I understand that in the seven weeks between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot we observe a period of mourning for the death of over 20,000 sages who died during this period. But for the 6 million Jews brutally murdered in the Holocaust we have only one day dedicated to mourning.

Why the imbalance?


You touch upon a painful question, especially for those whose families were murdered by the Nazis, may G‑d avenge their blood. Why are there not more days dedicated to mourning and commemorating the six million victims of the Holocaust?1

Rooted in the Destruction

To this day, the event that is considered most calamitous in Jewish history is the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The reason for this is twofold. First, the destruction signified an unparalleled spiritual disaster. Second, all subsequent suffering of the Jewish people is considered a result of that initial calamity.

This is true historically, and certainly spiritually. In Judaism, the observable reality and the spiritual reality are seen as reflective of one another. The loss of Jewish sovereignty with the Holy Temple's destruction meant that Jewish leadership was threatened, the Jewish High Court was unable to operate properly, the academies had to close or hide, and the level of scholarship and observance fell.

Concomitantly, the spiritual state of the Jewish people fell, and their fear of heaven and sensitivity towards holiness was diminished. The Jewish people were no longer able to experience G‑d's presence directly, as they had when visiting the Temple. In fact, we never recovered that level of spirituality. Rather, as time went on, we were increasingly at the mercy of foreign rule. Eventually, this resulted in the disbanding of the academies in Israel and Babylon, and the loss of a central Jewish authority, leading to further dispersion and distance from the height we enjoyed during Temple times.

The decimation of Rabbi Akiva's disciples was an important event within the downward spiral set in motion by the Temple's destruction. Rabbi Akiva was one of the most important rabbis in the generation immediately following the destruction. In his time, there were real hopes of reestablishing the High Court and rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. His disciples were on track to become the next generation’s teachers and leaders who would elevate the moral and spiritual stature of the people. With their death, another shockwave ran through the people, further distancing them from their hoped-for spiritual state. It was one more in a series of aftershocks the people experienced from the Temple's destruction.

Thus, the original destruction of the Holy Temple was the catalyst for all the subsequent massacres perpetuated against us, including the Crusades, the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Chmielnicki massacres in the 17th century, and the Holocaust.

In a way, our mourning for the Temple and the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's disciples commemorates what these unfortunate events effected for all future generations, down to the horrific destruction in our times.

Why Commemorate Past Events?

Why do we commemorate and mourn past events? What is the point?

The chassidic masters explain that there are no symbolic acts in Judaism. Every Jewish observance or tradition is meaningful, in the sense that the act itself is potent, not merely a representation of something else. For example, the thin cracker-like matzah we eat on Passover is not just a commemoration of our ancestors’ haste to leave Egypt. Consuming it actually enables us to experience liberation from personal constraints we face in our own lives.

When it comes to mourning, we read in Ecclesiastes, “The living shall take to heart.”2 G‑d directs us that our mourning should impress a lesson upon us.

In the case of the mourning period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, the Talmud explains that the students of the great sage and scholar Rabbi Akiva did not show respect for one another.3 Therefore, during this period of time we work on improving our interpersonal relationships, learning to respect others’ opinions even when we disagree.4

So what is the appropriate way to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust? How can the impact of the Holocaust serve as an impetus for a brighter future for Jews and Judaism (which is the ultimate way to honor them)?

Hitler’s goal was to destroy every last member of the Jewish nation.5 He wanted Jews to exist only in museums and military archives.6 Hitler despised the very “Jewishness” we received at Mount Sinai.7

Therefore, I suggest that our response should be to work on rebuilding the Jewish nation, based on the very traditions Hitler wanted to uproot.

See The Rebbe on the Holocaust from our Holocaust section.

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Ask the Rabbi for The Judaism