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Liturgical Curiosities

Question #1:

I find that many of the selichos that we recite before Rosh Hashanah are very difficult, if not impossible, to understand. Is this to teach us how difficult it is to do teshuvah?

Question #2:

“I once heard a rav give a running commentary to the kinos of Tisha B’Av, and he mentioned that the first kinah is a continuation of the piyut recited during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei. But I never saw anyone recite piyutim during the repetition of Tisha B’Av shemoneh esrei and do not even know where to look for them.”

Question #3:

“As a child, I remember that all the shullen recited piyutim during Maariv on Yomim Tovim and during Kedushah on special Shabbosos. Now I see piyutim recited only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What has changed?”

Although these questions seem unrelated, they all focus on a central subject: the additions of piyutim, kinos and other special passages in our davening. Let us first understand the background to the piyutim.

What are Piyutim?

During the period of the Rishonim, the Geonim, and even earlier, great Torah scholars wrote prayers and other liturgical works that were inserted into many different places in the davening, particularly during the birkos keri’as shema (between borchu and shemoneh esrei) and during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei. Standard shul practice, particularly among Ashkenazic Jewry, was to recite these piyutim on special occasions, including Yomim Tovim, fast days, and special Shabbosos (see Rama, Orach Chayim 68:1; 112:2). These piyutim express the mood and the theme of the day, often recall the history of the day, and sometimes even provide the halachic background for the day’s observance. Studying these piyutim not only gives us tremendous appreciation for these days, but sometimes provides us with certain aspects of mystery, as I will explain.

There is also a humbling side to the study of piyutim. The piyutim predate the printing press and return us to the era when written works had to be painstakingly handcopied. Most communities could not afford handwritten manuscripts of all the piyutim, and therefore the job of every chazzan included committing the piyutim to memory. My father told me many times that he knew blind chazzanim who recited the entire yomim nora’im davening by heart!

Selichos

We are all aware of the selichos recited on fast days and during Elul and Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, which are a type of piyutim. Another famous part of davening that qualifies as piyut is Akdamus, recited prior to keri’as hatorah on Shavuos. This introduction to the keri’as haTorah for Shavuos was written by Rabbeinu Meir ben Yitzchak of Worms, Germany, who was one of the great leaders of Ashkenazic Jewry before Rashi. Other examples of piyutim that are commonly recited include Tefillas Tal and Tefillas Geshem. The poem Dvei Haseir – recited before bensching at a Sheva Berachos, authored by Dunash ibn Labrat, an early poet and grammarian who is cited by Rashi in several places – and Nodeh Leshimcha, which takes the same slot at a bris milah are other examples of piyut.

Double Duty

Some piyutim are used in two different contexts. For example, the song frequently chanted at a bris, Shirah Chadashah,originated as a piyut recited immediately before the close of the berachah of Ga’al Yisrael in birchas keri’as shema on the Seventh Day of Pesach. This piyut, written by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, refers both to the splitting of the Yam Suf and to bris milah, and is therefore appropriate on both occasions.

Teaching Torah through Piyutim

Many times, the rabbis used poetry as a means of teaching Torah. For example, a very extensive literature of piyutim lists and explains the 613 mitzvos. Most of these pieces date back to the times of the Geonim; indeed, the famous count of mitzvos by Rav Saadia Gaon is actually a poem. The Rambam, in his introduction to the Sefer Hamitzvos refers to many such poems. He quotes them disparagingly, because most followed the count of the 613 mitzvos according to the Baal Halachos Gedolos, with which the Rambam disagreed.

Other examples include piyutim that instruct about special observances of the Jewish calendar. Among the most famous is the Seder Avodah of Yom Kippur, which is already referred to in the Gemara, although the text they used is long lost. Dozens of different piyutim were written in the period of the Geonim and Rishonim describing the Seder Avodah in detail. The Rishonim devote much halachic discussion about the technical accuracy of several of the versions they received from earlier generations, often taking issue and making rectifications. Even as late a halachic authority as the Chayei Odom made many corrections to our Seder Avodah of Yom Kippur to correct its accuracy.

U’neshalma Parim Sefaseinu

Reciting the Seder Avodah also fulfills the concept of ‘U’neshalma Parim Sefaseinu,’ ‘And let our lips replace the (sacrificial) bulls’ (Hoshea 14:3). The Midrash teaches that when we are unable to offer korbanos, Hashem accepts our recital of the procedure as a replacement for the korbanos (Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim 4:3). This implies that we can achieve kapparah (atonement) by reciting these piyutim with kavanah. Therefore, a person who recites the viduy of the Seder Avodah and truly regrets his sins can accomplish atonement similar to that achieved through the viduy recited by the Kohen Gadol.

Other “Replacement” Prayers

The same idea of U’neshalma Parim Sefaseinu is followed when we recite piyutim that describe other korbanos, such as, for example, the korban omer, the water libation (nisuch hamayim) of Sukkos, or the korban Pesach. We can achieve the drawing close to Hashem that korbanos achieve by discussing them and by longing for their return. This expands the rationale for reciting piyutim.

Educate to Observe Mitzvos

Some piyutim serve not only to teach Torah, but also to educate people how to observe mitzvos correctly. For example, the piyut, Elokei HaRuchos,recited on Shabbos Hagadol, contains a lengthy halachic description of all the preparations for Pesach, including detailed instructions for kashering and preparing the house. This halachic-liturgical classic was authored by Rav Yosef Tuv-Elem, the rabbinic leader of French Jewry prior to Rashi. Tosafos and other Rishonim devote much debate to the halachic positions taken by Rav Yosef Tuv-Elem in this poem, and Rabbeinu Tam and others revised Elokei HaRuchos to reflect their opinion of the correct halachah. Since the goal of this piyut was to teach the correct way to observe the laws of Pesach, the Rishonim felt it vital that the it halachically accurate. Obviously, this piyut was meant to be read, studied, and understood.

