Zikkaron: Liturgical Remembrance and Sacred History

Zikkaron: Liturgical Remembrance and Sacred History

by Steven Todd Kaster

San Francisco State University
Jewish Spirituality and Tradition
Term Paper Professor Ronald Feldman
December 9, 1998


As I stated in my prospectus this paper will in many ways be a sequel to my first paper on the Jewish festivals. In it I will first briefly examine the Hebrew notion of time and history and show how it differs from our modern understanding of the linear nature of time. Then I will look at the biblical idea of history as poetic recital, with an emphasis on the confessional nature of the scriptural texts which recount the events of Sacred History. I will conclude by focusing on the Jewish belief that, by remembering the mighty acts of God in the liturgy, man is able to mystically re-live them as a present reality; to use the words of Brevard S. Childs, "Remembrance equals participation" [Childs, page 56].

The Ancient Hebrew View of Time

Our modern linear notion of time is related to, but at the same time different from, the ancient Hebrew view of time and history. Gerhard Von Rad explains that in the modern Western view "...time is seen as an infinitely long straight line on which the individual can mark such past and future events as he can ascertain. This time span has a mid-point, which is our own present day" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 99]. But this idea of an "absolute time, independent of events, and, like the blanks on a questionnaire, only needing to be filled up with data which will give it content, was unknown to Israel" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 99]. He illustrates this by looking at the Deuteronomic historical accounts of the concurrent reigns of the kings in Judah and Israel which the chroniclers made an effort to synchronize, but then did not take "what we should expect to be the next logical step -- they did not take these two chronological series together in order to enter them on one single time line" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 100]; instead, both lists of kings retained their own independent time sequence.

The ancient Hebrew perception of time was not abstract like our modern view; instead, it was connected to the idea of specific events, and because of this event specific orientation the people of Israel "found the idea of a time without a particular event quite inconceivable" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 100]. So, for the ancient Jews the concept of "time" was understood only in relation to particular events: There is a time of giving birth (Mic. V. 2 [3]), a time for animals to be gathered together (Gen. XXIX. 7), a time when kings go forth to battle (II Sam. XI. I). When something out of the ordinary was projected, such as the rebuilding of the temple (Hag. I. 4), there could be debate whether this was the time to undertake it. The tree yields its fruit 'in its time' (Ps. I. 3), and God gives his creatures food 'in due time' (Ps. CIV. 27); that is to say, every event has its definite place in the time-order; the event is inconceivable without its time... [Von Rad, v. 2, page 100].

Gerhard Von Rad points out that the ancient Hebrews took their knowledge of the recurrence of the natural cycles of the year and applied it to the events of human history. In fact this "temporal ordering holds good for all the concerns of mankind -- even for emotions -- because [as it is recorded in Ecclesiastes] every matter under heaven has its own time" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 100]. As a result of this idea it is partially man's responsibility to determine if he is called upon to act at a specific moment or not; this follows from what Von Rad said concerning the debate about whether or not it was the right time to rebuild the Temple.

Since, as was indicated above, biblical theology does not view time in an abstract sense, it becomes possible for scripture to speak of time in a plural form. One example of this is found in Psalm 31:16 which reads, "My times are in thy hands" [RSV Bible]. When reading this "we must remember that [the ancient Jew] had no idea at all of time as such; in his eyes human life is made up of a series of many times" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 101]. This is why ancient Israel saw time only as a series of specific events initiated by God. Thus time itself does not exist as an independent reality, but exists only in relation to events, especially divinely initiated events. Obviously this notion is quite different from our modern view, but it is easy to see how these two approaches are related to each other; and how ultimately the modern conception of time has its origin in the ancient Jewish notion of an event centered series of "times."

Liturgical Time

No overview of the Hebrew conception of time would be complete without investigating the purpose of the Jewish liturgical system and its cycle of weekly and yearly feasts. For the ancient Hebrews this system was the earliest and most important method for understanding the passage of time. In fact it is possible to "describe the time of cultic festival as the one and only 'time' in the full sense of the word, for it alone was time furnished with content in the truest sense of the term" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 102]. Each of the festivals possessed an absolute value because their observance was commanded by the Lord in order to commemorate certain events from the History of Redemption. They were thus seen preeminently as a "day that the Lord has made", because the mighty acts of God were to be liturgically remembered and the people were to "exult and rejoice" [Ps. 118:24]. The times of the festivals were set apart and sanctified by the Lord, thus if a man failed to follow the prescribed rituals he was not infringing upon a "mere human arrangement"; instead, he was in violation of "a divinely appointed fixed order" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 103].

