The Declaration of Independence – A Sacred Text of Our Generation
On Friday, 5 Iyar 5708, David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The official journal of the provisional government published on the same date presented the text of the Declaration under the heading: “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.” This same title was used in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, passed by the Knesset in 1992, which granted binding legal status to the principles embedded in the Declaration of Independence. While this is the official term, the form that has taken root among the general public in Israel is Megillat Ha’atzmaut – the Scroll of Independence, using the same word (Megillah) used to refer to the Books of Esther, Ruth, and so forth. The graphical presentation of the Declaration of Independence, the type of paper on which it was printed, and other factors may have created the association with the form of a Megillah. The use may also reflect the character of the Biblical Scrolls as texts presenting the history and cycle of festivals and special days of the Jewish people. Whatever the reason, the establishment of the State of Israel gave the Jewish people a new Megillah, a new scroll, that tells its story and details its hopes and aspirations.
As w approach Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the IMPJ is continuing its initiative to include the reading of the Declaration of Independence in synagogues during festive services and at public gatherings on the day. As part of this initiative, we have developed versions of the text including the marking of the trope in the tradition of the scrolls read on the other days in the Jewish calendar, as we discussed above.
The inclusion of the traditional trope – the ancient punctuation marks of the Hebrew language – is intended to position the Declaration of Independence as one of the formative documents of the Jewish people. This is a text whose words reflect the unique historic importance of the establishment of a state after two thousand years of exile. The inclusion of the trope is also intended to encourage the inclusion of the reading of the Declaration of Independence as an important part of the festival and as a way to enrich its celebration, and to enhance the status of this text and its values among the Israeli public and among Jews around the world.
After the trope was added to the text of the Declaration of Independence, recordings were prepared featuring readings in two styles. The first style is that used for reading the Books of the Prophets, including their messages of consolation and a return to Zion. The second is the style used for reading the Biblical scrolls over the year. Based on the custom of reading the sections in the Book of Esther relating to the exile of Judah in the same mournful trope used to read Ecclesiastes, our recording also uses this sadder trope for the paragraph in the Declaration of Independence that mentions the Holocaust.
The texts with the trope and the recordings were sent to Jewish communities in Israel and around the world, and were also uploaded to the internet. We hope that this will begin a new custom of honoring Independence Day with these festive and traditional readings of the Declaration of Independence. We invite communities to include the reading in the festive prayers and gatherings. Before the reading, some communities recite the blessing “who performed miracles for our ancestors” and the Shehechiyanu blessing, as is customary when reading the Book of Esther. The recordings uploaded to the internet will enable educational and public institutions to play the readings using the trope at their Independence Day events.
We thank Rabbi Yehoram Mazor and Dr. Emanuel Alon for their hard work in adding the trope marks to the text of the Declaration of Independence. Thanks to Rabbi Galia Sadan, Rabbi Mira Hovav, Cantor Evan Cohen, Noach Eitan, and Dov Avramson for their invaluable help in recording the reading and preparing the text for publication.
“…Who has sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us to read the Megillah”
Reading Israel's Declaration of Independence
as part of the Yom Ha'Atzmaut celebrations
Rabbi Gilad Kariv
One of the familiar features of Jewish festivals is reading passages from the Torah and the Prophets as part of the festive prayer services. Like on Shabbat, Jews traditionally read a Torah portion, followed by a selected passage from the Prophets (the “Haftarah”) on the three pilgrimage festivals, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the fast days. On Hanukkah and Purim, we only read passages from the Torah.
In addition to reading from the Torah and the Prophets, Jewish communities also traditionally read the five books or scrolls (Megillot) included in the Bible on five different occasions over the year. This custom began with the Book of Esther, which is of course read at Purim. The Mishnaic Sages ruled that this book was to be read at Purim on the basis of an allusion in the Book of Esther itself. The Masekhet Sofrim, a collection of religious laws that was probably composed in the Land of Israel after the two versions of the Talmud (Babylonian and Land of Israel) had already been sealed, mentions the custom of reading from the Book of Lamentations on the fast day of Tisha B’Av; the Book of Ruth at Shavuot; and the Song of Songs at Pesach. The series was completed by reading Ecclesiastes at Sukkot – a practice that first appears in Halachic works from the medieval Ashkenazi world, such as the Vitry Machzor and Sefer Abudirham.
Different customs emerged among the Jewish communities regarding the time when these books are read before and during each of the festivals. The style of the reading also varied. Some communities read the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes on an individual basis, while others hold public readings. In some communities, all five readings are from the actual Torah scroll, including a special blessing over the reading. Elsewhere, only the Book of Esther is read from the parchment scroll with a blessing, while the other books are read from printed texts.
The repeated reading of these Biblical texts, and their inclusion in the regular pattern of the Jewish calendar, also led to the emergence of a special trope – a set of musical forms associated with the cantillation marks that appear in the traditional text. The trope used differs from that used for reading the Torah and from that used for reading the Haftarot from the Prophets.
Ancient Scrolls and New Scrolls
Inspired by the regular reading of these scrolls, a custom developed over the generations of reading the Scroll of Antiochus at Hanukkah – an early historiographic story whose precise date of composition is unknown. This scroll is mentioned in the writings of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the leader of the Jewish community in Babylon in the tenth century CE, as well as in numerous later commentaries and collections of customs and prayers. Some Jewish communities honored this scroll and its reading, and even included it in printed versions of the Bible.
In our own generation, Prof. Avigdor Shinan and his colleagues undertook the painful and sacred task of composing the Scroll of the Holocaust, which was published in 2004. Many synagogues around the Jewish world read this scroll on Holocaust Day, in a style that is reminiscent of the reading of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av.