David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

‘Yom Hashoah’ is not the official name of the day

Tonight after sundown and tomorrow we will mark what has become known colloquially as “Yom Hashoah”—Holocaust (Remembrance) Day. In truth, however, that is not the official name of the day but rather “Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah” (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה) meaning “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”. To what acts of “heroism” does the name refer and why couldn’t the day be called as it is known colloquially? The answer to this question is grounded in the history of the State of Israel and in the Zionist ethos.

When, in 1951, the Knesset began deliberations regarding the choice of a date to mark the Holocaust one proposal was the 10th of Tevet which was a traditional date of mourning and fasting in the Jewish calendar. Given the unprecedented scope of the horrors of the Holocaust, however, it was agreed that a separate day should be set aside for its commemoration. But which? The date that was chosen was the 27th of Nisan because in addition to mourning those who had perished in the Holocaust it was decided to pay tribute as well to those who, against all odds, had the courage to engage in armed resistance against the Nazis. The most prominent example of armed resistance was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place on April 19, 1943. However, since that date was also the 14th of Nisan—the day before Pesach—it was deemed inappropriate for a national day of mourning. Instead, the decision was made to postpone it until six days after the conclusion of Pesach and a week prior to the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers. Thus, the Knesset passed a resolution establishing the 27th of Nisan as the annual “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day”.

Now, for those of us living nearly eighty years after the Holocaust, the notion of combining a day of remembrance for the Holocaust with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising might seem strange or even off-putting. After all, only seven hundred people participated in the uprising while six million people were killed in the Holocaust. So why link the two?

To begin with, the highest priority of the fledgling state was to concentrate efforts on creating a new life for its inhabitants. Focusing on the devastation of the Holocaust could divert people from this central goal. Second, many of the survivors carried the burden of “Holocaust guilt” in that they survived while the vast majority of their families did not. Finally, there was an underlying sense of shame about the Holocaust among Israeli pioneers who had dedicated their lives to building a vibrant state and a powerful army. How would those who witnessed the remarkable success of their military heroes view those who had walked to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter? Why would they want to preserve the memory of the downtrodden, oppressed and defenseless Jew against whom the founders of the state were rebelling? Thus, when the issue of the memory of the Holocaust arose, it seemed that the best way to deal with this ambivalence was to link the memory of the victims to those brave fighters of the ghetto uprising.

Nevertheless, in 1959, the Knesset revisited this issue and after much debate it was decided to change the name to “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day” as it is known today. It was argued that bravery and heroism were not just manifest among those who engaged in armed resistance but also among those who sanctified life, who preserved the “image of God” in their daily behavior and interactions with others, who remained steadfast in their commitment to living as Jews under impossible conditions, and even among the defenseless mothers and fathers who carried their children to the gas chambers in dignity and faith. Thus, the original date was retained but its name and character were changed.

On October 7, the State of Israel suffered its worst attack since the Holocaust, and we are still in the midst of a war to defeat the enemy, to return our hostages and to ensure that such a day never happens again. Nevertheless, the Israeli cabinet has already approved the observance of a national day of remembrance to commemorate the attack and the subsequent war, called “Yom HaZikaron leChalelei Milchemet Charvot Barzel” (יום הזיכרון לחללי מלחמת חרבות ברזל)—“The Memorial Day for the Fallen in the Swords of Iron War” and which is to be held every year on the 24th of Tishrei (rather than on the day of the attack, the 22nd of Tishrei, which is the festival of Simchat Torah, and on the 23rd of Tishrei which is Isru Chag, a festive occasion as well).

As horrible and as tragic as were the events of October 7, and as much as we are still reeling from the losses in the war and with no end (for now) in sight, I sincerely hope that our focus on that day will not only be on the devastation and the loss but, as in Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, on the many acts of heroism as well. For those who left their homes and families to join in the war efforts, and those who risked, and at times lost, their lives in an effort to save others, and the Zaka Search and Rescue teams who worked around the clock gathering body parts, and the Jews around the world who have opened their homes, their pockets and their hearts to help the displaced and bereaved families, and the soldiers who have fought, and continue to fight, with unwavering determination and commitment, despite having lost friends in combat, are all heroes worthy of being included in our national day of remembrance for generations to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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