In order to comprehend the importance of the various festival times it is necessary to understand that their celebration brought into being the reality of what they commemorated. Thus the weekly celebration of the Sabbath day allowed the people of Israel to enter into "the divine rest and, in so doing, [they were] conscious that this rest upon which [they] entered was as it were an ontological reality" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 103]. So the celebration of the Sabbath day or of a particular feast day created more than a mere subjective psychological state; instead, it brought into being the objective reality of what was being commemorated and enabled the worshiper to participate in the event recalled.

The Nature of the Events of Sacred History

 Just as the ancient Jewish notion of time differs from that of the modern world, so too does its view of history. Biblical history is not merely the recording of random events in the life of the people of Israel; instead, "it is history as the arena of God's activity" [Wright, page 38]. Any idea of history "as a secular, naturalistic, cause-and-effect process in which events are to be explained solely by the interplay of environment and geography on individual and social organisms" [Wright, 82] would be inconceivable to the biblical authors. It is thus history with a purpose, and it is recorded in order that man may confess "his faith by reciting the formative events of his history as the redemptive handiwork of God" [Wright, 38].

This view of history is obviously distinct from our modern concern with the recording of human events that are recorded down to the most minor details, but which ultimately contain only a relative value. This historical relativity is quite foreign to the biblical view, as Von Rad says, "The historical acts by which [the Lord] founded the community of Israel were absolute" [Von Rad, v. 2, page104]. Because these events were understood to be absolute in nature, "they did not share the fate of all other events, which inevitably slip back into the past"; instead, "they [are] actual for each subsequent generation; and this not just in the sense of furnishing the imagination with a vivid present picture of past events -- no, it [is] only the community assembled for a festival that by recitation and ritual brought Israel in the full sense of the word into being," and as a consequence of this "she really and truly entered into the historic situation to which the festival in question was related" [Von Rad, v. 2, page 104].

God as the Source of Sacred History

 How God acts in history can vary. He can act alone and intervene in the affairs of man or even in the natural order, or He can act through various men and nations using them as His instruments. In the events of the Exodus God intervened directly: first the Lord sent the ten plagues upon Egypt, and later He parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross dry-shod to safety. But in ending the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish nation God used Cyrus as His instrument. The Hebrew notion of history tends to make man active rather than passive, because man participates at least in an instrumental way in the actions of God. Biblical theology sees God as revealing Himself and His will in history. This causes the biblical chroniclers to be selective in the recording of historical events; they only record those events which are viewed as redemptive acts of God, acts either glorifying the chosen people for their faithfulness or punishing them when they fail to properly observe the covenant.

History as Poetic Recital

In the biblical period events were considered to be history only when they were "recognized as integral parts of a God-planned and God-directed working, extending from creation to the eschaton" [Wright, 82]. This explains why historical events were recorded using poetic forms containing "certain 'patterns,' which are characteristic of a confessional presentation" [Von Rad, v. 1, page108]. These confessional statements were intended to be used as cult ritual proclamations of the faith of Israel. Like other peoples in the ancient near east, the Israelites used poetry in order to be "sure of historical facts, that is, of their location and their significance" [Von Rad, v. 1, page 109].

One of the best examples of the confessional nature of the historical accounts in scripture is found in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. It is in a certain sense a creedal statement that begins with a command of the Lord to "recite as follows," it then proceeds to recount the most important events in Salvation History which had occurred up to that time. It begins by saying, "My father was a fugitive Aramean," it then continues, "He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us."

