Chumash and the Fall of the Ghetto

The yahrzeit of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch,  a man to whom each of us owes a personal debt of gratitude, is on the 27th of Teiveis.

From the time of the French Revolution and continuing into the nineteenth century, the ghetto walls that had kept the Jews isolated from the world around them gradually fell all over central Europe. A result of this was that, no longer required to be part of their insular and observant Jewish communities, many Jews began to assimilate into the world environment now open to them and to throw away their Judaism.

In Eastern Europe, although the Jews were still kept isolated from full advancement into secular society, different forces, most notably the haskalah, accomplished similar purposes of distancing many Jews from the observance of the Torah. Among the challenges posed by some of the more intellectual who had abandoned Judaism, was their misunderstanding that the Torah as presented by Chazal bore differences from that of the written Torah.

At this time, several new and highly original commentaries on Chumash appear. Among these are Hakesav Vehakabalah, by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, the commentaries[i] of the Malbim to Tanach, the commentary of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and the Ha’ameik Davar, the commentary of Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by his acronym as the Netziv. All four of these commentaries show the impact of the tumultuous times in which they were written, although there are major differences between their treatments of Chumash.

Hakesav Vehakabalah

Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, born in 1785, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, became the rav of the city of Koenigsberg, then in Prussia, in 1831 and remained in that position until his passing 34 years later. Koenigsberg was within Germany but far to the east, and therefore Rav Mecklenburg saw both the problems of assimilation and reform that were happening in Germany and those of the haskalah and other non-religious movements of Eastern Europe. Hakesav Vehakabalah was intended as a response to attacks on Chazal’s understanding of Torah. In his introduction, he discusses the issues concerning the writing down of Torah shebe’al peh, quoting both the midrashim and the explanations of the commentaries on this question.

The explanations of Hakesav Vehakabalah are based on careful analysis of the root meanings and grammar of the words of the Chumash, using them to provide a clear interpretation of the pesukim, at times providing a Yiddish translation for a term. Although frequently he is highly original in his approach, he also often mentions the different approaches of the earlier commentaries and chooses the one that he demonstrates is the most accurate.

The first edition of Hakesav Vehakabalah was published in 1839. In his lifetime, three more editions were published, each including additional commentary or translation. He continued to add more to the work, and a further edition, including the author’s additional notations, was published posthumously in 1880.

The Malbim

Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, who became known by his acronym, Malbim, served as the rav of many different communities in Eastern Europe. A brilliant talmid chacham, a warrior against the haskalah, and a prolific author, he is remembered to posterity primarily because of his commentaries on Tanach and the essays that accompany those commentaries.[ii] His commentary on Yeshayah, which is the first volume that he produced, includes an introduction in which he elucidates the principles that form the basis for his commentary on most of Tanach. These include that there are never two terms in Tanach Hebrew that mean the exact same thing, and that there are no repeated phrases or clauses. Each word in Tanach was chosen meticulously to provide a very specific nuance of meaning and that one must delve into the depth of this meaning. His works on Vayikra and Devorim are original commentaries to the midrash halacha on these seforim,in which he demonstrates how Chazal proved the correct halachic interpretation of each verse.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, born in 1808 in Hamburg, Germany, held rabbinic positions in Oldenberg and Emden, Germany, prior to becoming the Chief Rabbi of Moravia. Thereafter, he returned to Germany and established a Torah-committed community in Frankfurt. Towards the end of his life, after he had built a strong Torah community, he produced his commentaries to the Chumash, Tehillim and the Siddur. As he writes in his introduction, his commentary on Chumash was based on lectures that he had given on the subject, and he used the notes of attendees to those shiurim as the basis for his written commentary.

The Netziv

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin was born in the village of Mir, then in czarist Russia, in 1817. At the age of 16 he married the daughter of Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin, the son and successor of the founder and Rosh Yeshivah of the famed yeshivah in that city, Rav Chayim of Volozhin, the esteemed disciple of the Vilna Gaon. From that time until his very last months, the Netziv was associated with the yeshivah of Volozhin, where he eventually became Rosh Yeshivah, a position he held for almost forty years until the yeshivah was closed in 1892, because of the insistence of the czarist government that it secularize its curriculum. The Netziv authored many works, including a commentary on the She’iltos of Rav Achai Gaon, commentaries to all the halachic midrashim, a commentary on Shir Hashirim, responsa, and his commentary to the Chumash, called Ha’ameik Davar.

Of the four authors we are discussing, the Netziv is unique in that his primary role was that of a rosh yeshivah, whereas the other three were communal rabbonim. All four of these gedolim were renowned poskim. But the Netziv was unusual as a rosh yeshivah in that he not only taught a daily Gemara shiur in which he went through the entire Shas (not only the so-called “yeshivish mesechtos”), but he also taught a daily class in the week’s parshah. His discussion and his commentary were based on his personal analysis of the pesukim or from ideas that he heard orally from talmidei chachamim such as his father-in-law, Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin.

The differences among these commentaries

Notwithstanding the similarities of purpose among these commentaries, each reflects its author’s unique contributions to Torah; thus, there are major differences among them. For example, the Malbim’s commentaries to the book of Vayikra and to most of Devorim are not devoted to explaining the pesukim, but to demonstrating how the halachic droshah of the Torah shebe’al peh is based on a particular way of understanding the Torah shebiksav. He developed an extensive system that provides the underpinning of all of the halachic derivations. In his introduction to Vayikra, he writes that he had initially intended to write his commentary explaining this derivative approach to every droshah of Chazal. However, he discovered very early in the writing of his commentary that the length of such a work would become unrealistic. Instead, he wrote a separate essay that explains the principles with which Chazal operated, and in his commentary he referred to the appropriate part of this essay when necessary.

