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Temple Israel of Scranton

Temple Israel of Scranton

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Fasting on Yom HaShoah

Posted on April 1, 2021

From the Rabbi’s Desk

April 2nd 5781

Moadim l’simhah! I hope everyone’s Pesah is going well and that your seders, whether live or by zoom or some combination, were full of family, friends, good food, fun songs, and meaningful discussion. Pesach ends Sunday night; after 9 PM Sunday, April 4th we may again eat hametz.  Pesach is nearly over, but there are several spring holidays yet to come.  The first of these is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, this coming Thursday, April 8th. 

One of the first things the new State of Israel did after it was established was to choose a date for memorializing the Holocaust. Choosing an appropriate date was not easy; any day of the year would have “worked”.  In the end, they chose the 27th of Nisan, the date as close as possible to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that began erev seder 1943. (That is why Yom HaShoah comes so soon after Passover.)

75-plus years after the Holocaust ended we still do not have a standardized way to commemorate the brutal murder of six million of our people, though a variety of observances have emerged. In Israel, Yom HaShoah is a national day of mourning. One thing that we should all do, health permitting, whether we live here or in Israel, is to fast on Yom HaShoah. 

Fasting is a particularly Jewish way of marking communal catastrophe. The most obvious example of this is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of Av, which comes in the middle of the summer and marks the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and in 70 CE.  But that is not the only example. Other, lesser-known, examples include:

  • 23rd day of Shevat, the Earthquake Fast, observed by Jews in the middle ages, after an earthquake killed thousands of Jews and Arabs in 749. 
  • 20th day of Sivan, commemorating the day in 1171 that 32 Jews were burned at the stake in Blois, France, after the very first blood libel in continental Europe. This fast was declared by Rabbenu Tam and was observed by all the communities of France, the English Isles, and the Rhineland. 
  • 20th day of Sivan (again), which was the date in 1648 of the beginning of the Chmielnicki massacres which destroyed a large number of Jewish communities in Poland and murdered perhaps as many as 50,000 Jews — the worst murders of Jews until the Holocaust in our own day. 

If Jews fasted for loss of life in an earthquake and fasted for 32 Jews burned at the stake in France and fasted for 50,000 Jews murdered by rampaging Cossacks, if we can still fast for the destruction of the Temple that took place 2000 years ago, surely we can fast for the loss of six million of our people that took place 80-75 years ago. I consider myself halakhically obligated to fast on Yom HaShoah, I consider it a rabbinic imperative to teach the practice, and I urge you to join me in the observance. 

In addition to fasting, you might light a memorial candle on Wednesday evening April 7th, and leave it burning throughout Yom HaShoah. The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs makes special yellow Yom HaShoah candles and if you do not have one of those, you can light a regular yartzheit candle. 

The Scranton Jewish community will be joining together for a live, socially distanced, and masked, communal Yom HaShoah service in the JCC parking lot at 6:30 on Thursday evening, April 8th.  If you plan to come, please sign up right away as spaces are limited. If you cannot come in person, know that it will be live-streamed on Youtube as well. 

If you cannot make our service or if you are looking for added observance on the day of Yom HaShoah, I call your attention to the second International Reading of Megillat Hashoah. This program is hosted by Beth David in Toronto, ON, and co-sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly. Thursday, April 8 from 11:00 AM-12:00 PM ET Register here. I went to this last year and found it very powerful. 

May we always remember and never forget. 

B’vrakhah, Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer