Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day)
Following World War II and the establishment of the state of Israel, four new holidays, referred to as ‘modern’ Jewish holidays have been added to the Jewish calendar. Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) are observed as national holidays in Israel, and recognized around the world by Jewish communities.
Yom HaZikaron was set aside on the day before Yom HaAtzmaut as a time of memorial for soldiers who lost their lives fighting in the War of Independence and in other battles or wars.
In Israel, it is a solemn day in which all places of entertainment and many businesses are closed. Two-minute sirens are sounded throughout the nation, one in the evening marking the beginning of the holiday and one prior to a public national memorial ceremony.
Dates for Yom HaZikaron
(begins sundown, evening before)
The date for the remembrance for those who lost their lives defending Israel’s freedom was selected by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) shortly after Israel became a state. The following year a formal law was enacted setting aside remembrance in the nation of Israel and among Jewish communities worldwide.
As sirens sound in the evening, the entire country comes to a halt. Workers stop, cars pull to the side of the road, occupants wander from their homes as the nation of Israel literally stands silently to honor those who have fallen in defense of their homeland. During this two minute period of silence, the national flag of Israel is lowered to half-staff alongside the Western Wall.
Public ceremonies are held throughout Israel during the day. Many schools, synagogues and public buildings offer memorials for those who have died from their community. Prior to noon, a second siren sounds noting the beginning of public prayer, Scripture/Torah reading and recitations at the national military cemetery on Mt. Herzl, where many of Israel’s leaders and soldiers are buried. Similar ceremonies are held in cemeteries across the nation.
As the sun sets, the day ends with the official ceremony of Israel Independence Day on Mt. Herzl and the flag of Israel is returned to full staff. Honoring Israel’s fallen soldiers on the day before Yom HaAtzmaut is intended to bring to mind the sacrifice that soldiers and their families paid to secure Israel’s independence.
Customs and Rituals
Ceremonies held on Yom HaZikaron are often simple and solemn. Synagogues and schools often commemorate the day by reading the names of fallen soldiers that can be found in the official Israeli database. Families often choose to read similar lists in their own homes. Prayers and Scripture readings, as well as the recitation of poetry or history are also common.
Many choose to wear the special Yizkor (also, Yiskor) sticker during the entire day. Most will honor the day by standing at attention for two minutes at 8:00pm Israeli time to show honor and solidarity for the fallen soldiers.
Funerals and Mourning during Yom HaZikaron
Jewish teaching is very specific about how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family and there are defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism. The most noticeable characteristic of Jewish mourning is the withdrawal of the family to their home following the death of a close relative.
The Jewish burial has unique and specific requirements; most notably, the burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.
Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.
After the burial, the first a period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.
The solemn nature of this holiday would not disrupt the mourning traditions of shiva. However, during the holiday, it would be permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role.
Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.
Remembering Loved Ones during Yom HaZikaron
Yom HaZikaron is a prescribed time to commemorate, honor and reflect on those who lost their lives in service to their country. Remembering the lost becomes especially meaningful if a family member served in the military.
Because Jewish festivals contain moments of remembrance and family, the modern holiday of Yom HaZikaron is a appropriate time to honor deceased family members as well. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.
The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may visit the cemetery and place a stone at the graveside, plant a tree in Israel or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.