By: Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff
“I noticed that the back of my siddur contains a large section devoted to selichos for the 20th of Sivan, yet I have never davened in a shul that observed this day. What does this date commemorate?”
The Twentieth of Sivan was established in Ashkenazi communities as a day of fasting and teshuvah to remember two major tragedies of Jewish history. Let us begin by discussing the halachic basis for the observance of commemorative fasts.
When the two sons of Aharon — Nadav and Avihu — died, the Torah says, “And Moshe said to Aharon and to Elazar and Isamar, his sons, ‘you shall not allow your heads to remain unshorn nor shall you rend your clothes — so you shall not die and cause that He become angry with the entire community. Rather, your brethren, the household of Israel, will weep for the inferno that Hashem ignited’” (Vayikra 10:6). From this description, we see that the entire Jewish community bears responsibility to mourn the loss of great tzadikim.
Communal Teshuvah Observances
The Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3) explains: “It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and to blow the trumpets whenever any danger afflicts a Jewish community, as the Torah says, ‘When you go to war… against an adversary who creates troubles for you, you shall blow the trumpets (Bamidbar 10:9).’ On any matter that afflicts you, such as food shortages, plague, locusts or anything similar, you should cry out in prayer and blow the trumpets. This is part of the procedure of doing teshuvah, for when difficulties occur and people come to pray, they realize that these happenings befell them because of their misdeeds, and doing teshuvah will remove the troubles.
“However, if they do not pray, but instead attribute the difficulties to normal worldly cycles — this is a cruel approach to life that causes people to maintain their evil ways.
“Furthermore, the Sages required a fast on the occasion of any menace that afflicts the community, until Heaven has mercy” (Rambam, Hilchos Taanis 1:4).
The History of the 20th of Sivan
This date is associated with two major tragedies that befell European Jewry. The earlier catastrophe, which occurred in the 12th Century, was recorded in a contemporary chronicle entitled Emek Habacha, and also in a selicha entitled Emunei Shelumei Yisrael, from which I have drawn most of the information regarding this tragic event.
One night in the city of Blois, which is in central France, a Jew watering his horse happened upon a murder scene in which a gentile adult had drowned a gentile child. The murderer, not wanting to be executed for his crime, fled to the local ruler, telling him that he had just caught a Jew murdering a child!
The tyrant arrested 31 Jewish leaders, men and women, including some of the baalei Tosafos who were disciples of the Rashbam, Rashi’sgrandson. The tyrant accused his prisoners, several of whom are mentioned by name in Emunei Shelumei Yisroel, of killing the gentile child to obtain blood for producing matzah.
After locking his captives in a tower, the despot insisted that they be baptized. He told them that if they accept baptism, he would forgive them, but if they refused, he would execute them in a painful way. None of them considered turning traitor to Hashem’s Torah. On the 20th of Sivan 4931 (1171), theywere tied up and placed on a pyre to be burned alive. At the fateful moment, the Jews sangin unison: Aleinu leshabayach la’adon hakol, “it is incumbent upon us to praise the Lord of all.”
The fires did not consume them! The undeterred tyrant commanded his troops to beat them to death and then burn their bodies. However, the fires were still unable to consume their bodies, which remained intact!
Banishment from France
This libel was a major factor in the banishing of Jews from France that occurred ten years later. (Although the King of France declared that they must be exiled from the country, he did not, in fact, have sufficient control to force them out completely. This transpired only a century later.)
As a commemoration of the sacrifice of these great Jews and as a day of teshuvah, Rabbeinu Tam and the other gedolei Baalei Tosafos of France declared the 20th of Sivan a fast day. Special selichos and piyutim were composed to memorialize the incident, and a seder selichos was compiled that included selichos written by earlier paytanim, most notably Rav Shlomoh (ben Yehudah) Habavli, Rabbeinu Gershom, and Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Yitzchak, the author of the Akdamus poem that we recite on Shevuos. Each of these gedolim lived in Europe well before the time of Rashi. Since most people know little about the earliest of this trio, Rav Shlomoh Habavli, I will devote a paragraph to what is known about this talmid chacham who lived in Europe at the time of the Geonim.
