Collective Memory

Communal remembering was constructed on the basis of traditional Jewish archetypes.

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Instead the rabbis proclaimed Scripture as the blueprint of history-past, present, and future. Through public fasts that celebrated God's historical intervention in nature; through public sermons that sought to link Scripture with the concrete life of the everyday; through the creation of public rituals to commemorate the salvations and destructions of the biblical past, the rabbis were able to canonize, codify, and ritualize historical memory for all generations to come.

The rabbinic approach was to implode history, to cut it down to manageable size. Events were disassembled and reassembled according to biblical archetypes: the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Akedah (binding of Isaac), the Exodus, Sinai, the breaking of the tablets, the destruction of the Temple, the Exile, the restoration of Zion. The rabbis selected, combined, and arranged events to fit them on a continuum. Thus, the separate destructions of both Temples (in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.) were telescoped together, combined with the capture of Bethar (in 135 C.E.) and the ploughing up of Jerusalem (ca. 130 C.E.), and all four calamities were then linked to the original day of treason in the wilderness; described in Numbers 14 and identified as the ninth day of Av in all cases (Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit. 4:6).

As part of the selection process, the rabbis never treated the individual as worthy of memorialization. There was no place for heroes either in the commemoration of the Exodus on Passover or in the three-week period leading up to the ninth of Av. This collective focus remained in force throughout the Middle Ages, even in Christian Europe, with its plethora of saints' days. Rabbi Akiva was remembered simply as one of the 10 Harugei Malkhut, the rabbinic martyrs during the Hadrianic persecution. This legendary construct was in turn refashioned sometime in the Byzantine period into a mythic tale with biblical antecedents (the selling of Joseph by his brothers), eventually to become part of the Yom Kippur liturgy (in the commemoration of the Ten Martyrs).

Medieval Developments

Indeed, it was liturgy that became the central repository of group memory in the Middle Ages. A number of historical chronicles were written in the wake of the Crusades, and the Expulsion from Spain was the major catalyst for the first serious attempts at postbiblical Jewish historiography, yet both national calamities were commemorated mainly in synagogue ritual: in memorial prayers for the dead, in penitential poems, in additions to the liturgy for the ninth of Av. Fasting and feasting remained the essential ways of recalling local events of special significance such as expulsions, plagues, or deliverance from danger.

Thanks to a system of dating events and of choosing representative places, it was now possible to create new linkages and historical clusters. Thus, the Cossack uprising of 1648-49 was followed by 16 years of foreign invasion, but in Jewish memory, only Tah vetat (1648-1649)--the period of pogroms--was recalled, while the destruction of Nemirov (May 1648) became the stand-in for the ruin of Jewish Poland. The anniversary of Nemirov's destruction, the 20th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, became a commemorative fast day, linked by date to gezeirat tatkla, the martyrdom of the Jews of Blois in 1171.

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David G. Roskies

David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and professor of Jewish Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary.