Challenges of Commemoration

by: Levi Cooper

Levi Cooper is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and teaches Jewish Studies at Machon Pardes and other university level programs in Jerusalem.

The question of an appropriate Hebrew date for commemorating the Holocaust[i] was fiercely debated in the immediate aftermath of World War II and in the early years of the fledging State of Israel. The primary candidates that emerged in the first decade after the Shoah were: 9th of Av, 10th of Tevet and 27th of Nisan. Each proposed date had a legitimate claim to be declared the official day for the memorial of the Destruction of European Jewry. Over sixty years after the end of the World War II, each date retains an aspect of commemoration of the War against the Jews, though the verdict of posterity remains unknown.

Tisha be-Av

The 9th of Av was already the supreme day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. The Talmud actually determines that certain events must have occurred on that date because of its propensity for calamity.[ii] The liturgy for the Tisha be-Av commemorates many tragedies that befell the Jewish People and thus some of the elegies recited refer to events that have no specific connection to the calendar date of the 9th of Av. As calamities that befell our People, they are commemorated on Tisha be-Av, the national day of mourning.[iii] In this vein, the Destruction of European Jewry could also be commemorated on this day. Today, many communities include a special elegy in memorial of the Holocaust and recently a compendium containing eighteen such dirges was published.[iv]

Asarah beTevet

In 1949, the first chief rabbis of the State of Israel, Rabbi Yitzḥak Eizek HaLevi Herzog (1889-1959) and Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Ḥai Uziel (1880-1953) declared that the 10th of Tevet should be designated as Yom HaKadish HaKelali, the general day for the reciting of the memorial kaddish prayer. This day was set aside as the commemoration date for all those who did not have an alternative yartzeit date.[v] Asarah beTevet had already been recognized on the Jewish calendar during the First Temple period, for it was on this day that the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem was laid, a siege that eventually led to the destruction of the capital city and the Temple.[vi] Designating this day as a memorial day for the Holocaust was based on the perception that the Destruction of European Jewry was another link in the chain of calamities that have been visited upon our People during our sojourn in Exile. Until today, the 10th of Tevet is commemorated as a fast day and many recognize its status as Yom HaKadish HaKelali.

Yom HaShoah VehaGevurah

Thanks to State sponsorship, the most accepted commemoration date has become the 27th of Nisan, a somewhat arbitrary date but a choice nevertheless laden with significance for the fledging State of Israel. The Warsaw ghetto uprising began on the day before Pesach, the 19th of April, 1943. This bold act of resistance became a defining moment in the narrative of the nascent State. Alas, a national commemoration could hardly be held on the day before Pesach, thus in April of 1951, the 27th of Nisan was designated as the permanent date for commemoration. While the acceptance of the date was not immediate,[vii] the official State memorial ceremony has since been held on this date and Yom HaShoah VehaGevurah (the day of Shoah and Heroism) – as the day is now officially called – is commemorated in Jewish communities around the world.[viii]

Yet other dates for Holocaust memorial were also considered. In 1950, a small booklet was published by Dr. S.Z. Kahana, Y.L. Bialer and Rabbi Mordekhai HaKohen.[ix] The booklet was entitled אם אשכחך גולה… (If I forget thee, O Diaspora…), a play on the famous words of the psalmist, If I forget thee, O Jerusalem (Psalms 137:5).[x] This booklet lists no fewer than eight days over the year when different aspects of the Holocaust should be memorialized. The booklet also offers “an order for study and prayer for the days of memorial,” detailing the appropriate service for each day. These days were to be commemorated in Martef HaShoah (Cellar of the Shoah) on Mount Zion; at the time adjacent to the pre-1967 border that divided Jerusalem.[xi] In Martef HaShoah, ashes from the various death camps and crematoria were gathered, together with Torah scrolls and other Jewish artifacts that had been desecrated. Martef HaShoah was set up in 1948 by the Ministry of Religion as a memorial and symbolic grave site for communities that were wiped out in the Holocaust. Later this site developed into a small museum.[xii]

I have related to two dates from the list – the 9th of Av and the 10th of Tevet. While the 9th of Av is listed, it is framed slightly differently from the way I presented it:

Tisha be-Av – a day of weeping for generations, on this day in the year 1942, a decree of total annihilation was decreed against the Children of Israel and their martyrs in Poland (22nd July 1942).

According to the authors, the 9th of Av should be commemorated, not because it is the national religious day of mourning, rather because on that day began the systematic deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp.

