Jerusalem Passover 1948

Miracles, a surprise visitor, and a Passover Seder in the midst of the siege of Jerusalem, seventy years ago.


PassoverMar 27, 2018

PassoverMar 27, 2018


    David Ben-Gurion celebrating the Seder together with Haganah soldiers, Jerusalem, 1948 (Image: http://www.zionistarchives.org.il/)

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Every seder ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” In Jerusalem, seders conclude with the words, “Next year in Rebuilt Jerusalem,” pointing toward the coming kingdom when Jerusalem will be rebuilt as an eternal city.

In liberated Jerusalem of the Messianic Era, King Messiah will gather his disciples around him for a Passover Seder meal to fulfill his promise, “I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16). Seventy years ago this Passover, the soldiers of the Palmach and Haganah took a brief respite from war to come around the seder table in Jerusalem in anticipation of the future Passover when King Messiah redeems and rebuilds Jerusalem.

Passover 1948 promised to be a dismal one in Jerusalem. In his book With Might and Strength: An Autobiography, Rabbi Shlomo Goren describes the situation. The city had been under siege for months. Supplies were short, and rations were at starvation levels. There was not sufficient wine, matzah, or bitter herbs for the all the people of the city to make even a token seder. Supplies from the outside could not make it through the Arab blockades.

In all Jerusalem, only 2,000 pounds of matzah could be procured. It sounds like a lot, but how far would that go when divided among Jerusalem’s 100,000 Jews over seven days of Passover? The military governor of Jerusalem decided to allocate the remaining matzah to civilians. He thought it best to let the soldiers eat chametz (leavened items) during Passover and let the scant matzah supply go to the city’s religious civilians.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren argued that it would not be right to make the first Jewish army to fight for Jerusalem in two thousand years eat chametz on Passover. The governor refused to listen to the army rabbi. Rabbi Goren thought it would be a great injustice to force the men who were risking their lives for the sake of the city to eat leavened bread during Passover. Unable to persuade the governor, Rabbi Goren took some trucks in the night, broke into the warehouse, and requisitioned the remaining matzah supplies. These he set aside for the soldiers so that, at the very least, they could have matzah on seder night.

God also provided lettuce for the bitter herbs. Rabbi Goren happened to notice that some nuns in a Jerusalem convent had a garden with a large crop of lettuce, as yet unharvested. At this time, when starvation was already stalking the city, such a find seemed quite unlikely, but in this convent, only a few nuns remained, and they had more than they needed. Rabbi Goren offered to buy their lettuce. When he explained that he needed it for Passover, the nuns immediately offered to give it to him so that the men could fulfill their biblical obligation of eating bitter herbs on Passover. Rabbi Goren refused the offer and insisted on paying full price. It turned out to be more than enough to supply the soldiers with bitter herbs for their seders.

An even greater miracle came on Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover when the first convoy to penetrate the Arab blockade after the battle of Kastel arrived. For a brief window of time, the road to Jerusalem was open again. Prior to the arrival of that convoy, the prospects for the Passover holiday, under starvation-level rationing, seemed sad indeed. The arrival of the supply trucks gave the beleaguered Jews of Jerusalem reason to rejoice at the festival.

Rabbi Goren knew that the soldiers would not have the luxury of reclining at seder tables for several hours. They needed to be at their posts. He organized short, abbreviated Passover seders that would cover just the essential minimum obligations. Student volunteers from Jerusalem’s Yeshivas joined the fighting men at their various outposts, foxholes, and positions to lead them in the rituals of the seder, and under the danger of sniper fire and mortar shells, many of those students ended up staying with the soldiers through the Yom Tov.

Seders also took place in the dining halls of the Schneller army base where hundreds of soldiers packed together. Ordinarily at a seder meal, one ceremonially reclines at the table, but that night in Jerusalem, everyone had to stand through the entire Seder because they were packed in so tightly.

Rabbi Goren told the soldiers, “I’m sure you all know that it won’t be possible for you all to sit around a seder table and celebrate Pesach the way you are used to doing in your homes, but at least you will be able to mark this night and observe the mitzvot, so take some matzah, a cup of wine, and some lettuce, and let’s have a seder!”

The soldiers also had a special guest that night. Ordinarily, at a seder meal, the Jewish people set a place for Elijah, pour a special cup for Elijah, and look for Elijah at the door. That night Elijah arrived in a Piper Cub plane that flew in from Tel Aviv: David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion addressed the soldiers, encouraging them to fight for Jerusalem. He emphasized the significance of their observance of Passover that night, even though they celebrated the holiday during a time of war. Ben-Gurion reminded them that this was the first time after two thousand years of exile that the Jewish people could celebrate the festival of freedom and redemption as a free people back in their own land. He almost certainly reminded them how every seder concludes with the hopeful words, “Next year in Jerusalem,” but tonight the men were in Jerusalem, fighting to liberate it and fulfill that destiny. With those inspiring thoughts, Ben-Gurion encouraged the men not to yield, but to hold on to Jerusalem tenaciously.

After addressing the soldiers, Ben-Gurion said he had to return to his duties at headquarters in Tel Aviv. The soldiers were pressed into the hall so tightly that it was impossible for him to make his way through them to reach the exit. Instead, the soldiers had to pick him up and pass him over their heads, from one man to another, so that he could exit the building and fly back to Tel Aviv.

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About the Author: D. Thomas Lancaster is Director of Education at First Fruits of Zion, the author of the Torah Club programs and several books and study programs. He is also the pastor of Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, WI. More articles by D. Thomas Lancaster