Rav Hirsch also maintained that proper study of Torah shebiksav will leave you with the conclusions of Torah shebe’al peh. He noted that the Torah shebe’al peh was actually taught to the Jews first.[iii] Moshe received all the laws of Torah shebe’al peh at Har Sinai and taught them to the Jewish people gradually. The completed Torah shebiksav was not received by the Jews until the very end of Moshe’s life, immediately prior to the Jews entering Eretz Yisroel, or forty years after they had received the Torah shebe’al peh. This explains numerous passages in the Torah, including the commandment to slaughter animals ka’asher tzivisicha “as you were instructed,” meaning the sets of regulations that had been transmitted to Moshe at Har Sinai and previously taught to the Bnei Yisroel.

Comparing Torah shebiksav to Torah shebe’al peh

Both Hakesav Vehakabalah and Malbim mention that a major purpose of their commentaries is to demonstrate that Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh are one. In the introduction to the first volume of commentary he wrote on Chumash, Vayikra, the Malbim mentions specifically the tragedy of the reform convention that took place in 1844 in Braunschweig (called Brunswick in English), a city in Germany about 40 miles southeast of Hanover. The Malbim writes that when he heard of what had happened at the reform convention, he decided that klal Yisroel required a new commentary on Tanach written according to the mesorah. He notes that among the points he will be demonstrating is that Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh are one.

Although Rav Hirsch’s very brief introduction to his commentary does not emphasize this relationship between Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh, this foundation shows up literally hundreds of times in his commentary.[iv]

Uniqueness of Ha’ameik Davar

Of the four authors we are discussing, the Netziv’s commentary is actually quite original in a surprising way, which requires that we explain a bit of history concerning traditional Torah commentaries. Among the early classic commentaries on Chumash, the Ramban, Rashi and many others assume that any explanation of the written Torah must fit the conclusions of our Chazal and the Oral Torah. This approach accords well with the approaches of Hakesav Vehakabalah, Rav Hirsch and the Malbim.

However, among the rishonim this approach was not universally held. The Ibn Ezra, for example, often explains pesukim unlike the halachic conclusion. He certainly felt that the concept ein mikra yotzei midei peshuto,[v] no verse is interpreted without its most literal explanation,means that the Torah can be understood on many levels, and that the most basic understanding, pshat, does not necessarily require that it be consistent with the other levels. Many later authorities and commentaries criticize the Ibn Ezra for his approach.[vi] Yet, the Netziv also utilizes the same method, at times explaining a pasuk in a way that does not appear consistent with the halachic conclusions that we find in Chazal.[vii] Such an approach was anathema to Hakesav Vehakabalah, Rav Hirsch and the Malbim.

Uniqueness of Rav Hirsch’s commentary

The most obvious difference between Rav Hirsch’s commentary and those of the others is, of course, the language. Whereas the other commentaries are written in traditional rabbinic Hebrew, Rav Hirsch published his commentary on Chumash, and, indeed, all of his other works, in German. Using the vernacular to present the Torah was not an original approach of Rav Hirsch. Rav Sa’adiya Geon’s commentaries to Chumash, as well as all his other writings, were written in Arabic, as were the Chovos Halevovos, the Kuzari, and many other writings of the early Sefardic rishonim. Similarly, the Rambam wrote all of his works, with the exception of the Mishneh Torah, in Arabic. However, using the vernacular as a vehicle for presenting Torah had fallen by the wayside in the hundreds of years since the era of the rishonim With very few exceptions, Torah works were all published in Hebrew. As a young rabbi in Oldenberg, Rav Hirsch recognized the need to present the Torah in German. He certainly understood that he had a personal mission of providing Torah education to his generation, and to demonstrate that a proper understanding of Torah demonstrates its primacy over all of man’s endeavors.

In Rav Hirsch’s commentary there are instances when he wrote a comment in Hebrew. Invariably, these are the comments of a Torah scholar on a Talmudic discussion point that was not appropriate to the general audience for whom his work was intended. Yet, he was concerned that posterity should not lose the important halachic point he had realized. To accommodate this, he chose to write these points in scholarly, rabbinic Hebrew.

Aside from his use of German, there are many other ways in which Rav Hirsch’s approach is different from the other commentaries that we are discussing. Rav Hirsch’s commentary is not simply an interpretation of Chumash. He uses his commentary to demonstrate how the Torah should be used as the primary educational tool for man to grow as a human being. There is virtually not a comment of his on the Torah that is not explained as a moral lesson, what we call in our day a musar haskeil. It appears that Rav Hirsch deliberately restricted his commentary to topics that provide us with a musar haskeil. There are many occasions where he did not comment upon questions about pshat in a verse where it would appear appropriate for him to have done so. Apparently, he refrained from providing commentary where the conclusion would not provide any lesson one can utilize for personal growth.

Thus, Rav Hirsch viewed his commentary as a means of showing how to use Chumash as a lesson guide in what we usually call musar and hashkafah. In this, his commentary is very different from the other three works we are discussing, all of which are devoted to providing a commentary on Chumash and not focused specifically on being works of ethical and moral development.