Who Authored Them?

You might ask, how do we know who wrote the different piyutim, particularly when many are over a thousand years old!

In general, most piyutim follow an alef beis acrostic in order to facilitate recall. (Remember — the assumption was that the chazzan would recite them from memory!) Many times, the author completed the work by weaving his name into the acrostic pattern he used for the particular piyut. Thus, Elokei HaRuchos begins with the alef beis but closes by spelling Yosef Hakatan bar Shmuel Chazak, which is the way Rav Yosef Tuv-Elem chose to “sign” this piyut.

An Old Controversy

Early controversy surrounded the practice of interrupting the berachos of keri’as shema or the repetition of the shemoneh esrei to recite the yotzaros, the word frequently used as a generic word for all piyutim inserted into the regular davening. (The word “yotzaros” originally referred only to those piyutim inserted after Borchu, shortly after the words “yotzeir ohr uborei choshech… .” However, in standard use the word refers to all piyutim inserted into the berachos of keri’as shema or the repetition of the shemoneh esrei.) The Shulchan Aruch rules: “There are communities that interrupt the birkos keri’as shema to recite piyutim, but it is correct not to say them for they constitute an interruption” (Orach Chayim 68:1). On this point, the Rama, reflecting early Ashkenazic practice, adds: “Others say that this is not prohibited and the practice in all communities is to recite them.” Each country and city had its own special customs concerning what was said and when; this was usually recorded in a community ledger.

Mesod Chachamim Unevonim

To acknowledge that these piyutim interrupt the regular repetition of the shemoneh esrei, the chazzan introduces the piyutim with the words, Mesod chachamim unevonim (Based on the tradition of the wise and understanding). These words mention that early great Torah leaders permitted and encouraged the introduction of these praises.

The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch (ibid.), explains both the position of those who recommended the recital of yotzaros and those who discouraged them. For the most part, the Lithuanian yeshivos followed the personal practice of the Gra not to recite piyutim during the birkos keri’as shema, and did not recite yotzaros during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei (Maasei Rav #57). (The Yeshivos recite yotzaros during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) With the tremendous spreading of shullen that follow the practices of the yeshivos, rather than what was previously followed by the Ashkenazic communities, it is increasingly difficult to find a shul catering to yeshivah alumnithat recites the piyutim other than during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This answers the question asked above: “As a child, I remember reciting piyutim during Maariv on Yomim Tovim and during Kedushah on special Shabbosos. Now I see piyutim recited only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What has changed?”

Unfortunately, due to this change in custom,this vast treasured literature of the Jewish people is quickly becoming forgotten.

Who was the First Paytan?

The title of being the earliest prominent paytan presumably belongs to Rabbi Elazar HaKalir, often referred to as the Rosh HaPaytanim, who authored Tefillas Tal and Tefillas Geshem, the piyutim for the four special Shabbosos (Shekalim, Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh), for Purim, the lion’s share of the kinos that Ashkenazim recite on Tisha B’Av and as piyutim on Yom Tov. We know virtually nothing about him personally — we cannot even date when he lived with any accuracy. Indeed, some Rishonim place him in the era of the Tanna’im shortly after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, identifying him either as Rabbi Elazar ben Arach (Shu”t Rashba 1:469), a disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, or as Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s son Elazar, who hid in the cave with his father (Tosafos, Chagigah 13a s.v. Veraglei; Rosh, Berachos 5:21). Others date Rav Elazar HaKalir much later.

Many assume that Rav Elazar HaKalir lived in Eretz Yisrael, based on the fact that we have no piyutim written by him for the second day of Yom Tov (Tosafos, Chagigah 13a s.v. Veraglei; Rosh, Berachos 5:21). Moreover, Tosafos there uses this evidence to prove that Kalir lived at the time when the Beis Din determined Rosh Chodesh on the basis of visual evidence. However, the yotzaros recited immediately following Borchu on the second day of Sukkos clearly include his signature and follow his style. So perhaps he indeed lived in chutz la’aretz, and indeed there are those who assume he lived in Italy, which was the location of many of the very early Ashkenazi paytanim.

Could it be that Diaspora Jews moved yotzaros he wrote for the first day of Yom Tov to the second day?

If this approach is true, it creates another question: Since the yotzaros recited on the first day of Yom Tov were also written by him, would he have written two sets of yotzaros for Shacharis on Sukkos? There are other indications that, indeed, he did sometimes write more than one set of piyutim for the same day.

Kalirian Curiosities

We do not know for certain what the name “Kalir” means. Since there are several places where he uses the acronym “Elazar berabi Kalir,” it seems that his father’s name was Kalir. However, the Aruch explains that “kalir” means a type of cookie, and that he was called hakalir because he ate a cookie upon which had been written a special formula that blessed him with tremendous erudition (Aruch, eirech Kalar III).

Kalirian Controversies

The antiquity of Rabbi Elazar’s writing did not save him from controversy. No less a gadol than the ibn Ezra stridently opposes using Rav Kalir’s works, arguing that prayers and piyutim should be written very clearly and be readily understood (Commentary to Koheles 5:1). Ibn Ezra recommends reciting piyutim written by Rav Saadia Geon that are easy to understand, rather than those of Kalir.

