Israelis and Jews throughout the world observe a number of traditional holidays, but the 20th century also witnessed the addition of several new ones based on historic events. The modern-day holidays offer the opportunity to honor the experiences of 20th century Jews and memorialize those who fell in battle in defense of the state of Israel.
1. Yom HaShoah — Yom HaShoah commemorates the tragedy of the 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jew lost in the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah is observed throughout Israel and the world on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan as Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. In the 1950s, the state of Israel enacted legislation that set an annual observance date and established public observances in honor of those who perished, as well as those who participated in ghetto uprisings against the Nazis.
Yom HaShoah commemorations may include public candle-lighting ceremonies in remembrance of those who died in the Holocaust. Such observances often feature survivors and their descendants in prominent roles. Speakers may recount true stories of heroism shown by Jewish victims and their non-Jewish rescuers, as well as accounts of those who joined partisan units and ghetto fighting forces to strike back against their tormentors. In Israel, a siren sounds at sundown and again in the morning, stopping traffic and all ordinary activity, as the entire nation pauses to reflect and remember for a full 2 minutes. Places of public amusement remain closed for the duration of the day.
When the 27th of Nisan occurs on Shabbat, communities designate the previous Thursday or the following Sunday as Yom HaShoah.
2. Yom HaZikaron — Jews in Israel and throughout the world observe Yom HaZikaron one week after Yom HaShoah. Yom HaZikaron, which is Israel’s Memorial Day, falls on the fourth day of the month of Iyar. Yom HaZikaron honors those who gave their lives at the time of Israel’s fight for independence, as well as all those who have fallen in later conflicts to preserve the safety of the nation. As on Yom HaShoah, a two-minute siren sounds twice daily and all traffic and activity cease. Media outlets allocate time to broadcasting stories of Israeli heroes and to playing patriotic music. Jews visit cemeteries and say memorial prayers in honor of loved ones lost in battle.
Since the middle of the 19th century, when Israel was not yet a state, to the present, more than 23,000 men and women have been killed in battle defending the right of Jews to be free and safe in their own land. In addition, there are more than 17,000 bereaved families living in Israel today. There are few people in the country who do not know someone killed in battle. For this reason, Yom HaZikaron is a particularly special day of remembrance for Israelis from all walks of life.
3. Sigd — Sigd is an Ethiopian-Jewish holiday commemorating the day that the Beta Israel (the name that Jews of Ethiopian origin call themselves) believe God first revealed His presence to Moses. The holiday falls exactly 50 days after Yom Kippur on the 29th day of Cheshvan on the Jewish calendar. The word “Sigd” signifies the concept of worship of the Almighty, and it derives from the Amharic word “sgida,” meaning “bowing” or “prostration.” During the festival of Sigd, Ethiopian Jews celebrate the renewal of the bonds between God and the community.
In the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, as persecution in Ethiopia deepened, a series of heroic airlift operations led to the rescue of the Beta Israel and brought them to their new home. Some 36,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent — most of whom comprise the rescued — and their descendants live in Israel today.
On Sigd, the Jews living in Ethiopia would typically fast, and walk as a community to a tall mountain to read from the Ethiopian Torah. Today, Ethiopian Jews in Israel often hold ceremonies on Mount Zion and walk in procession to the Western Wall. In 2008, the State of Israel officially added Sigd to its roster of national holidays.
4. Yom HaAtzma’ut — Yom HaAtzma’ut is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. Yom HaAtzma’ut falls one day after Yom HaZikaron on the fifth day of Iyar. The government of Israel chose the date to mark the anniversary of the founding of the state in 1948. If either Yom HaZikaron or Yom HaAtzma’ut occur on Shabbat, however, the date or dates are adjusted. In Israel, the day is observed as a public holiday. In the United States and other countries, Jewish communities often hold their Independence Day celebrations on the closest Sunday to Yom HaAtzma’ut, in order to ensure fuller participation.
Yom HaAtzma’ut and Yom HaZikaron are complementary holidays in that the Israeli people acknowledge that the sacrifices of their fallen soldiers were directly responsible for the nation’s independence. Shortly after sundown at the conclusion of Yom HaZikaron, Israelis transition into a festive frame of mind as they prepare to celebrate Yom HaAtzma’ut. In Jerusalem, on Mount Herzl, the nation’s flag is raised from its previous half-staff position to full staff. The Israeli president and members of the armed forces participate in commemorating the day. Parades and torch-lightings celebrate Israel’s contributions to the world in multiple endeavors.
5. Yom Yerushalayim — Yom Yerushalayim begins on the 28th day of Iyar, the anniversary of Israel’s re-establishment of authority over the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967, which reunited the city after the Six Day War. Jerusalem had not been completely under Jewish authority for two millennia. The observance of Yom Yerushalayim began after the Chief Rabbinate of Israel proclaimed it a minor holiday to be celebrated throughout the country. The date falls about a week before the religious holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates God’s conferment of the Torah to the Jewish people.
On Yom Yerushalayim, Israelis typically recite the Hallel prayer of thanksgiving in the morning synagogue service. People may make trips to visit Jerusalem or hike through the area. Public parades, singing and dancing, parties, and other celebratory activities also mark the occasion.