From a mussar perspective, Rav Hirsch’s Torah commentary can provide a complete life-instruction manual on its own. We understand well why Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz told his students at Yeshiva Torah Vadaas that it would be worth their investment of time to learn to read German just for the sake of being able to read the writings of Rav Hirsch. (At the time that Rav Shraga Feivel advised his students to do this, no translation existed of Rav Hirsch’s Chumash commentary in any language, nor were most of his other writings available in Hebrew or English.)

Rav Hirsch called his Torah hashkafah by the term Torah im Derech Eretz, the details of which he developed at different places in his commentary.[viii]Although the expression is often misunderstood and misinterpreted, Rav Hirsch used this term to mean that Torah and its observance is always the primary focus of a Jew’s life, and that this can and must be done in all places, times and situations. Everything else that this world has to offer, including livelihood, education, culture, and social mores, must be subsumed within a Torah framework.

Reasons for mitzvos

One of Rav Hirsch’s most innovative approaches is his explanations of the ta’amei hamitzvah. Of course, we all realize that a human being could never claim to understand why Hashem commanded that we perform a certain activity or prohibit a different one. Nevertheless, while performing the mitzvah, there are lessons that we can derive that may help us appreciate to a greater extent our role in fulfilling Hashem’s mission for us on earth. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the term ta’amei hamitzvah should be translated not as reason for a mitzvah, but as taste of a mitzvah. While observing or studying the laws of the mitzvos, an educational reason that we can utilize should assist the experience of the mitzvah.

The concept of deriving educational reasons for mitzvos certainly did not originate with by Rav Hirsch. In one place in his commentary,[ix] Rav Hirsch quotes dozens of sources where Chazal discuss what lesson one can derive from the observance of the mitzvos, and we have several rishonim, most notably the Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim and the Sefer Hachinuch, who devote much time to this study. However, Rav Hirsch added several dimensions to the concept of ta’amei hamitzvah. One dimension is that Rav Hirsch’s explanation of a mitzvah must always fit every detail of the halachos, the laws of the mitzvah. In this detail, his approaches vary from those suggested by the Rambam and the Sefer Hachinuch, whose reasons often do not fit all the details of the mitzvah.

Based on this approach, Rav Hirsch first develops and explains all the details of a mitzvah according to the halachic conclusion, and then weaves an explanation for the mitzvah that fits all those halachic details. At times, he must first take controversial positions regarding details of the laws of the mitzvah, something he is not afraid to do.

Frequently, Rav Hirsch presents approaches to ta’amei hamitzvos that none of the major mitzvah commentators suggest. For example, Rav Hirsch presents brilliant approaches to explain mitzvos such as arayos, keifel, arachin, and tumah and taharah, and why we disqualify blemished animals and blemished kohanim from the service of korbanos. In the case of tumah, he notes that the foundation of most religions is the fear of death, and this is when the priest assumes his greatest role. Quite the contrary, the kohen, the Torah’s priest, is banned from involvement with the dead. This is to demonstrate that the Torah’s goal is that we grow and develop throughout life – when we are in the heights of our best health. To emphasize this, we need to distance the kohen, whose role is to educate how to live as a Jew, from death.

Rav Hirsch uses the same concept to explain a different, seemingly baffling area of mitzvos. Why is a kohen who has a physical blemish or injury forbidden to serve in the Mishkan or the Beis Hamikdash? Similarly, why is an animal with a similar impairment prohibited as a korban? This emphasis on physical beauty or selectiveness seems to run counter to the Torah’s idea of equality. Everyone is equally responsible to develop a relationship with Hashem through His Torah.

Rav Hirsch explains that religions in general become the home of those who are challenged by society and cannot find their place. The Torah needs to emphasize that everyone’s goal is to grow and develop in his relationship with Hashem. The only way to convey this message fully is to demonstrate that the physically impaired cannot perform service in the holiest of places.

Rav Hirsch develops an extensive analysis of the reasons for korbanos in general, and the different korbanos in particular. Based on the nature of its species, its age and gender, each variety of animal is used to explain the message and concept of each type of korban.

Rav Hirsch explains beautifully why someone who is caught stealing is required to pay back double, keifel, whereas a robber is not. One who steals when no one is looking undermines a basic understanding that a society needs in order to function – that I can rely on a degree of trust among my neighbors. Thus, his sin undermined not only the trust of the individual whose property was stolen but also that of society as a whole, thus requiring a double act of compensation.

Ta’amei hamikra

Rav Hirsch emphasized that his commentary is based on a careful understanding of the Chumash text. Read the verse very carefully and see what it teaches. Include in the study the ta’amei hamikra, what is colloquially called the trop, according to which we read the text and which includes rules how to break a pasuk into smaller units to understand it correctly. To Rav Hirsch, any interpretation of the verse must include a proper understanding of the ta’amei hamikra.

