Sh'mini begins with Moses instructing Aaron to sacrifice several herd animals in a burnt offering. They do this seeking God’s forgiveness, but the term “burnt offering” has taken on a darker meaning in the 20th century, especially in its Greek translation – “Holocaust”.
I make this connection because Sh’mini this year coincides with Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is the older of the two major Holocaust memorial days. The other one happens on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp – January 27th – and was created by a UN resolution only in 2005. But the Jewish tradition of setting aside a day specifically to memorialize the Holocaust has its origins much earlier, and is surprisingly contentious.
Even before Israel was a country – even while the Nazis were still in power – Jews living in the Palestinian Mandate were mourning their European siblings. And still then, with the wounds fresh, there was debate among the rabbis of Jerusalem on the “correct” way to mourn.
In mid-summer, on the ninth day of the month of Av – Tisha B’av – Jewish tradition establishes a commemoration of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Generations of Medieval Rabbis observed this day of mourning with an increasing strictness, growing the list of prohibited activities and shows of piety.
In the 11th century, as Christian Crusaders toured through European cities en route to Jerusalem, Jews living in their path were persecuted and killed. Those deaths were tragic and horrific, and the rabbis at the time, such as Rashi, considered them as worthy of being mourned as was the destruction of the Temple, and so Tisha B’Av’s meaning grew to include “lamentations for those slain in the persecutions that occurred in our times.” (source: Rashi’s commentary on II Chronicles)
And so, in 1940s Palestinian Mandate, a debate raged: should we follow Rashi’s precedent and mourn the victims of the Nazis on Tisha B’Av, or, as a new generation of Jews argued, was this something new? Did the Holocaust warrant its own day of mourning? When the war in Europe ended, most future-Israelis were preoccupied with creating the State of Israel, but the Rabbis were locked in this argument.
There were many proposals. But ultimately, Tisha B’Av, and all other pre-existing days, were decided to be not appropriate; the argument for a new day of mourning prevailed. In the words of Emil Fackenheim, Jewish Philosopher, Reform Rabbi, and Holocaust survivor, “to lump the Holocaust with all the others would be to act as if nothing new had happened in the history of horror when the attempt was made to ‘exterminate’ the Jewish people, that is to murder saints as well as sinners, new born babies as well as adults... and the attempt was successful beyond the wildest nightmares of anyone.”
Due to the debates among the rabbis, it wasn’t until 1959 that the Israeli Knesset was able to fully create Yom HaShoah. Even once it was decided to create a new day, picking that date was contentious. Secular Israelis, still fighting to create and defend their new country, wanted Yom HaShoa to fall on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the single largest Jewish revolt against the Nazis. However, the uprising had occurred the day before Passover, so orthodox rabbis objected on religious grounds. After two years of debate, a compromise date was reached: after Passover’s end, not on a Shabbat, and still within the time span of the Uprising.
The memories of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust must live on, but there are still today orthodox Jews debating against the existence of Yom HaShoah. While their argument is not likely to prove successful, it does give us an illuminating view into the conflicting ways to interpret our ancient traditions.