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The Twenty Eighth of Iyar

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

This week's essay is dedicated to the 28th day of Iyyar the date of the liberation of Jerusalem. The essay is an excerpt from my book "Emanations": An in-depth analysis of the Jewish holidays through the prism of Rabbinic perspective.

In recent years the 28th day of Iyar is celebrated as Yom Yerushalayim, the day the city of Jerusalem was reunited. Some Jews respond to this Divine gift publicly, in festive prayer, others more personally,(1) yet almost all agree that the day that the Old City of Jerusalem became accessible to Jews after thousands of years is a watershed in Jewish history, a day the Creator, in an act of compassion, remembered His children and His city.

In Judaism, days often have a personality of their own, a unique aura. Sad days seem to march ahead inexorably to the beat of the same drum year after year, producing tragic events.(2) Holidays possess an intrinsic holiness, which can be felt and experienced by the spiritually sensitive. These days do not merely commemorate events that took place long ago and far away. It seems that particular events occur on particular days because these days already have a certain color, an appropriate personality.

Does the 28th of Iyar have its own history, or is it just another day? Throughout history, significant events occurred on this day, giving it a special charisma.


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The Shulchan Aruch, section 580, reports that on the 28th day of the month of Iyar a fast day is observed, marking the anniversary of the death of Shmuel HaNavi (Samuel the Prophet).(3) Because this is considered a so-called "minor fast" many Jews are unaware of the significance of this commemoration. However, in antiquity this day was widely celebrated.


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In a responsa(4) of Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (known as the Radbaz) we learn that in the Middle Ages the tomb of Shmuel HaNavi was a site of pilgrimage. People would take their young sons and travel to the burial place of Shmuel to cut the child's hair for the first time. A father who had made a vow to cut his son's hair at the Tomb of Shmuel HaNavi poses a dilemma to the Radbaz: When the time to fulfill the vow arrived the father found that he was unable to ascend to the tomb because the burial place had become "off limits" to Jews. The Rabbis themselves had forbidden Jews from going there at all; from the context it is unclear if the prohibition was a response to the danger involved, or because the tomb had become a non-Jewish place of worship.

This responsa is particularly interesting in terms of the history of Jewish customs. We learn that in that same period, Jews began to travel to Meron on the 18th of Iyar (better known as Lag Ba'Omer), where they would give their sons their first haircut. It is possible that this custom, practiced first in the outskirts of Jerusalem on the 28th of Iyar, was transported to the outskirts of Zefat on the 18th of Iyar when the tomb of Shmuel became off-limits for Jews.(5) Shmuel was a nazir, and as such never cut his hair, which would make his tomb an excellent place for a child to have his hair cut for the first time. Furthermore, the 28th day of Iyar, which falls after the 33rd day of the Omer, is a far less problematic date on which to cut hair: Sephardi minhag prohibits cutting hair until the 34th day of the Omer.(6) This, too, seems to support the theory that the custom was transported to the less-desirable, less-logical date of Lag BaOmer when conditions made the original custom untenable.

The history of this minhag being as it may, we have a clear testimony that the 28th day of Iyar was, in antiquity, a day of pilgrimage as well as the yearly remembrance of Shmuel HaNavi. On that day, of all the days in the calendar, Jerusalem was the destination. We might even venture to say that the power of the prayers uttered all those years ago on this day by the pilgrims at the end of their arduous journey contributed to Jerusalem's liberation on the very same date, causing it to once again become the day when people venture up to Jerusalem. Yet there are other, deeper aspects of Shmuel's connection with Jerusalem that shed light on this special date.


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The connection between Shmuel and Jerusalem is twofold and intertwined. Shmuel was the Prophet who anointed David, the founder of Jerusalem. David and Shmuel together surveyed the region, looking for the proper place to build the Temple.

Raba lectured: What is meant by the verse, [And he asked and said: 'Where are Shmuel and David?'] And one said: 'Behold, they are at Nayot (name of place; literally it means beautiful or glorious) in Ramah (name of a place; literally means "high")': What connection then has Nayot with Ramah? It means, however, that they sat at Ramah and were engaged with the glory [beauty] of the world. Said they, It is written, "Then shalt thou arise, and ascend unto the place" [which the Lord thy God shall choose] (Devarim 17:8) - this teaches that the Temple was higher than the whole of Eretz Israel, while Eretz Israel is higher than all other countries. They did not know where that place was. Thereupon they brought the Book of Yehoshua.(7) In the case of all [tribal territories] it is written, 'And the border went down' 'and the border went up' 'and the border passed along', whereas in reference to the tribe of Benjamin 'and it went up' is written, but not 'and it went down'. Said they: This proves that this is its site. [Talmud - Zevachim 54b]

Jerusalem represents both the holiness of the Temple and the seat of the Davidic dynasty; Shmuel was involved in the establishment of both. The date of Shmuel's passing, the 28th of Iyar, was commemorated each year; how appropriate to honor his memory by bringing one's family, young and old, to this mountaintop overlooking Jerusalem.


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There is, however, an earlier episode in Jewish history which makes an oblique reference to the 28th of Iyar.

The Seder Olam (Chapter 5) reports biblical chronology, recording the precise dates of ancient events. In detailing the journey immediately following the Exodus, the Seder Olam tells us that in the year the Jews left Egypt, Rosh Chodesh Iyar was on a Sunday,(8) and the first Shabbat observed was on the 22nd of Iyar. The following day they traveled to Refidim, where the battle with Amalek took place, and where the second Shabbat was observed.

Understanding the battle with Amalek reveals a very important relationship with Jerusalem. In describing the battle the Torah states:

"But Moshe's hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun." (Shmot 17:12)

Rashi informs us that in referring to the sun the Torah wishes to communicate that Moshe made the sun stand still.(9) We are perhaps more familiar with another similar occurrence: When the battle of Giv'on raged, Yehoshua caused the sun to remain in its place. The rabbis(10) explain the need for this miracle as follows: The enemies of the Jews, knowing that Shabbat was coming, waited for Shabbat in order to defeat the Israelite army. Therefore, the sun was made to stand still to avoid the onset of Shabbat. Moshe, too, made the sun stand still – for the same reason: Shabbat was coming.(11) This was only the second Shabbat celebrated by the Jews, and Amalek, who despised all that was sacred,(12) was going to use the Shabbat to destroy the Jewish People. But while Yehoshua led the troops below, Moshe stood on a mountain and caused the sun to stand still and "hold off" the onset of Shabbat.(13)


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The battle with Amalek, then, indeed took place on Erev Shabbat and the precise date was the 28th of Iyar. This association allows us a deeper appreciation of the date and its significance. The battle with Amalek is the archetypical struggle between holiness and depravity. This struggle defines the essence of the 28th of Iyar. It is its nature, its character, its "personality". The victory of holiness over depravity was achieved when the prayers of Moshe and the nation were answered. When the Beit Hamikdash was eventually constructed on the holy mountain, symbolizing the possibility of human connection with God and holiness, its spiritual foundations are traced back to the prayers Moshe uttered on that hill in the desert.(14)


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In the aftermath of that first battle we are told that until Amalek is ultimately and completely defeated, something will remain missing in this world and the celestial spheres:

"And the Lord said to Moshe, Write this for a memorial in a book, and recite it in the ears of Joshua; for I will completely put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. And Moses built an altar, and called its name Adonai-Nissi; For he said, Because the Lord has sworn by His throne (kes) that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." (Shmot 17:14-16)

Rashi explains that the word kes is used instead of the more common form kiseh, for as long as Amalek is around, spewing his venom, the throne of God and God's name are, as it were, incomplete. Evil has a foothold in this world as long as God's holiness is not completely manifest. The symbol of the destruction of evil is the final victory in the epic battle with Amalek. Jerusalem represents God's throne on Earth; Amalek represents the attack on the throne:

"At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord; and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem; nor shall they walk any more after the stubbornness of their evil heart." (Yirmiyahu 3:17)

The first king anointed by Shmuel was supposed to defeat Amalek; all subsequent history would have been different had Shaul succeeded, but he failed. Now David would take his place, and seek to complete God's throne, in both the physical and spiritual sense. Perhaps now we can better appreciate King David and Shmuel the Prophet looking with prophetic vision for the throne of God. They sought the place that would symbolize the complete destruction of evil. They sought the place for the Temple. They sought Jerusalem.

