July 23, 2024
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The Great Reishit Tzemichat Geulatenu Debate

A large Religious Zionist congregation in North America slightly amends the standard text of the blessing for the State of Israel authored by Rav Yitzchak Herzog and Rav Ben Zion Hai Uzziel, the chief rabbis of Medinat Yisrael at the time of its founding in 1948. Instead of describing Medinat Yisrael as “reishit tzemichat geulateinu” (the beginning of the flowering of our redemption), it adds the word “shetehei” (that it should become) reishit tzemichat geulateinu.

When this prayer was recited one Shabbat, the word “shetehei” was omitted, and instead, the standard reishit tzemichat geulateinu was said. Shockingly, an intense shouting match ensued, with passions running very high on both sides. What was it about the omission of one little word that invoked such heartfelt emotions? The participants in this melee probably did not realize that the difference in the two formulations represent two fundamentally different approaches amongst Religious Zionist Jews regarding whether the Torah guarantees the survival of Medinat Yisrael.

While the majority of Religious Zionists (at least in Israel) subscribe to Rav Herzog’s view that the Torah does make such a guarantee, a minority, such as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (as confirmed in a personal conversation), does not agree. It is apparent from the essay “Kol Dodi Dofeik” that while Rav Soloveitchik adopts a very positive view of Medinat Yisrael, he does not agree with Rav Herzog’s assumption about a guarantee. Similarly, Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 7:48:12) adopts a positive view of Medinat Yisrael but does not see it as beginning of a process that will inevitably lead to the building of the Beit Hamikdash. We should note that many of those Religious Zionists who do not subscribe to Rav Herzog’s view nonetheless recite “reishit tzemichat geulateinu” without adding the word “shetehei,” simply to avoid the type of machloket described above.

Rav Herzog’s View

Religious Zionists are fond of relating the following story: In 1943, the Nazis (yemach shemam) were undefeated and had conquered all of North Africa all the way to the eastern portion of Egypt, within 100 miles of Eretz Yisrael. Jews in Eretz Yisrael were severely panicked because the Allies had been heretofore unable to resist the Nazi advances in the Middle East or any other location. Rav Herzog, at that point, remarked that there was no need to panic, as the Torah guarantees that there will never be a third Churban (destruction) in Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Herzog took this belief quite seriously, as he made this remark upon embarking on a return trip to Eretz Yisrael in 1943 while the Nazis had yet to be defeated. Rav Herzog was in the United States fundraising for the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael and was accompanied by Yeshiva University rebbeim to Kennedy (then Idlewild) Airport. The rabbis were begging Rav Herzog to remain in the United States for safety’s sake when Rav Herzog told them that there was no need for concern since he felt that the Torah guarantees that the Nazis would not advance into Eretz Yisrael. Baruch Hashem, Rav Herzog’s expectations were met when the Nazis were, baruch Hashem, defeated for the first time at the decisive battle of El Alamein, which turned out to be the turning point of the war.

Interestingly, I was told that the same attitude animated the Ponevitcher rav when, in 1943, while the Nazis were poised to enter Eretz Yisrael, he bought at an astoundingly cheap price the land in Bnei Brak on which the great Ponevitcher Yeshivah was to be built (though I also heard a different version relating that when confronted by critics who said, “Why are you building a yeshivah if the Nazis would enter Eretz Yisrael in a few days,” he replied that it is worthwhile building a yeshivah even if it will last only a few days).

Rav Shaul Chill of the Young Israel of Far Rockaway related a similar story in regard to Rav Shlomo Goren in 1967 (he related this story at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, New Jersey, on Parshat Bechukotai 5768 at the aufruf of Dani Neuman, the husband of Rav Chill’s daughter Rena). Later the Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Goren was then the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (Tzahal). Immediately before the Six-Day War, Rav Goren was in the United States raising funds. Rav Goren tried to make it home to Israel for Shabbat but was unable to and instead stayed in Far Rockaway for that Shabbat. It was Parshat Bechukotai, during which we read the tochacha, and Rav Goren was praying at Congregation Sha’aray Tefillah in Far Rockaway. Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman introduced Rav Goren, and Rav Goren announced that there was soon going to be a war launched by the Arabs against Israel. The congregation began to weep as people feared a second Holocaust, Rachama litzlan (heaven forfend). Rav Goren then calmed the congregation by telling them not to worry, since the Torah guarantees that there will not be a third Churban. Rav Goren ironically may not have been aware that Rav Herzog made a similar statement only a few miles from where Rav Goren was speaking.

Rav Chaim Sabato, in his acclaimed work “Tium Kavanot” (Adjusting Sights), relates that Rav Herzog’s remarks provided security and succor for the few dozen Israeli soldiers (many of them yeshivat hesder students) manning tanks and defending the Golan Heights at the outset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War against hundreds of invading Syrian and Iraqi tanks. Indeed, remarkable (many would say miraculous) stories occurred in repelling those enemy tanks that were poised to overtake the Golan and the Galil, as these few Israeli tanks were the sole Israeli defense between the Golan and Haifa. Although I am not aware of any stories to this effect, one can imagine that Rav Herzog’s remarks motivated many pious soldiers who fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence when the Jews were desperately outnumbered and poorly armed and trained.

The Source of Rav Herzog’s Assertion

Many explain that the Ramban (Vayikra 26:15) is the source for Rav Herzog’s bold assertion. The Ramban asserts that the two tochachot (rebukes) that appear in the Torah foreshadow the two great destructions that would befall the Jewish people. The tochacha at the end of Sefer Vayikra describes Churban Bayit Rishon (destruction of the First Temple), and the second tochacha in Parshat Ki Tavo reflects the Churban Bayit Sheini (destruction of the Second Temple). The absence of a third tochacha implies that there will never be a third Churban. Rav Herzog apparently regarded the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Crusades, Inquisition and Holocaust as part of Churban Bayit Sheini, since these events took place (for the most part) outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Moreover, the prophet Amos promises at the conclusion of his sefer, which is read as a haftarah for Acharei Mot (which, interestingly, we often read very near Yom Ha’atzmaut in a Jewish leap year), that the day will come when we will return to Eretz Yisrael with the promise that we will never again be exiled from the land. Rav Herzog believes that this day has arrived.

Recall that Rav Herzog regards the State of Israel as reishit tzemichat geulateinu, which means that the State is a part of a process that will inevitably lead to the construction of the third Beit Hamikdash. Moreover, Rav Herzog regards this process as having begun at least as far back as the 1880s when Jews began returning to Eretz Yisrael in large numbers. What convinced Rav Herzog that it is being fulfilled in our time? It appears to be based on the following passage in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a): “Rabi Abba said, the following is the greatest sign that the keitz (end of the exile) has arrived: the fulfillment of the pasuk in Yechezkel Perek 36 that promises that eventually the mountains of Israel will once again bear fruit.” After nearly 2,000 years of Eretz Yisrael lying in utter destruction (in fulfillment of Vayikra 26:32), as described by a variety of visitors such as Ramban (ad.loc.) and, lehavdil, Mark Twain (as he describes in his famous work “Innocents Abroad”), in the 1880s the land under Jewish control began to once again yield its fruit. Rav Kook and Rav Herzog both interpreted this stunning development as the fulfillment of Rabi Abba’s statement (though, see Maharsha ad. loc., who presents two opinions as to whether the fruits to which Rabi Abba refers are natural or supernatural fruits). Thus, Rav Herzog saw the restoration of Eretz Yisrael through Jewish hands as a sign that the keitz had arrived and that Amos’s promise had taken effect. Another partial motivation for Rav Herzog may have been the incredible survival of the Yishuv (the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael) during World War One despite terrible oppression by the ruling Ottoman Turks.

Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei Torah 10:4) writes that, due to the possibility of teshuva, a prophecy of punishment need not be fulfilled. Yonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days is a prime example of teshuva annulling a negative prophetic prediction. Indeed, Ashkenazic and Moroccan Jews state on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “U’teshuva, u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah,” “Repentance, prayer, and charity may cancel the evil decree.”

However, Rambam clarifies, a positive prophecy cannot be canceled under any conditions. Thus, the promise of there being no third Churban, coupled with Amos and Yechezkel’s aforementioned prophecies, cannot be retracted under any circumstances.

One might argue that the belief in such a guarantee undermines the threat of exile and thus the motivation to behave well. One might respond that there is a guarantee only of no exile, such as occurs at the conclusion of Sefer Melachim. However, there can continue to be suffering within the land, such as in Sefer Shoftim, if we continue to sin.

All Nevuah Is Conditional: Ramban and Tosafot

Ramban (Shemot 12:42) believes that all nevuot (prophecies), even positive prophecies, are conditional. At the Brit Bein Habetarim (Bereishit 15:13), Hashem informs Avraham Avinu that He will redeem the Jewish people from bondage after 400 years of suffering. Rashi (ad. loc.) cites Chazal, who believe that the 400 years are counted from the birth of Yitzchak and that we spent only 210 of those years in Egypt. A major problem with this assertion, however, is the fact that Shemot 12:41 states that we spent 430 years in bondage, implying that we suffered an extra 30 years. Ramban (ad. loc.) explains that we were supposed to be redeemed 400 years after Yitzchak Avinu’s birth. However, since we were not deserving of redemption at that time, Yetziat Mitzrayim was postponed 30 years. Clearly, Ramban does not agree with Rambam’s assertion that Hashem’s positive promises will be fulfilled unconditionally.