I would now like to turn to the other six dates listed and briefly explore their significance.

Shabbat Zakhor

Shabbat Zakhor is the Shabbat that precedes the festival on Purim, when in addition to the weekly Torah portion we read about the obligation to wipe out Amalek, progenitor of Haman, the villain of the Purim Story. The booklet notes that this day is the “commemoration of the wiping out of the root of Amalek, the enemies of Israel in each generation.” The implication is clear: The perpetrators of the War against the Jews were “of the root of Amalek”, meaning they represent the arch-enemy of Israel, bent on its destruction for no logical reason. As such, the obligation to recall the crimes of Amalek includes the responsibility to recall the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators.

Thursday evening before Parashat Vayikra

This date is explained as “the day of mourning and commemoration for the slaughter of Jewish children, the height of Nazi cruelty,” but the significance of the choice becomes apparent from the liturgy recommended by the authors. Inter alia, the authors prescribed reading the first chapter of the book of Leviticus and various biblical verses that mention children. Traditionally, Bible education would begin with the study of Leviticus, as the Sages explained: “The Holy One, blessed be He said: Since sacrifices are pure and the children are pure and, let the pure come and study about the pure”.[xiii] As such, the Shabbat when we begin reading Leviticus is an opportunity to remember the young victims of the Holocaust.[xiv]

11th of Nisan

This day was designated as “the day of rebellion and uprising of the ghetto prisoners against their oppressors.” Presumably the reference is to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As noted above, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on the eve of Pesach, 14th Nisan 1943, a busy and festive day hardly suitable for Holocaust commemoration. There appears to be no particular Jewish significance to 11th Nisan (16 April) 1943.[xv] It is unlikely that the authors erred, and therefore it is safe to assume that they were proposing commemorating the event on a day other than the actual anniversary, a suggestion that would be adopted in principle in 1951 with the enactment of the Israeli law proclaiming the 27th of Nisan as the official memorial day.[xvi]

20th of Sivan

The 20th of Sivan was a solemn day of commemoration in the Jewish calendar, long before the Holocaust. In 1171, a local Frenchman in Blois claimed that he saw a Jew throw a corpse of a child into the river Loire. While no corpse was ever found, the testimony was accepted and the town’s Jews were arrested and offered the choice of baptism or death. Despite the lack of evidence and the absence of a corpse, 32 Jews were burned at the stake on 20th of Sivan. The famed rabbinic leader and Talmud expositor, Rabbenu Tam (c.1100-c.1171) proclaimed a fast day on that day, declaring the day to be one of atonement. Special supplications were authored. Rabbenu Tam’s declaration addressed Jews of France, the Rhineland and England. The fast day, however, did not become widely accepted.

Some centuries later, the 20th of Sivan was the date designated to commemorate the Cossack massacre of Jewish communities in Polish Ukraine, led by Bohdan Zynoviy Mykhailovych Khmelnytsky in the mid-seventeenth century.[xvii] Though accurate figures are difficult to arrive at, stories of terror and destruction abound.[xviii] In Jewish chronicles the entire sorrowful period is simply referred to as Gezeirot TahTat (the decrees of [the years] [5]408-[5]409 [=1648-1649]).[xix] In 1650, leaders of Vaad Arba Artzot (the Council of the Four Lands), the autonomous Jewish leadership in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, reinstituted 20th of Sivan – the day the Cossacks attacked the city of Nemirov[xx] – as a time of fasting and commemoration for the tragedy. Seliḥot (penitentiary supplications) originally composed in the twelfth century were reintroduced.[xxi] The period is remembered as one of the most traumatic episodes of our history[xxii] and the 20th of Sivan was commemorated in many Eastern European communities right up until World War II.[xxiii]

The question of memorial for the Holocaust was discussed already in the immediate aftermath of World War II.[xxiv] In 1946 Hungary, The Neolog and Status Quo communities in Hungary[xxv] accepted the 24th of Adar – the date of the Nazi conquest of Hungary in 1944 – as the day to commemorate the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. The Hungarian Orthodox community chose a different date, the 20th of Sivan, a recognized date on the Jewish calendar and one of the dates of the 1944 deportations of Hungarian Jewry to Birkenau.[xxvi]