In this section of the confession the individual who is reciting it identifies himself completely with those who actually lived through the events, and thus he re-lives them through his confessional recitation. The confession goes on to recount the fact that, "The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents." Again the individual reciting the creed identifies himself with those whom the Lord freed from Egypt, while he simultaneously glorifies the Lord for His mighty works. It concludes by saying that, "[The Lord] brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey" [Tanakh, 314]. And once again the individual reciting the confession identifies himself with those who entered the Promised Land. As Von Rad points out, these words are not a prayer; instead, "they are out and out a confession of faith" [Von Rad, v. 1, page 122].

The use of poetry as a method for recording the history of Israel's relationship with the Lord is important, because for the ancient Hebrews it alone could enable them to "express experiences met with in the course of their history in such a way as to make the past become absolutely present" [Von Rad, v. 1, page 109]. Thus the poetic recitation of the events of Covenantal History allowed the people of Israel to relive the mighty works of God, which brought them into existence as a people in the first place. The book of Psalms in particular, which was no doubt used in the liturgical worship of the Temple, is permeated with this idea.

Liturgical Remembrance (Hebrew: Zikkaron)

The worship of the God in the Temple revealed His dual nature as both the Lord of Creation and the Lord of History. As Lord of Creation, God was seen as the source of life; while as Lord of History, He was viewed as the giver of salvation. It was believed that the cultic ritual made both of these aspects of the Lord's activity present to those who participated in the service. That is why the festivals never completely lost their connection to the cycle of nature during the Temple period; even though there was a greater emphasis placed on their relation to the events of Sacred History. The Jews of the biblical period believed that, "Through the acts and words of the festal cult, laid down in fixed, sacred ritual, the reality which is to be created -- the renewal of the herd, of the field, of the forces of life, of righteousness, of blessing and life -- is portrayed ('acted') in visual and audible form" [Mowinckel, v. 1, page 19].

It is through this ritual representation in the cult that these blessings of the Lord are made actual; for "'The world' is worn out if it is not regularly renewed, as anyone can see by the annual course of life and nature" [Mowinckel, v. 1, page 18]. It is important to note that the words and acts used in this representation, were not "seen as 'magic' which by itself creates life and renewal"; instead, it is the Lord, "...who acts and creates through them," and "to that extent they are 'sacramental'" [Mowinckel, v. 1, page 19]. Since God is the Lord of History, it follows that in the ritual worship of the Lord "it is especially the historical facts of salvation which are 'remembered', and thereby turned into new effectual reality by [the Lord's] presence at the festival"; therefore, in the Temple liturgy, "...all [that the Lord] formerly did, gave, and secured, He does and gives and secures again when He 'appears' at His festival" [Mowinckel, v. 1, page 19].

Artur Weiser confirmed this idea in his commentary on the book of Psalms, and then went on to explain how these prayers were used in the Temple in order to liturgically enable the worshiping community to "experience the saving acts of the past in the role of witnesses as something which by means of the cult has become for them a present reality" [Weiser, 43]. The cultic ritual "...was understood as a present action of God directed towards the members of the cult community themselves and causing all historical differences of space and time to disappear in face of the reality of God, so that participants in the cult, in facing God, faced the same situation in which the People of God had once found themselves at the time of the Exodus and their entry into the Promised Land" [Weiser, 470].

Dr. Weiser goes on to show that the Psalms are written in such a way as to indicate to the worshiper in the Temple that he is in some sense present with those who were historically present at the event being recalled. An example of this can be seen in Psalm 95:7, which reads "Today, when you hear my voice, harden not your heart, as at Meribah" [Weiser, 44]; another example of this is Psalm 106:6, "Both we and our fathers have sinned" [Weiser, 44]. Because of the way these psalms are written, the person reciting them is put into the historical situation as a witness and a participant. He also states that in Psalm 114, "the events of the Wilderness period are represented with a dramatic actuality that makes them seem immediately present" [Weiser, 44].

Fr. Max Thurian in his book, The Eucharistic Memorial, gave a definition of the Jewish understanding of what the liturgical memorial (zikkaron) entails and how it was multiform in nature: The verb zakar ... occupies an important place in the cultic language of Judaism. Its different meanings may be summarized thus: to think of something known and past, a material something, a sin or a blessing  of God; to recall a duty: in reference to God, to recall man's sin, the covenant, love and fidelity; in reference to man, to recall God or to invoke Him; to recall something in favour of someone or against him; to recall something to someone (e.g. the needs of the people of God); utter a name (that of God); and finally, to recall before or remind God by means of a sacrifice and especially the memorial of incense [Thurian, v. 1, page 25].

