I) The Jewish People’s Success in Commemorating Historic Events Through Religious Rites
The Jewish people is an am olam (eternal people) with an historic memory thousands of years old. Furthermore, it was able to commemorate central historic events with the aid of religious rituals.
1) When David Ben-Gurion appeared before the UN Commission Regarding the Partition of Palestine in the summer of 1947, he said:
About 300 years ago a ship named the “Mayflower” set sail to the New World. It was an important event in the annals of England and America. Yet I wonder if there is even one Englishman who knows exactly when that ship set sail, and how many Americans know how many people were on that ship? And what type of bread did they eat when they left England?
And yet, more than 3,300 years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. And every Jew in the world – even in America and Soviet Russia – knows exactly on which day they left: on the 15th of Nissan. And everyone knows exactly what kind of bread the Jews ate: matzot. And until today Jews all over the world eat this matzah on the 15th of Nissan – in America, in Russia and in other countries – and recount the Exodus…
And they open [the seder] with two statements: “This year slaves, next year free men; this year here, next year in Eretz Yisrael”. This is the nature of the Jews. (Noam Zion and David Dishon, A Different Night, 1997, p. 39)
In other words, Ben-Gurion emphasized that on Pesach we remember the Exodus from Egypt by a religious act – the Seder – in order to remember and to relive the Exodus once a year. As a result, every Jew in the world is well-versed in this episode in the history of our people.
2) The same applies to the Destruction of the Temple. We have learned in the tractate of Bava Batra (fol. 60b):
…The Sages said: A man plasters his house and leaves a little bare…a man prepares a festive meal and leaves out one small portion…a woman puts on all her jewelry and leaves off one small item…as it is written: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in mind even at my happiest hour”…. What is meant by my “happiest hour”? Rabbi Isaac said: this is symbolized by the burnt ashes, which we place on the head of a bridegroom…
This passage was codified by Maimonides and the Shulhan Arukh and these practices were actually followed by many Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora.
Similarly, since the fourteenth century we break a glass under the wedding canopy in order to commemorate the Destruction of Jerusalem at our happiest moments (Kol Bo, Hilkhot Ta’anit, 25d and Minhagey d’vey Maharam, p. 82).
In other words, we remembered the victory of the Exodus through religious acts; and the failure of the Destruction of the Temple through religious acts.
II) How were Jewish tragedies remembered?
Tragedies which befell our people were remembered in three ways:
1) First of all, we decreed public fast-days. In addition to Tisha B’Av and the other fast days connected to the Destruction of the Temple described in the book of Zekhariah and in the Tractate of Ta’anit, we decreed public fast-days in order to commemorate other disasters. Here are three examples:
a) On the 23rd of Shvat, January 18, 749 a terrible earthquake struck the Land of Israel, destroying many cities and killing thousands of Jews and Arabs. In a Judeo-Arabic genizah fragment of a Siddur from Eretz Israel, the following paragraph appears:
And the 23rd of Shvat is a fast day in Eretz Yisrael, the Earthquake Fast, because the Land of Israel quaked and many of her cities collapsed. Sages and the righteous and scribes and students and infants and young men and grooms and brides and women and children without number died under the ruins, baruch dayan ha’emet…
b) On the 20th day of Sivan, 4931 (May 26, 1171), 32 Jews were burned at the stake in Blois, France, as a result of a blood libel, the first in continental Europe. Rabbi Ephraim Ben Ya’akov of Bonn (1132- ca.1200) describes that tragic episode in his chronicle Sefer Zekhirah. He concludes his account with the following paragraph:
The 20th of Sivan, 4931, was accepted voluntarily by all the communities of France, the English Isles, and the Rhineland, as a day of mourning and fasting. This was also the command of Rabbeinu Tam (d. 1171) who wrote letters informing them that it was proper to fix this day as a fast for all our people and that this fast must be greater than the Fast of Gedaliah…These are the exact words which Rabbeinu Tam wrote and thus is fitting and thus the Jews accepted.
c) Exactly 477 years after the blood libel in Blois, a Jewish tragedy of much greater proportions began in Poland. On the 20th of Sivan, 5408 (June 10, 1648) Bogdan Chmielnicki and his pillaging Cossacks destroyed the flourishing Jewish community of Nemirov, Poland. During the course of the next six months, these mobs proceeded to wantonly torture and murder approximately 50,000 innocent Jews and to destroy a large number of Jewish communities.
