Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The Fast of Asarah B’Tevet commemorates the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, which ultimately led to the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile.

Following the founding of the State of Israel, the Asarah B’Tevet was imbued with new meaning: It was established by the Chief Rabbinate as “Yom HaKaddish HaKlali,” a day of Kaddish to be recited for those who died al kiddush Hashem in the Shoah and whose precise date of death is unknown, as well as those kedoshim who have no one to say Kaddish for them.


But the designation of Asarah B’Tevet as a “memorial day” for the Holocaust seems curious at first glance, and was indeed the subject of much controversy and debate.

By 1942, the gravity of the tragedy taking place in Europe reached the shores of pre-State Palestine. In response, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog enlisted the support of leading rabbis to establish a day of mourning, fasting and prayer. Among those he approached was the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev HaLevi Soloveichik, who had himself only recently escaped from Europe and settled in Jerusalem. Rav Soloveitchik, also known as Rav Velvel or the Griz, was vehemently opposed to adding a new day of mourning and fasting to the Jewish calendar. He reasoned that it is inappropriate – even prohibited – to create a new day of mourning as we already have a national day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and other national calamities and tragedies throughout Jewish history.

In his Teshuvot V’hanhagot (2:721), Rav Moshe Shternbuch records the fateful meeting. Rav Velvel pointed to “Mi Yitein Roshi Mayim,” the kinah recited on Tisha B’Av that describes the destruction of the German communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz during the First Crusades of 1096. In this kinah, the author, Rav Kalonymous ben Yehudah of Speyer, writes, “…One may not add a time [to commemorate] destruction and inferno… therefore today [Tisha B’Av] I will arouse my grief and lament and wail and cry with bitter soul…” According to Rav Velvel, “It is explicit that even though holy congregations suffered and met cruel deaths, nevertheless they did not institute days of mourning, rather they pushed them off to Tisha B’Av since it is prohibited to establish new days of mourning.”

Later, when asked about establishing Yom HaShoah as a day to commemorate the tragedies of the Holocaust, Rav Moshe Feinstein similarly responded that it is not permissible to create a new day of mourning (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:57:11).

Rav Velvel’s nephew, the “Rav,” Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, was also of the opinion that Tisha B’Av is the day set aside to mourn all national tragedies and calamities throughout Jewish History. On those grounds he too objected to the establishment of Yom HaShoah (See Nefesh HaRav, p. 197-198).

(A fascinating footnote to Israeli History: Prime Minister Menachem Begin would seek to move Yom HaShoah to Tisha B’Av following his meeting with Rav Soloveitchik in 1977.)

The Chazon Ish too opposed establishing any fast day to commemorate the Shoah. He explained that we do not have the authority to establish fast days today, as fast days may only be established by pophets (Kovetz Igrot 1:97).

But establishing a day of mourning and fasting – in addition to the 9th of Av – is not without precedent. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 580:1) lists days “on which tragedies befell our forefathers, and it is proper to fast on them.” Among those listed are tragic events which occurred after the destruction of the Holy Temple.

In his response to the opposition, Rav Herzog pointed to specific communities that had established days of fasting, with rabbinic approval (Heichal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim 61). In fact, the communities of Worms and Mainz – the very source for the opposition – observed a fast day to commemorate the destruction of their communities during the Crusades. And later, fasts would be established to commemorate the burning of the Talmud in France in 1242, and the Chmielnicki Massacres, which decimated Polish Jewry in the 17th Century (See Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 580:8).

The argument has also been made that while Tisha B’Av is indeed our national day of mourning, some tragedies are so devastating that they require their own day of commemoration. That would certainly be the case with regards to the Holocaust. The Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Shalom Noach Berezovsky, for example, was deeply pained that a special day was not established to mourn the tragedies of the Shoah (See his Kuntres HaHarugah Alecha). And Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, who himself had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, defended the establishment of Yom Hashoah.

In a preface to one of his responsa, he provides a compelling argument for the observance of such a day: “In my opinion it is proper to establish a special day of mourning and remembrance to remember the rabbis and holy Jews who were murdered, butchered, and burned in the sanctification of Hashem’s Holy Name, and to remember on this day the souls of these martyrs. We must do so not just because of the honor due these martyrs alone, but because of future generations that they not forgot what our people lost when the evil, murderous darkness covered over Europe” (Seridei Eish, new edition 1:31).

In the early days of Statehood it was proposed that two days be created to commemorate the Holocaust. One to commemorate heroism to coincide with the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, and one, on Tisha B’Av, to mourn the tragic events. After much debate, on September 1, 1951, the Knesset passed a resolution establishing the 27th of Nisan as Yom HaShoah U’mered HaGhettot.

But in an attempt to reach a compromise between the secular government and religious community – and in hopes of appeasing some of the opposing rabbis – the Chief Rabbinate established Asarah B’Tevet as Yom HaKaddish HaKlali, a day for the recital of Kaddish for those whose date of their death is unknown. In addition to Kaddish, they decided the day should be observed like a yahrzeit, with the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, the recitation of Kel Maleh Rachamim, and the study of mishnayot.

Choosing a day to recite Kaddish is not without precedent. The Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 568:20), citing the Maharshal, rules that one who does not know the anniversary of his father’s death may choose any day on which to observe as the yahrzeit.

But the choice of the Asarah B’Tevet was not accidental.

By choosing Asarah B’Tevet – one of the Four Fasts established by our Sages to mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple – the Chief Rabbinate chose to imbue the day with a religious character and to quiet the voices who opposed the creation of a new memorial day.

During the first Yom HaKaddish HaKlali in December of 1949, the remains of thousands of Jews from the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp near Munich were buried together with desecrated Torah scrolls in Jerusalem, and special prayers were recited for the martyrs.

Unfortunately Yom HaKaddish HaKlali was never fully adopted, outside of the Religious Zionist community. In recent years, Chief Rabbi Dovid Lau has even encouraged the broader public to observe Yom HaKaddish HaKlali, but the day has yet to gain a wide acceptance.

Rav Yehudah Amital, himself a survivor who lost his entire family in Auschwitz, speaking to his students on Asarah B’Tevet in 1990, explained the religious significance and unique quality of reciting the Kaddish together as a community:

“On the one hand, Kaddish is recited by each individual for his relatives. On the other hand, when many individuals recite Kaddish – when the whole congregation recites Kaddish – then it assumes additional meaning. To the extent that we explore this additional meaning of the communal Kaddish, the Kaddish of each individual will be elevated higher and higher, until the Kaddish of each individual will itself attain a power and depth that never existed in the Kaddish prayer as recited in past generations.

“At the time of death of every individual Jew, the Holy One’s great Name is diminished, as it were, and so we add to it by reciting Kaddish. This may be said of the Kaddish of the individual.

“But the communal Kaddish is the innermost and most authentic expression of the Jewish Nation. It demonstrates our faith’s attitude towards everything that is bound up with the word Holocaust…

“Despite our lack of comprehension, despite all our questions, we nonetheless declare: May Hashem’s great Name be elevated and sanctified.”


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Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as mara d'atra of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef, rosh kollel of the Sinai Kollel and Kollel Boker at Hovevei Zion, and lectures at the OU Center.