The word "Holocaust"

Question:

Why is the Holocaust called the Holocaust? Does the definition have anything to do with religion?

Andrew Mathis answers:

I am one of the volunteers who answers questions for the Holocaust History Project.

The word "holocaust" does indeed have religious origins. In ancient times, when there was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the priests of the Temple would offer animal sacrifices to God. Some sacrifices would provide the priests with meat for their own consumption, while others would be wholly consumed and only ashes would be left. The latter type of sacrifices were called, in Greek, holokauston, which means, "wholly burned." In Hebrew, the word for this type of sacrifice was 'olah. However, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion and translated the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament into Latin, they borrowed the term holokauston from Greek and rendered 'olah as holocaustum. The English term derives from the Latin word.

In more recent years, many Holocaust scholars have come to favor the Hebrew word Shoah (meaning "ruin" or "destruction") over the word "Holocaust" to describe the destruction of European Jewry during World War II. These people prefer not to use the term "holocaust" because it implies sacrifice, and a sacrifice implies the giving up of something for a greater good, and the Jewish Holocaust did not offer a greater good in exchange all the lives that were lost.

A final note on genocide terminology: The Gypsies (Roma, Sinti) of Europe, who also suffered enormous losses in the Holocaust, refer to the genocide in their language as "The Devouring."

Andrew E. Mathis, Ph.D.

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