The Shoah deserves its own fast day

The Shoah deserves its own fast day

A week from this Sunday, on May 5th, we will mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Some of us will light yellow candles that day in memory of our Six Million martyrs. Some of us will attend a Yom HaShoah remembrance program. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey is sponsoring such a program at 3 p.m. EDT that day at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.

If it is a warm Sunday with no rain in sight, many of us will otherwise spend the rest of the day enjoying the springtime and having barbecues. That is not because we are callous or because we are not moved by the effort by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe — including for many of us members of our own families — or their killing of five million non-Jews for various reasons. Rather, it is because Yom Hashoah is just another day on the Jewish calendar.

Yom Hashoah is not just another day, but our religious leadership has resisted every attempt to acknowledge that by turning it into a fast day with a unique liturgy to support it. To declare a fast and create a liturgy, it is argued, is halachically unacceptable.

A special fast and accompanying liturgy were not unacceptable in the 8th century, following a devastating earthquake in the Land of Israel that killed thousands of people — Jews and Arabs — and leveled whole communities. The rabbis subsequently declared the 23rd of Sh’vat to be the “Earthquake Fast” in the Land of Israel.

A special fast and accompanying liturgy were not unacceptable in the 12th century, as the Masorti movement’s Rabbi David Golinkin noted in a 1984 article in the journal Conservative Judaism. In mid-May 1171, he wrote, “32 Jews were burned at the stake in Blois, France, as a result of a blood libel, the first in continental Europe.” He then quoted from a contemporary account of that horrific event written by Rabbi Ephraim Ben Ya’akov of Bonn in his Sefer Zekhirah (Book of Remembrance), the only known Jewish chronicle of the Second Crusade. Rabbi Ephraim concluded 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, 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 [on the day after Rosh Hashanah].…These are the exact words that Rabbeinu Tam wrote and thus is fitting and thus the Jews accepted.”

Rabbeinu Tam (Our Rabbi Tam), who died soon after writing those words, was the grandson of Rashi, perhaps the most influential commentator in Jewish history. Rabbeinu Tam was the leading member of the school of talmudic commentary known as the Baalei Tosafot, which is why his “command” declaring a fast was considered “fitting” and acceptable.

A special fast and accompanying liturgy were not unacceptable in the mid-17th century following the Chmielnicki massacre. In June 1648, in what was then the Polish-held Ukraine, a Cossack army led by Bogdan Chmielnicki slaughtered between 100,000 and 300,000 Jews over the course of several months. (The actual number of martyred dead is hard to come by.) Two years later, the Polish rabbinate declared a fast to be held annually on the 20th of Sivan, the day that the first massacre occurred in the Jewish community of Nemirov, Ukraine.

Not so for Yom HaShoah. It is just a day for some speeches and yellow candles — yellow as in the color of the Jewish star Nazis made the Jews of Europe wear.

There have been minor exceptions over the years, it is true.

The first exception is a Reform attempt at a liturgy, Six Days of Destruction, a “megillah” that never caught on, despite being co-authored by Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Albert Hoschander Friedlander, with a preface by (among others) the then Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, the late Lord Immanuel Jakobovits of blessed memory.

Another attempt was Megillat Ha’Shoah, The Scroll of the Shoah, unveiled in 2002 by Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) movement, under Rabbi Golinkin’s guidance. Unfortunately, in the 22 years since, it has not yet caught on with Conservative communities generally. The Rabbinical Assembly here actually has a “clearance sale” of the volumes it has on hand: It will cost only $1 each for purchases of at least 10 copies.

On the Orthodox side, in 2000, Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a “haggadah” to be recited at a special “seder” on Yom Ha’Shoah, but this was yet another virtual non-starter. (Used copies are available on Amazon.)

Why is creating a Yom Shoah liturgy so controversial? How the Masorti megillah came to be is instructive. In 1995, a Polish Holocaust survivor, Alex Eisen of Toronto, approached another survivor of the Shoah, Israel’s then Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, about creating a Shoah scroll along the lines of Megilat Eichah, the Scroll of Lamentations, which we recite on Tisha B’Av.

Rabbi Lau is a Holocaust survivor. After his term as Ashkenazic chief rabbi, he was named chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Shoah memorial. Nevertheless, as one news report stated, he politely declined the request because “such a text could not be written within an Orthodox religious framework.”

No other liturgy was forthcoming, either, even though the chief rabbinate created liturgies for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Unification of Jerusalem Day), although admittedly these also are highly controversial.

Mr. Eisen eventually approached Rabbi Golinkin. With the backing of the Rabbinical Assembly here and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, Rabbi Golinkin soon assembled a committee of scholars to work on the project. The result was Megillat Ha’Shoah.

Rabbi Golinkin has been urging since the 1980s that Yom HaShoah be declared an official fast day. A small group of teachers and students at the Schechter Institute do fast on that day, but otherwise no stream of Judaism has officially declared such a fast.

And yet, Jewish history has seen many such fasts and accompanying liturgies, such as the three noted above.

Surely, the Shoah deserves no less. And yet, apparently, for now, it must settle for speeches and yellow candles.

Many years ago, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, made one suggestion to change this. He proposed that Tisha B’Av be designated as a fast day for the Shoah. A number of right-of-center Orthodox rabbis also considered this and even created special lamentations to be included as part of the general Tisha B’Av liturgy.

Israel’s chief rabbinate offered its own solution in 1948 when it declared the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet to be the official day of mourning for the Shoah, although not many people are aware of it.

The Tenth of Tevet is arguably one of the most unusual fast days on the Jewish calendar. Halachically, this day is so significant that an exception is made for it, allowing it to be observed even on Fridays, the eve of Shabbat. Such fasts are otherwise prohibited on Fridays, which is why calendar adjustments were made 1,800 years ago to prevent any statutory fast from occurring on a Friday — except for the Tenth of Tevet. Apparently, this exception was made because Asarah b’Tevet, as it is known in Hebrew, marked the beginning of the events that would lead to the seemingly endless series of tragedies that would mark the course of Jewish history over the next two-and-a-half millennia. It was the one day that truly symbolized all the calamities to come. Nothing else came close — until the Shoah.

Because the Tenth of Tevet is so all-encompassing, tradition gave it a second name and a second meaning: Yom HaKaddish HaK’lali, loosely translated as “the day of the general kaddish.” On it, the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited for all those people for whom the date of their deaths is not known.

That aspect of the day moved the chief rabbinate to ascribe yet another meaning to the day — the ritual observance of the Shoah. To this day, though, even that decision is considered controversial among many within Orthodoxy and beyond.

There has never been an event in Jewish history that even approaches the Shoah. Beyond a doubt, our enslavement in Egypt was a major catastrophe — especially including the murder of newborn Israelite male children. So were the destruction of both Temples, the end of the Bar Kochba revolt, and the expulsions from Spain and Portugal. So, in fact, was last October 7th. There is simply no way, however, that these events can equal the deaths of 1.5 million children and 4.5 million adults in ways sometimes too gruesome to be described.

If we fast to memorialize other events, surely we should fast to memorialize this one. If we have special liturgies for those events, surely we should have a special liturgy for this one. It should be a separate day, all its own, and that day should be the day we call Yom HaShoah.

The Shoah is unique; it requires a unique observance. Such will never happen, however, until and unless all of Judaism’s streams come together to declare it valid.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed — a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is

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