Rabbi Natan Neta of Hanover (d. 1683), an eyewitness to many of these events, has left us the most accurate and detailed account of Gezerot Takh V’tat (the pogroms of 1648-1649). Entitled Y’vein Metzulah (see Psalms 69:3), it was written in Sazlav, Poland, in July 1648 and published in Venice five years later. Rabbi Natan informs us that in 1650, the Council of Four Lands decreed a public fast day on the 20th of Sivan for the entire kingdom of Poland for generations, on the very day on which … the massacre of Nemirov occurred. That was the first community which died for the Sanctification of God’s name – may their merit protect us and may God avenge their blood.
Indeed, this is the reason that a group of teachers and students at the Schechter Institute hold a public fast-day every year on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day).
2) Secondly, we have designated periods of mourning on the Hebrew calendar, such as the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av and the sefirah season between Pesach and Shavout.
3) Thirdly, we have composed megillot (scrolls) and kinot (elegies). For example, Megillat Eichah (the Scroll of Lamentations) commemorates the Destruction of the First Temple. The great earthquake in the year 749 was commemorated in a series of liturgical poems. The blood libel of Blois in the year 1171 was commemorated by liturgical poems and chronicles. And the well-known posek (halakhic authority), Rabbi Shabtai Hacohen, the Shakh (1621-1662), composed a scroll named Megillat Afa (see Zekhariah 5:1-2) as well as elegies about the massacres of 1648-1649 which were printed in Amsterdam in 1651. Those elegies and others were reprinted many times and were recited in Eastern Europe on the 20th of Sivan for 300 years until the Holocaust.
Indeed, some writers have suggested writing a megillah in order to commemorate the Shoah. In 1970, Benjamin West wrote: “We need an Eikhah of the Holocaust, something short and strong that will have an effect on believers and non-believers alike” (Yad Vashem News 2, 1970, p. 7, quoted by Erica Brown, Torah U-Madda Journal 9, 2000, p. 121).
In 1981, Rabbi Meir Amsel, a Haredi rabbi and Holocaust survivor, published an article in Hamaor (Vol. 33, Sivan-Tammuz 5741, p. 17) where he stated:
Therefore, now that it is 36 years after the terrible disaster, the leaders of the people, the admorim (Hassidic rabbis) and the rabbis should have gathered together with the heads of Yeshivot, to confer and to set a fast day, to lament and to eulogize the great destruction which happened to the people of Israel …and to enact a megillah like the Scroll of Eikhah, that will be read on this day, and to transmit it to future generations until the arrival of the Messiah who will avenge the blood of our slain brethren.
(The above section was based on David Golinkin, Conservative Judaism 37/4 (Summer 1984), pp. 52-64 and Eit La’asot 3 (Summer 5751), pp. 37-54.)
III) Why Now?
But, you may ask, why do we need to compose a Holocaust scroll right now? There are three answers to this question:
a) First of all, the survivors are disappearing, and with them the living testimonies. Rabbi Pesach Schindler, one of our committee members, is a survivor. Prof. Avigdor Shinan – the author of the scroll – is the son and nephew of Holocaust survivors. I am the nephew of Holocaust survivors. But in one generation’s time, no survivors or children of survivors will remain to testify about what happened. We have to determine the methods of commemoration now when there is still a living connection to the Shoah.
b) Secondly, as already mentioned, historic events are remembered in Judaism only if it they are anchored in religious rituals. The kindling of six torches by survivors in the courtyard of Yad Vashem is a meaningful ritual, but will it last when there are no living survivors?