Rav Kalir’s piyutim in general, and his kinos in particular, are written in an extremely difficult poetic Hebrew. Often his ideas are left in allusions, and the story or midrash to which he alludes is unclear or obscure. They certainly cannot be understood without careful preparation. Someone who takes the trouble to do this will be awed by the beauty of the thoughts and allusions. The Shibbolei HaLeket records that when Rabbi Elazar wrote his piyutim the angels surrounded him with fire (quoted by the Magen Avraham at the beginning of Orach Chayim 68.) The Arizal recited all of the Kalir’s piyutim, because he perceived their deep kabbalistic allusions (ibid.).

Why is Es Tzemach David Ignored?

There is another mysterious practice in some of his writings. The piyutim he wrote for the weekday shemoneh esrei (such as for Purim) include a paragraph for every berachah of shemoneh esrei except one,the berachah Es tzemach David that precedes Shema koleinu.

Why would Rav Kalir omit this berachah? Perhaps the answer to this mystery can help us understand more about when he lived.

Answering the Mystery

Our use of the title “shemoneh esrei” to identify the focal part of our daily prayer is actually a misnomer, dating back to when this tefillah included only eighteen berachos. In the times of the Mishnah, a nineteenth berachah, Velamalshinim, was added, and the Talmud Bavli notes that this increases the berachos of the “shemoneh esrei” to nineteen.

However, there is evidence that even after Velamalshinim was added, not everyone recited nineteen berachos. A Tosefta implies that they still recited eighteen berachos in the shemoneh esrei.  This was accomplished by combining together two of the berachos, Uvenei Yerushalayim and Es tzemach David. This would explain why someone would not write a piyut for the berachah Es tzemach David, since it was no longer an independent berachah. Thus, if we can identify a place and time when these two berachos were combined, we might more closely identify when Rav Elazar HaKalir lived. It would seem that this would be sometime between the introduction of the berachah Velamalshinim and the time the Talmud Bavli’s practice of a nineteen-berachahshemoneh esrei” became accepted.

Rabbi Elazar Hakalir’s piyutim and kinos require studying rather than reading. They are often extremely difficult pieces to read, relying on allusions to midrashim and historical events. Many commentators elucidated his works, attempting to illuminate the depths of his words. Also, sometimes he employed extremely complicated acrostics. This is cited as proof that he lived later, when such writing was stylish; of course, this does not prove his lack of antiquity.

The Kinos

As I mentioned above, most of the kinos we recite on Tisha B’Av are authored by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir. In his typical style, many of these can be understood only by preparing them in advance or to hear them explained by someone who understands them. Furthermore, they must be read slowly so that one can understand what the author meant. This may entail someone reciting only a few kinos for the entire morning of Tisha B’Av, but he will understand and experience what he read.

Conclusion

We see that liturgical poems enhance our appreciation of our special days, and that it is very worthwhile to prepare them in advance so that we can truly appreciate them while we recite them.




The Twentieth of Sivan

Question:

“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?”

Answer:

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.

Conclusion

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!




Who Knows Thirteen?

Question: What is the basis for the Selichos we recite before Rosh Hashanah and during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah?

Answer:

From the beginning of Selichos, continuing with the closing sentences of the haftarah we recite on Shabbos Shuvah, and then again after Maftir Yonah, and climaxing with the Selichos we recite in ne’ilah, we repeatedly enumerate or allude to the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s kindness. The words mi keil kamochaalso allude to the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s kindness.

Why is the recital of the thirteen midos of Hashem’s mercy so important? Allow me to quote the relevant Talmudic passage:

Rabbi Yochanan said: “Were it not for the fact that the Torah itself wrote this, it would be impossible to say this. The Torah teaches that Hashem wrapped Himself in a talis like a chazzan and demonstrated to Moshe the order of prayer. Hashem told Moshe: ‘Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order, and I will forgive them”‘ (Rosh Hashanah 17b).

Rabbi Yochanan noted that the anthropomorphism of his own statement is rather shocking, and, without scriptural proof, we would refrain from saying it. Nevertheless, the Torah compelled us to say that Hashem revealed to Moshe a means whereby we can be pardoned for our iniquities. According to the Maharal, Moshe asked Hashem to elucidate, to the extent that a human can comprehend, how Hashem deals with the world in mercy. Hashem did, indeed, enlighten Moshe, and this enabled him to implore that the Jewish people be forgiven and taught him how to lead the Jews in their prayers (Chiddushei Agados, Rosh Hashanah 17b s.v. Melameid).

Source for Selichos

This, then, is the basis for Selichos. Indeed, it is not a takanah, but a custom; yet, who would not avail himself of the opportunity to prepare early for this chance? To quote the Leket Yosher: Someone who goes to daven on the High Holidays and did not say Selichos in preparation can be compared to an individual who desires to approach the king with an urgent request, and manages to acquire the key to the king’s inner sanctum, but fails to arrange how he will enter the outer office. All his efforts are therefore completely in vain, because he failed to prepare himself adequately. This can be compared to someone moving to an unsettled area who installs a modern kitchen, expecting to be able to turn on the tap and produce water, when there are no connecting water pipes!

A Word about Attributes

What, exactly, are the thirteen attributes? For that matter, can we attribute personality characteristics to Hashem?

Humans are not capable of understanding who Hashem is. The Torah requires that we understand that Hashem does not have moods (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:11). When we describe Hashem’s different attributes, we are explaining Hashem in a way that we, as human beings, will be able to comprehend Him, since we cannot comprehend Him in any other way (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:9). Thus, providing thirteen different attributes of Hashem’s mercy is simply a human way for us to appreciate more specifically and to a greater extent what Hashem does and has done for us, and what is our responsibility to fulfill the mitzvah of being like Hashem, which I will explain shortly.

