Written by: Erin Parfet

Jerusalem Day

Yom Yerushaláyim, or Jerusalem Day, is one of four Israeli national holidays added to the calendar in the 20th century. Jerusalem Day is a jubilant occasion when the Israeli people triumphantly celebrate the reunification of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, with West Jerusalem after Jordanian occupation of the city, which ended with defiant Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967.

This became the first reunification of Jerusalem in 2,000 years. As David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once declared, "The value of Jerusalem cannot be measured, weighed, or put into words. If a land has a soul, Jerusalem is the soul of the Land of Israel."

Jerusalem Day has occurred annually on Iyar 28 since 1968 (though the date was moved a week forward in 1977 to avoid conflicts with Election Day; furthermore, in 1998, the Knesset passed Jerusalem Day Law, which is a resolution passed formally declaring the day a national holiday), and personifies one of the Psalms, "built-up Jerusalem is like a city that was joined together" (Psalm 122:3). In 2014, the Meretz political party attempted to introduce legislation repealing the Jerusalem Day Law, but their proposal was never enacted into law.

Typically, Yom Yerushaláyim is only celebrated in Israel itself and rarely in the Diaspora, albeit lacking the fanfare of Yom Ha’atzmaut. The occasion is revered as a minor religious holiday by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel due to the Jewish people regaining access to the Western Wall.

History

The Jewish people have since the beginning of time regarded Jerusalem as holy, central to their faith, and foundational to key Biblical events including the future arrival of Messiah. King David conquered the city in 1000 BCE, legally purchasing the site of the Temple and establishing Jerusalem as the eternal physical and spiritual capital of Israel. One of the key reasons King David chose Jerusalem was because Jewish oral tradition teaching of Jerusalem’s holiness and significance to God.

Furthermore, in Biblical times, Jerusalem was centrally located geographically. Thus, the city was accessible and ideal for all who sought to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Ezekiel 5:5 reads, “this is what the sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.”

Jerusalem has been conquered twice since then. The resulting destruction of Jerusalem set into motion centuries of mourning for the Jewish people. Despite the destruction and exile, Jerusalem remained the spiritual capital of Israel, even though no special day honored the city until the 20th century.

Under the United Nations partition plan of November 1947, Jerusalem was designated as an "international city" under Resolution 194. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Holy City of Jerusalem was divided. Jordan claimed sovereignty over Eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, the newly formed State of Israel claimed sovereignty over Western Jerusalem.

Besides Jordanian rule over Eastern Jerusalem, the situation became increasingly volatile due to mounting tensions with Arab neighbors over the newly formed Jewish state. Egypt threatened the existence of the new state by sending troops into the Sinai and blocking Israel’s key shipping routes through the Straits of Tiran. As Egypt’s president of the time said, "This is our chance, Arabs, to deal Israel a mortal blow of annihilation." The president of Iraq chimed in, echoing these sentiments: "The existence of Israel is an error that must be rectified," and Syria’s government, not to be left out, commented: "The time has come to begin a battle of annihilation."

Choosing to go on the offensive and preserve their own national interests rather than waiting for their enemies to annihilate them, the Israeli Air Force mounted a surprise breakfast-time offensive against Egyptian airfields, effectively destroying numerous Egyptian aircraft. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, similar military maneuvers were mounted against Jordanian and Syrian airfields, followed by a brief ground skirmish between various Arab neighbors before accepting a ceasefire six days later. The terms of this ceasefire, among other things, granted Israel control of Gaza and Sinai from Egypt, Judea and Samaria in the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Prior to the ceasefire, the Israeli Defense Forces had additionally captured Eastern Jerusalem that had been under Jordanian rule. Eastern Jerusalem therefore was officially returned to Israeli sovereignty, effectively reuniting Jerusalem under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years. This opportunity allowed the Jewish people to regain access to the Western Wall and other holy portions of the city after being barred from accessing the holy sites under Jordanian rule.

The Knesset then passed important laws to help safeguard the future of Jerusalem. These laws would establish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and seat of Israel’s governmental faculties, formally define the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem proper, establish permanent resident status for citizens living in East Jerusalem and limited voting rights (municipal elections, not Knesset elections), preserve certain historical and religious sites as well as freedom of access to those sites for people of all religions, and affirm Israel’s commitment to provide means and oversight for the ongoing development and prosperity of Jerusalem.

Religious Aspects

Many secular Israelis have come to regard the holiday as insignificant. The holiday retains importance in Israel’s Zionist community, however, which still marks the occasion with parades and Hallel prayers in the synagogue services.

The Chief Rabbinate has specified that the Hallels and the Psukei d’Zimra are permissible in Jewish liturgy. Some rabbis are reluctant to include special Jerusalem Day prayers in their liturgies. Meanwhile, other religious leaders embrace the practice of supplemental prayers on Yom Yerushaláyim.

Reform prayerbooks are more open to the Hallel being incorporated into Yom Yerushaláyim services, whereas the Conservative prayerbooks do not include the supplemental prayers for this occasion. In the American Conservative prayer books, Hallel prayers for Yom Yerushaláyim are included for some congregations but not for other congregations. 

Some Orthodox Jews object to the entire holiday being observed whatsoever. This is based on some Orthodox Jews not recognizing the State of Israel, and/or finding the addition of any holidays to the Jewish calendar to be problematic.

