After the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948, several holidays were added to the Jewish calendar, each commemorating an important aspect of Israel’s history and existence. Two days, forever connected, back-to-back on both the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, from sunset to sunset—Yom Ha’Zikaron, Day of Remembrance, a Memorial Day when Israelis mourn and observe their fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and then, immediately following, at sunset the next day, a full day celebrating Israel’s national independence, known as Yom Ha’Atzma’ut.
These two days, purposely coupled, serve as a profound reminder of the price and sacrifice made by those who defend Israel so that Israel can exist as a free and independent nation.
Occurring either in late-to-middle April or early May each year, Israel remembers their fallen soldiers on Yom Ha’Zikaron, their national day of remembrance. Beginning at sundown on 4 Iyar of the Hebrew calendar, the holiday is marked by dignified and somber ceremonies. There is an air of solemnity across the country for 24 hours. In fact, there are moments when all activity comes to a full standstill. Around 8:00 pm, at the onset of the Day of Remembrance, a siren sounds throughout Israel’s cities, towns, and villages, signifying a unified nationwide moment of silence. Everything comes to a halt, including traffic, when drivers and passengers get out of their cars and stand along the roadside to show respect and honor to the fallen. It is not uncommon to see people with their right hand placed over their heart.
Later in the evening, an official state ceremony takes place at the Western Wall (the Kotel, holiest site to the worldwide Jewish community) in Jerusalem where the Israeli flag is lowered to half-mast.
Prior to noon, the following day, a second siren sounds, this time for two minutes, designating another moment of solemnity and silence when instantly, everything stops completely. Public and private memorial ceremonies continue across the country. The seriousness of the day concludes with a national military ceremony at Mount Herzl, and later, at sunset, after the 24-hour period of solemnity, the country moves from a moment of grief and sadness to outward expressions of jubilation and joy, a fitting way to welcome the start of Yom Ha’Atzma’ut—Israel’s Independence Day.
Yom Ha’Atzma’ut (Independence Day) commemorates the day Israel became an independent country on 5 Iyar in 1948, coinciding, that year, with May 14 on the Gregorian calendar. Beginning at sundown, almost immediately after the end of Yom Ha’Zikaron, proud Israelis convene at Mount Herzl for an official state ceremony to signify the beginning of celebrations that will take place throughout Israel. The flag is raised from half-mast, signifying the beginning of the ceremonies. Featured programs include musical performances, speeches, and the iconic Lighting of the Twelve Torches event that symbolizes the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In Tel Aviv, thousands of people gather outside Rabin Square for holiday kick-off festivities. All of Israel is alight with dazzling displays of fireworks and exuberant celebrations.
Celebrations continue into the next day and are highlighted by parades and various nationwide events, including the Independence Day Flyover, the International Bible Contest in Jerusalem, and the prestigious Israel Prize ceremony, awarded to a select group of Israeli citizens who have displayed excellence in their professional discipline(s), or those individuals who have contributed significantly to Israeli culture.
Whether celebrating with thousands of others gathered in the center of town or spending the day at one of Israel’s many national parks, or even relaxing at the beach, Yom Ha’Atzma’ut is the iconic day for celebrating Israel’s independence. Israelis know that without Yom Ha’Zikaron and the sacrifice of their fallen soldiers, there is no opportunity for celebrating Yom Ha’Atzma’ut.
Visiting the Holy Land on 4 Iyar and 5 Iyar on the Hebrew calendar, when the two days—one of sadness and one of joy—are clearly entwined, is an awesome opportunity to experience the way Israel honors their fallen and celebrates their independence. These two days, in essence, are inseparable, and serve as a strong reminder of Israel’s story of sacrifice and continued commitment to remaining independent and self-sufficient.