To quote Rabbeinu Bachyei: Although we no longer know how to beseech nor do we properly understand the power of the thirteen attributes, and how they connect to Hashem’s mercy, we still know that the attributes of mercy plead on our behalf, since this is what Hashem promised. Today, when we are without a kohein gadol to atone for our sins and without a mizbei’ach on which to offer korbanos and no Beis Hamikdash in which to pray, we have left only our prayers and these thirteen attributes (Kad Hakemach, Kippurim 2).

Who Knows Thirteen?

To quote the Haggadah, “I know thirteen! Thirteen are the attributes.”

What are the thirteen midos?

The Torah says: Hashem, Hashem, Who is a merciful and gracious G-d, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. He preserves kindness for thousands of generations by forgiving sins, whether they are intentional, rebellious or negligent; and He exonerates (Shemos 34:6-7).

There are many opinions among the commentaries and the halachic authorities exactly how to calculate the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. The most commonly quoted approach is that of Rabbeinu Tam, who includes each of the Names of Hashem at the beginning as a separate attribute (Tosafos, Rosh Hashanah 17b).

What do I do?

At this point, I want to return to the above-quoted Talmudic source of the Selichos and note an important point.

Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them.” The Hebrew word that I have translated as should perform this order is yaasu, which means that the Jews must do something, definitely more than just reciting the words. If all that is required is reading the words, the Gemara should have said simply: They should read these words. Obviously, action, which always speaks louder than words, is required to fulfill these instructions and accomplish atonement. What does the Gemara mean?

Emulate Hashem

To answer this question, we need to realize that the most important of the 613 mitzvos is the commandment to emulate Hashem. To quote the Gemara: Just as Hashem is gracious and merciful, so should you become gracious and merciful (Shabbos 133b). When Hashem told Moshe: Whenever the Jews perform this order, I will forgive them, He meant that when we act towards one another with the same qualities of rachamim that Hashem does, He forgives us. Reciting the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy is the first step towards making ourselves merciful people who emulate Hashem’s ways. Yaasu means learning to internalize these attributes by doing them, and thereby making ourselves G-dly people. “Doing” the thirteen attributes means not only understanding the absolutely incredible amount of tolerance that Hashem manifests, but includes, also, realizing how accepting we must be of people who annoy and harm us!

This sounds great in theory. What does it mean in practice?

Here are several examples, all taken from the sefer Tomer Devorah, to help us comprehend what our job is:

  1. Whenever someone does something wrong toward Hashem, at that very moment He provides all the needs of the offender. This is a tremendous amount of forbearance that Hashem demonstrates. Our mitzvah is to train ourselves to be accepting, to this great extent, of those who annoy and wrong us.
  2. We should appreciate the extent to which Hashem considers the Jews to be His people; we should identify with the needs of each Jew on a corresponding level.
  3. Hashem waits with infinite patience for the sinner to do teshuvah, always being confident in this person’s ability to repent and change, and continues to provide the sinner with all his needs. Similarly, we should not stand on ceremony to wait for someone who wronged us to apologize.
  4. Hashem emphasizes the positive acts that a person does and continues to shower the person with good, while, in the interim, He overlooks the sins a person has performed. Similarly, when I know that someone wronged me, but at the same time I have received chesed from him or her, I should ignore the fact that they wronged me – after all, they have also helped me. The Tomer Devorah emphasizes specifically the chesed that one receives from one’s spouse, which should, without question, supplant any criticisms one has of him or her.
  5. When a person does teshuvah after sinning, Hashem loves him more than He loved him before he sinned. As the Gemara states: In a place where baalei teshuvah stand, complete tzadikim are unable to stand. The parallel responsibility incumbent on a person to someone who wronged him is that when he sees that the person wants to makes amends, he should befriend and accept him at a greater level than he had previously.

We see that the recital of the thirteen attributes serves not only to help us appreciate all that Hashem does for us, but also as a training ground to teach how we should constantly treat our fellowman.

Conclusion

My rosh yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Ruderman zt”l, asked, Why do Ashkenazim not begin reciting Selichos until at most eight days before Rosh Hashanah? The custom of the Sefardim, who begin reciting selichos at the beginning of Elul, seems to make more sense. After all, the entire month is specially designated for doing teshuvah.

His answer was that proper prayer requires hachanah, proper preparation. We need the beginning of Elul to get prepared for properly reciting the Selichos (Sichos Avodas Halevi pg. 264). Now that we understand how much of a responsibility we are assuming when we recite the thirteen midos of Hashem, we can appreciate better why we need several weeks of preparation before we begin reciting the Selichos.

 




Poetic Controversies

Ashkenazim and Sefardim recite very different kinos on Tisha B’Av and different piyutim on most other occasions. This provides an opportunity to discuss:

Poetic Controversies

Question #1: How many machzorim?

“I am a Sefardiyah by birth, and recently became engaged to a wonderful Ashkenazi man who gave me a beautiful, five-volume set of machzorim. I looked at my new set of machzorim and could not find the selichot recited in Elul anywhere in the Rosh Hashanah machzor, nor in any of the other volumes. Where will I find them? I also could not find any volume for Tisha B’Av, but I also could not find those prayers in the Ashkenazi siddur my chatan bought me.”

Question #2: The Italian connection

“Why are so many of our piyutim written by Italian authors?”