Presently the throne of God is incomplete; forces of evil thrive. The struggle for Jerusalem is not an easy one. It is a battle that began long ago and far away in the desert, waged first by Moshe and Yehoshua, later by Shaul and again by David. If the spiritual foundation of the Temple dates back to the prayers fervently said during the first battle with Amalek, the physical foundation is identified with David and his dynasty.

In the outskirts of Jerusalem, just beyond the present neighborhood of Ramot, there is a large building that stands majestically on a hill. It is the tomb of Shmuel.(15) Looking north one can see where the sun stood still all those years ago. Today a vibrant neighborhood called Giv'at Zeev stands in the shadows of the biblical Givon. Looking south, the new city of Jerusalem is spread almost as far as the eye can see.

In ancient and modern days pilgrims make their way to Jerusalem on the 28th day of Iyar. In those days they sought holiness, they sought completion, they sought God, just as Shmuel and David did. There were times throughout history when Jews were not permitted to make the journey, to see the holy, aged stones. They mourned for an incomplete Jerusalem. They mourned for God's throne which was not manifest. For millennia we had to settle for facing Jerusalem three times a day as we prayed. We remembered her pain even when we celebrated our personal joy. To this day there are forces seeking to wrest Jerusalem from our hands, but we will not relinquish control after all these years. We will fight to reveal the true nature of Jerusalem – the throne of God. We are well aware that the battle is ancient, that it began in the desert many years ago. We see the hand of God in Jerusalem's liberation on the 28th day of Iyar. We realize that this is just the beginning. We pray that we may merit the completion of the building of Yerushalayim in our days.

"At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord; and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem; nor shall they walk any more after the stubbornness of their evil heart." (Yirmiyahu 3:17)


1. See Minchat Yitzchak 10:10. (return to text)

2. The Mishna in the last chapter of Ta'anit stresses the repetitive aspect of calamities which befell our people on specific dates. (return to text)

3. See Rav Eliezer Waldenberg for a discussion of the accuracy of this date. Tzitz Eliezer volume 15 siman 4 (return to text)

4. Responsa Radvaz part 2 siman 608. (return to text)

5. I believe that I heard this suggestion from Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber many years ago when I attended a course that he offered in "The History of Minhagim". Much of the material we studied was subsequently published in a series of books, (by Mosad Harav Kook) though I did not find this specific suggestion in print. (return to text)

6. See Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 493:2. (return to text)

7. See chapters 15-18. (return to text)

8. Shabbat 87b. (return to text)

9. See Yalkut Shimoni Habakuk chapter 3 remez 564. (return to text)

10. Pirkei Drebbi Eliezer chapter 51, Yalkut Shimoni Yehoshua chapter 10 section 22. (return to text)

11. Many things which Yehoshua accomplished are based on miracles which were performed by Moshe. See Midrash Tanchuma Parshat T'zaveh section 9. (return to text)

12. See Rashi Dvarim 25:18. (return to text)

13. See Sichot for Sefer Shmot based on the talks of Rav Avigdor Nebhenzahl Shmot page 432. (return to text)

14. See previous source. Jerusalem is hinted at in the biblical text: the numerical value of Yerushalayim (586) equals Rosh Hagivah the hill where Moshe prayed. (return to text)

15. Archaeologists are not at all convinced of the veracity of the association of the present Nebi Samuel - Kever Shmuel Hanavi - with the ancient biblical burial plot. (return to text)


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