Ben-Gurion as Prophet Elijah: the military Passover Seder that made history

At height of Independence War, weeks before Israel's founding, Ben-Gurion joined a Passover Seder with Haganah fighters in Jerusalem; this event became a blueprint for future IDF Seders

Dr. Joel Rappel|
“At eight O’clock, I went to Seder with the troops at Schneller (Camip).” In a succinct sentence from his three-volume War Journal, David Ben-Gurion summarized his experience at a Passover Seder he attended three weeks before the declaration of Israel's independence.
On Friday, April 23, 1948, during the height of the War of Independence, Jews in the Land of Israel celebrated a particularly festive Passover Eve. This was just after the successful capture of Haifa by the Haganah forces, a significant victory reported widely in the news as it secured the key northern access point of the country.
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דוד בן גוריון עם חיילי "ההגנה" החוגגים את סדר פסח, שלושה שבועות לפני הכרזת העצמאות
דוד בן גוריון עם חיילי "ההגנה" החוגגים את סדר פסח, שלושה שבועות לפני הכרזת העצמאות
David Ben-Gurion with the troops at Schneller Camp in Jerusalem
(Photo: The Central Zionist Archive of the World Zionist Organization)
The capture of Haifa came a week after the successful completion of Operation Nachshon on April 15, 1948, which broke the siege around Jerusalem, reconnecting it with the rest of the country and the Jewish settlement.
These two major military achievements, just days before Passover, restored the original meaning of Passover as the "Festival of Freedom" for many at that time.
However, Ben-Gurion's terse and cryptic diary entry from that Seder night at Schneller Camp in Jerusalem belied a unique experience. While Ben-Gurion typically provided detailed accounts, he was notably brief about this event. Could his brevity have been due to the unexpected and unique "mission" that was assigned to him that night?

First military Seder

In February 1948, based on the recommendation of David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive and effectively the pre-state government, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog appointed the young Rabbi Shlomo Goren as the chief rabbi of the nascent Israeli army, later to be known as the IDF.
Rabbi Goren recounted in his book that his first major task was to certify 36 kitchens for kosher Passover preparation, primarily at military bases in Jerusalem, which were then central to the Haganah forces.
Rabbi Goren took it upon himself to organize the main Passover Seder at Schneller Camp, attended by 600 Haganah soldiers in Jerusalem. In his autobiography With Might and Strength, he detailed the extensive and unusual preparations for Passover, and the Seder that evening, which he described as the blueprint for all future IDF Seders.
Where Ben-Gurion was succinct, Rabbi Goren elaborated—and as we will soon see, where Rabbi Goren abbreviated, Ben-Gurion would elaborate.
Rabbi Goren shared that earlier that day of Passover eve, it was announced that Ben-Gurion would attend the "central Seder". "Indeed, Ben-Gurion arrived at Schneller Camp by Piper aircraft, and the excitement was immense. Thousands of soldiers stood and cheered,” wrote Rabbi Goren.
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דוד בן גוריון והרב שלמה גורן
דוד בן גוריון והרב שלמה גורן
Rabbi Shlomo Goren and David Ben-Gurion
(Photo: GPO, David Rubinger)
“I took the podium and told everyone: 'To sit you all down at the Seder table and celebrate Passover as you were accustomed to at home will not be possible, but at least to remember and fulfill the commandments, take matzo, a cup of wine and lettuce. We conducted this Seder standing.'"
"Amid the great commotion, Ben-Gurion began to speak. He said that this was the first time after two thousand years of exile that the people of Israel were celebrating the Festival of Freedom truly free, both in terms of the land and the people. Shortly afterward, Ben-Gurion had to return to the coastal plain, to the national headquarters, to organize all the fronts, the struggles, the wars and the battles across the country."