Introduction:

Our prayers have been enhanced by the inclusion of many religious poems written by various authors over the years. During the yomim nora’im, virtually every Jewish community recites piyutim, poetic liturgy, as part of the davening. We also prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the recital of selichos, which also includes piyutim. Such famous and standard prayers as Yigdal, Adon Olam, and An’im Zemiros all qualify as piyutim. The zemiros that we sing at our Shabbos meals are also piyutim, as is Dvei Haseir, written by Dunash, recited prior to bensching at a wedding or sheva brachos, and Yom Le’yabasha, written by Rav Yehudah Halevi, that is chanted at a seudas bris. And do you know of a community that does not begin Shabbos by singing Lecha Dodi, written by Rav Shlomoh Alkabetz?

At one time, in Ashkenazic circles, the davening of all the yomim tovim, all special Shabbosos, and even Purim and Tisha B’Av was graced with piyutim specially suited to the occasion. The themes, history and emotions of each season and special day were expressed through these beautiful writings.

In the last generation, the recital of piyutim is definitely on the downswing. When I was young, during the birchos kerias shema of maariv on Pesach, Sukkos and Shavuos, most shullen recited piyutim, a custom that is in most places not observed today. About the only shullen where I hear this being practiced today are chassidishe minyanim or those following the nusach Ashkenaz traditions of the old German communities.

In the yeshivish world, what is left over from our long tradition of these piyutim are the zemiros of Shabbos, the piyutim recited during yomim nora’im, the kinos, and the selichos.

One interesting exception that has survived is the recital of Akdamus at the beginning of kerias haTorah on Shavuos, which is still recited in every Ashkenazi shul I have ever attended. (Sefardim do not recite Akdamus, as I will soon explain.)

Kinos versus selichos

Since I mentioned the remaining use of piyutim for both selichos and kinos, it is interesting to note a difference between the selichos and the kinos of Tisha B’Av. Although the same basic structure of selichos is followed by most Ashkenazic communities, different practices developed concerning which selichos are recited on which days and in what order. The differences are significant enough so as to make it necessary to make sure that one has a copy of the selichos that follows the exact minhag followed by the shul that one is attending.

On the other hand, with very slight differences, the same kinos for Tisha B’Av are recited virtually universally by all the different communities of Ashkenaz.

Ashkenazim and Sefardim

I once attended Rosh Hashanah davening with a Sefardic minyan, and I can advise someone doing this to have a Sefardic machzor handy, which I did not. Although many different customs have developed among various Ashkenazic communities, the same sources and the same style of piyutim are used by all. However, the piyutim recited by the Sefardim are completely different. Very few of the piyutim recited by Sefardim are familiar to Ashkenazim and vice versa. For example, the writings of the Italian school of paytanim (authors of piyutim) who figure so significantly among the Ashkenazim are never part of the Sefardic prayer. Similarly, Rav Elazar Hakalir, who figures so predominantly in the Ashkenazim’s prayer, is not used by the Sefardim. Most of their piyutim are of relatively late vintage and from four authors. The predominant paytanim used by the Sefardim are Rav Shelomoh ibn Gabirol, Rav Yehudah Halevi, Rav Moshe ibn Ezra and Rav Avraham ibn Ezra, all of the Spanish school of talmidei chachamim.

It is also interesting to note that in the Sefardic custom, fewer piyutim are recited, which is surprising, since the Jews of medieval Spain were far more noted for their poetry than were the Ashkenazim. Still, Sefardim recite piyutim as part of the selichos, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening and on Tisha B’Av, which Ashkenazim call the reciting of kinos. By the way, although Sefardim say far less piyutim than Ashkenazim, they do say selichos after all five tefilos on Yom Kippur as well as piyutim before kedusha.

How many machzorim?

At this point, we can address one of our opening questions.

“I am a Sefardiyah by birth, and recently became engaged to a wonderful Ashkenazi man who gave me a beautiful, five-volume set of machzorim. I looked at my new set of machzorim and could not find the selichot recited in Elul anywhere in the Rosh Hashanah machzor, nor in any of the other volumes. Where will I find it? I also could not find any volume for Tisha B’Av, but I also could not find this in the Ashkenazi siddur my chatan bought me.”

The answer to this question is interesting. In the customs of bnei Ashkenaz, every day’s selichos is completely different from every other day. Although the Sefardim recite selichos the entire month of Elul, they have no separate selichos book. This is because they recite the same selichos every day, and the selichos are usually included in their Rosh Hashanah machzor. A Sefardi set of machzorim might include three volumes: one for Rosh Hashanah, one for Yom Kippur and one for Tisha B’Av. Since they do not recite piyutim on the other holidays, the printers did not always find it worthwhile to produce machzorim for those days, since a standard siddur and chumash suffice. Others include a fourth volume, which is for all three regalim.

On the other hand, when a publisher sells an Ashkenazic set of machzorim, he includes a volume for each Yom Tov because each Yom Tov had its own special piyutim. However, the selichos recited on fast days, during Elul and aseres yemei teshuvah, and the kinos recited on Tisha B’Av are not included in a set of machzorim and are sold as separate volumes.

History through piyutim

There is a tremendous amount of history that can be derived from learning about the authors of our piyutim. We get quite an education as we see where the wandering Jew has found himself over the centuries of our dispersal. Here is a sampling of the names and geographic areas of some of our predominant paytanim, organized according to the periods of history. In all likelihood, many of our more common piyutim predate even the earliest dates I have mentioned here. However, since we are without any means of dating them, I have omitted them.

