Words, and Meanings

Although this column will be sent out on Friday the 29th, it’s being written on Wednesday, about eight hours before the beginning of the observance of Yom HaShoah (“Holocaust Remembrance Day”). As with most things, the choice of language is not merely important; it provides insight into our values.

I circled Holocaust Remembrance Day within quotation marks to signify a linguistic discomfort with the term. I’m not (completely) naïve; I recognize that “Holocaust” is the word typically employed to reference the Nazis’ attempted genocide of the Jewish People, and that most people utilize it with the respect and solemnity it deserves. At the same time, the language stickler in me obstinately insists on highlighting the distinction between “Holocaust” and Shoah, the term which I believe is far more appropriate. Once again, words have meaning.

Holocaust is derived from the Greek word holocaustos, essentially a compound of holos (whole, or complete) and kaustos (burned, or red-hot). In other words, something that was completely burnt up. The term comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Tanach, and refers to the olah, the sacrifice our ancestors offered in the wilderness and in the Temple in Jerusalem. A “burnt offering.”

To use holocaust (I’m dropping the capital ‘H’) is, however tenuously, to suggest that eight decades ago, a third of the Jewish People were “sacrificed” (in the Biblical sense of the word). No Gd in whom I fervently believe has ever or will ever require such an obscene sacrifice. In Hebrew, we use the term khurban for “sacrifice,” which is comprised of the same root for the word “close.” In that context, we offered khorbanot (sacrifices) to get closer to Gd.

Six million Jewish men, women and children were not sacrificed; they were systemically murdered. To use a derivative of the term holocaustos is an affront to their memory, and even to indirectly imply a religious context to such depravity is, or should be, objectionable.

Shoah, on the other hand, contains no reference to sacrifice. It comes to modern Hebrew from the Tanach, and can be variously translated as devastation or complete ruin. It has no theological connections, and is, in sad fact, based in the actions of humanity. In that light, it rightly evokes man’s own atrocities.

Why is any of this important? Whatever term we use – or choose not to use – doesn’t and can’t change the past. For all of us, and particularly for our students, words matter. We lay claim to our history and our heritage when we speak, figuratively and literally, our own language, when we define ourselves. A case in point:

In Israel, the day in question is officially known as Yom HaZikaron l’Shoah v’lagevurah – the Memorial Day of the shoah (the devastation) and heroism. Too often, that last part is unfortunately left on the cutting room floor. Again – meaning, and lessons, behind our words. Post-WWII, the canard was that Jews went “as sheep to the slaughter,” passively accepting their fate as no other people would. We know that, in the face of impossible odds, that there were instances of unimaginable bravery, in the face of equally unimaginable cruelty. To accept a different narrative is to dishonor the memory of those who did fight back, with pistols against tanks, with no help from an outside world that knew well what was happening.

Our teenagers and our community need not only embrace the right words; they need to honor our history, and commit themselves to being a proud part of a chain that stretches back 3,500 years.

שבת שלום – Shabbat Shalom,


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