The Biblical Origins of Israel's Memorial Day

How mourning is depicted in the Bible

'Death of King Saul,' 1848, Elie Marcuse.

On Israel’s Memorial Day, the national day of remembrance for fallen soldiers – Yom Hazikaron Le’halelei Ma’arakhot Yisrael, in Hebrew – biblical texts are read in city squares, not in synagogues. The name given to this day of commemoration echoes biblical phrases.

First, there is the phrase “yom hazikaron” itself. With respect to Passover, we read in the Torah, “This day shall be to you one of remembrance [zikaron]” (Exodus 12:14). And regarding Rosh Hashanah: “a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts [zikaron tru’ah]” (Leviticus 23:24).

In a different context, trumpet blasts and remembrance are associated with war: “When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies” (Numbers 10:9). Passover makes us recall the Exodus, whereas the shofar’s blast during the seventh month of the biblical calendar plays a similar role to that of the trumpet’s blast in wartime: The blast of the shofar or trumpet is a prayer, reminding God of Israel’s distress. Air-raid sirens can be seen as a modern-day version of the biblical connection between the shofar/trumpet blast, war and remembrance.

Israeli soldiers observe a moment of silence during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall, 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

The term halal (a slain or deceased person, usually used for soldiers) has a biblical source. The laws of ritual impurity distinguish between those killed with a sword and other dead: “And in the open, anyone who touches a person who was killed or who died naturally, or human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days” (Num. 19:16). We read: “the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave” (Num. 19:18). “Halal,” therefore, connotes someone killed with a sword, not one who died a natural death.

The term ma’arakhot yisrael recalls the battle between David and Goliath: “A champion of the Philistine forces stepped forward; his name was Goliath He stopped and called out to the ranks of Israel [ma’arakhot yisrael] and he said to them, ‘Why should you come out to engage in battle? Choose one of your men and let him come down against me. If he bests me in combat and kills me, we will become your slaves; but if I best him and kill him, you shall be our slaves and serve us’” (1 Samuel 17:4-9). The juxtaposition between “ma’arakhot yisrael” and “mahanot plishtim” (Philistine forces), and the phrase “to engage in battle” (la’arokh milhama), indicates that the term ma’arakhot yisrael refers to Israel’s front-line troops.

'Death of King Saul,' 1848, Elie Marcuse.

David volunteers to do battle; the military struggle assumes a religious dimension. David tells King Saul of the wild animals he has killed, promising that “that uncircumcised Philistine shall end up like one of them, for he has defied the ranks of the living God” (1 Samuel 17:36). Goliath “cursed David by his [Goliath’s] gods” (17:43), and David trusts his God: “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the ranks of Israel, whom you have defied” (17:45).

There is another connection between King David and Memorial Day: David’s lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17-27), still recited today at various commemorative ceremonies.

The relationship between Saul, Jonathan and David was complex. David was Saul’s rival, and Jonathan, the designated crown prince, bound his fate to David’s, sacrificing filial loyalty to Saul, who felt deceived by everyone and was particularly pained by Jonathan’s betrayal: “Is that why all of you have conspired against me? For no one informs me when my own son makes a pact with the son of Jesse; no one is concerned for me and no one informs me when my own son has set my servant in ambush against me” (1 Samuel 22:8). Nonetheless, David’s lamentation depicts harmony between Saul and Jonathan: “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished, never parted in life or in death!” (2 Samuel 1:23). It is ironic that this description is offered by David, who was responsible for their estrangement.

David does not participate in the war between the Philistines and Israel on Mount Gilboa, where Saul and Jonathan are killed. Previously, David had sought shelter from Saul among the Philistines: “Some day I shall certainly perish at the hands of Saul. The best thing for me is to flee to the land of the Philistines; Saul will then give up hunting me throughout the territory of Israel, and I will escape him” (1 Samuel 27:1). David went on to join King Achish of Gath, earning his trust. In his dirge, he essentially dissociated himself from the Philistines, hoping they would not celebrate their victory over Israel: “Tell it not in Gath, do not proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistine rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult” (2 Samuel 1:20).

Commentators and scholars thus ask whether David’s lamentation on the occasion of the death of his rival reflects sincere feelings, attesting to a superior morality, or whether it served political needs, attesting to hypocrisy. The Bible, however, is not necessarily interested in this question. In the political arena, every statement is suspect of serving personal interests and every action of being intended for public consumption. Attempts to discover sincerity are pointless. When it comes to political leaders, they should be assessed on the basis of what they say and do, not how they feel.

Not only that: Generally, biblical lamentations do not necessarily express emotions. Those who recited the dirges were professionals who encouraged mourners to weep: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Listen! Summon the dirge-singers, let them come; send for the skilled women, let them come. Let them quickly start a wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears, our pupils flow with water” (Jeremiah 9:16-17). Dirges and weeping honor the dead, and the absence of such expressions of mourning reflects disrespect – as the prophet Jeremiah prophesizes about Jehoiakim king of Judah: “They shall not mourn for him, ‘Ah, brother! Ah, sister!’ They shall not mourn for him, ‘Ah, lord! Ah, his majesty!’ He shall have the burial of an ass” (Jeremiah 22:18-19).

There’s no denying that the deaths of Saul and Jonathan opened the door to David’s coronation. Hence, David had no choice about how he should feel; he had to decide how to react: He could have dishonored Saul’s memory by refusing to eulogize him, and by giving a prize to the Amalekite youth who informed him that he had killed Saul. The text does not describe David’s emotions; it only describes his actions. Ultimately he decided to pay Saul his last respects, expressing deep gratitude to Jonathan: “How have the mighty fallen, the weapons of war perished!” (2 Samuel 1:27).

Next week’s column on the Torah portion will appear in its usual format. All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.