Bavel

Some of our piyutim are known to date back to the era of the geonim 1200-1300 years ago. Among the authors of this period we find Rav Sa’adia Gaon, Rav Nissim Gaon, and Rav Amram Gaon.

The early Italians

Not long after the period of the geonim that I just mentioned, there was a period of significant production of piyutim that dates back to the late 9th century in Italy. Among the many Italian paytanim of this era whose works we recite are a grandfather and grandson both named Amitai, Shefatyah, who was the son of one Amitai and the father of the other, Zevadyah, and Rav Shlomoh Habavli. (Historians do not know for certain why he was called Habavli, since he lived in Italy. The most obvious explanation is that either he was originally from Bavel or that his family origins were there. This would be similar to someone with obvious German roots carrying the family name Pollack, or someone of eastern European background with a family name of a central or western European city, such as Shapiro, from the city Speyer in western Germany, because of some earlier family history.)

Early Ashkenaz

The word Ashkenaz is associated with Germany, and the historical origins of these practices are usually traced to the Jewish communities that lived a thousand years ago in the Rhine river valley. The most famous three of these communities were Speyer, Worms and Mainz. Many of our piyutim are authored by gedolim of this period, including Rabbeinu Gershom, Rabbi Shimon Hagadol of Mainz and Rav Meir ben Yitzchak, the chazzan of Worms, who was the author of Akdamus. By the way, this will explain why Sefardim do not recite Akdamus on Shavuos, since its author lived after the time that Sefardim and Ashkenazim were physically separated into different areas.

Spanish

Beginning around this era is the Golden Age of Spain, which included much writing of piyutim. The major body of the attributable piyutim recited by the Sefardim goes back to this period, most of it written by Rav Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Rav Yehudah Halevi, Rav Moshe ibn Ezra, and Rav Avraham ibn Ezra, as I noted above. Ashkenazim do recite some piyutim from these authors, for example, Shomron Kol Titein, recited in the kinos of Tisha B’Av, authored by ibn Gabirol, and Tziyon halo Sish’ali, also one of the kinos, and the above-mentioned Yom Le’yabasha by Rav Yehudah Halevi, recited commonly at a bris. By the way, you will find Yom Le’yabasha  in your Ashkenazi machzor for Pesach, where it exists as the piyut to be recited at shacharis of the seventh day of Pesach, immediately before the brocha of Ga’al Yisroel.

Later Ashkenaz

In this era, many of the piyutim were written by rishonim who are familiar to us from their halachic and Talmudic writings. These include several baalei Tosafos, such as the Rivam (Rashi’s grandson and the older brother of Rabbeinu Tam), Rav Elchanan, Rav Yehudah Hachasid, Rav Yitzchak Ohr Zarua, the Maharam, Rav Yosef Bechor Shor, Rav Yoel Halevi (the father of the Ra’avyah).

The Italian angle

Having studied a quick overview of the various places where our paytanim lived, we can now explain why Ashkenazim recite many selichos and other piyutim written by the early Italian paytanim, whereas the Sefardim do not recite piyutim from these authors. The answer is that the ancestors of what came to be called Ashkenazic Jewry probably predominantly migrated northward from Italy, bringing with them their customs and their piyutim that had been written during this early golden age of piyut.

Rav Elazar Hakalir

No discussion of piyutim is complete without presenting Rav Elazar Hakalir, who authored the lion’s share of the kinos we recite on Tisha B’Av, as well as many of our other piyutim, including Tefillas Tal and Tefillas Geshem, the piyutim for the four special Shabbosos (Shekalim, Zachor, Parah and Hachodesh), and many of the yotzros for Yomim Tovim. We know absolutely nothing about him personally — we cannot even date when he lived with any accuracy. Some Rishonim place him in the era of the Tanna’im, shortly after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, identifying him either as Rabbi Elazar ben Arach (Shu”t Harashba 1:469), a disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, or as Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s son Elazar, who hid in the cave with his father (Tosafos, Chagigah 13a s.v. Veraglei; Rosh, Berachos 5:21; Shibbolei Haleket #28). On the other hand, others date Rav Elazar HaKalir hundreds of years later.

We do not know for certain what the name “Kalir” means. Since there are several places where he used the acronym “Elazar berabi Kalir,” it seems that his father’s name was Kalir. However, the Aruch explains that “kalir” means a type of cookie, and that he was called hakalir because he ate a cookie upon which had been written a special formula that blessed him with tremendous erudition (Aruch, eirech Kalar III).

Many of Rabbi Elazar Hakalir’s piyutim and kinos require studying rather than reading, since they rely on allusions to midrashim and historical events. Many commentators elucidated his works, attempting to illuminate the depths of his words. Often, his ideas are expressed in difficult allusions, and the story or midrash to which he hints is unclear or obscure. They certainly cannot be understood without careful preparation. Someone who takes the trouble to do this will be awed by the beauty of the thoughts and allusions.

When did he live?

Most assume that Rav Elazar HaKalir lived in Eretz Yisrael, based on the fact that we have no piyutim written by him for the second day of Yom Tov (Tosafos, Chagigah 13a s.v. Veraglei; Rosh, Berachos 5:21.) However, the yotzros of the second day of Sukkos clearly include Rav Kalir’s signature and follow his style. Could it be that Diaspora Jews moved yotzros he wrote for the first day of Yom Tov to the second day? This approach creates another question: Since the yotzros recited on the first day of Yom Tov were also written by him, would he have written two sets of yotzros for Shacharis on Sukkos? There are other indications that he did, indeed, sometimes write more than one set of piyutim for the same day, and this approach is followed by the Shibbolei Haleket (#28).

