For hundreds of years, Jews in Poland fasted on the 20th of Sivan to commemorate the tens of thousands of Jews killed in the Chmielnitzky uprising of 1648-49. Yet, we don’t fast today for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Why not?
We probably should, but there are several reasons why we don’t. Some point to a statement in the kinot – “for we may not add a new day of mourning over ruin and burning.” But the fact that Jews in Poland did fast [for the massacres in 1648-49] renders that reason less than compelling, even if we assume that kinot are an authoritative halachic source.
I think the real reason is broader and an unhealthy reflection on our society today. Polish Jews formed one community. It is probably fanciful to say they were all religious, but at least they all saw themselves as part of one nation. Sadly, many Jews today no longer see themselves that way.
Polish Jewry also had a central leadership body – the Council of the Four Lands – that could issue decrees to which all Jews felt bound. We no longer have a respected council of leaders that all Jews respect.
Moreover, how many Jews today fast the established four fasts such that a decree to establish another fast would be heeded? Fasts are designed to be catalysts for teshuvah, repentance. How many Jews sincerely engage in acts of repentance?
The Holocaust devastated Ashkenazic Jewry. Yet, it would be very difficult to convince even most American Jews (who are largely Ashkenazic) to accept an additional fast.
All that said, the current observances of Yom HaShoah fall short of a meaningful commemoration of this unique and horrific calamity. They tend to consist of contrived ceremonies, survivor accounts, hollow expressions of “Never Again,” and the pursuit of the broader agenda of the organizers.
There is little religious perspective added and almost no attempt to fit the Holocaust into the context of Jewish history, before and after. Observances that feature these elements might have to wait another generation, and such observances will include a public fast.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, mara d’asra of
Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, NJ
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The fast of the 20th day of Sivan was established in the era of the Achronim when there were gedolim like the Taz who had the authority to make decrees. Today, the power of the generation’s Torah leaders has weakened, and we are unable to establish fast days.
Before World War II ended, on the 17th of Tevet, 1945, the Chief Rabbinate held an initial discussion about establishing a permanent day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. In 1948, after many requests and demands from organizations and individuals who wanted to say Kaddish for their loved ones whose day of death was unknown, the chief rabbis – HaRav Herzog and HaRav Uziel – sent a letter to the General Council of the Chief Rabbinate requesting that Asarah b’Tevet be declared a day of general Holocaust remembrance.
Rav Herzog related that a proposal had been made to establish a day of fasting, but there was intense opposition from the Brisker Rav, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik, who maintained that to do so would be a violation of the prohibition against adding new things to the Torah (bal tosif).
Rav Herzog responded that he did not agree and saw no prohibition whatsoever. He also laid out the reasons for making Asarah b’Tevet a day to recall the Holocaust: On the one hand, it’s impossible not to establish a fast to remember the martyrs of the Holocaust. On the other hand, to add a special fast is problematic in our generation. Therefore, in his opinion, the most appropriate day to set aside as a day of remembrance is Asarah b’Tevet, which is a short fast day without excessive mourning.
— Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Tzefas
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Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains in Igros Moshe (vol. 8, Yoreh De’ah 57:11) that the Holocaust, which targeted all Jews, is an extension and continuation of the destruction of the Temple and all subsequent tragedies experienced by the Jewish people. We don’t add a special day marking these calamities because they are all marked by and included in our grieving and fasting on Tisha B’Av.
By contrast, Reb Moshe says, Chmielnitzky’s massacres were a local event, and were not government-sponsored (indeed, the Polish authorities, against whom the Cossacks were revolting, tried to save the Jews where possible).
So while this tragedy was indeed an outgrowth of galus (in Reb Moshe’s words, “mishum d’mei’osan hachata’im she’nischaivu b’galus ne’enashu gam baze”), nevertheless it was somewhat different and deserved its own (local) commemoration.
As an aside, Reb Moshe doesn’t seem to directly address the fact that the 20th of Sivan had first been established as a fast day several centuries earlier by Rabbeinu Tam and other gedolei Baalei Tosafos of France, memorializing the Jews killed al kiddush Hashem following the Blois blood libel of 1171. Perhaps, though, the same logic applies: It occurred in one particular city and was not sanctioned by the king of France, only by the local baron.
On a related note, on Purim, 1957, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that we don’t establish special days to mark tragedies and victories that happened to the Jewish people throughout history (as we did after the Purim story) because the days designated by Chazal encompass the commemoration of all historical events.
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson, renowned
Lubavitch author and lecturer
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It’s not quite true that there’s no fast for the Holocaust. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel offered the existing fast of Asarah b’Tevet for that purpose (the first Holocaust Remembrance day was Asarah b’Tevet, 1949), and still designates it as a day of generalized Kaddish for all whose yahrzeits are unknown. The Knesset eventually moved the day to Nisan, during which fasts are prohibited.
Others – including apparently Rav Soloveitchik – saw Tisha B’Av as a day of national mourning since all the tragedies of the Jewish people have their roots in the destruction of the Temple.
Obviously, though, leaders of Polish Jewry thought their tragedy deserved its own day. I have two guesses why we did not emulate them. First, I wonder whether the rise of the State of Israel made special “days” political. The Orthodox world split over Zionism and Yom HaAtzma’ut. Any new day of commemoration would have seemed too “Zionist” or “modern.” I suspect the Chief Rabbinate chose an existing fast in an effort to be less radical.
My second guess, more convincing to me, revolves around Oravh Chayim, siman 571, where the Shulhan Aruch looks askance at Torah scholars who fast unnecessarily because it diminishes their service of G-d. The Magen Avraham extends this disapproval to many others, even day laborers, who owe their best efforts to their employer.
After the 1648-49 massacres, establishing a fast day on the 20th of Sivan was evidently seen as worth the loss of energy. I think the centuries since have changed eating patterns such that the downsides of non-mandatory fasting has deterred [rabbis from] instituting new fast days. The headache, the nap, the inability to focus make it not worth it. We have too much to do – in the most positive sense.
We can and should remember, mourn, and commemorate the Holocaust, but without losing precious time of service of G-d. So we observe it in other ways than fasting, or fold it into existing fast days.
— Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, author, regular
contributor to www.Torahmusings.com