Rav Shlomoh Habavli, who lived around the year 4750 (990), was descended from a family that originated in Bavel, today Iraq (hence, he is called Habavli after his ancestral homeland, similar to the way people have the family name Ashkenazi or Pollack although they themselves were born in Flatbush). He lived in Italy, probably in Rome, and authored piyutim for the Yomim Tovim, particularly for Yom Kippur and Shevuos, and many selichos, about twenty of which have survived to this day. The rishonim refer to him and his writings with great veneration, and the Rosh (Yoma 8:19) quotes reverently from the piyut for the seder avodah in musaf of Yom Kippur, written by “Rabbeinu Shlomoh Habavli.” The Maharshal says that Rabbeinu Gershom, the teacher of Rashi’s rabbei’im and the rebbe of all Ashkenazic Jewry, learned Torah and received his mesorah on Torah and Yiddishkeit from Rav Shlomoh Habavli (Shu’t Maharshal #29). (Rav Shlomoh Habavli’s works are sometimes confused with a more famous Spanish talmid chacham and poet who was also “Shlomoh ben Yehudah,” Rav Shlomoh ibn Gabirol, who lived shortly after Rav Shlomoh Habavli.)
Instituting the Fast
When Rabbeinu Tam instituted the fast of the 20th of Sivan, the selichos recited on that day included one that was written specifically to commemorate the tragedy of Blois. The selicha that begins with the words Emunei Shelomei Yisroel actually mentions the date of the 20th of Sivan 4931 in the selicha and describes the tragedy.
Since this tragedy took place during the general period of the Crusades, the 20th of Sivan was often viewed as the mourning day for the murders and other excesses that were committed during that era, since each of the early Crusades resulted in the horrible destruction of hundreds of communities in central and western Europe and the killing of thousands of Jews. In actuality, the blood libel of Blois occurred between the Second Crusade, which occurred in 4907-9/1147-49 and the Third Crusade, which was forty years later, in 4949/1189.
Gezeiros Tach veTat
The fast of the 20th of Sivan memorializes an additional Jewish calamity. Almost five hundred years later, most of the Jewish communities of eastern Europe suffered the unspeakable massacres that are referred to as the Gezeiros Tach veTat, which refer to the years of 5408 (Tach) and 5409 (Tat), corresponding to the secular years 1648 and 1649. Although this title implies that these excesses lasted for at most two years, the calamities of this period actually raged on, sporadically, for the next twelve years.
First, the historical background: Bogdan Chmielnitzky was a charismatic, capable, and nefariously anti-Semitic Cossack leader in the Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Kingdom of Poland. Chmielnitzky led a rebellion of Ukrainians against their Polish overlords. Aside from nationalistic and economic reasons for the Ukrainians revolt against Polish rule, there were also religious reasons, since the Ukrainians were Greek Orthodox, whereas the Poles were Roman Catholic. Chmielnitzky led the Ukrainians through a succession of alliances, first creating an alliance with the Crimean Tatars against the Polish king. The Cossacks’ stated goal was to wipe out the Polish aristocracy and the Jews.
When the Tatars turned against Chmielnitzky, he allied himself with Sweden, and eventually with the Czar of Russia, which enabled the Ukrainians to revolt successfully against Polish rule.
The Cossack hordes swarmed throughout Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania in the course of a series of wars, wreaking havoc in their path and putting entire Jewish communities to the sword. Hundreds of Jewish communities in Poland and Ukraine were destroyed by the massacres. The Cossacks murdered unknown thousands of Jews, including instances in which they buried people alive, cut them to pieces and perpetrated far more horrible cruelties. In sheer cruelty, many of their heinous deeds surpassed even those performed later by the Nazis.
These events were chronicled in several Torah works, including the Shach’s Megillas Eifa, and Rav Nosson Nota Hanover’s Yevein Metzulah. The title, Yevein Metzulah, is a play on words. These words are quoted from Tehillim 69:3, where the passage reads, tavati biyevein metzulah, “I am drowning in the mire of the depths,” which certainly conveys the emotion of living in such a turbulent era. In addition, the author used these words to allude to Yavan (Greece), indicating the Greek Orthodox religion of the Cossack murderers.
Chmielnitzky, the National Hero
By the way, although Chmielnitzky was a bloodthirsty murderer and as nefarious an anti-Semite as Adolf Hitler, to this day he is a national hero in the Ukraine, on a level similar to the respect accorded George Washington in the United States. The Ukrainians revere him as the father of Ukrainian nationalist aspirations, notwithstanding the fact that he was a mass murderer.
The cataclysmic effect on Jewish life caused by the Gezeiros Tach Vetat was completely unparalleled in Jewish history. Before the Cossacks, Poland and its neighboring areas had become the citadels of Ashkenazic Jewish life. As a result of the Cossack excesses, not only were the Jewish communities destroyed, with the Jews fleeing en mass from place to place, but virtually all the gedolei Yisrael were on the run during this horrifying era of Jewish history. Such great Torah leaders as the Shach, the Taz, the Tosafos Yom Tov, the Kikayon Deyonah, the Magen Avraham, the Nachalas Shivah, and the Be’er Hagolah were all in almost constant flight to avoid the Cossack hordes.
Among the many gedolei Yisrael who were murdered during these excesses were two sons of the Taz; the father of the Magen Avraham; Rav Yechiel Michel of Nemirov, and Rav Shimshon MeiOstropolia.
Rav Shimshon MeiOstropolia
Rav Shimshon MeiOstropolia was a great talmid chacham, mekubal and writer of many seforim, whose Torah ideas are quoted by such respected thinkers as the Ramchal and the Bnei Yisaschar. It was said that he was so holy that he was regularly visited by an angel, a magid, who would study the deep ideas of kabbalah with him. (Whether one accepts this as having actually happened or not, it is definitely indicative of the level of holiness that his contemporaries attributed to him.)
Rav Nosson Nota Hanover writes in Yevein Metzulah that, during the bleak days of the Cossack uprising, the magid who studied with Rav Shimshon forewarned him of the impending disaster that was to befall klal Yisrael. When the Cossacks laid siege to the city, Rav Shimshon went with 300 chachamim, all of them dressed in tachrichim (burial shrouds) and taleisim to the nearby shul to pray that Hashem save the Jewish people. While they were in the midst of their prayers, the Cossacks entered the city and slaughtered them all.
Rules of the Vaad Arba Ha’aratzos
After this tragic period passed and the Jewish communities began the tremendous work of rebuilding, the Vaad Arba Ha’aratzos, which at the time was the halachic and legislative body of all Polish and Lithuanian Jewry, banned certain types of entertainment. Strict limits were set on the types of entertainment allowed at weddings, similar to the takanos that the Gemara reports were established after the churban of the Beis Hamikdash. Selichos were composed by the Tosafos Yom Tov, the Shach, and other gedolim to commemorate the tragedies.
The Vaad Arba Ha’aratzos further declared that the 20th of Sivan should be established forever as a fast day (Shaarei Teshuvah 580:9). The fast was declared binding on all males over the age of 18 and females over the age of 15. (I have not seen any reason to explain the disparity in age.)
Why the 20th of Sivan?
Why was this date chosen to commemorate the atrocities of the era? On the 20th of Sivan, the Jewish community of Nemirov, Ukraine, which was populated by many thousands of Jews, was destroyed by the Cossacks. The rav of the city, Rav Yechiel Michel, passionately implored the people to keep their faith and die Al Kiddush Hashem. The Shach reports that, for three days, the Cossacks rampaged through the town, murdering thousands of Jews, including Rav Yechiel Michel. The shul was destroyed and all the Sifrei Torah were torn to pieces and trampled. Their parchment was used for shoes and clothing.