Grammar — Dikduk and shoresh

There are several other ways in which Rav Hirsch’s commentary is different from other approaches to study Chumash. People often note his original use of dikduk, particularly his development of understanding Torah ideas based on the principle of shorashim that are phonetic cognates. This idea, used by Chazal and by rishonim,[x] is that different consonants that are articulated by using the same part of the mouth are related to one another.[xi] Thus, there is a relationship among the guttural consonants (ע ה א ח) that can be used to explain the meaning of related roots that use these or the labials (ב ו מ פ).[xii] Based on similar roots, Rav Hirsch develops a philosophic underpinning of the comparative roots, and then creates an associative meaning for each root. Often included within this system is a relationship pattern between similar consonants. For example, the tzadi often reflects a more intense version of other similar sounds, such as the sin. Thus, there is a conceptual relationship between יצר, which means to limit something for a specific purpose, and יסר, which educates, shapes and disciplines the spirit. In literally hundreds of applications of these ideas, Rav Hirsch demonstrates an entire world of educational themes, each of which teaches a Torah perspective on the world.

The shoresh of a word can often explain to us not only why a specific term is used, but may sometimes provide educational and religious lessons. For example, when mentioning that Avraham Avinu moved his followers from Shechem to the mountain, the Torah uses an unusual word ויעתק vayateik, which Rav Hirsch translates as He gave orders to move on.[xiii] Rav Hirsch there notes that this root is used in various places in Tanach for apparently different ideas, but whose common thread is that someone or something is moved unexpectedly or forcibly to a setting where it did not belong originally. Rav Hirsch thereby explains that Avraham realized that his followers needed to be isolated from the society around them for him to succeed in educating them, but he needed to overcome their resistance in doing so. Thus, from the proper study of the root of the word used, we gain an insight into Avraham’s pedagogic approach.

Rav Hirsch later notes that Avraham Avinu indeed took his followers with him to rescue Lot. This is seemingly an abrogation of his previous decision to have his followers live apart from society. The answer is that this was an emergency, and one cannot maintain separation under those circumstances. Again, we are provided with an education on how to run one’s life according to Torah standards.

Germane to this discussion, I would like to take issue with a comment made by the late Dayan Dr. Isaac Grunfeld in his beautiful essay written as an introduction to the first English translation of Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Chumash, by Dr. Isaac Levy. Dayan Grunfeld’s writes that the Hirsch Commentary is devoted to presenting “the unity of the Written and Oral Law as one of the fundamentals of authentic Judaism.” In this introduction, Dayan Grunfeld makes the following statement, “When Samson Raphael Hirsch began his commentary in 1867, he had the works of Mecklenburg and Hatorah Vehamitzvah of Malbim in front of him.” I presume that Dayan Grunfeld has some mesorah that this is true. However, from my work on Rav Hirsch’s commentary, and my comparison to the other two works, I personally am not convinced that this statement is accurate. My reasons are as follows:

When Rav Hirsch felt indebted to an earlier commentator, he always quoted his source. In the course of his commentary of Chumash, he quotes a wide variety of sources, including his rabbe’im, Chacham Bernays and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (the Aruch Laneir), the highly controversial Naftali Wessely, and such late works as Harechasim Levik’ah. Yet, there is not a single reference anywhere in his commentary on Chumash to either Hakesav Vehakabalah or Hatorah Vehamitzvah.

The answer is simple: Rav Hirsch’s thrust in his commentary was different from theirs. His goal was not to demonstrate that Chazal’s understanding of Torah was the most accurate. His goal was to show that the Torah can be used as a basis for all of man’s growth in Torah, his proper personality development, and his hashkafah or world outlook.

There are places that Rav Hirsch leaves us with no explanation, whereas Hakesav Vehakabalah presents approaches that lend themselves perfectly to Rav Hirsch’s style of commentary. I will give one example: Rav Hirsch has almost no commentary to the lengthy list of travels that the Benei Yisroel made through the desert. Yet, Hakesav Vehakabalah has a beautiful explanation of the names and travels, which lends itself perfectly to Rav Hirsch’s use of Chumash to teach musar haskeil. Rav Hirsch himself uses other similar passages to teach musar haskeil, most noticeably the list of names of the decendants of Sheis. If he was in the habit of reading Hakesav Vehakabalah as part of his weekly reading, as Dayan Grunfeld implies, I cannot fathom why he did not use the opportunity to include these lessons in his Torah commentary and attribute them to Hakesav Vehakabalah, as he so often attributes explanations to earlier commentators.


Most of the innovations that have kept Torah alive in the last century are directly attributable to Rav Hirsch. Although Sarah Shenirer is the founder and basis of the Beis Yaakov movement, the originator of organized chinuch for women was Rav Hirsch, and his influence on everything related to the beginnings of the Beis Yaakov movement is axiomatic.

In most countries of the world, the majority of our Torah elementary schools and high schools include secular studies in their curriculum. This approach to Torah education is completely based on the framework of Rav Hirsch’s education system.

The extensive use of the vernacular for teaching Torah is another gift to us from Rav Hirsch. Certainly, the success of the numerous publishing houses that print and distribute Torah literature written in English, French, Spanish, Russian and other languages is completely based on Rav Hirsch’s producing his material in German.

The existence in the modern marketplace of highly trained professionals, as uncompromising in their professional standards as they are in their Torah observance, is directly attributable to the teachings of Rav Hirsch.

Rav Hirsch was the quintessential borei’ach min hakavod. Clearly, he saw his mission in life as educating the Jewish world with the beauty of Torah and its mitzvos. Leaving Moravia for what appeared to be a moribund Frankfurt may have been a disastrous move professionally, but for Klal Yisroel it has been the savior, not merely of the central European Torah world, but of virtually the entire contemporary Torah world. Yehi zichro boruch.