In my paper I have been focusing on only one aspect of this, i.e., on the cultic meaning of the concept of memorial (zikkaron) in relation to God, and how the liturgical memorial renders present the past actions of God as a living reality for the worshiper.

The Twofold Character of Liturgical Recollection

The cultic representation of the foundational events in the Sacred History of the Jewish people has a twofold nature; it is both subjective and objective. Subjectively the ritual actions produce an interior psychological state which allows the worshiper to experience the saving events on a personal and interpersonal level. Objectively the events are exhibited in God's eternal remembrance, and thus are rendered present as a living reality. The worshiper's subjective state is ultimately dependent upon, and is caused by, the objective element which has its source in the memory of God; because when God remembers an event of the past it can rightly be conceived of as eternally present.

An example of this concept can be seen by looking at Psalm 111:4, which reads: "He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered" [RSV Bible]. As Artur Weiser points out, when God causes something to be remembered it should not be seen as a "purely spiritual act of recollecting but, as is evident from Psalm 111..., [it must be seen as] the actualization of an historical tradition in a ritual act" [Weiser, 36].  One of the best illustrations of this idea of re-living the Sacred Actions of God, which is still in use today, can be seen in the Jewish celebration of the Passover. In the Seder meal all of the prayers and readings of the ritual are recited in the present tense, and as Jewish scholar Yosef Yerushalmi explained, this fact is important because, "Both the language and the gesture [of the Seder service] are geared to spur, not so much a leap of memory as a fusion of past and present.

Memory here is no longer recollection, which still preserves a sense of distance, but reactualization" [Yerushalmi, 44]. That is why the Rabbis of the Mishnah said, that, "In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he himself came out of Egypt, for it is written, 'And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying, it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8, emphasis added)'" [Mishnah, 151]. This quote expresses the ancient idea that by remembering the mighty acts of God in the liturgy, they become truly present for those participating in the worship of the community, and so the Rabbis went on to say in the Mishnah, that (. . . we are bound to give thanks, to praise, to glorify, to honour, to exalt, and to bless Him who wrought all these wonders for our fathers and for us. He brought us out of bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to a Festival-day, and from darkness to light, and from servitude to redemption, so let us say before Him the Hallelujah( (emphasis added) [Mishnah, 151].


It is this liturgical remembrance (zikkaron) that enables the Jewish people throughout time to experience the foundational events of the covenant with the Lord; and to do so in such a way that they become real witnesses to and participants in the Sacred Acts which formed the Jewish nation and made them the Lord's chosen people. However, this focus of the liturgy on the actions of God in the past does not mean that the events of the present moment are unimportant; instead, the events of Sacred History give meaning to the experiences of the Jewish community of today. In some sense the events of today are assimilated to, and are included in, the remembrance of the foundational events of the covenant [cf. Weiser, 50]. The whole purpose of the liturgy is to bring the mighty works of God in Sacred History into contact with each successive generation of the People of God. For if the actions of God in forming His people were only a reality of the distant past it would, as a consequence, empty modern life of any real value, and God would appear to have become silent and inactive.

But Judaism has always seen God as the Lord of history, and not just of the history of biblical times, but of the history of all times; and so through the liturgy the People of Israel are able to re-live God's redemptive actions in all times and in all places.


Childs, Brevard S. Memory and Tradition in Israel. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1962).

Danby, Herbert (Translator). The Mishnah. (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1933).

Eichrodt, Walther. The Theology of the Old Testament. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961). 2 Volumes.

Mowinckel, Sigmund. The Psalms in Israel's Worship.(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962). 2 Volumes.

Thurian, Max. The Eucharistic Memorial. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960). 2 Volumes.

Von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1962). 2 Volumes.

Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962).

Wright, G. Ernest. God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1962).

Yerushalmi, Yosef. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. (Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1996).

Biblical Translations

The Tanakh: The Jewish Bible. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985).

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible. (New York: The American Bible Society, 1971).

Steven Todd Kaster


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