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Standing for the Siren
In my younger years, when I was a charedi yeshivah student, I would not stand silently during the sirens on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. After all, I reckoned, those are non-Jewish, meaningless customs. Instead, I would recite Tehillim, the traditional Jewish way of memorializing the deceased, which I was taught actually helps them in the Upper Worlds. (Of course, if I was in public, I would nevertheless stand in silence out of respect for others.) Such is still the normative attitude in the charedi world.
But after careful study of this topic, I realized that this is entirely backwards.
The practice of sounding the siren for two minutes of silence has its roots in South Africa. During World War I, a businessman in Cape Town suggested that his church observe a silent pause in memory of those who fell in battle. Subsequently, the Mayor of Cape Town instructed that at noon on May 14, 1918, the daily firing of the Noon Gun (for the ships to set their chronometers uniformly) would serve as the signal to begin two minutes of silence in memory of the fallen. This custom later spread throughout the British Empire, and eventually to many different nations and cultures. The Jews living in Palestine adopted this custom and observed a minute or two of silence in response to tragic events. After the War of Independence, the Rabbinate of Israel decided to set Memorial Day on the day before Independence Day. The newly installed national system of air-raid sirens provided a means to simultaneously alert everyone in Israel to observe the silence at the same time.
There is a prohibition in Judaism of following in the ways of gentiles. But the practice of standing silent for a siren would not fall under that prohibition. The prohibition does not refer to any practice which happens to originate with non-Jews. It only refers to practices which are idolatrous, or a practice for which the reasons are unknown and thus potentially originate in idolatry. As per Rema to Yoreh Deah 178:1, any practice which has a sensible rationale is permitted to be adopted, even if it originates with non-Jews.
This even includes practices which relate to the religious sphere. Ketav Sofer permits the innovative non-Jewish practice of carrying the dead on wagons. In the Orthodox Jewish community today, everyone refers to verses in Scripture via chapter numbers, even though these were introduced by non-Jews. And, of course, we refer to the months of the Hebrew calendar with names that originated in Babylonia. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:24) even permitted Jewish schoolchildren in public schools to participate with Christian schoolchildren in non-denominational school prayer!
Standing silent for the siren may have been introduced into Israel as a copy of procedures done in non-Jewish nations, but it is not a non-Jewish procedure. It is simply a natural human expression of solemnity in the face of tragedy.
In fact, not only is there nothing specifically non-Jewish about the practice, it even has conceptual roots in Judaism. Such a response to death goes back to the Torah itself. When Nadav and Avihu were killed by fire, it says vayidom Aharon, "Aharon was silent." While some see this as meaning that he uttered no complaint about God’s judgment, others see it as expressing a natural response in the fact of tragedy. Likewise, we find that Iyov's friends sat in silence with him for seven days. The Talmud (Berachos 6b) says that "the merit of attending a house of mourning lies in maintaining silence." Silence expresses both commiserations and solidarity with others, and contemplating matters in our minds. This is something that is very much part of traditional Judaism.
What about the siren? The siren was instituted simply as a way of alerting everyone to this avodah, just like the Shabbos siren. It can even be seen as very similar to the shofar blast, another type of horn which sounds and to which in response we stand in silent contemplation. Standing silent for the siren, then, does not only reflect basic human attitudes, but it even echoes traditional Jewish practices. It is not something that is copying non-Jewish practices of questionable theological basis, like schlissel challah, pouring lead, and many other popular rituals in frum society.
On the other hand, just how traditional is it to say Tehillim on behalf of the dead, and what does it accomplish? We do not find any mention of such a thing in the writings of Chazal and the Rishonim. In classical Judaism, one gives charity for the dead and one prays (such as with the Yizkor prayer, which is recited at Yom HaZikaron events). For one's ancestors and teachers, one learns Torah and does good deeds as a credit to them. Saying Tehillim for strangers does not appear to have any basis in classical Judaism. As I discuss at length in my essay What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?, the earliest sources to discuss such things indicate that one cannot actually accomplish anything for the deceased in such a way.
So which is the traditional Jewish way of commemorating those who died in tragic circumstances, and which is the meaningless custom of recent origin? Like so many other topics, this relates to whether one follows the rationalist approach of the Rishonim or the more recent mystical approach. Similarly, it also depends on whether one defines Jewish tradition as starting in Biblical times and carrying on through the Sages of the Talmud and the Rishonim, or whether one defines it as starting about a hundred years ago.
(Note that in this post I am just addressing the arguments that charedim give for not standing quietly during the siren - and which I believed to be the reasons back when I was a naive yeshivah student. This is not the same as the actual reason why they do not stand for the siren, which I will address in a future post.)
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