Established unofficially with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and enacted into law in 1963, the day preceding Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) is observed as a Memorial Day for soldiers who lost their lives in battle or while otherwise defending Israel.
Celebrated on the fourth of Iyar every year, Yom Hazikaron is one of four new holidays that were added to the Jewish national calendar since the creation of Israel. The other three are: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs' Day),Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day), and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day).
Perhaps because most of the Israeli population has relatives or close friends who have died defending Israel, Yom HaZikaron is widely observed throughout all sectors of Israel, with the exception of most Arabs (Druze and Beduoin being a notable exception) and non-Zionist haredi Jews. Beginning at sunset the night before and lasting throughout the entire day, places of entertainment are closed by law while shops, restaurants and movie theaters are shut down by tradition. The radio and television stations play stories about Israel's wars and air programming that conveys the somber mood of the day.
Perhaps the most widely recognized commemoration during Yom HaZikaron, as on Yom HaShoah, is the sounding of an air raid siren twice during the course of the day. During the two-minute blasts, all activity - including traffic on the highways - immediately ceases. People stand in respect for the sacrifice of those who died defending Israel. The first siren marks the beginning of Yom HaZikaron and the second is sounded prior to the public recitation of prayers in military cemeteries.
Numerous public ceremonies are held throughout Israel with special readings and poems often recited. There is a national ceremony at the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl, where many of Israel's leaders and soldiers are buried. Many schools and public buildings have corners with memorials to those from their community who died in Israel's wars.
While mostly viewed in a secular national character, there is also a religious component to Yom HaZikaron. There is a special yizkor (memorial prayer) and "El Maleh Rachamim" memorial prayer for members of the Israeli Defense Forces who died in the line of duty, which is read at many of the Yom HaZikaron ceremonies. Some members of the national religious Zionist community have also added special prayers to the evening prayers on Yom HaZikaron. The mourners kaddish is often said.
Since the second intifada, many have extended Yom HaZikaron to remember not only soldiers who died defending Israel but also security guards who have given their life while protecting public buildings, restaurants and cafes from terrorist attacks.
In tune with the Jewish tradition of recognizing joy in times of sadness and sadness in times of joy, Yom HaZikaron's somber end heralds the beginning of the joyous and festive Yom Ha'atzmaut.