[i] I refer to the commentaries of the Malbim because, although he wrote on the entire Tanach, a rare accomplishment, his treatment of the different parts of Tanach is so varied as to make it difficult to refer to it as one commentary.

[ii] On Chumash, the Malbim follows two different styles. As I mention in the article, his work to Vayikra and parts of Devorim is an explanation of the midrashei halachah, the Sifra and the Sifrei, in which he delves into Chazal’s method of understanding Torah Shebiskav. On the other hand, his commentaries to other parts of Chumash bear close similarity to the commentary of the Abrabanel – he presents many questions on the topic at hand, and then weaves an explanation to answer them. Yet another style is presented in his commentaries to Esther and Shir Hashirim, in which he presents his own midrashic-style approach to these works.

[iii] Commentary to Bereishis 1:19

[iv] This point is the main thrust of Dayan Isaac Grunfeld’s introduction to Rav Hirsch’s commentary, which I will quote later in the article.

[v] See Yevamos 28a

[vi] See, for example, the second introduction of Yam shel Shelomoh of the Maharshal to Tractate Chullin.

[vii] For examples of this, see his explanation of the law of shifchah charufah, Vayikra 19:20 and of the pasuk velo setamei es admasecha, Devorim 21:23. See there how the other three commentaries we discuss deal with this topic.

[viii] See, for example, his commentary to Vayikra 18:4.

[ix] Devorim 24:18

[x] For example, see Rashi, Vayikra 19:16, where he explains that the word רכיל stems from the word רגל.

[xi] A language specialist calls these words homorganic consonants.

[xii] Those interested in seeing a systematic dictionary of Rav Hirsch’s work in this area are referred to Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Feldheim Publishers, which Rabbi Clark writes is “based on the commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.”

[xiii] Bereishis 12:8. Translation is from the Haberman edition.

Calendar Controversy

When Yamim Nora’im “Fell” on Disputed Days

In the year 4681 (920), the greatest halachic authority in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Aharon ben Meir, proclaimed that the months of Marcheshvan and Kislev of the coming year (4682) would both have only 29 days. As a result, the next Pesach (4682) would begin on a Sunday and end after Shabbos, in Eretz Yisrael, and after Sunday, in Chutz LaAretz.

Prior to Ben Meir’s proclamation, all had assumed that Marcheshvan and Kislev that year would both be 30 days long, which would result in Pesach beginning two days later — on Tuesday, and ending on Monday, in Eretz Yisrael, and on Tuesday, in Chutz LaAretz. Thus, Ben Meir was pushing Pesach forward two days earlier than anticipated. Those communities that followed Ben Meir would eat chametz when it was still Pesach according to the original calculation!

Just as shocking, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of 4683 would also be two days earlier. Ben Meir’s ruling had Rosh Hashanah beginning on Tuesday and Yom Kippur observed on Thursday. The original calculation had Rosh Hashanah on Thursday, and Yom Kippur falling on Shabbos.

That year, most communities in Eretz Yisrael and Egypt observed Pesach, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah following Ben Meir’s calendar; the communities of Syria, Bavel (today’s Iraq), Europe and the rest of North Africa observed these Yomim Tovim two days later!

Thus, on Shabbos before Sukkos of 4683, Ben Meir’s followers were reading parshas Ha’azinu and enjoying their Shabbos repasts; the other communities were fasting and observing Yom Kippur!

Why did Ben Meir observe the calendar differently? Why was his opinion rejected?

Creation of the Jewish Calendar

Our current Jewish calendar was instituted in the fourth century by Hillel Hanasi (not to be confused with his ancestor, the Tanna, Hillel Hazakein. Historians call Hillel Hanasi either Hillel the Second or Hillel the Third, but I will refer to him the way the Rishonim do.) Prior to this time, the Nasi of the Sanhedrin appointed special batei din that were in charge of determining the Jewish calendar, which included two areas of responsibility:

·         Determining whether each month is 29 or 30 days.

·         Deciding whether the year should be made into a leap year by adding the month of Adar Sheini.

A beis din of three judges representing the Sanhedrin, the main beis din of klal Yisrael, would meet on the “thirtieth” day of each month to determine whether this day was Rosh Chodesh and the previous month was only 29 days, or whether to postpone Rosh Chodesh to the morrow, which would make the day on which they met the last day of a 30-day month.

The determination of which day was Rosh Chodesh was based heavily, but not exclusively, on whether witnesses appeared in the special beis din on the thirtieth day to testify that they had witnessed the new moon.

In addition, the head of the Sanhedrin appointed a panel of judges who met during the winter months to deliberate and decide whether the year should have an extra month added and become a leap year. Many factors went into their considerations, including the weather, the economy, the condition of the roads, the shmittah cycle and, of course, whether the Jewish calendar year was early or late relative to the annual solar cycle.

In Eretz Yisrael

The Gemara (Berachos 63) states unequivocally that as long as there is a beis din in Eretz Yisrael that is qualified to establish the calendar, no beis din elsewhere is authorized to do this.

This system worked well for thousands of years – from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until about 300 years after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, which was during the time that the Gemara was being written. However, by this time, severe Roman persecutions took a tremendous toll on the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, and its yeshivos suffered terribly.