Thursday before Parashat Hukkat

This suggestion is truly unique for it is the only date that does not memorialize people. The Torah portion Ḥukkat tells of the preparation of the Red Heifer that was burned and then used in the process of ritual purification. In this vein, the authors write: “The day of commemoration for the burning and desecration of the holy books, ‘[Torah] scrolls were burning and the letters were soaring upward.’” The final words here are taken from Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon who made this declaration when he was martyred by the Romans by being wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive.[xxvii] The suggestion here is that a day should be set aside for commemorating the burning of the sacred books of our Tradition.[xxviii] To offer but one example, that may seem insignificant in the face of the magnitude of the entire Holocaust tragedy: Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin had a grand library. When the institution opened its doors in 1930 the library began with 13,000 volumes. By the time the Nazis arrived a decade later, the library had grown significantly: The Nazis confiscated 22,000 books and 10,000 periodicals and held a public burning of the library which lasted twenty hours.[xxix]

Like the previous date, the designation of this date also had historical roots. In the year 1242, twenty-four wagons filled with Jewish books were burned in Paris on the Friday before Parashat Ḥukkat. This event was commemorated in certain communities as a fast day.[xxx] Though the authors didn’t make mention of the 1242 tragedy, it undoubtedly formed the backdrop of this designation for they prescribed the reading of the elegy sha’ali serufah va-esh, an elegy composed in commemoration of the burning of the Talmud in Paris and recited in the Ashkenazi rite on Tisha be-Av.[xxxi] It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the events leading up to the burning of the Talmud, suffice it to mention that it was connected to events that began in 1240 when the apostate Nicholas Donin challenged the rabbis of France to defend the Talmud against charges of anti-Christian propaganda. The famed Rabbi Moshe of Coucy and Rabbi Yeḥiel of Paris represented the Jewish side and King Louis IX presided.[xxxii] Following the dispute, at the urging of Pope Gregory IX, King Louis IX ordered the public burning of some 12,000 manuscripts of the Talmud and other Jewish works.[xxxiii]

Every Thursday evening

This weekly event was set aside as “time for communion with the memory of the holy and pure ones in Martef HaShoah.” As is apparent from later in the booklet, this commemoration was to be different from the other dates listed in that there was no expectation that everyone would commemorate each Thursday evening. On the contrary, the day was proposed to rectify a painful aspect of the aftermath of the Shoah. Many survivors did not know the yartzeit, the anniversary of the death, of their family members. On what date should the traditional yartzeit memorial be held? When should the annual recitation of kaddish be said? Survivors were not only robbed of their loved ones, they were also at a loss to set aside a particular day for commemoration.[xxxiv] As mentioned above, the Chief Rabbinate set the 10th of Tevet as Yom HaKaddish HaKelali. Indeed the authors were aware of the Rabbinate’s choice of the 10th of Tevet, but offered a different, somewhat convoluted but creative formula for designating a memorial day.

Each one of the survivors of the families of martyrs, if he does not know of another day, should choose as a memorial day for his relative the Friday of the week when the chapter of Mishnayot studied begins with the same letter as the name of the deceased. And he should observe that very day each year.

I am unaware of how this suggestion was received, it’s lure, however, is clear: Rather than having one general day for all the deceased – all the deceased of the Jewish people or even just all the deceased of one family – survivors would have a day that was to some extent personalized. Thus a survivor could have a yartzeit, albeit an artificial one, for each murdered family member.

The final page of this short booklet aptly has a drawing of a solitary wax candle burning; a final memorial to our brothers and sisters. It appears that the basis of this entire program was the desire to avoid getting lost in meaningless numbers; the attempt to retain a personal and individualized memorial for a tragedy that by the very nature of its magnitude almost defies the memorial of the individual.

Concluding thoughts on commemoration

For a generation that grew up as children and grandchildren of survivors, it is not hard to imagine a weekly commemoration for the Holocaust; many of us may recall how events in our parents’ or grandparents’ homes were refracted through the lens of the Shoah. To cite but one anecdotal example from my youth: No matter how potatoes were prepared, my grandfather never ate the peels because that is what he had eaten in the camps. For my grandfather, and hence for us, the Holocaust was commemorated every time potatoes were served; adding another date to the Jewish calendar would have been contrived and unnecessary.

But times are changing and our children will not grow up with someone who doesn’t eat potato peels. Careful consideration must be given to the challenges of commemoration. A plethora of memorial dates would color the Jewish calendar in dark shades. While any people should study and commemorate their history, the tears of mourning should not be the building blocks of identity.[xxxv] Were we to adopt all of the possible days of commemoration, the calendar would be dominated by mourning.[xxxvi]

Commemoration of the Shoah – or for that matter any tragedy that has befallen our People – is not just a matter of having a stock ceremony. Being a part of a national memorial day serivce is educationally valuable; standing for a minute of silence as an entire country halts for a moment of thought and commemoration is palpably unifying. Yet for educators the challenge is how to go beyond this moment; How do we create meaningful commemoration that is not superficial, that tells a personal story, the story of our brothers and sisters?

