Word of the Day / Yad Vashem

Any bewilderment over the Holocaust memorial museum's name can be cleared up by the knowledge that 'yad' doesn't always mean hand.

Shoshana Kordova
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President Barack Obama lays a wreath at Yad Vashem, March 22, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman
Shoshana Kordova

One of the most well-known Holocaust museums in the world, as well as one of the sites that diplomats and tourists in Israel are most likely to visit, bears the seemingly unlikely name of “Hand and Name,” though you probably know it better as Yad Vashem.

If you try to understand the name of this institution on a literal level, you’re unlikely to get very far. Maybe, you might think, the “name” part has to do with the practice of publicly intoning the names of some of the 6 million. As for “hand,” that’s where your thoughts could turn gruesome fast.

Perhaps the word is supposed to refer to the hands of the victims, one might speculate. Could it be a synecdoche that, like the exhibit of eyeglasses at Auschwitz, is meant as a symbolic representation of the unfathomable?

In a word, no.

Although the primary meaning of yad is indeed “hand,” it has additional meanings as well, including the Even-Shoshan definition of “tall memorial monument that rises like a hand.” As a phrase, yad vashem refers to an "enduring memorial" or a "memorial monument."

Indeed, Yad Vashem, which was established in 1953, describes itself as “the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust.”

This use of yad, which means “power” and “strength” as well as “monument,” can be seen in the biblical description of a memorial to Avshalom, King David’s rebellious son: “Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself the pillar, which is in the king’s dale; for he said: ‘I have no son to keep my name in remembrance’; and he called the pillar after his own name; and it is called Absalom’s monument [yad Avshalom] unto this day” (2 Samuel 18:18).

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There is indeed a stone tomb called Yad Avshalom (known in English as the Tomb of Absalom or Absalom’s Pillar) in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, though Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay recently announced that it’s more likely to be the final resting place of Herodian monarch Agrippa I.

“Thus saith the Lord: Keep ye justice, and do righteousness; for my salvation is near to come, and my favor to be revealed,” reads Isaiah 56:1. In verse 5, we are told: “Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a monument and a memorial [yad vashem] better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.”

Indeed, Yad Vashem, which was established in 1953, describes itself as “the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust.”

It is this sense of yad as “memorial” that can be seen in other Israeli institutions as well, like Yad Lebanim, an organization that memorializes Israelis killed in war and helps their families.

Yad Sarah, a charity organization that assists the elderly and disabled, doesn’t seem to have much to do with memorializing. But its founder – former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who was recently convicted of diverting bribes for the Holyland real estate complex to the charity – named it in memory of a woman called Sarah: his paternal grandmother, who was killed in the Holocaust.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.