Kalirian controversy

Notwithstanding the brilliance and prevalence of Rav Kalir’s piyutim, reciting them was not without controversy. No less a gadol than the Ibn Ezra stridently opposes using Rav Kalir’s works. In an essay incorporated in his commentary to Koheles (5:1), the ibn Ezra levels extremely harsh criticism of the piyutim authored by Rav Kalir. He divides the nature of his arguments into four headings.

Simplicity of language

Ibn Ezra notes that prayers should be recited in simple language that can be understood on a very basic level. After all, the goal of prayer is to understand what one is saying. Since piyutim are usually intended to be forms of prayer, one should not recite any prayer whose intent is not obviously clear. Because of this criticism, Ibn Ezra advises reciting the piyutim written by Rav Sa’adia Gaon, which are written so that they can be understood in a very literal way.

Mixed language

Ibn Ezra’s second criticism of Kalir is that he mixed into the Hebrew of his piyutim vocabulary whose basis is in the Gemara, treating Talmudic language on the same level of Hebrew as that of Tanach. As Ibn Ezra notes, the Gemara says loshon mikra lechud uloshon Talmud lechud, which he understands to mean that the Hebrew used by the Gemara should be treated as a different language from that of Tanach. Therefore, one should not mix the two languages together when reciting prayers.

Grammatical creativity

The third criticism of ibn Ezra is that he is unhappy with Kalir’s creative approach to Hebrew grammar and structure, allowing poetic style to influence the Hebrew that he used. Ibn Ezra also criticized Kalir’s creation of new words by changing masculine words to feminine and vice versa for poetic effect or to accomplish his allusions.

Use of midrashim

Ibn Ezra’s fourth criticism of Kalir is that his piyutim are filled with midrashim, and that these should not be included in one’s prayers.

Ibn Ezra notes that there were those who took issue with his criticisms, since Kalir had passed on many years before and would be unable to respond. Ibn Ezra himself dispenses with this disapproval by noting that prayer must be whole-hearted, and how can one pray when one does not understand what one is saying? Ibn Ezra notes that when Rav Sa’adia wrote piyutim, he steered clear of these four problems.

In fact, Sefardim do not recite piyutim of Rav Kalir, whereas among Ashkenazim, he is the single, most commonly used paytan.

Response to ibn Ezra

We should note that the Shibbolei Haleket saw this essay of the ibn Ezra and quoted selections from it, but he omitted any of the ibn Ezra’s criticism of Rav Kalir’s writings.

Furthermore, none of ibn Ezra’s criticisms should be taken as casting aspersion on Rav Elazar Hakalir’s greatness. Shibbolei Haleket records that when Rabbi Elazar Hakalir wrote his poem Vechayos Asher Heinah Meruba’os (recited in the kedusha of musaf of Rosh Hashanah), the angels surrounded him with fire (quoted by the Magen Avraham at the beginning of Siman 68). Similarly, R’ Chaim Vital writes that his teacher, the Arizal, recited only the piyutim written by the early paytanim, such as R’ Elazar Hakalir, since they are based on kabbalah.

Which seder ha’avodah?

This dispute between Ashkenazic practice and Sefardic manifests itself in the choice of piyut used for the seder ha’avodah recited towards the end of musaf on Yom Kippur. Dozens of piyutim explaining the seder ha’avodah were written, some dating back to the time of the Gemara, some perhaps earlier. Notwithstanding the antiquity of some of these pieces of poetry, the ones currently used are of relatively late origin. Ashkenazim recite Amitz Koach, which is highly poetic and difficult to understand. On the other hand, Sefardim recite Atah Konanta, which is written in clear Hebrew.

Conclusion

Now that we have had an opportunity to appreciate some of the background to our piyutim, it should motivate us to utilize our davening better to build a relationship with Hashem. As the Kuzari notes, every day should have three very high points — the three times that we daven. We should gain our strength and inspiration for the rest of the day from these three prayers.

 




Who Knows Thirteen?

Question #1: Sneak Preview

My grandmother told me how she remembers that the first night of selichos people used to go from shul to shul sampling the davening of each of the chazzanim, and deciding which shul they would attend for Rosh Hashanah. Is there any halachic basis for having the chazzan daven also the first night of selichos?

Question #2: Bemotza’ei Menucha – At the end of Shabbos

Why do Ashkenazim begin reciting Selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos or Sunday morning?

Question #3: More or Less?

Levi asks me: “Because of my work schedule, on most days I do not have a lot of time in which to recite selichos. Is it better to recite just a small amount of the selichos in the time that I have, or to race through as much as I can say?”

Answer:

What is the source for the practice of reciting selichos? Does it have the halachic status of a custom or something that Chazal instituted? In this article, we will address these basic questions.

To begin, let us note that our structured prayers can be classified into three categories:

I. Daily Davening

Our daily tefillos, through which we fulfill our mitzvah to serve Hashem every day, as the Rambam writes: It is a positive mitzvah to pray every day, which fulfills what the Torah states “and you shall serve Hashem your G-d.” The oral mesorah teaches that the service referred to here means prayer (Hilchos Tefillah 1:1).

II. Fasts and Emergencies

Tefillos that we say on fast days and other times of difficulty. These fulfill a different Torah mitzvah, and again I quote the Rambam: There is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and blow trumpets on every travail that befalls the community (Hilchos Taanis 1:1). One day, I hope to write an article on the topic of trumpets, and why we do not blow them today. The selichos we recite following the repetition of shemoneh esrei (or according to some old minhagim, during the repetition of shemoneh esrei) on most of our fast days, including the Tenth of Teves, Taanis Esther, the Seventeenth of Tamuz, and Behab after Sukkos and Pesach, are all reflective of this mitzvah.

