Summary: a commemoration for Jews killed during the Holocaust
2021 Date: 7th-8th April (sundown to sundown)
Celebrated by: Jews, the State of Israel
Linked Holidays: International Holocaust Remembrance Day (worldwide)
Background and Theological Significance
Yom HaShoah, or in full Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה), is the official Holocaust Remembrance Day for the Jewish people. It literally translates as ‘Day of the Remembrance for the Holocaust and Heroism’. The day is observed annually in the State of Israel on the 27th Day of Nisan, which is the first month of the year according to the Hebrew calendar; it is mirrored by the International Holocaust Memorial Day which is on the 27th of January, the first month of the international calendar. It commemorates the more than six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust, as well as the efforts of the Jewish resistance during this time. Holocaust commemorations are held by many different groups worldwide. However, Yom HaShoah is the specific memorial day that was established by the State and Chief Rabbinate of Israel for the Jewish people in that place and dispersed around the world.
Holocaust education in Israel in the 1950s typically emphasised the suffering of the Jewish peoples under the oppression of the Third Reich. This emphasis changed in the 1960s towards teaching young Israelis about Jewish resistance, both active and passive, during the Nazi persecution; in addition to learning about the horrors committed. Yom HaShoah has since spread from being an Israeli commemoration to being a day that is observed by Jewish communities around the world. It has also led the way for many other organisations and countries, including the United Nations, to set an annual date of commemoration for all those killed in the Holocaust, as well as those who have been the victims of genocide before and since.
The word ‘shoah’ is used in the Hebrew Bible to mean calamity or destruction, and since the 1940s it has been used by Jews as the primary term for the Holocaust. The first commemoration of the Shoah in Israel was held on the 28th December 1949, due to the decision by the Chief Rabbinate that an annual commemoration should take place on the 10th Day of Tevet, a traditional Hebrew day of mourning. However, by 1951, the Israeli government declared that the 27th Day of Nisan should be the annual date of the Holocaust Day of Remembrance. The first observance was held on 3rd May 1951 in a ceremony at the Chamber of the Holocaust on Mount Zion. The full name of Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah was established in 1953, although it is more commonly referred to as Yom HaShoah. The Israeli government legally established the day as a national commemoration in 1959, which was to include a two-minute silence as well as memorial gatherings and Holocaust educational programmes.
The placing of Yom HaShoah in the Gregorian calendar alters from year to year, but normally occurs between April and May; one week after Passover and eight days before Israel Independence Day. If the 27th Day of Nisan in any given year falls adjacent to the Sabbath, the commemoration is moved backward or forward by one day.
Yom HaShoah begins in Israel at sundown with a ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. During this ceremony, the flag is lowered to half-mast and six torches (representing the approximately six million Jews who died during the Holocaust) are symbolically lit. Similar ceremonies of commemoration are also held in schools and community centres across the country. Places of entertainment such as cafés and cinemas are closed, and Holocaust documentaries are often streamed on radio and television. At 10:00am on the day of Yom HaShoah, an air-raid siren announces two minutes of silence throughout Israel, giving people an opportunity to remember, reflect and pray.
Commemorations of Yom HaShoah are also held by Jewish communities across the world. These often take the form of prayer services in the local synagogue, candlelit vigils and recitations of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Since the 1980s the annual March of the Living takes place in Poland on Yom HaShoah, when thousands of people march silently between Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps to remember all who were murdered there.
Yom HaShoah is a day of great importance for Jewish communities, both in Israel and worldwide. Many different groups, whether Reformed, Conservative, or Orthodox, have suggested different ways of commemorating this uniquely tragic event.
One account of the importance of Yom HaShoah can be found in the following news item by a Jewish writer, which tells the story of how her family were cruelly ripped apart by the tragedy of the Holocaust, and how the annual commemoration of Yom HaShoah plays a great importance in her personal and cultural life.