Word of the Day Tsur Yisrael

Israel's Declaration of Independence has no explicit reference to God; instead it evokes the 'Rock of Israel.'

Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid
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Rock formations in Israel's Timna National Park.
Rock formations in Israel's Timna National Park.Credit: Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid

For a country where religion plays such a pivotal role in politics and society, it seems surprising that the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is devoid of any explicit reference to God.

That’s right, not one My Lord, Almighty, Healer of the Sick, Freer of the Captives, Fashioner of Light, or the like. Under what rock is He hiding?

While the Israeli independence declaration draws heavily on the historical narrative of the Jewish people, it is decidedly secular-nationalist in orientation. However, there is one term, right at the end of the document, that evokes a supreme being – "Tsur Yisrael," literally, "Rock of Israel."

Taken from the Old Testament, it’s the only direct allusion to the big guy upstairs, and the history of its inclusion illuminates one of the rifts that has always existed within the diverse Zionist movement, and that still simmers – at an increasingly higher temperature – in Israel today.

The whole of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is a delicious journey into history and national memory, and the tale of Tsur Yisrael’s insertion is one such phraseological nugget.

It’s Friday, May 14, 1948, the last day of the British Mandate in Palestine, and the Yishuv’s leaders are arguing over both the wording and timing of the new state’s Declaration of Independence. Two Zionist factions vehemently disagree about whether to retain the clause "placing our trust in the Almighty" from the original draft, drafted three weeks prior.

The ardent secular socialists of Mapam want no mention of a god they do not believe in, and the believers of Hapoel Hamizrahi – the main Religious Zionist political force – demand unequivocal invocation of God’s name.

The religiously observant are also insisting that the declaration be made before the onset of Shabbat, whereas Mapam prefers it be held at midnight at the exact time of the Mandate’s termination.

That demand is dismissed by the majority of Zionist leaders on the "People’s Council" as a gratuitous provocation toward their observant co-religionists. So, the race is now on to finalize the text of the declaration before the sun begins to set.

A pragmatist steps in

David Ben-Gurion, head of the largest faction, Mapai, and soon to be the State of Israel’s first prime minister, is an indefatigable idealist but also a prodigious pragmatist. He spends the early afternoon before the planned ceremony trying to bridge the gulf between the opposing leaders.

With only hours until Shabbat begins and British rule ends, Rabbis Moshe Shapira and Yehuda Leib Maimon agree to omit "Redeemer" and use "Rock of Israel" – a biblical term that essentially designated Yahweh – instead.

Having mollified the religious, the final text is not even put to a vote, and the ceremony – one of the more epic moments in the millennia-old annals of Jewish history – starts as planned at 4 P.M.

Amid secrecy and the dark cloud of an ensuing war of survival, a stirring, impromptu rendition of the national anthem HaTikvah ("The Hope") fills the main hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, before Ben-Gurion, "Father of the Nation," takes 16 minutes to deliver the declaration.

“Placing our trust in the 'Rock of Israel,’” he reads, “we affix our signatures to this proclamation…on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve…” Ecstatic celebrations then break out across the beleaguered yet hope-fuelled land – masses of jubilant Jews flooding the streets in euphoric song and dance.

It’s crazy to think that this could have all been held up by just one or two words. The symbolic ambidexterity of "rock" saved the day. On the one hand, "Tsur Yisrael" evokes a supernatural creator, and on the other, it alludes to the Jewish people’s traditions, fortitude and unbreakable connection to the Land of Israel. Chief devisor of the “status quo,” in which accommodation was sought between Israel’s secular majority and religious minority, Ben-Gurion embraced the compromise as a nod to both the Jewish scripture and the fledgling Israeli army – the Bible, and the battle for survival. Nature provided the perfect compromise.

It’s interesting to note that the original official English translation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence used not "Rock of Israel" but "Almighty God" – only in 1962 was it replaced with the correct, literal translation of "Tsur Yisrael."

In contemporary times, this whole exercise of ideological wordplay remains deeply relevant to and emblematic of the intra-Jewish struggles over the definition of the state. From civil marriage, conversion and gay rights to army service, the settlements and ultra-orthodox workforce participation, the place of God in Israeli society is polarizing and ever-present, with fundamental tenets of Israel’s national identity still at stake. Yet somehow, amid its ruptures and dichotomies, the country has held itself together for 65 long years.

Signing the Declaration of Independence, (l. to r.) David Ben Gurion, Eliezer Kaplan and Moshe Shertok; Ze'ev Sherf is standing.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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