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Jewish Holidays:
Yom Ha'Shoah - Holocaust Memorial Day


Jewish Holidays: Table of Contents | Upcoming Dates | Festivals in Israel


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Establishment of the Holiday

The full name of the day commemorating the victims of the Holocaust is “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah”— in Hebrew literally translated as the "Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism." It is marked on the 27th day in the month of Nisan — a week after the end of the Passover holiday and a week before Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers). It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The date was selected in a resolution passed by Israel's Parliament, the Knesset, on April 12, 1951. Although the date was established by the Israeli government, it has become a day commemorated by Jewish communities and individuals worldwide. The day's official name - Holocaust and Heorism Remembrance Day - was made formal in a law enacted by the Knesset on August 19, 1953; on March 4, 1959, the Knesset passed another law which determined  that tribute to victims of the Holocaust and ghetto uprisings be paid in public observances. 

Yom HaShoah in Israel

In the early 1950s, Israeli education about the Holocaust (Hebrew: Ha-Shoah, The Catastrophe) emphasized the suffering inflicted on millions of European Jews by the Nazis. Surveys conducted in the late 1950s indicated that young Israelis did not sympathize with the victims of the Holocaust, since they believed that European Jews were "led like sheep for slaughter." The Israeli educational curriculum began to shift the emphasis to documenting how Jews resisted their Nazi tormentors through "passive resistance" — retaining their human dignity in the most unbearable conditions — and by "active resistance," fighting the Nazis in the ghettos and joining underground partisans who fought the Third Reich in its occupied countries.

Since the early 1960's, the sound of a siren on Yom Hashoah stops traffic and pedestrians throughout the State of Israel for two minutes of silent devotion. The siren blows at sundown and once again at 11:00 A.M. on this date. All radio and television programs during this day are connected in one way or another with the Jewish destiny in World War II, including personal interviews with survivors. Even the musical programs are adapted to the atmosphere of Yom Hashoah. There is no public entertainment on Yom Hashoah, as theaters, cinemas, pubs, and other public venues are closed throughout Israel.

Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis do not endorse this memorial day, though most of them have not formally rejected it either. There is no change in the daily religious services in some Orthodox synagogues on Yom Hashoah though the Orthodox Rabbinate of Israel attempted to promote the Tenth of Tevet — a traditional fast day commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in ancient times — as the "General Kaddish Day" in which Jews should recite the memorial prayer and light candles in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. Several ultra-Orthodox rabbis have recommended adding piyyutim (religious poems) that were written by contemporary rabbis to the liturgy of the Ninth of Av, and many communities follow this custom. Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, has also suggested moving Holocaust commemorations to Tisha b'Av, because that is the day in which Judaism ritualizes its most horrible destructions.

Yom HaShoah in the United States

Jews in North America observe Yom Hashoah within the synagogue as well as in the broader Jewish community. Commemorations range from synagogue services to communal vigils and educational programs. A few congregations find it more practical to hold commemorative ceremonies on the closest Sunday to Yom Hashoah while others celebrate the day on April 19, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Many Yom Hashoah programs feature a talk by a Holocaust survivor, recitation of appropriate songs and readings, or viewing of a Holocaust-themed film. Some communities choose to emphasize the depth of loss that Jews experienced in the Holocaust by reading the names of Holocaust victims one after another — dramatizing the unfathomable notion of six million deaths. Many Jewish schools also hold Holocaust-related educational programs on or near Yom Hashoah.

In 1979, the President's Commission on the Holocaust, established by President Jimmy Carter, commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day in the US Capitol with an unprecedented ceremony attended by the President, the Vice President, and many members of Congress. Since 1979, civic ceremonies have been held in Washington, DC and in individual states and cities.

Rituals & Liturgy

Rituals associated with Yom Hashoah are still being created and vary widely among synagogues. Attempts have also been made to observe this memorial day at home. One suggestion is that every Jewish home should light a yahrzeit (memorial) candle on this day.

There have been numerous attempts to compose special liturgy (text and music) for Yom Hashoah. In 1988 the Reform movement published Six Days of Destruction. This book, co-authored by Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Albert Friedlander, was meant to be viewed as a "sixth scroll," a modern addition to the five scrolls that are read on specific holidays. Six narratives from Holocaust survivors are juxtaposed to the six days of creation found in Genesis.

In 1984, Rabbi David Golinkin of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel wrote an article in which he suggested a program of observance for Yom HaShoah, which included fasting. One of the most recent achievements is Megillat Hashoah (The Holocaust Scroll) created by the Conservative movement as a joint project of rabbis and lay-leaders in Canada, the U.S., and Israel. This Holocaust scroll contains personal recollections of Holocaust survivors and is written in biblical style. It was composed under the direction of Professor Avigdor Shinan of Hebrew University and published by the International Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative rabbis, and the Masorti (Conservative) movement's Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss, a modern Orthodox rabbi in New York, wrote a special Haggadah for the Yom HaShoah seder, to create a seder (much like on Passover and Tu b'Shevat) in which the story of the Holocaust is retold.

While Yom Hashoah rituals are still in flux there is no question that this day holds great meaning for Jews worldwide. The overwhelming theme that runs through all observances is the importance of remembering — recalling the victims of this catastrophe, and insuring that such a tragedy never happen again. The Shoah (Holocaust) posed an enormous challenge to Judaism and raised many questions: Can one be a believing Jew after the Holocaust? Where was God? How can one have faith in humanity? Facing this recent event in history, does it really matter if one practices Judaism? Jewish theologians and laity have struggled with these questions for decades. The very fact that Jews still identify Jewishly, practice their religion — and have embraced the observance of Yom Hashoah answers some of the questions raised by the Holocaust.


Sources: Rabbi David Golinkin "Yom Hashoah: A Program of Observance", Conservative Judaism, Vol. XXXVII, no. 4 (Summer 1984), p.52-64; Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group; My Jewish Learning; Learn@JTS

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