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History or Memory?

History or Memory?


It has been said that there is no word for history in the Hebrew language.

(The modern Hebrew equivalent, historia, is a word-lift from the English history, which was pinched from the Greek historia. What goes around, comes around . . . )

The absence of a word as central to any nation as “history” is striking. It’s probably because there’s no such thing as “history” in Judaism.

Zikaron (memory), however, a distant cousin of history, features prominently in biblical language and thought.

It goes far beyond semantics, cutting straight to the core of Judaism’s perception of the past.

You see, “history” is his-story, not mine. The first two letters of “memory,” however, spell me.

Memory is a part of me, and history, apart from meWithout me there is no memory. Memory is a part of me, and history, apart from me.

Put differently: History is made up of objective facts, and memory of subjective experience.

As you might have guessed, Judaism is less interested in dry facts than in breathing experiences.

It is for this reason that much of Jewish tradition and ritual draws on reenactment. We don’t just commemorate, we remember. We don’t just recount someone else’s story, we relive our own.

A few examples:

Much of the Seder curriculum aims to stimulate feelings of slavery and bitterness (e.g., the salt water, bitter herbs, poor man’s bread—a.k.a. matzah, and so on), as well as royalty and liberty (four cups of wine, leaning on cushions, and the like).

In fact, in certain Jewish communities, the seventh night of Passover (the night the sea split for the Jews) finds many walking through pails of water to recreate that event.

On Shavuot we stay up the entire night in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on the morrow, and children are brought to synagogue to hear the Ten Commandments from G‑d.

He’s not just the G‑d we heard about, but the G‑d we heard fromIn fact, Judaism teaches that, in soul, we were all present at Sinai;1 each one of us personally encountered G‑d. Consequently, G‑d is not just the G‑d of our ancestors; He is our G‑d. He’s not just the G‑d we heard about, but the G‑d we heard from.

The divine revelation at Sinai thus distinguishes itself from any other revelation described in other religious traditions. Central to other religions is the belief that G‑d never shows Himself to the masses, to a community of commoners. He speaks only to the prophet, who alone is worthy of divine communion. It’s for the flock to trust implicitly in their shepherd’s account of revelation. Not so in Judaism, which maintains that, indeed, the greatest divine revelation of all time was made accessible to maidservant and Moses alike.

Moreover, even as He spoke to a nation of millions, G‑d addressed each one of them personally. As our sages teach, in His opening words at Sinai, “I am G‑d, your G‑d,” He chose to use the singular form of “your” (elokecha)—the “thy” of vintage English—over the plural possessive (elokeichem).

This was one of the greatest gifts that G‑d bequeathed our people, to include all of us in the Sinaitic display, for it turned our nation’s most seminal event into a living memory, as opposed to a lifeless lesson in history.

Moving along to the ninth of Av, the day the Holy Temple was destroyed thousands of years ago, and a national day of mourning—its customs include eating eggs dipped in ash (just prior to the fast), sitting on low stools, wearing slippers, fasting, and lamenting like it happened only yesterday.

The sukkah transports us to that distant and formative road tripCome Sukkot, and we move into huts for a week to recall the booths we lived in throughout our desert trek. Like a figurative time machine, the sukkah transports us to that distant and formative road trip.

And the list goes on.

The point is, remembering is big in our tradition.

The following discussion seeks to highlight just how big.

The Finale

“Today I am one hundred and twenty years old,” begins Moses’ last homily. “I am no longer able to lead you . . .”

The end is near, or here.

“Be strong and courageous . . . Do not be afraid . . . for G‑d is going with you . . .”2

These moving snippets, and the time in which they were spoken, help set the scene and mood of the last public address given by a selfless leader to his (less-than-selfless) congregation.

And these are the words with which he leaves them:

At the end of seven years . . . during the festival on the holiday of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before G‑d, in the place that He will choose, the king should read the Torah before all of Israel. Assemble the people, the men, the women and the minors, and the convert in your cities, in order that they will hear and in order that they will learn, and they shall fear G‑d . . .3

Moses’ final remarks to his people outlined the mitzvah of hak’hel, the commandment obliging all Jews to septennially gather in the Holy Temple to hear selections of the Torah being read by the Jewish king.

Then, following Moses’ talk with the people, G‑d has a final talk4 with him:

You are soon to lie with your fathers. This nation will rise up and desire to follow the gods of the people of the land into which they are coming. They will forsake Me and violate the covenant which I made with them…

Now, write for yourselves this song . . .

Which song, we wonder; and how might a song stop Jews from assimilating?

Maimonides explains:

It is a positive command for every Jewish man to write a Torah scroll for himself, as the verse states, “Now write for yourselves this song,” meaning to say, “Write for yourselves a Torah which contains this song . . .”5

This mitzvah, for every individual to write his own Torah scroll, is the 613th and final mitzvah to be recorded in the Torah.6 It is the subject of the last conversation between G‑d and Moses that pertained to the people. It must somehow contain a recipe for Jewish survival, an antidote for assimilation.

But what might that be?

If Judaism were taught as a living experience, it would experience long lifeThe single concern on Moses’ mind that day, and later echoed by G‑d in their conversation, was the future of this fragile nation—a future that would become less rosy with time, offering terrible persecution as well as progressive religious challenges.

The solution suggested by both G‑d and Moses was the same:

If Judaism were taught as a living experience, it would experience long life. However, if it were taught as a dead subject, it would, G‑d forbid, be subject to death.

Both the mitzvah of hak’hel and writing a Torah scroll were established to turn the former prospect into reality.