[i]There are various terms that have been suggested to describe the tragedy that befell the Jewish People during World War II. Each term has a different valence, offering a different perspective on what transpired, and each term is insufficient. I have used the various terms interchangeably in an attempt to give space to the different perspectives while avoiding the issue. See also below my comment in note 35. My thanks to Rabbi Danny Landes who in a fruitful discussion some years ago prodded me to develop a sensitivity to this issue.

[ii]M. Taanit 4:6; B. Taanit 29a. On the lack of clarity regarding the exact day of destruction, see: Tanhuma, Bamidbar 1.

[iii]See the comment of Rashi to II Chronicles 35:25. See also:דניאל גולדשמידט (מגיה ומבאר), סדר הקינות לתשעה באב: כמנהג פולין וקהילות האשכנזים בארץ ישראל, ירושלים תשל”ב, עמ’ יג (herein: “Goldschmidt, Kinot”).

[iv]See: מרדכי מאיר, “זכור הנאקות ורעש הצעקות”: קינות לתשעה באב לזכר השואה, ירושלים [תשס”ג]. For an earlier treatment, see: Hirsch Jakob Zimmels, The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature, New York 1977 (herein: “Zimmels, Echo”), p. 159-160.

Some authorities rejected the idea of adding elegies to the canonized compilation; see, for instance: האדמו”ר מקלויזנבורג ר’ יקותיאל יהודה הלברשטאם, שפע חיים – מכתבי תורה, נתניה תשנ”ה, חלק ג, מכתב רו בעמ’ קצה-קצו (it should be noted that the Klausenburger Rebbe was himself a Holocaust survivor). For a discussion of the different opinions, see: מרדכי מאיר, “‘זכור נא הבכיות בתהום הגויות’: קינות לזכר השואה”, אקדמות ט (תמוז תש”ס), עמ’ 77-99. Dr Meir’s article precipitated a discussion in Religious Zionist circles, see: ר’ ישראל רוזן, “קינות-שואה בתשעה באב: פרשה עלומה בפעלו של הרב מ”מ כשר זצ”ל”, צהר ז (קיץ תשס”א), עמ’ 153-164. A response to Rabbi Rosen’s article appeared in the next volume, see: ר’ מיכאל אברהם, “תיקון קינות לשואה”, צהר ח (סתיו תשס”ב), עמ’ 183-189. This same volume also carried Rabbi Rosen’s reaction to Rabbi Avraham’s article, see: ר’ ישראל רוזן, “על קינות ועל קאנון”, צהר ח (סתיו תשס”ב), עמ’ 191-193. Dr Meir subsequently revised his article and published an updated version as an introduction to his aforementioned compilation of Holocaust elegies.

On the need for liturgy in the commemoration for tragedy, and on recent developments, see Matthew Wagner’s article “An anchor for national mourning” which appeared in the Jerusalem Post, April 28th, 2008 (available at

[v]Another rabbinic figure who supported the establishment of this day was Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995):

“ונשאל פעם רבנו ע”י אחד שאביו נהג לשמור בעשרה בטבת היא”צ על אביו ואמו שנהרגו בשנות השואה ולא נודע יום מותם, האם נכון הדבר ואם ראוי לנהוג כן אחריו. והשיב שהדבר נכון מאד וגם כדאי לבנו לשמור היא”צ אחריו” (ר’ שלמה זלמן אויערבאך, הליכות שלמה, על הלכות תפילה, ירושלים תש”ס, פרק יח, הערה 72).

See also: ר’ ישעיה א. שטיינברגר, “עשרה בטבת, יום השואה שהפך ליום הקדיש הכללי: קורותיה של תקנה, שנה בשנה, תשנ”א, עמ’ 378-385.

