival of our people.
I will begin my response by addressing another related question: If the Chief Rabbinate office views the government-established “Jerusalem Day” as an official religious festival, then should not their view be accepted by all Torah-observant Jews?   
After World War 1, Great Britain began to rule over the Land of Zion, and the British rulers gave administrative control of the Jewish communities in the Land to the secular-dominated World Zionist Organization. The secular leaders of the W.Z.O. decided to establish a Chief Rabbinate office that would serve the interests of their organization and which would later serve the interests of the state that they hoped to establish. The majority of Chareidim, however, were opposed to the establishment of this Chief Rabbinate office. They felt that a Chief Rabbinate office sponsored and funded by the secular-dominated W.Z.O. would not have true freedom to make Torah-based decisions, especially if those decisions would challenge the policies of the W.Z.O. or the policies of the state that they wished to establish. The Chareidi leaders who opposed the establishment of this Chief Rabbinate office felt that a Chief Rabbinate that is not truly free from government influence cannot properly guide our people
Decades later, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who served as a guide to the American branch of Mizrachi, a National Religious organization, expressed a similar reservation regarding the Chief Rabbinate office of the State of Israel. His view is expressed in the following excerpt from an interview with Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik which was published in the Boston Jewish Advocate on April 2, 1964:
“One of the reasons why I did not accept the post of chief rabbi of Israel – and the offer was made to me several times – was that I was afraid to become an officer of the state. A rabbinate linked up with a state cannot be completely free.” (Cited in, “Community, Covenant and Commitment – Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik”)
In order to better understand the Chareidi view regarding the status of Jerusalem Day, I will begin to discuss a Torah perspective on the establishment of new festivals for our people. There have been many great and redemptive events in Jewish history, including events which were clearly miraculous; however, we do not find that an annual religious festival for all generations was established for all the members of our people, in order to commemorate each of these events. For example, King David conquered Jerusalem, our holiest city; yet, an annual religious festival commemorating this very significant event was not established. We are grateful to Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, for all the great and beneficial events, but we do not necessarily establish new festivals to commemorate these events.
According to our tradition, the Sanhedrin – the Supreme Court of leading Torah sages – has the power to establish new religious festivals for all Jews in each generation, but this power was rarely used. In order to gain a deeper understanding as to why this power was rarely used, I will cite a teaching of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, a leading sage and kabbalist of the 17th century. In the following excerpt from his classical work Derech Hashem (The Way of God), he discusses the deeper significance of the festivals of the Torah, as well as the two festivals, Chanukah and Purim, which were later established by the leading sages of the Supreme Court:
“On each of these special days, something happened whereby at this time a great tikun (rectification) was accomplished and a great Light shone. The Highest Wisdom decreed that on every anniversary of this period, a counterpoint of its original Light should shine forth, and the results of its tikun renewed to those who accept it.”
He adds: “Chanukah and Purim also involve this same concept.” The leading sages of the Sanhedrin realized through their deep understanding of the Higher Wisdom that the above spiritual criteria was fulfilled with regard to Chanukah and Purim.
We no longer have the Sanhedrin, but it will be restored to us in the messianic age of spiritual renewal, when all of our people will return to the Torah and will therefore be willing to be guided by the leading sages of the Sanhedrin. In the meanwhile, without the Sanhedrin and the deep understanding of its leading sages, we do not have the authority to establish new religious festivals for all Jews in each generation.
I have heard Chareidi men and women speak about the miracles that we experienced during the Six Day War, and they also expressed great joy that we were once again able to pray at the Kosel – the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. In fact, the majority of the Jewish men and women who pray daily at the Kosel are Chareidim. There are therefore Chareidi men and women who approach the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem with religious feelings of gratitude, but they do not consider “Jerusalem Day” to be an official religious festival of our people for the reasons mentioned above.
We are the people of the Torah and the Land of Zion is the Land of the Torah.  This awareness should influence the way we discuss and debate current issues. For example, the debate over the status of “Jerusalem Day” should not be based on our own personal emotions, as this debate must be based on the Torah principles that guide our people.
All the members of the Chareidi communities and the National Religious communities may not agree on whether “Jerusalem Day” is an official religious festival, but they share a deep concern for the spiritual and physical security of Jerusalem. Both groups also stress that Jerusalem is a sacred city which to be guided by the ideals of Torah. And both groups welcome the arrival of the Shabbos Queen by chanting the mystical prayer, Lecho Dodi – a poetic prayer which also reminds us of the future redemption and renewal of Jerusalem. Some of the passages in this prayer are addressed to Jerusalem, and the following excerpts, which are based on biblical prophecies, can serve as examples:
“O Sanctuary of the Divine Sovereign, Royal City – Arise and depart from amid the upheaval; too long have you dwelled in the valley of weeping. And He will have compassion upon you!
“Shake off the dust – arise! Clothe yourself with my people – your garments of splendor; through the son of Jesse, the Bethlehemite (the Messiah). Draw near to my soul – redeem it!
“Wake up! Wake up! For your light has come, rise up and shine. Awaken, awaken, utter a song; the glory of Hashem is revealed upon you.
“Feel not ashamed, be not humiliated; why are you downcast? Why are you disconsolate? In you will the afflicted of my people find shelter, as the city is built upon its hilltop.
“May your oppressor be downtrodden, and may those who devoured you be cast far off. Your God will rejoice over you, like a groom’s rejoicing over his bride.”
May we all experience the joy and shalom of the unified Jerusalem.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen



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