Tosafot (Yevamot 50a s.v. Teida) agree with Ramban. Tosafot are bothered by the fact that had King Chizkiyahu not prayed for his life and repented for not having children (see Melachim II Chapter 20 and Brachot 10a), he would have died childless, yet a navi had prophesied earlier (Melachim I Chapter 13) that Chizkiyahu’s great-grandson, the righteous King Yoshiyahu, would destroy the altars that the evil Yeravam ben Nevat built. Tosafot write, “Had Chizkiyahu not prayed, he would have died, and the prophecy would not have been fulfilled! Rather, we must say that a prophet prophesies only that which should happen if sin does not obstruct its fulfillment.”

The Gemara (Brachot 4a) seems clearly to support the view of Ramban and Tosafot. Chazal state, “The redemption in the time of Ezra was supposed to have been as grand as the deliverance in the time of Yehoshua bin Nun. This did not happen (i.e., the return in the time of the Second Temple was far more modest) because sin caused us not to merit miraculous redemption.”

Yirmiyahu 7:4:
A Lack of Responsibility

Furthermore, one citation of Rav Herzog’s credo sounded alarmingly like Yirmiyahu 7:4. A prominent Israeli rabbi who supported the Oslo Accords spoke in at a prominent Long Island synagogue in 1995 (within a few miles of where Rav Herzog and Rav Goren made their bold predictions in 1943 and 1967). His audience challenged him by arguing that the Oslo peace process constituted a threat to Israel’s survival. The rabbi responded that such a concern is unnecessary, since Rav Herzog taught that Hashem has guaranteed the continued survival of Medinat Yisrael.

This report illustrates a very serious downside to Rav Herzog’s assertion. While it gave moral support to those who stayed in Israel and steadfastly fought for Israel’s survival against all odds in 1943, 1948, 1967 and 1973, it can also potentially convince some to act recklessly with the belief that the State of Israel is “too big to fail” and that Hashem will bail out Israel no matter how imprudently its residents act.

This sounds eerily reminiscent to those who responded to Yirmiyahu Hanavi’s warnings of Churban (destruction of the Temple) if they would not repent. They claimed, “Heichal Hashem, Heichal Hashem, Heichal Hashem heimah” (Yirmiyahu 7:4). Yirmiyahu’s critics argued that the Beit Hamikdash is “too big to fail” and that no matter how poorly they would behave, Hashem would not destroy the Beit Hamikdash since He would never destroy His own house.

Moreover, Yirmiyahu’s detractors very likely cited the miracle of the “great smite” of the Assyrian soldiers besieging Yerushalayim (Melachim Bet Chapters 18 and 19) as proof that Yerushalayim was “too big to fail.” The Assyrian emperor Sancheiriv was a mighty, ruthless warrior who conquered many lands. He had not lost a battle before he besieged Yerushalayim after already having conquered most of Yehudah. He assigned no less than 185,000 of his soldiers to conquer Yerushalayim. There seemed to be no hope for the Jews. However, Hashem saved us by sending a malach (angel) to smite all the Assyrian soldiers one night. Many Jews during the time of Yirmiyahu likely felt that if Yerushalayim was saved during the time of Chizkiyahu against all odds, it must be that Hashem would never allow His home to be destroyed. What escaped Yirmiyahu’s detractors was the fact that the righteous Chizkiyahu engaged in serious tefillah, and it was that tefillah that saved Yerushalayim.

Similarly, perhaps it is mistaken to assume that the miracle of the first defeat of the Nazis (yimach shemam) at El Alamein proves the invincibility of Medinat Yisrael. Perhaps we deserved the miracle for some reason, such as the tefillot and presence of righteous Jews including Rav Herzog, Rav Uzziel, Rav Ezra Attia, the Chazon Ish, the Brisker Rav, Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Frank (see Rashi to Bamidbar 13:20 s.v. HaYeish Bah Eitz).

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein told me that the primary reason he does not adopt Rav Herzog’s approach is that it is too dangerous to abolish the threat of galut (exile), since this threat motivates proper behavior. This is a fundamental point we note every day in the second portion of kriat Shema.

