The battle of Gettysburg ended on July 3, 1863; a few days later, Lincoln would note the proximity of this date to Independence Day in remarks, perhaps inspired by the sermon of a prominent rabbi, that presaged the famous opening of his address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery that November. Parallel to the coincidence of these two dates is the Israeli practice of holding memorial ceremonies for those who gave their lives in its wars on the day before its own Independence Day. Meir Soloveichik remarks:
[T]he Gettysburg Address . . . joins mourning for the fallen with a recognition of American independence, allowing those who had died to define our appreciation for the day that our “forefathers brought forth a new nation conceived in liberty.” Lincoln’s words stressed that a nation must always link civic celebration of its independence with the lives given on its behalf. Visiting the cemetery at Gettysburg, he argued, requires us to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work that “they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” He went on: “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” thereby ensuring that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” . . .
The American version of Memorial Day, like the Gettysburg Address itself, began as a means of decorating and honoring the graves of Civil War dead. It is unconnected to the Fourth of July, which takes place five weeks later. Both holidays are observed by many (though not all) Americans as escapes from work, and too few ponder the link between the sacrifice of American dead and the freedom that we, the living, enjoy. There is thus no denying that the Israelis’ insistence on linking their Independence Day celebration with their Memorial Day is not only more appropriate, it is more American, a truer fulfillment of Lincoln’s message at Gettysburg.
In studying the Hebrew calendar of 1776, I was struck by the fact that the original Fourth of July, like that of 1863, fell on the 17th of Tammuz, [a fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians]. It is, perhaps, another reminder that Gettysburg and America’s birth must always be joined in our minds, and linked in our civic observance.
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