It is clear that in Israel, Yom Hashoah is indeed a day of national remembrance. The citizens of Israel take Holocaust Memorial Day very seriously. Everyone from school children to newscasters discuss the Holocaust, and many make special trips to Yad Vashem and other museums.
However, almost all of these observances are of a secular nature. Yom Hashoah in Israel lacks any religious dimension. No serious attempt is made to grapple with the religious and theological issues raised by the Holocaust. Furthermore, no special religious observance takes place and at most synagogues nothing is added to the daily service. In short, from a religious and liturgical point of view, Yom Hashoah in Israel is “business as usual”.
In the Diaspora, the situation is even less satisfactory. Many Jews in the Diaspora have never even heard of Yom Hashoah, and even many committed Jews do not observe it.
c) Thirdly, we are witnessing a growing phenomenon of Holocaust deniers such as Irving in England and Holocaust distorters such as the writer Jose Saramago. And if a Nobel Prize winner such as Saramago is capable of comparing our war against terrorists to the Holocaust, it is our difficult mission to educate our children and the whole world about the Holocaust, a unique event in the history of mankind.
IV) The Shoah Scroll – Megillat Hashoah
Finally, I would like to explain how Megillat Hashoah, which we will read for the first time this year, came into being.
Two-and-one-half years ago, Mr. Alex Eisen, a well-known survivor and philanthropist in Toronto, approached me on Kol Nidrei night and suggested that the Schechter Institute, together with the international Rabbinical Assembly – the organization of all Conservative rabbis throughout the world – should compose a Megillat Shoah that will be read in public around the world on Yom Hashoah, just as Megillat Eichah is read on Tisha B’Av. He had originally conceived of the idea on Purim in 1992 and had previously approached both Rabbi Lau and Bar-Ilan University in 1994-1995 and was turned down. I immediately agreed, in light of all of the above, as did the leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly. Mr. Eisen and Rabbi Philip Scheim of Beth David Congregation in Toronto began to raise funds for the project.
Here, at the Schechter Institute, we set up an academic committee with experts in various fields:
Rabbi Prof. Reuven Hammer – Midrash and Liturgy
Rabbi Jules Harlow – Liturgy
Prof. Dalia Ofer – Holocaust
Dr. George Savran – Bible
Rabbi Dr. Pesach Schindler – Holocaust
Prof. Avigdor Shinan – Midrash and Liturgy
and myself – Talmud and Halakhah.
The idea was to compile a short liturgical piece in six chapters that would outline the main experiences of the Holocaust: the background for the Holocaust in Europe; the ghetto; work camps; concentration camps and gas chambers; an elegy for the victims of the Holocaust; and the survivors and the establishment of the State of Israel. It was also important to deal with the theological dimension of the Holocaust and to ask questions that probably have no answers.
At first we turned to a well-known writer, but his beautiful composition did not suit our liturgical and theological needs. Six months ago, Prof, Avigdor Shinan took upon himself to write Megillat Hashoah, and he composed the first version in just six hours. Following several rewrites, we arrived at the final version that we will read today.
I would like to thank Mr. Alex Eisen for suggesting this historic project and both him and Rabbi Philip Scheim for raising funds for the project. I would like to thank the leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly for co-sponsoring the Megillah. I would like to thank Prof. Shinan and the members of the committee for the two-and-one-half years of work. And I would like to thank Atalia Gutvir who organized this event and Eitan Cooper who organized a similar event last night co-sponsored by Moreshet Avraham and Kol Haneshamah congregations. The Megillah is scheduled to be published during the coming year with an English translation, Ma’ariv and other readings about the Holocaust.
We hope that this scroll will be accepted by Klal Yisrael (the collective Jewish people) as a meaningful religious way to commemorate the memory of the Holocaust for generations, just as we were successful in commemorating the Exodus, on the one hand, and the Destruction of the Temple, on the other. If we succeed, we shall have fulfilled the adage attributed to the Ba’al Shem-Tov: “The Diaspora was prolonged by forgetfulness, and remembrance is the secret of redemption”.
To purchase Megillat Hashoah or download PDF version in five languages, click here.
All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: email@example.com. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.