Rav Soloveitchik’s Religious Zionist Model

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik presents an alternative model of Religious Zionism in his classic essay titled “Kol Dodi Dofeik.” He originally delivered the contents of this essay on Yom Ha’atzmaut in 1956 at Yeshiva University. Rav Soloveitchik cites the fifth chapter of Shir HaShirim as a model for the rise of the State of Israel after the Holocaust. Shir HaShirim describes a courtship between a man and a woman. Chazal interpret this courtship as an allegory for our relationship with Hashem. In earlier sections of Shir HaShirim, the woman pursues the man only to be gently rebuffed. This symbolizes a time in which we reach out to Hashem but He does not respond, for He is in a state of hester panim (when Hashem “hides His face,” i.e., chooses to minimize His level of intervention for our benefit).

However, in the fifth chapter of Shir HaShirim, the man finally visits the woman and knocks on her door. This symbolizes Hashem’s return to His people and His readiness to terminate the state of hester panim. Sadly, the woman fails to respond to the opportunity because she is too comfortable to climb out of bed and respond to the knocking. This symbolizes our need to respond when Hashem calls. Unfortunately, the man leaves when the woman does not respond, and when the woman finally recognizes her loss and tries to locate her beloved, he is nowhere to be found. If we do not respond to Hashem’s reaching out to us, we risk Hashem’s once again retreating into hester panim.

Rav Soloveitchik interprets the Holocaust as a period of hester panim and the miraculous establishment of Medinat Yisrael as Hashem’s knocking on our doors and being ready to end the period of hester panim. Rav Soloveitchik warns that if we do not properly respond to Hashem’s call, He may retreat once again into hester panim. At the conclusion of “Kol Dodi Dofeik,” Rav Soloveitchik warns, “It is now [1956] eight years that Hashem continues to knock. We must be careful not to squander the opportunity.”

Rav Soloveitchik’s model is a far cry from that of Rav Herzog. According to Rav Soloveitchik, Medinat Yisrael is not guaranteed to us; rather, it is an opportunity presented by Hashem that we can utilize to elevate ourselves spiritually and merit the full realization of the Messianic promise of Israel. According to this approach, the proper wording of the prayer for the State should be, “Shetehei reishit tzemichat geulateinu, That it (Medinat Yisrael) should become the beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” (although many who subscribe to Rav Soloveitchik’s model nonetheless recite “reishit tzemichat geulateinu” out of respect for the text formulated by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate).

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg’s Positive Attitude Toward Zionism

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 7:48:12) presents a third Biblical model for Medinat Yisrael that also differs from that of Rav Herzog. He compares the United Nations’ establishing the Jewish state in 1947 to the Persian Emperor Koresh’s (Cyrus’) permitting the Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael to rebuild the Second Temple (see Ezra Chapter 1; not coincidentally, President Harry Truman introduced himself to a Jewish audience as “Cyrus,” since he recognized the State of Israel minutes after its declaration of independence, despite the vigorous opposition of the United States State Department).

Moreover, he cites the precedent of the spiritually deficient king (of the Northern Kingdom) Yeravam ben Yoash restoring the borders of Israel (Melachim II 14:23-27). The Tanach explains that the success of this unworthy king was due to Hashem’s pity upon Israel’s situation and His unwillingness to see our destruction. Rav Waldenberg argues that similarly, after the Holocaust, “since our immediate need was air to breathe with an independent state in our land, Hashem in His great mercy helped us,” even though the majority of the leaders of the Jewish people were not observant of Torah law.

The analogies to Yeravam ben Yoash and Koresh hardly imply a divine guarantee of never being destroyed. Both the Northern Kingdom and the second Beit Hamikdash came to an end due to sin (see Melachim II Chapter 17 and Yoma 9b). Thus, while Rav Waldenberg encourages aliyah and explains why Hashem facilitated great miracles through less-than-ideal leadership, his analogies are quite sobering. They imply the threat of destruction if we do not earn and merit the continued survival of Medinat Yisrael.


When I presented this shiur at TABC, a talmid posed a simple question: “Lemai nafka mina? What is the practical difference between whether one adopts Rav Herzog’s, Rav Soloveitchik’s or Rav Waldenberg’s model of Religious Zionism (defined as those who support the continued existence of the State of Israel)?” He argued that no matter which hashkafa (outlook) one adopts, the Torah requires us to act prudently and not to rely on miracles. I discovered later that Rav Waldenberg makes the same point. He tells us not to delve into the mysteries of how Hashem operates (a reference to Brachot 10a). Instead, “it is incumbent upon us to do that which we are required to do, to fulfill the mitzvot of Hashem. Included in those obligations is the great and exalted mitzvah to make aliyah and live in Eretz Yisrael.” There is no doubt that Rav Herzog and Rav Soloveitchik would wholeheartedly agree with this statement.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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