Some Zionist halakhists (scholars of Jewish law) believe that the Hallel has a special place on Yom Yerushaláyim due to the significance of the miracle bestowed upon all of Israel, even if they do not say the Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Some of these halakhists believe Yom Yerushaláyim surpasses Yom Ha’atzmaut in significance.

Festivities

A week in advance of the holiday, Israeli schools focus on teaching their pupils the history, geography, and spiritual implications of Jerusalem dating back to ancient times. A parade is held in Jerusalem 1-2 days before Yom Yerushaláyim, bringing together Israeli citizens from the kibbutzim and other rural outposts to honor Jerusalem. The parade is known as "Rural Communities Salute Jerusalem."

The evening before Yom Yerushaláyim, various rabbis and other prominent individuals gather at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem for festivities and thanksgiving.

Yom Yerushaláyim itself is marked by a state ceremony at Ammunition Hill, memorial services for the soldiers who gave their lives for Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, pilgrimages to Israel, concerts, the Dance of Flags, prayer services, and marches around the city culminating at the Western Wall for speeches, concerts, and dancing (significant given the Jewish people were denied access to the Western Wall from 1948 to 1967 despite their statehood). The aforementioned pilgrimages are becoming increasingly common in an effort to show solidarity with Jerusalem, especially when the international community never gave its stamp of approval to the reunification of Israel and thus in many cases does not recognize Jerusalem as the formal capital of Israel.

In 2004, the Israeli government decreed that each subsequent annual Jerusalem Day would include a national memorial ceremony to honor the Ethiopian Jews who lost their lives while trying to reach Mount Herzl.

Among the spiritual, Jerusalem Day is marked by special prayers and gratitude for G-d - praying for the peace of Jerusalem, thanking God for the miracle of reuniting the city despite enemies of superior military strength, and praying with fervor that Jerusalem is never to be divided again.

Thus, between different religious views and the fact that the holiday is still relatively new, there are no formal traditions or commandments associated with Jerusalem Day. Different communities honor the holiday in different ways.

Mixed Emotions

Some Jews, both inside and outside Israel, find Jerusalem Day uncomfortable and choose not to observe the holiday. This is usually due to longstanding lingering political conflicts with the Arabs of Jerusalem, who view the day in a negative light as when Israel seized the West Bank and the Gaza Strip which they view as their land.

Others are concerned about celebrating the day when many in the international community do not recognize Jerusalem as the valid capital of Israel. In 2015, some Arab residents in Jerusalem started a petition to preclude Jerusalem Day parades from marching through their neighborhoods. Israel’s High Court of Justice had to intervene and reject the petition. They were willing to uphold existing civil laws and arrest those Jews who committed violent or racist acts against the Arab people, but they were not willing to reroute the parades away from Arab neighborhoods.

Some have even viewed the Dance of Flags (an afternoon processional of song, dance, and flag waving led primarily Zionist children, which commences at Gan Sacher in the city center, continues its processional through downtown Jerusalem and the Old City, and ends in a mass prayer at the Western Wall) as controversial over the years due to violence and racial epithets reported between Israeli and Arab youth during the event. Thus, some have chosen not to participate to avoid any confrontations or perceptions of lack of peace with Palestinians.

Praying for the Peace of Jerusalem

The reunification of Jerusalem, which today spans about 49 square miles (smaller than Washington DC!) and is home to approximately just under a million souls in need of hearing the gospel of Yeshua, means a lot to the Jewish people, especially given the special place the city has in Jewish tradition and in the eyes of God. It is a place the Jewish people have long prayed for after millennia of exile. As the Talmud in Berachot 63b explains, “For Torah will go forth out of Zion, and God’s word from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). Yom Yerushaláyim is an occasion to celebrate what God has done in reuniting His eternal city.

Additionally, it is noteworthy that "Jerusalem" can be found 806 times in the Bible, specifically 660 times in the Old Testament and 146 times in the New Testament. This count does not include synonyms for Jerusalem, or other non-direct references to the Holy City. Many Christians today are familiar with Psalm 122:6–9,

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, 'Peace be within you.'
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

It may seem ironic, given Jerusalem’s history and even the current divisions rampant in the Holy City to this day artificially separating races, religions, geopolitical forces, socioeconomic classes, and Israeli-Palestinian relations that Jerusalem be considered by God as an eternal place of peace. Yet we have been and continue to be called to pray for this special city. In rabbinical writings, there is commentary on Psalms 122:6-9 that if one cares about someone or something, it is only natural that one would pray and ask about how that person or entity is faring. Jerusalem was and remains God’s Holy City; if we care about Jerusalem and care about that which is important to God, we would naturally want to pray.

When Jerusalem is at peace, all the Children of God can find fulfillment in the worship of God, Jehovah-Shalom, the Lord of Peace. As we know from our Christian experiences, the prayer of a righteous person is indeed powerful and effective (James 5:16), can move mountains (Matthew 17:20-21), and with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

In the case of Jerusalem, we can certainly pray for families to live in peace and security amidst hostilities from Arab neighbors who would ideally love to see the destruction of the Jewish state and for all Jews to be wiped off the map, peace between Israelis and Palestinians still sparring over ancient land claims, and ultimately for the peace of all Children of Modern Israel (and the world) by coming to accept the Prince of Peace, Yeshua HaMashiach, as their Messiah and Lord.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives, I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled or fearful. (John 14:27)

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you or if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. (Psalm 137:5-6)

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