History versus Memory

There is no Hebrew word for history. The closest we have in modern Hebrew is a corruption of the English - historia or היסטוריה. The word that is nearest to history (and perhaps simultaneously furthest from it, too), is the word "remember." In fact, zecher (זכר, "remember") appears over 120 times in the Tanach (תנ’’ך, "Bible"). Remembering is often used to evoke empathy for others; for example, whenever the Torah talks of treating widows, orphans, strangers, and others kindly, the reasoning behind it is this:

וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ ה' אֱלֹקיךָ מִשָּׁם עַל־כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה׃

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the L-rd your G-d redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing...” (Devarim 24:18)

  • What is your earliest memory?
  • How do you evoke memories?
  • How are your memories shaped over time?
  • What is the difference between history and memory?
  • What does it mean to "remember" something that you never experienced?

The Act of Remembering

In Judaism, we are asked to remember a number of major events that happened to us as a people. These events include remembering creation, exodus from Egypt, Amalek (see below), the Temples and the destruction of the Temples. Clearly we were not present at any of those events or time periods, so how can we actually remember them? Judaism takes an incredible perspective on this idea, explaining through examples, that by personally doing or being active participators in remembering, we personalize and internalize each of these events.


What do we remember? Traditionally, G-d creates the world for six days and on the seventh ceases creative activity:


וַיְכַל אֱלֹקים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה׃ וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת־יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָא אֱלֹקים לַעֲשׂוֹת׃

“On the seventh day G-d finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it G-d had ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.” (Bereishit 2:2-3)

How do we remember? We celebrate Shabbat. Just as G-d ceased creative activity on the seventh day, so too traditional Jews will stop creative work on Shabbat. In fact, the very beginning of Shabbat is marked by lighting two candles - one representing zachor, the commandment to remember the Shabbat, and one representing shamor, the commandment to keep the Shabbat. Further, the imperative to remember is read in Friday night kiddush (blessing over the wine) - zikaron l’ma’a’seh bereishit (זיכרון למעשה בראשית, "remembering the action of creation").

Exodus from Egypt

What do we remember? After 210 years of slavery in Egypt, amongst wonderous miracles, we were taken out of Egypt and began our journey to the Land of Israel:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָעָם זָכוֹר אֶת־הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא ה' אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל חָמֵץ׃

“And Moshe said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of slavery, how G-d took you out of there with a mighty hand; no chametz (unleavened bread) shall be eaten.” (Shemot 13:3)

How do we remember? We are commanded to retell the story to future generations: we do this through Seder night(s) on Pesach. We will revisit this example shortly.


What do we remember? Bnei Yisrael had just left Egypt after the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Yam Suf (known today as the Red Sea). Everyone thought we were untouchable, and that was when the people of Amalek decided to attack. Rather than attacking head-on, where the strongest were walking and protecting the people, they attacked from the rear of the group:

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם׃ אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחַרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקים׃ וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ ה' אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל־אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה'־אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח׃

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - how undeterred by fear of G-d, he [Amalek] surprised you on the march, when you were weak and tired and cut down all the stragglers at your rear. Therefore the the L-rd your G-d grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the L-rd your G-d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Devarim 25:17-19)

How do we remember? The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat of Remembering), on that Shabbat we read parshat zachor (including the verse above, remembering what Amalek did to us and not forgetting). Twice on Purim (in the evening and the following morning), we read Megillat Esther and the foiled plans of Haman—a descendant of Amalek—to kill the Jewish people. Each time his name is said, we make as much noise as possible to blot out the name of Amalek.

Temple Times

What do we remember? Twice the Temple stood in Jerusalem. There were numerous practices and rituals that no longer apply today as we no longer have the Temple. There are certain rituals that we do today to remember what once (or rather, twice) was.

How do we remember?

.זֵכֶר לְמִקְדָּשׁ כְּהִלֵּל. כֵּן עָשָׂה הִלֵּל בִּזְמַן שֶׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הָיָה קַיָּם: הָיָה כּוֹרֵךְ מַצָּה וּמָרוֹר וְאוֹכֵל בְּיַחַד, לְקַיֵּם מַה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר: עַל מַצּוֹת וּמְרוׂרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ

“In memory of the Temple according to Hillel. This is what Hillel would do when the Temple existed: He would sandwich the Pesach lamb between matza and maror (bitter herbs) and eat them all together in order to observe the law (Bamidbar 9:11): ‘You shall eat it (the Pesach sacrifice) on matzot and maror’.” (The Korech section of the Pesach Haggadah)

The sandwich that we have just before we begin our meal during the Pesach seder is the very same that Hillel—a first century BCE scholar—would have. This is to remember what we used to do by continuing the practice...minus the lamb sacrifice part!

Destruction of the Temple

What do we remember? Twice in Jerusalem stood the Temple. It was a religious and spiritual center for the Jewish people where sacrifices were offered, yet it was so much more. It was a social center: three times a year on the Shalosh Regalim (שלוש רגלים, Three Pilgrimage Festivals - Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavu'ot), Jews would come together at the Temple and catch up, make new friends, etc. It was a political center: when you have so many people coming together, it is a great place for people to make passionate speeches about how the country should be run. It was a business center: the Temple was the ‘Bank of Israel’ of the time, there was a shuk (שוק, "market") where pilgrims could buy their sacrificial animal (it wasn’t worth bringing an animal with you all the way from home, as any bruises or scratches it might get on the journey would render it unfit for sacrifice), change their money to the shekel, etc. And it was a cultural center: pilgrims could hear the Levi’im (לויים, "Levites") play music, and languages from all over the area could be heard. When the Temple was destroyed, Judaism was nearly destroyed with it.

אִם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי׃ תִּדְבַּק־לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי אִם־לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי אִם־לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי׃

"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” (Tehillim 137:5-6)

How do we remember? There are many customs to help us remember, including smashing a glass under the chuppa (חופה, "wedding canopy"), leaving a small area of your home undecorated, some have a tradition of tearing their clothes when seeing Jerusalem and especially the Temple Mount. There is also connecting to Tisha B’Av, which could include fasting, reading Megillat Eicha (מגילת איכה, "Lamentations"), not listening to live music, swimming, etc.

  • Brainstorm different centers in modern times: in your opinion, what is a business center today and why? Do the same for a cultural center, a social center, a political center, and a religious center. Can you think of one place (at any point in history) that was a center for all of these things? What would that look like and what would this add to a community or country?
  • Create large posters of what we remember and how (and display them for all to see!).
  • In small groups, act out each of the ‘how we remember’ pieces above. The others should try to guess what we are remembering in each skit.

Why Do We Remember?

We have discussed that in Judaism, we seem to have memory rather than history. We also looked at the various events that we are told to remember. Yet it is still unclear why we are doing all this remembering, especially for things and events that we never personally experienced.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is by deepening an example referred to earlier: the story of the Exodus from Egypt. How do we remember those events? We don’t simply retell the story—we relive it!

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם׃

“In each and every generation, a person is obliged to see himself as if he left Egypt, as it is stated (in Shemot 13:8) 'And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what G-d did for me, when I went free from Egypt'." (Pesach Haggadah, Maggid section)

  • What rituals do you have that help you remember?
  • Share a story of a time when participating in a Jewish ritual made you feel connected to something larger than yourself.
  • How can you ensure that a memory continues to live on?
  • Is there a way to include others in your memories? If so, how?