It was at this time that the head of the last main beis din functioning in Eretz Yisrael, Hillel Hanasi (usually assumed to have been a great-grandson of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi), established the Jewish calendar as we currently observe it. In establishing this calendar, Hillel Hanasi resolved that whether a year would be a leap year or not would be determined by a cycle of 19 years that includes a set schedule of 7 leap years.

He also decided that the months of Tishrei, Shevat, Adar Rishon (when there is one), Nissan, Sivan and Av are always 30 days, whereas Teves, Adar (or Adar Sheini), Iyar, Tammuz and Elul are always only 29 days. The two months of Marcheshvan and Kislev would vary each year, depending on when the next year’s Rosh Hashanah should be. The latter was based on a calculation of how long we estimate the moon to orbit the earth and decisions made by Hillel Hanasi regarding on what days of the week the Tishrei holidays should fall.

Hillel Hanasi’s established calendar allowed that a Jew anywhere in the world could make the calculations and determine the Jewish calendar. All he needs to know is the pattern of the 19-year cycle, and the information necessary to determine how long the months of Marcheshvan and Kislev are in a given year.

One noteworthy point is that, originally, each month’s length was determined primarily by the witnessing of the new moon, whereas in the calendar created by Hillel Hanasi, the length of the months is predetermined, regardless of when the new moon appears. Only Rosh Hashanah is determined by the new moon, and, even then, there are other considerations.

History has proved the unbelievable clairvoyance of Hillel Hanasi’s calendar. To understand what he accomplished, note that, at the time of Ben Meir, almost 600 years had passed since Hillel and Jewish communities had scattered across the entire known world. There were already, at this time, Jewish communities strewn throughout Europe and North Africa, what eventually developed into the Ashkenazim and the Sefardim, and throughout the Middle East and central Asia.

Yet, wherever Jewish communities lived, they observed the same Jewish calendar, whether they lived under the rule of Christians, Moslems or Zoroastrians. It is a fascinating historical fact that, although there was no absolute central authority to determine Jewish observance, Jewish communities that were spread out everywhere observed and continue to observe the identical calendar, without any error or dispute, probably without a single exception, other than the one incident we are discussing!

The Controversy

Rav Ben Meir was, without question, a gadol  be’Yisrael who, in any other generation, might have been the gadol hador. However, Hashem placed him in the same generation as one of the greatest talmidei chachamim in history, Rav Saadia Gaon.

Rav Ben Meir held that all of the Jewish people were bound to follow his ruling regarding Klal Yisrael’s calendar, since his beis din was the most qualified one in Eretz Yisrael. He contended that the final decision on determining the calendar still rested among the highest halachic authorities in Eretz Yisrael, and that Hillel Hanasi’s calendar had not changed this.

At the time of Hillel Hanasi, the Jewish community in Bavel had surpassed that of Eretz Yisrael, both numerically and in scholarship, producing the greater talmidei chachamim. This is why the period of the Amoraim essentially ended earlier in Eretz Yisrael than in Bavel, and why the Talmud Bavli is more authoritative than the Talmud Yerushalmi. The main headquarters of Torah remained in Bavel for hundreds of years, including most of the period when the Gaonim headed the yeshivos of Sura and Pumbedisa in Bavel.

However, at the time of this controversy, both yeshivos, Sura and Pumbedisa, were weak, and Rav Aharon Ben Meir, who headed his own yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, surpassed in learning the heads of both Babylonian yeshivos.

Enter Rav Saadia

At the time of the dispute, Rav Saadia Gaon was only 29 years old. Virtually nothing is known of his rabbei’im. We know that he was born in Egypt, probably the second largest Jewish community at the time (after Bavel). At about 23 years old, probably already the greatest Torah scholar of his era, he traveled eastward, visiting the various Jewish communities of Eretz Yisrael, Syria and eventually Bavel, becoming very familiar with the scholars there. Although very young, we see from later correspondence that he already had many disciples prior to leaving Egypt, with whom he maintained contact after he left.

Pronouncing his Verdict

About a year before he changed the accepted calendar, Ben Meir announced his plans. At the time, Rav Saadia was in Aleppo, Syria. When he heard of Ben Meir’s intentions, Rav Saadia immediately addressed a succession of letters to Ben Meir, explaining that the established calendar was correct and should not be tampered with. Simultaneously, the authorities of Bavel addressed a letter to Ben Meir, written with tremendous respect and friendship, but sharply disputing his halachic conclusions.

Apparently, Ben Meir was unimpressed by the letters from either Rav Saadia or from Bavel. It appears that he then formalized his planned calendar change with a pronouncement made on Hoshanah Rabbah, from Har Hazeisim. Because of its proximity to the Beis Hamikdash, the Torah leaders of Eretz Yisrael held an annual gathering on Har Hazeisim to perform hoshanos. At the same time, they used the occasion to discuss whatever issues faced their communities and decided on plans and policies. Apparently, Ben Meir used this opportunity to announce the decision of his beis din to adjust the calendar in the coming year.

Indeed, the communities of Eretz Yisrael, and several (if not all) of those in Egypt followed Ben Meir’s ruling and kept 29 day months for both Marcheshvan and Kislev.

After the two questionable roshei chadashim had passed, we find correspondence between Bavel and Eretz Yisrael, but now the letters are more strident. By this time, Rav Saadia had arrived in Bavel, and the next correspondence includes letters from the established leaders of Bavel to Ben Meir strongly rebuking his decision. Apparently, these letters were signed not only by the elders and scholars of the Bavel community, but also by a young Egyptian newcomer — Rav Saadia.