On Rabbi Herzog’s approach in favor of setting one general day in consideration of the agunah problem, see his 1947 responsum to the chief rabbi of Rome: ר’ יצחק אייזיק הלוי הרצוג, שו”ת היכל יצחק, חלק א, סימן כח = הנ”ל, פסקים וכתבים, ירושלים תשנ”ו, כרך ו, אבן העזר, סימן י (see also: Zimmels, Echo, p. 156). For other rabbinic approaches on the connection between setting a yartzeit date and the status of the agunah, see the following exchange: ר’ שמעון אפרתי, שו”ת מעמק הבכא, ירושלים תש”ח, סימן ג; ר’ אליעזר יהודה וולדינברג, שו”ת ציץ אליעזר, ירושלים תשי”א, חלק ג, סימן ג.

[vi]See Ezekiel 24:1-2 and II Kings 25:1-2.

[vii]The tension surrounding this date centered on the appropriateness of a memorial day in the month of Nisan, and more so, on the question of whether the emphasis should be placed on Jewish martyrdom or Jewish courage and resistance. Scholarly attention has focused on the competition, at times intense, between the different options and the factions who served as their advocates, see:Zimmels, Echo, pp. 155-158. Regarding attitudes to Yom HaShoah in Orthodox circles, see: Jacob J. Schacter, “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a be-Av: The Debate Over Yom Ha-Sho’a”, Tradition 41:2 (Summer 2008), pp. 164-197 (herein: “Schacter, Debate”); a lecture on the topic delivered in 1995 by Rabbi Dr Schacter is available on line: ̣azon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953), see: בנימין בראון, “‘אל נא נעבור לגדולות ממנו’: התנגדותו של החזון איש להנצחת השואה ומניעיה”, בתוך: דינה פורת (עורכת), שואה ממרחק תבוא: אישים ביישוב הארץ-ישראלי ויחסם לנאציזם ולשואה, 1933-1948, ירושלים 2009, עמ’ 210-234. For an earlier article on Yom HaShoah observance, see: Joel B. Wolowelsky, “Observing Yom Hasho’a”, Tradition 24:4 (Summer 1989), pp. 46-58 (herein: “Wolowelsky, Observing”). For a study dealing specifically with the position of the H

Dr Wolowelsky suggested that Yom HaShoah had the potential to serve as an appropriate vehicle for education. A decade later, Rabbi Irving Greenberg voiced an optimistic prognosis when he expressed a belief that Yom HaShoah would become a major event in the Jewish calendar (see: Shalom Freedman, Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World, Conversations with Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Jerusalem and Northvale 1988, p. 247). Most recently, Rabbi Dr Schacter concluded his article with concern and pessimism about the day’s future outside of Israel: “I fear that in a few generations it will lose its significance and am deeply concerned that in the not to [sic] distant future commemorative events will ring hollow and irrelevant”.

[viii] Countries besides Israel have also adopted a range of Holocaust memorial days. In Austria, the 5th of May, the date of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, is commemorated, while Hungary marks the 16th April, the date of the establishment of the first ghetto in Munkács (then in Hungary, previously in Czechoslovakia, now in Ukraine). Since 2004, in Romania the National Day of Commemorating the Holocaust is held on 9th October, the date of the beginning of Romanian deportations of Jews to Transnistria in 1942. Holocaust memorial days in many European countries, including Germany, France, England and Italy, have been set for the 27th January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Russian Red Army. Since 2005, this is also the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as adopted by the United Nations. In Israel, the Ministry of Education has directed that the 27th of January should be dedicated to studying about the universal aspects of the Holocaust, namely racism and anti-Semitism. In a fascinating move worthy of further investigation, Canada adopted the Hebrew date, the 27th of Nisan.

[ix]It is beyond the scope of the present article to present full biographical sketches of these people. For Rabbi Dr. S. Z. Kahana (1905-1998) see the site dedicated to his memory Yehuda Leib Bialer (1896-1976) authored four elegies in commemoration of the Holocaust (as well as other works), one of which was published in said booklet, pp. 6-8. Rabbi HaKohen (1906-1972) was a prolific writer, authoring a number of works on the festivals and other basic Jewish topics.

[x]The booklet was printed in Jerusalem together with Rabbi HaKohen’s work on the topic: פרקי שואה: מאגדות החורבן האחרון. My thanks to Menachem Butler who first brought this largely overlooked booklet to my attention and shared some of the sources on which this article is based.

[xi]The choice of location, hardly a comfortable choice in the reality of divided Jerusalem, was based on the biblical verse: וּבְהַר צִיּוֹן תִּהְיֶה פְלֵיטָה וְהָיָה קֹדֶשׁ וְיָרְשׁוּ בֵּית יַעֲקֹב אֵת מוֹרָשֵׁיהֶם (עובדיה א, יז).

