Jerusalem Old City

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day

The newest holiday on the Jewish calendar celebrates the reunification of Israel's capital.

Yom Yerushalayim — Jerusalem Day — is the most recent addition to the Hebrew calendar. It commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty in 1967. It is celebrated on the 28th day of Iyar (six weeks after the Passover seder, one week before the eve of Shavuot). In 2020, Yom Yerushalayim falls on May 22nd.

Jerusalem became the capital city of the Jewish people in the time of King David who conquered it and made it the seat of his monarchy in approximately 1000 B.C.E. It was conquered twice in antiquity, the second time by the Romans in 70 C.E. The destruction of Jerusalem was a watershed event in Jewish history that began thousands of years of mourning for Jerusalem—including an official day of mourning every year on Tisha B’Av. During the ensuing two millennia of exile, Jerusalem remained the Jews’ spiritual capital. To this day, Jews face in the direction of Jerusalem for prayer and Jewish services are filled with references to Jerusalem. However, there has never been a special day in honor of the city until recent times.

Following the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the city of Jerusalem was divided, with the older eastern side falling under Jordanian control, and the more recently-developed western side falling under Israeli control. On the third day of the Six-Day War in June 1967, the Israeli army captured the ancient, eastern part of the city. The 1967 victory marked the first time in thousands of years that all of Jerusalem came under Jewish control. It also allowed Jews access to the holiest parts of the city, especially the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Temple.

 

A Young Holiday

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Gen. Rehavam Zeevi and Gen. Narkis in the Old City of Jerusalem, soon after Israel successfully claimed the area during the 1967 Six Day War. (Israeli Government Press Office)
Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Rehavam Zeevi and Uzi Narkiss in the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. (Israel GPO)

Due to the young age of this holiday, there is still not much that makes it unique in terms of customs and traditions. It is gradually becoming a “pilgrimage” day, when thousands of Israelis travel (some hike) to Jerusalem to demonstrate solidarity with the city. This show of solidarity is of special importance to the state of Israel, since the international community has never approved the “reunification” of the city under Israeli sovereignty, and many countries have not recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. (The United Nations “partition plan” of November 1947 assigned a status of “International City” to Jerusalem.)

The Israeli education system devotes the week preceding this day to enhancing the knowledge of the history and geography of the city, with a special emphasis on the unique role that it played in Jewish messianic aspirations since Biblical times.

Reciting Hallel

Western Wall

The status of Yom Yerushalayim in Jewish religious life seems more ambiguous than the religious status of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). Following the model of Yom Ha’atzmaut, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel decided that this day should also be marked with the recitation of Hallel (psalms of praise), and with the lengthier version of Psukei d’Zimra (the psalms in the earlier part of the morning service). Israel’s Progressive (Reform) prayerbook notes that Hallel should be recited on Yom Yerushalayim, but not so the Masorti (Conservative) prayerbook, which does suggest a list of supplemental readings for this day. The American Conservative siddur, Sim Shalom, mentions that Hallel is recited “in some congregations” on Yom Yerushalayim.

The ambiguity of the religious status of this holiday is reflected in celebrations — or lack thereof — outside of Israel. While the city of Jerusalem has significant meaning for all Jews, Yom Yerushalayim has yet to attain the popularity of Yom Ha’atzmaut and is not observed extensively outside of Israel.

 

jerusalem kotel men praying western wall

In addition, unlike Yom Ha’atzmaut — which is a day to celebrate the existence and successes of the modern Jewish state — Yom Yerushalayim can make some Jews outside of Israel uncomfortable, due to the continuing conflicts over the future of the city. Even some Jews who believe that the city should remain undivided and under Israel’s control choose not to emphasize Yom Yerushalayim as a day of joy because of the deep conflicts surrounding the Arab portions of Jerusalem. Others, however, believe that despite the current political conflicts, an undivided Jerusalem is something to be celebrated openly and unhesitatingly, a sign like Yom Ha’atzmaut of Jewish political independence.

A common citation in Yom Yerushalayim celebrations in Israel is a quote from Psalm 122:3: Ir shehubrah lah yahdaiv — “a city uniting all.”

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