Yom Ha'Shoah - Holocaust Memorial Day
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
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
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
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