At the same time, the leadership of Bavel as well as Rav Saadia addressed circulars to the various Jewish communities, advising them to observe the established calendar, not that of Ben Meir.

Rav Saadia wrote his disciples in Egypt, advising them that all the leaders of Bavel had concurred to follow the old calendar and to proclaim Marcheshvan and Kislev as full months and to observe Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos accordingly. In his own words:

Close this breach! Do not rebel against the command of Hashem. None of the people would intentionally work on Yom Tov, eat chametz on Pesach, or eat, drink or work on Yom Kippur. May it be the will of Hashem that no stumbling block be placed in your community nor anywhere else.

Rav Saadia was barely 30 years old and already he was viewed with such esteem that the established Torah leadership of Bavel requested that he join them in their correspondence on the issue!

Ben Meir’s Retort

In reaction to the initial letters from the Gaonim and from Rav Saadia, Ben Meir sent his son to Yerushalayim to announce, once again, his planned calendar change. Ben Meir also wrote, in an aggressive and disrespectful tone, that final authority in all matters of the calendar lies with the Torah leadership of Eretz Yisrael. At this point, he began to write disparagingly about his antagonists.

Pesach was approaching and communities were bewildered as to what to do. Rav Saadia wrote a second letter to his disciples in Egypt. It should be noted that, notwithstanding the personal attack leveled against him by Ben Meir, Rav Saadia dealt specifically with the issue and refrained from any remark belittling his detractor.

Why did Rav Saadia not accept Ben Meir’s assertion that the Torah leadership of Eretz Yisrael had the final say about these matters?

Rav Saadia wrote that Ben Meir’s calculations were mistaken. The calculations that we use are all based on an old mesorah from Sinai, as can be demonstrated from the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 20). Thus, this is not a matter of opinion, but an error. Rav Saadia rallied support from the fact that, since the days of Hillel Hanasi, no one had questioned the accuracy of the accepted calendar.

Two Different Pesachs

Indeed, that Pesach, many communities followed Ben Meir, while others followed Rav Saadia and the Gaonim of Bavel. The controversy continued the next year, through the disputed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos.

History has not bequeathed to us the final steps of this controversy, yet we know that, by the next year, the logic of Rav Saadia’s responsa swayed the tide against Ben Meir’s diatribes, and Rav Saadia became accepted as the gadol hador and its final arbiter in halacha.

Ben Meir blamed Rav Saadia for torpedoing his initiative, which probably is true. History knows nothing more of Ben Meir after this episode, and of no community that subsequently followed his approach. His opinion on any halachic matters is never quoted by later authorities.

Six years later, Rav Saadia was asked to assume the position of Gaon of Sura, the only time in history that the position was granted to an “outsider.” Indeed, we have Rav Saadia to thank that the Jewish world, everywhere, always observes Yomim Tovim on the same day.

The Four “Exiles”

In several places in Tanach and midrashim, there is reference to the Jewish people being subjected to four exiles. Most midrashim and commentaries understand that the four empires (or exiles) that ruled over the Jewish people described by Zecharyah (Chapter 6) and Daniel (Chapters 2 and 7) refer to Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome (see, for example, Ramban, Bereishis 36:23 and Bamidbar 24:20). However, the ibn Ezra (Daniel 2:40) and others disagree, noting that the Roman Empire has long disintegrated, and a new “empire,” that of the Moslem Arabs, swept across a huge tract of the world. The ibn Ezra concludes that since Greek and Roman culture were very similar, the third golus is Greece and Rome together, and the Arabs are the fourth.

Golus Bavel

We are, unfortunately, very familiar with the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash by Nevuchadnetzar the King of Bavel, much of which is described in various places in Tanach. The city and country of Bavel was in Mesopotamia, literally, the area “between the rivers” – the Tigris and the Euphrates – which form the center of the contemporary country of Iraq. To this day, descendants of the Jewish communities who lived in Iraq, where Jews lived for 2,500 years, are referred to as Jews of Bavel.


Not many years after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the powerful empire of Bavel was overrun by the Persian Empire. The Jews were now under the authority of a new nation. Many Jews spread across all 127 provinces (which probably means 127 major cities and their environs) of the new empire, and they were certainly known in the capital city of Shushan, located in modern Iran. Although Persia and Greece are known as malchuyos, their relationship to the Jews does not fit the classic definition of an exile or a diaspora, since the Jews were not driven from the country where they lived. Persia overtook Bavel, and thereby changed the culture and indeed geography of where Jews lived, but it is not accurate to say that we were “exiled” to new places. It is, however, accurate to say that, under the new management, Jews now spread out from Bavel to the entire ancient world.

By the way, this period of time coincides with the end of the period of the Tanach. The books of this era include Esther, Chaggai, Zecharya, Malachi, Daniel, Ezra and Nechemiah. Under Persian rule, Jews were permitted to return to Eretz Yisroel and build the second Beis Hamikdash. From a Torah perspective, the leadership of the Jewish people is the group called the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly. Among the many things they developed was our structure of tefillah and brochos, as well as many takanos. One of these takanos created the current structure of our kerias haTorah in which we call up at least three people and read at least ten pesukim.

Greece, or more accurately, Hellenism

According to all opinions (I will explain shortly what I mean), the next “exile” was Greece, or, probably more accurately, the Greek culture and philosophy that spread across the entire Middle East and included sections of Europe and Africa and what is usually called “south Asia.”

Alexander the Great, referred to by Chazal as Alexander Mokdon, Alexander of Macedonia, swept away all before him. His father, Philip of Macedonia, expanded from his small country in north-western Greece (or south-western Balkans, depending on which term is considered politically correct this week) and eventually conquered all of Greece — no small accomplishment, when you realize that the Greeks were frequently at war with one another, and each city was in its own country. Building on his father’s conquests, Alexander established the largest empire the western world had known to his day — from the Balkans to India, and even extending southwestwardly to include Egypt.

From a Jewish perspective, Alexander’s era coincides with the end of the period of the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah, and the beginning of the era of the Mishnah. We have all heard the story of how Alexander dismounted and prostrated himself to Shimon Hatzadik, who was the kohein gadol, and was the last of the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah. In acknowledgment of Alexander’s sparing the citadel that is the Beis Hamikdash and the city of Yerushalayim, at this time a fully functional and Jewish city again, the Jews of the era accepted upon themselves to name their sons after Alexander, thus forever making his name, and its Jewish shortening, Sender,into Jewish names.

As a conqueror, Alexander made his worst mistake when, at the age of 33, he got sick and died. Although he left an heir, the baby was not given any opportunity to create a dynasty. Alexander’s empire was divided among his generals, several of whom did succeed in creating dynasties. From a Jewish perspective, the two generals that were most important were Ptolemy, who ruled from Alexandria, Egypt, which soon became the location of the largest Jewish community in the world, and Seleucis, who set up his capital in Antioch, then considered part of Syria. Although the geographic and familial origins of the empire were no longer Greek, the culture spread by all the Hellenistic empires was completely Greek and a very powerful cultural influence.

One of the Seleucid emperors, Antiochus Epiphanes, went on a rampage to destroy Judaism, including the mitzvos of bris milah, Shabbos, the study of the Torah, and various other takkanos as we know from the Chanukah story. Golus Yovon was a spiritual golus, not a geographic one. It was a war between religion and assimilation. This was probably the first instance of Jewish history in which the main fighters against the Torah were Jews – self-hating Jews, whom we call the Misyavnim, who were intent on assimilating completely into Greek culture, or redefining their Judaism so that it has nothing to do with anything Jewish or G-dly. (Does this not sound very familiar?)


According to most opinions, the fourth golus is that of Rome, which, after establishing control of the ancient world from Britain to India, eventually obliterate the Beis Hamikdash and the city of Yerushalayim, murdered thousands, and possibly millions of Jews, driving the Jews from our homeland and ruthlessly annihilated the post-churban state of Bar Kochba with incredible cruelty and bloodshed. At the time of the Mishnah and Gemara, Jews had already dispersed as far west as Spain, and another aftermath of the Roman conquests was that Jews spread first to Rome, northward to northern Italy and eventually to Germany and France, thereby creating Ashkenazic Jewry. In the course of many centuries, descendants of these Jews moved eastward, forming the vast Jewish communities in Poland, Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe.

As we mentioned previously, the ibn Ezra contends that the Arab Empire was the fourth malchus. How does  the existence of the Arab empire fit into the picture according to others? Many In answer to the ibn Ezra’s observation that there was subsequently an Arab empire, many understand that the Christian world, and then its sequel, the modern golus, are all continuations of Rome. Others contend that the Arabic culture, which in the time of Middle Ages was heavily immersed in Greek thought, science and medicine, can also be considered a continuation of the previous goluyos. Some commentaries explain that the statue representing the “fourth empire” in Daniel is made of clay mixed with iron – an allusion of the travails of Rome combined with the Arabic caliphates and conquests.

The Arabs

As I mentioned above, according to the ibn Ezra, the fourth malchus is that of the Arabs. This malchus is a bit different from the others, in the sense that it was never ruled by one individual king or one dynasty. Mohammed, himself, succeeded only in conquering a few cities in the middle of the Arabian Desert. But his spiritual descendants eventually conquered from the Pyrenees Mountains that border between France and Spain, through the northern third of Africa, including also all the countries immediately south of the Sahara Desert — Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Nigeria — the entire Middle East, almost all of western Asia and south Asia, as far east as the Spice Islands, now called Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. This “empire” ruled a wide band from the Atlantic Ocean through the Indian Ocean, until it reached the Pacific.

A lesson!

The actual two destructions of Judea are technically not miraculous. Both catastrophes took place according to the normal course of events. How could tiny Judea, located at a very strategic crossroads of three continents, have avoided falling prey to the rising Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Arab powers?! Indeed, the location of Judea was the most unfortunate one possible for a small state that wished to protect its independence.

It was not Judea’s downfall that was miraculous. The miracle was the existence of Judea, an existence for which every natural prerequisite was absent. It could exist only because of Divine intervention, and this is true to this day – when we look to Hashem for His Leadership, we are safe (see Collected Writings of Rav Hirsch, Volume I, pg 299).

The Twentieth of Sivan


“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.

Biblical Source

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’s grandson. 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), they were tied up and placed on a pyre to be burned alive. At the fateful moment, the Jews sang in 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.

The Crusades

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 Selichos

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!