Shoah: How a Biblical Term Became the Hebrew Word for Holocaust

An ancient Hebrew term signifying utter destruction now refers to the greatest modern tragedy to befall the Jewish people

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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There are many words to describe the indescribable horror the Jews suffered.
There are many words to describe the indescribable horror the Jews suffered.Credit: AP
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The horrors of the mid-20th century destruction of European Judaism are indescribable, yet there are many words to describe it.

In English, those terrible events are referred to by the word "Holocaust." The term became commonplace after 1978, when a miniseries by the same name aired on American television, bringing the carnage right into U.S. living rooms.

Before the term Holocaust was used specifically to describe the organized killing of Jews, however, it was used by writers to describe other more moderate, but still horrific, bloodbaths.

Laying floral tributes at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Day, 2012.Credit: Artium Degel

The origins of the word Holocaust come from the Greek holos and kostos, which combined mean "totally burnt." At its core, the term describes an animal sacrifice totally burnt on an altar in order to please a god.

In Hebrew, we use a different word, which is also ancient: shoah (sho-Ah). The word appears in the Bible more than a dozen times, always to signify complete and utter destruction.

For example, consider Zephaniah 1:15: “That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of shoah and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

During the Middle Ages, the word began to mean disaster. Samuel ibn Naghrela, the great Talmudic scholar and statesman who lived in Moorish Iberia in the 11th century, wrote this poem: “Angered by difficulty\And angered by want of sin\And there is shoah hidden in good\And good hidden in shoah."

A dance in the memory of Anna Frank, child victim of the Shoah.Credit: Haaretz

In Israel, the word appeared in 1865 in HaLevanon, the first Hebrew newspaper in the Holy Land. When Rabbi Joseph Schwarz died that year, the newspaper ran an article which said, "A shoah piled on a shoah covered Jerusalem."

The first person believed to use the word shoah specifically to describe the Holocaust was writer and editor Yehuda Erez, in 1938. Erez, who emigrated from Russia to British Mandate Palestine 1923, wrote the article "With the Shoah in Europe" in December 1938, saying, “We are horrified at the foundation by the shoah that is taking place upon the heads of German Jewry."

Even before World War II broke out, ultra-Orthodox publications began calling the events befalling Germany’s Jews a shoah. The term also appeared here and there in secular periodicals. Once the Nazis invaded Poland and the war truly erupted, the word shoah began to spread to the daily newspapers.

Haaretz first used the word shoah in its modern sense in September 1939, when one of its writers said, “When the sword of war placed a shoah on entire Jewish towns and brought anxiousness and discomfort to the Jewish community in the Holy Land."

Haaretz's competitor Davar, however (since defunct), had beaten it to the punch two days earlier, writing in its editorial of the unfolding events in Europe: “A terrible shoah befell the millions of Jews of Poland, a shoah whose scope and sights far exceed anything experienced in recent years."

During the 1940s, when the extent of the tragedy became clear, the term shoah was designated as the term to describe the horror. This didn’t please everyone; the poet Uri Zvi Grinberg, for example, devoted his Bialik Prize acceptance speech in 1955 to rail against the use of the term.

In subsequent years, the word shoah has been applied to other genocides, as well, including that of the Armenians by the Turks in World War I such as the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks during World War I, and in Hebrew translations of English terms such as “nuclear holocaust” and “ecological holocaust.”

And every year in Israel, the annual Holocaust memorial day is called Yom HaShoah.

This article was first published in April of 2013

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