Setting a Date for Yom Hashoah

After much debate, a compromise date--satisfactory to none--is chosen.

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For the Orthodox, this was a breach of the unmitigated joyfulness of the month. Setting this date for mourning directly violated a halakhic tradition, albeit a minor one. Indeed, the right-wing Orthodox were so unhappy that they have never accepted this date. (In the late 1980s, elements of the Chasidic and Agudas Israel communities began to participate in Yom Hashoah commemorations in New York City.) There could be no "compromise" of a jot or tittle of the halakhah. To somewhat assuage their feelings, the Orthodox were granted a further concession: If the memorial date fell on Friday or Saturday, it would be postponed until Sunday.

No one was satisfied with the outcome. The Orthodox were unhappy because they had been forced to accept an official day that incorporated a violation of the halakhah. The fighters were unhappy because the commemoration was not on the day of the uprising. There was no significant event or special association with 27 Nissan, and thanks to the Shabbat protection, the memorial day was not even fixed on the same date every year. But the overall pressures to create a memorial day could no longer be denied. On April 12, 1951, the Knesset declared 27 Nissan as Yom Hashoah U'Mered HaGetaot (Holocaust and Ghetto Revolt Remembrance Day). The day was soon referred to as Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah (Devastation [Holocaust] and Heroism Day). In 1953, the memorial authority was established and named Reshut Zikkaron Yad Vashem (Memory and Memorial Authority).

The truth is that all through the fifties, the day was neglected. Not until 1959 did the Knesset legislate a national public commemoration of the day; two years later it passed a law closing all public entertainment on that day.

Why This Was the Right Decision

Why is 27 Nissan the right day for Yom Hashoah? Had the fighters/partisans gotten their way and 15 Nissan been chosen for the commemoration, this coincidence would have negated the Passover holiday; the joy of Exodus, as it were, would have been buried under the ashes of Auschwitz. Impressing the total experience of destruction on the very day of national liberation would constitute a statement that hope is overwhelmed; redemption has been defeated by catastrophe. In effect, the Nazis would have gained a posthumous victory; their assault on Passover finally would have succeeded.

Furthermore, the message would have been that identification should be made only with the fighters; all the other Jews in the Holocaust were a source of shame, their deaths best played down or forgotten. The implication would have been that the overwhelming might of the Nazis that crushed the victims and killed them beyond their capacity to resist or respond had robbed their deaths of dignity and meaning.

Martyrdom Matters

This judgment would have been a triumph of Western values over the classic Jewish concepts of Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God's name) through martyrdom. The idea that death is meaningful only through resistance is a plausible one, but it had already been judged during the Holocaust to be wrong.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).