Hak’hel was the reenactment of Sinai. Here’s how Maimonides describes it:

They would prepare their hearts and alert their ears to listen with dread and awe and with trembling joy, like the day [the Torah] was given at Sinai . . . as though the Torah was being commanded to him now, and he was hearing it from the mouth of the Almighty . . .7

Might this explain why of all biblical commands, hak’hel stands alone in obligating (parents to bring their) children,8 including those too young to walk and too underdeveloped to understand, feel or appreciate what was going on around them? The hak’hel experience was not just about the mind, it was about the soul; it triggered the subconscious, not just the conscious. As such, children, who possess as much soul as adults, were present. Somewhere inside their psyche, they reexperienced Sinai.

This also explains why even the greatest sages were present when the king read the Torah, even though they were fluent in what would be read. For this was not a lecture or a refresher course; it was a trip.

Hak’hel was the communal reenactment of Sinai; it made things real againFor a similar reason, it wasn’t the scholar most proficient in Torah who read from it, but the king, “for the king is an agent to make the words of G‑d heard.”9

A class is best taught by an expert teacher. The awe of Sinai is best reenacted through the presence and word of a mighty king.

In sum, hak’hel was the communal reenactment of Sinai; it made things real again.

But that worked in Jerusalem, in the Holy Temple, once in seven years. How would the other six years, outside Jerusalem, and in the days when our nation would be bereft of a Temple, be charged with living Judaism?

For this reason G‑d gave us the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll, to be written and stored inside one’s home wherever and whenever they may live, and whose purpose it is to recreate the personal divine encounter we each experienced at Sinai.

Maimonides could not have put it better when he said that when “a person writes a Torah with his own hand, it is as if he received it from Mount Sinai . . .”

Thus, Moses’ punchline could not have been more appropriate and helpful at that historic moment. Both of the mitzvot he conveyed, and the ideas they represented, were his last and best words of advice to a people facing great odds.

Do more than study Torah and perform mitzvot. Live them, ingest and digest them, experience them—and they will live on.10

What’s in It for Me?

We’re losing numbers, and fast.

Currently, 72 percent of (non-observant) American Jews intermarry.11

Most of those, unfortunately, never received a Jewish education. That’s problem number one.

Some of them did, however, which is problem number two.

If we want to get through to the youth of today, we must shift our educational focus from Jewish knowledge to Jewish experience—Judaism as a lifestyle, not (just) a topic for discussion or a paper.

How often have I heard someone who recently experienced Shabbat, a Jewish holiday or passionate study saying, “I love it, it talks to me, I can’t live without it!”

Perhaps that’s because for the first time in their lives they engaged in living Judaism, not laboratory Judaism.

Or perhaps it was the first time that they felt that Judaism isn’t someone else’s story, but their own.


See Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41; Exodus Rabbah 28:6.


Ibid. 31:10–12. According to the biblical commentator Abarbanel, verse 30 of that chapter describes an address given by Moses to the representatives of Israel, but the people weren’t present.


Ibid. 31:16, 19. Their conversations later on (e.g., 32:48–52) were logistical and contained some final remarks, but didn’t pertain to his leadership of the people.


Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Torah Scroll 7:1.


For more on this mitzvah, and the reason why it isn’t commonly practiced nowadays, see Writing a Personal Torah Scroll.


Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festival Offerings 3:6.


See Talmud, Kiddushin 34b: “Children are obligated in the mitzvah of hak’hel.”


Mishneh Torah, loc. cit.


Based on the Rebbe’s teachings, recorded in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 34.


“Jewish Intermarriage Statistics,”,
See also “World Jewish Population,”,

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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David Levine Hobe Sound, FL via October 7, 2016

Derivation of "History" An excellent article but the derivation of the word "history" is not "His story" as stated. This was a canard against the word used by the militant wing of the "women's movement" and has nothing to do with the derivation of the word. Reply

jim dallas October 6, 2016

help! that excellent work points up a problem owned and lived in by non-jews, they have only histrionics to worship, hence they find it necessary to be 'creating' history of a celebratory sort. of course that fails them and mankind collectively.
G-d, HaShem, sure knows what He is about, we need to contribute now! Reply

O. Turcotte Cambridge, MA October 5, 2016

Synchronistically Timely..... Thank you for this great article. I have been looking for a way to describe the difference between our / Western way of looking at history, starting with Herodotus (dates, events) versus Homer's (experiences, memory). We can even argue that since there is no absolute objectivity and total knowledge of all facts, history, as we study it today, is flawed, incomplete and biased. As W. Churchill said: " History will be kind to me as I intend to write it myself". He then sat down and wrote a whole bunch of books on the subject! Reply

rg Israel September 22, 2011

doesn't "toladot" mean history, i.e. the records? Reply

Anonymous w September 21, 2011

well i did not get too far into your article. for me, history is valuable. there is a ton of history that does not come from my memory.

" Remember not to forget Amalek. "

In one context you can say, look at that word " Remember ". It has to be a part of you. Well, why do we have to keep being reminded. Does it ever become a part of us ? Well, if i was there when the Amalek stories took place, i wouldn't need reminding. If i was there, i don't need reminders. I am glad that someone wrote down that history. I am glad that someone reminds me about it.

As i said, it is likely a matter of context. Reply

Simcha Tsfat, Israel September 20, 2011

Historia or hester Historia in Hebrew would be written Hester- Yud Ke...Hashem's hiding and the world seems to write the script of men...witout divine providence, away from the divine plan...That's so non jewish a concept that of course there is no such world in Hebrew....
Shana tova umetuka to all... And may the hand of Hashem shine thru in your life in this upcoming year of true hesed 5772 Reply

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