[xii]As opposed to Yad Vashem, Martef HaShoah focused on communities not individuals, and on religious life not the gamut of Jewish life in Europe. The Zionist movement and establishment of the State of Israel were not central to the narrative at Martef HaShoah.

The aforementioned Kahana, who at the time served as Director General of the Ministry of Religion, was the driving force behind the establishment and popularization of Martef HaShoah. For more on Martef HaShoah, see pp. 3-5 of the booklet and:

For an historical survey, see: Doron Bar, “Holocaust Commemoration in Israel During the 1950s: The Holocaust Cellar on Mount Zion”, Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society n.s. 12, no.1 (Fall 2005), pp. 16-38. The centrality of Martef HaShoah waned following the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem and the return to other holy sites in the Old City. Memorial ceremonies were conducted at Martef HaShoah until the 1980s, but have since been discontinued.

[xiii]For early mentions of the custom to begin Bible study with Leviticus (rather than starting at Genesis) see, inter alia: ויקרא רבה, מהדורת מרגליות, ירושלים תשט”ז-תשי”ח, פרשה ז, פסקה ג; פסיקתא דרב כהנא, מהדורת מנדלבוים, ניוארק תשמ”ז , פסקה ו, אות ג בעמ’ 118; פסיקתא רבתי, מהדורת איש-שלום, ווינא תר”ם, דף פג ע”ב; אבות דרבי נתן, מהדורת שעכטער, ווינא תרמ”ז, נוסחא א, פרק ו, בדף טו ע”א. For a scholarly discussion of the tenacity of the custom, see: זאב גולדברג, “מהיכן מתחילים תינוקות של בית רבן ללמוד תורה – מספר ‘ויקרא’ או מספר ‘בראשית’?”, מעוף ומעשה 6 (תש”ס), עמ’ 227-240. See also: Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe, New Haven and London 1996, pp. 38-39;

For a more modern mention of the custom by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, see: חיים נחמן ביאליק, ספר בראשית: אגדה מדרשית, בתוך: כל כתבי ח”נ ביאליק, תל-אביב תש”ח, עמ’ שנב.

[xiv]On the service for the memorial day, see also: Zimmels, Echo, p. 158.

[xv]Coincidentally, this was also the day in the year 73 that Masada fell to the Romans following a long siege. 11th of Nisan in other years has been a significant date on the Jewish calendar. Ten years prior to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in 1933, the first anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany were publicized. These numerus clausus laws limited the number of Jewish students permitted to study in universities and dismissed Jewish employees from the civil service. Further back in Jewish history 11th of Nisan is the date of death of the famed commentator and rabbinic leader, Naḥmanides who passed away in 1270, and of the kabbalist Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (1558-1630).

As a curious aside, in 1986 the Hebrew date 11th of Nisan both Houses of the US Congress passed a bill declaring 11th Nisan “Education Day USA”. This day was chosen in recognition of the contribution to education in America of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994), whose birthday falls on 11th Nisan.

[xvi]The Israeli legislature enacted a memorial day in 1951 that was called יום השואה ומרד הגטאות (The Day of the Shoah and Ghetto Uprising), and in 1959 the Knesset enacted what is now known as Yom HaShoha vehaGevurah (the text of the law can be found at The full story of the enactment of this law is beyond the scope of this paper. The booklet under discussion was published before both pieces of legislation.

[xvii]The Chmielnicki uprising– to use the Polish spelling – was primarily a rebellion of Cossacks, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian peasants against the overlords of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In Polish collective memory the uprising opened the woeful period known as “The Deluge”. In the Ukrainian narrative, Khmelnytsky is a national hero, a father of the nation. To this day a city and region of the country are named after him, his portrait appears on a five Ukrainian hryvnia banknote and his monument stands in the capital Kyiv. Alas, the massacre and pillage, suffering and devastation perpetrated against the Jews living in the area have bequeathed us an image of horror.

[xviii]For contemporaneous accounts, see: נתן נטע הנובר, יון המצולה, available in translation: Nathan Hanover, Abyss of Despair, Abraham J. Mesch (translator), New Brunswick and London 1983 (herein: “Hanover, Abyss”); ר’ שבתי כהן, מגילת עיפה; ר’ מאיר משעברשין, צוק העיתים. The three Hebrew works have recently been republished under one title: ספר גזירות ת”ח ות”ט, ירושלים תשס”ה. For a moving though fictitious account of the period, see: Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave, translated from the Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemley, New York 1962.

