The English word holocaust is derived from Latin holocaustum and Greek holocaustos/holokautos (holos, “whole,” and kaustos/kautos, “burnt”). Forms of the latter appear more than two hundred times in the Septuagint, generally to translate Hebrew ʿōlâ (literally, that which goes up), the burnt offering, one of the most common, multipurpose, and ancient forms of Israelite sacrifice (Lev. 1; Num. 15; etc.). The slaughtered sacrificial animals, birds, or unblemished male quadrupeds such as sheep, goats, or cattle were wholly burned on the altar, with the exception of the skin, which was given to the priest who performed the ritual (Lev. 7.8). The holocaust offering is mentioned three times in the New Testament (Mark 12.33; Heb. 10.6, 8). Although the sacrificial system ceased with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, rabbinic literature includes traditions about and discussions of the burnt offering, the earliest of which is in the Mishnah, especially tractates Zebaḥim and Tamid.
The meaning of “holocaust” has evolved from complete burnt consumption in sacrifice to include complete or massive destruction, especially of people. It was used in this context in the aftermaths of World War I and II. Since the 1950s, “The Holocaust” has come to refer to the Nazi murder of European Jewry (1941–45). By extension, “holocaust” is sometimes used to designate massive atrocities against or destruction of large numbers of people. The biblical religious‐sacrificial origins and connotations of the term are troubling to some who prefer the word used most often in modern Hebrew to refer to the Nazi murder of European Jewry, Shoʾah, whose biblical meanings include devastation, desolation, and ruin.
Barbara Geller Nathanson