Merely five years before, the community of Nemirov had been proud to have as its rav the gadol hador of the time, the Tosafos Yom Tov, who had previously served as the rav of Nikolsburg, Vienna and Prague. At the time of the Gezeiros Tach veTat, the Tosafos Yom Tov was the rav and rosh yeshivah of Cracow, having succeeded the Bach as rav and the Meginei Shlomoh as rosh yeshivah after they passed away.
An Additional Reason
The Shaarei Teshuvah (580:9) quotes the Shach as citing an additional reason why the Vaad Arba Ha’aratzos established the day of commemoration for the gezeiros Tach veTat on the 20th of Sivan: this date never falls on Shabbos and, therefore, would be observed every year.
The style of the selichos prayers recited on the 20th of Sivan resemble the selichos recited by Eastern European Jewry for the fasts of Tzom Gedalyah, Asarah beTeiveis, Shiva Asar BeTamuz (these three fasts are actually all mentioned in Tanach), Taanis Esther and Behab (the three days of selichos and fasting observed on Mondays and Thursdays during the months of Marcheshvan and Iyar). The selichos begin with the recital of selach lanu avinu, and the prayer Keil erech apayim leads into the first time that the thirteen midos of Hashem are recited. This sequence is the standard structure of our selichos.
However, the selichos for the 20th of Sivan are lengthier than those of the other fast days. Whereas on the other fast days (including behab) there are four selichos, each followed by a recitation of the thirteen midos of Hashem, the selichos for the 20th of Sivan consist of seven passages and seven recitations of the thirteen midos of Hashem, which is comparable to what we do at neilah on Yom Kippur. Thus, in some aspects, the 20th of Sivan was treated with more reverence than were the fast days mentioned in Tanach!
In addition, one of the selichos recited on the 20th of Sivan is of the style called akeidah, recalling the akeidah of Yitzchak. The incorporation of the akeidah is significant, since these selichos were included to commemorate the martyrdom of Jews who were sacrificed for their refusal to be baptized. To the best of my knowledge, these selichos are recited only on the 20th of Sivan, during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, and on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
The Prayers for 20th of Sivan
During the repetition of shemoneh esrei at both shacharis and mincha, the aneinu prayer was recited, as is the practice on any public fast day. For Shacharis, selichos were recited, Avinu Malkeinu and tachanun were said, and then a sefer Torah was taken out and the passage of Vayechal Moshe that we read on fast days was read (Shaarei Teshuvah, 580:9).
At mincha, a sefer Torah was taken out and Vayechal Moshe was read again. Each individual who was fasting recited aneinu in his quiet shemoneh esrei.
Bris on the 20th of Sivan
The halachic authorities discuss how to celebrate a bris that falls on the 20th of Sivan. The Magen Avraham (568:10) concludes that the seudah should be held at night after the fast is over, so that it does not conflict with the fast. Thus, we see how seriously this fast was viewed.
Why don’t we observe this?
“It is customary in the entire Kingdom of Poland to fast on the 20th of Sivan.” These are the words of the Magen Avraham (580:9). I do not know when the custom to observe this fast ended, but the Mishnah Berurah quotes it as common practice in his day in Poland (580:16). Perhaps it was assumed that the custom was only required as long as there were communities in Poland, but that their descendants who moved elsewhere were not required to observe it. Most contemporary siddurim do not include the selichos for the 20th of Sivan, which implies that it is already some time since it was observed by most communities.
We now understand both the halachic basis for why and how we commemorate such sad events in Jewish history. We also have a glimpse of how we should react to other calamities whenever they occur, be they pandemics, riots, or financial chaos. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu save us and all of klal Yisrael from further difficulties!