[xix]Though in truth the Cossack uprising and the destruction it wrought continued for some years.

[xx]See: ישראל היילפרין (עורך), פנקס ועד ארבע ארצות, כרך ראשון, ירושלים תש”ה, עמ’ 78. In Hanover’s original Hebrew account, he notes that this was also the day of the 1171 Blois blood libel.

[xxi]See: סליחות ליום העשרים לסיון, קראקא ת”י, reprinted in: א’ מ’ הברמן, “פיוטיו ושיריו של רבי יום טוב ליפמן הלר”, בתוך: יהודה ליב’ הכהן מימון (עורך) לכבוד יום טוב, ירושלים תשט”ז, עמ’ קלג ואילך. Recently this elegy was printed in: סדר קינות לתשעה באב … מהדורת נחמת פנחס…, ירושלים תשס”ו, עמ’ תטו-תיח. See also: נחום וואהרמן, מקורות לתולדות גזרות ת”ח ות”ט: תפילות וסליחות לכ’ סיון, ירושלים תש”ט.

[xxii]For halakhic sources that record this fast day, see: ט”ז, אורח חיים סימן תקסו, סק”ב; מגן אברהם, סימן תקסח, סק”י; סימן תקפ, סק”ט; שערי תשובה, אורח חיים, סימן תקפ, סק”ט; משנה ברורה, סימן תקפ, סקט”ז.

[xxiii]During World War I, the rabbis of London declared the 20th of Sivan 1917 as day of fasting and prayer for the Jewish settlement in Palestine, see: ר’ אברהם יצחק הכהן קוק, אגרות הראיה, ירושלים תשכ”ה, כרך ג, אגרת תתל בעמ’ קד-קה; cf. Zimmels did not take note of this event, see: Zimmels, Echo, p. 157.

[xxiv]Chief Rabbi Herzog’s attempts to discuss commemoration before the end of the War were rebuffed (see: Schacter, Debate). It is worth noting that Zimmels discusses the evening before Rosh Ḥodesh Ḥeshvan as the date set by the Jews of Rome in 1944 for commemorating the 1,100 Jews who were deported on 16 October 1943 from Rome to Auschwitz, of whom only 12 survived. This occurred during the intermediate days of Sukkot, when a commemoration would not be appropriate (Zimmels, Echo, p. 156).

[xxv]Neolog Judaism was the late 19th century Hungarian version of Reform Judaism, though less radical than its German counterpart. Following the schism that occurred at the Hungarian General Jewish Congress of 1868-69, communities that did not join the Neolog organization, and did not align with the Orthodox (whose organization was established in 1871) were known as Status Quo communities (they did not have central representation until 1927).

[xxvi]See: יהודית תידור באומל, קול בכיות: השואה והתפילה, רמת-גן תשנ”ב, עמ’ 150. See also Zimmels, Echo, p. 157-158.

While 20th Sivan has largely remained the propriety of academics and rabbis, the date has continued to portend evil for our people. It was on the 20th of Sivan 1982 at the Battle of Sultan Yacoub (during the First Lebanon War) that a considerable number of Israeli soldiers were killed in battle and three other soldiers were captured alive by Lebanese Hezbollah – Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman. The soldiers were reportedly paraded through the streets of Damascus atop their captured tank. To this day, these soldiers are unaccounted for.

[xxvii]B. Avoda Zara 17b.

[xxviii]Part of the lingering pain of the Shoah was borne out of the crematoria; not only were our people murdered their bodies were totally burned denying the opportunity to offer last rites to the deceased and leave a marker over a grave. In this vein, the term “Holocaust”, though laden with theological implication, has been adopted as the English moniker of choice. To my mind, it is a conspicuous, and perhaps intentional omission, that the authors made no mention of cremation of bodies when talking about burning. The burning of the Red Heifer was part of a purification process; the term Holocaust implies transcendence and even some form of atonement. It is difficult to use this term or to even speak of cremation of the victims in terms of purification or atonement.

[xxix]On the burning of the books of Yeshivat Ḥakhmei Lublin, see: Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, London 1986, p. 101, quoting the Frankfurter Zeitung, 28 March 1941; בית יעקב: ירחון לעניני חינוך, ספרות ומחשבה, גליון 30 (חשון תשכ”ב), עמ’ 17 (quoting the Deutsche Jungend Zeitung, February 1940). For more on the Nazi treatment of books by Jews, beginning in 1933, see: Zimmels, Echo, pp. 201-211.

[xxx]A contemporaneous record of the event and mention of the commemoration appears in the thirteenth century work, Shibbolei HaLeket:

“יעל שאנו עסוקין בהלכות תענית ובענין שריפת תורת א-להינו בשנת חמשת אלפים וד’ שנים [=1242] לבראית עולם ביום ששי פרשת וזאת חקת התורה כעשרים וארבעה קרונות מלאים ספרי תלמוד והלכות והגדות נשרפו בצרפת כאשר שמענו לשמע אוזן” (ר’ צדקיהו הרופא, שבלי הלקט, מהדורת שלמה באבער, ווילנא תרמ”ז, סימן רסג).

The reason that the fast day was affixed according to the day of the week and not the calendar date, as is customary, is explained:

“וגם מן הרבנים שהיו שם שמענו שעשו שאילת חלום לדעת אם גזירה היא מאת הבורא והשיבו להם ודא גזירת אוריתא ופירושו ביום ו’ זאת חקת התורה היא הגזירה ומאותו היום ואילך קבעוהו היחידים עליהם להתענות בו בכל שנה ושנה ביום ששי של פרשת זאת חקת התורה ולא קבעוהו לימי החודש, תהא אפרה עלינו לכפרה (כאשה) [כעולה] על מוקדה…” (שם).

For other halakhic works that site this event and tradition, see, for example: ר’ יחיאל הרופא, תניא רבתי, ענין ארבעה צומות; מגן אברהם, סימן תקפ, סק”ט; משנה ברורה, סימן תקפ, סקט”ז.
The exact year of the burning of the Talmud is unclear; I have followed the Shibbolei HaLeket, cf. Goldschmidt, Kinot, p. 14 who writes 1254.

[xxxi]See: Goldschmidt, Kinot, pp. 135-137.

[xxxii]This is the first recorded disputation between Jews and Christians.

[xxxiii]Though King Louis IX (1214-1270) is the only canonized monarch of France, from a Jewish perspective he was hardly a saint. A few years after burning the Talmud, King Louis IX ordered the expulsion of all Jews engaged in usury, the confiscation of their property and the remitting of debts owed to them to the royal treasury. The goal of this order was to finance his first crusade to the Holy Land.

[xxxiv]See Zimmels, Echo, pp. 347-348.

Like many survivors, my grandfather Chaim Yoav Kimelman did not know when his mother Baila Hadas, sister Devora Leah and brother Yitzḥak Dov had been killed and hence he never had a day to commemorate their deaths. His father, Yedidya Moishe died in the Sosnowiec ghetto and was buried in the local cemetery. My grandfather had already been taken away to a Nazi Labor Camp and, without any surviving family members, he was never able to ascertain his father’s date of death. Every attempt to locate the grave of Yedidya Moishe proved to be unsuccessful. A childhood friend, Shabsi Kornwasser, told my grandfather that Yedidya Moishe had died about a week after the festival of Shavuot. My grandfather therefore chose 13 Sivan to commemorate his father’s yartzeit. Years later he said to me in jest that he had unwittingly picked a date that according to the fixed Jewish calendar never fell out on Shabbat, thus making the commemoration slightly more burdensome as it necessitated going to synagogue on a workday or finding a minyan in the workplace. He would joke about an acquaintance who “claimed” that he had lost family members on Tisha be-Av; this acquaintance enjoyed serving as hazan and was – according to my grandfather – planning for the messianic era when according to Tradition this day would become a Festival, thus he would be able to lay claim to the right to lead the festive services and to read the haftara on account of the alleged yartzeit!

[xxxv]This point was made twenty years ago by Dr Wolowelsky: “Talking about the Holocaust has all too often taken the place of real Jewish education. Focusing on the destruction has become for too many a substitute for building a solid Jewish foundation” (Wolowelsky, Observing, p.56).

[xxxvi]Simon Wiesenthal compiled a volume listing the atrocities committed against the Jewish people over two thousand years for any given date on the secular calendar. While the volume is indicative and perhaps valuable as an historical record, it could hardly be advocating every day as a memorial day as its title may suggest. Rather, as Wiesenthal writes in his introduction: “This calendar is thus intended to help prevent millions of victims disappearing into the abstractions of statistics and at least partially give them back their true status” (Simon Wiesenthal, Every Day Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom, New York 1987, p. 29). My thanks to Rabbi Zvi Grumet for bringing this book to my attention.

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