The surprising appointment

The two main "stars" of the first military Seder are hiding a crucial detail from us. What they concealed was told by others, including a journalist who was at the event and wrote about it in several places. Yona Cohen, later a senior journalist at HaTzofe, wrote in 1954 about that Passover Seder in the Machanayim journal of the military rabbinate.
"In the afternoon, Ben-Gurion arrived in a special Primus plane from Tel Aviv and was received 'as a distinguished guest from another world,'” he wrote.
“Since the time in Egypt, there had not been such a hurried Seder. And so they ate an olive's volume of matzo, most of them with their hands and fully armed. They recounted the Exodus from Egypt and at every moment expected the command 'Move' and to go out to battle. Many eyes shed tears as they recited 'This year we are slaves – next year we shall be free.' Ben-Gurion stood up, moved and spoke about the resilience of Jerusalem."
Nine years later, in 1973 (in the "B'Maarakha" issue), Yona Cohen expanded his description and brought words from Ben-Gurion that were said against the backdrop of Operation Nachshon and the breakthrough to Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem... You stood bravely amid terrifying suffering. The entire Jewish people are with you. The glory of our young men they have gambled and will gamble their lives for you. We will not forget you, Jerusalem, nor will our right hand forget," Ben-Gurion told the troops.
"When the greatest Seder was set to commence in Jerusalem, Rabbi Goren announced that a 'special Elijah' would arrive and therefore asked everyone to fill, at the beginning of the Seder, a 'fifth cup' of wine for the special guest. To everyone's surprise, David Ben-Gurion arrived after being flown from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a Piper airplane."
Rabbi David Gefen brings very important and interesting information about that Passover Seder, writing that "when the greatest Seder was set to commence in Jerusalem, Rabbi Goren announced that a 'special Elijah' would arrive and therefore asked everyone to fill, at the beginning of the Seder, a 'fifth cup' of wine for the special guest.
“To everyone's surprise, David Ben-Gurion arrived after being flown from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a Piper airplane. The six hundred soldiers were astounded – their leader, who would soon be the leader of the soon-to-be homeland of the Jewish people, had not forgotten them.
“Shortly after an hour, the time came for Ben-Gurion-Elijah the Prophet to return to Tel Aviv. But the soldiers were so crowded that Ben-Gurion could not reach the exit, so the soldiers lifted him and passed him over their heads so he could leave and fly back to Tel Aviv."

The Haggadah and the legend

While Ben-Gurion's journal briefly mentions that particular Seder night, it provides extensive details about the actions of the Jewish community's leader during that critical week.
According to the detailed journal, he arrived in a convoy of 200 cars that passed through Sha'ar HaGai and entered Jerusalem on April 20, 1948, a Tuesday of that week. In the days leading up to the Passover Seder—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—Ben-Gurion held dozens of meetings, including with Yitzhak Sadeh, Zalman Aran, David Shaltiel, Eliyahu Sasson, Yitzhak Rabin and many others. Only after concluding these meetings, on Friday evening, did Ben-Gurion head to Camp Schneller to participate in the main Seder for 600 Haganah fighters.
Undoubtedly, Ben-Gurion's focus that week was more on the battles raging in and around the city of Haifa, and, as he testified, on organizing the fighting brigades and the ongoing war itself. It seems likely that he was not deeply engaged with the Haggadah text and its lengthy historical narrative at its core.
Ben-Gurion's brief stay at the large Passover Seder likely did not stem from the need to urgently return to Tel Aviv by flight. On the contrary, the leader of the Jewish community stayed and lingered in Jerusalem for an additional three days, and it was only on the third day of the festival that he returned to Tel Aviv by a special flight.
We can only guess the origin of the unfounded myth about Ben-Gurion's landing in a Piper airplane at Camp Schneller on Seder eve and his immediate return flight that same night? Anyone familiar with the area knows that only a helicopter could land at Camp Schneller.
According to Dr. Mordechai Naor, a temporary takeoff and landing runway was inaugurated in the Cross Valley during that week, located in what is now Gan Sacher Park. It was likely from this runway that Ben-Gurion departed for Tel Aviv—however, it is certain that his arrival in the city, according to his testimony, was by car, one of the 200 vehicles in the large convoy that passed through Sha'ar HaGai and brought a significant amount of food and supplies to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.
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