III. Selichos

Even though teshuvah and prayer are always good, during the ten days that are from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur they are exceptionally good and they are immediately accepted (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:6). The selichos that I am discussing in this article are the special prayers for teshuvah and forgiveness with which we supplicate during Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

Structure of Selichos

Although there are numerous variant customs, most of Klal Yisrael structures selichos in the following way: We begin with ashrei, followed by a half-kaddish, then recite many introductory verses of Tanach, which in turn lead into some small prayers that culminate with a paragraph that begins with the words Keil Erech Apayim. Keil Erech Apayim directly introduces the focal point of the selichos – the recitation of the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s kindness. After the Jewish people sinned when we worshipped the Eigel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, Hashem taught Moshe to use these thirteen attributes of His kindness to achieve absolution for the Jewish people.

We then read a few verses that refer to Hashem pardoning our iniquities, followed by several poetic supplications, each of which leads into another recital of the thirteen attributes. This is followed by some closing prayers which include the viduy (confession) and tachanun (a prayer customarily said while sitting in a bowed position), all of this closing with the chazzan reciting full kaddish. In all Ashkenazic customs with which I am familiar, there are numerous different poetic supplications, variously called selichos, akeidos, pizmonim, etc., and each day we recite a different series of these prayers. The purpose of these prayers is to introduce and set the mood for the recital of the thirteen attributes.

If we stop to realize, we will notice that our selichos prayer is structurally similar to our daily mincha prayer (without the aleinu and mourner’s kaddish at mincha’s end). However, the most noticeable difference between mincha and selichos is that the shemoneh esrei recited as the primary part of mincha is replaced in selichos by the repeated recital of the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy and the numerous prayers that introduce those recitals.

The Thirteen Midos

Why is the recital of the thirteen midos of Hashem’s mercy so important? Let me quote the Talmudic passage that is the basis for our recital of selichos.

Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘Were it not for the fact that the Torah itself wrote this, it would be impossible to say this. The Torah teaches that Hashem wrapped Himself in a talis like a chazzan and demonstrated to Moshe the order of prayer. Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them“‘ (Rosh Hashanah 17b).

Rabbi Yochanan noted that the anthropomorphism of his own statement is rather shocking, and without scriptural proof we would refrain from saying it. Nevertheless, the Torah compelled us to say that Hashem revealed to Moshe a means whereby we can be pardoned for our iniquities. According to the Maharal, Moshe asked Hashem to elucidate, to the extent that a human can comprehend, how Hashem deals with the world in mercy. Hashem did indeed enlighten Moshe, and this enabled him to implore that the Jewish people be forgiven, and taught him how to lead the Jews in their prayers (Chiddushei Agados, Rosh Hashanah 17b s.v. Melameid).

Source for Selichos

This, then, is the basis for selichos. Indeed, it is not a takanah, but a custom; yet who would not avail himself of the opportunity to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! To quote the Leket Yosher: Someone who goes to daven on the High Holidays and did not say selichos in preparation can be compared to an individual who desires to approach the king with an urgent request, and manages to acquire the key to the king’s inner sanctum, but fails to arrange how he will enter the outer office. All his efforts are therefore completely in vain, because he failed to prepare himself adequately. This can be compared to someone moving to an unsettled area who installs a modern kitchen, expecting to be able to turn on the tap and produce water when there are no connecting water pipes!

More or Less

Since we understand how important it is to say selichos with feeling, it is obvious that one with limited time to recite selichos, should say a smaller amount and understand what he is saying rather than rush through what he says (see Tur Orach Chayim Chapter 1).

Praying Truthfully

We should bear in mind that many of the selichos state that we are arising while it is still dark and similar expressions, all of which reflects the custom of earlier generations of reciting selichos either at halachic midnight (chatzos) or very early in the morning well before sunrise. Someone reciting selichos anytime after sunrise should be careful to modify these passages so that he is not pleading a lie before Hashem (Aruch Hashulchan).

Who Should be the Chazzan?

The above-quoted Leket Yosher concludes: It is therefore logical that the individual leading the selichos should be someone who will lead the services on Yomim Nora’im. In other words, since selichos are the introduction to our Yomim Nora’im supplications, the same chazzan that the community desires to plead on its behalf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should be called upon to lead their selichos entreaties.

By the way, other authorities mention another reason why the chazzan who will be leading services on Yomim Nora’im should also be chazzan for selichos, particularly if the chazzan is paid for his services. The halacha forbids paying someone for performing work on Shabbos or Yom Tov, even if it is work that is otherwise permitted, such as babysitting, being a kashrus mashgiach or a chazzan. This forbidden payment for Shabbos work is called schar Shabbos, literally, Shabbos wages. So how do I find a babysitter for Shabbos when I need to attend a simcha, if I cannot pay him or her?

The way to avoid the prohibition of schar Shabbos is to hire someone for an entire job that also includes weekday work, without calculating how much is being paid for Shabbos or Yom Tov. Making the payment into one big package is called havlaah (literally, “absorbed”) and is permitted provided no computation is made for specific Shabbos or Yom Tov work, and the wages are not paid on a calculated hourly basis (since this also means that one is paying for the hours worked on Shabbos or Yom Tov).

Now we have a curious problem. It is a practice of at least a thousand years to hire chazzanim. How does one pay a chazzan to perform his job on Shabbos and Yom Tov, when there is a prohibition of schar Shabbos if one pays him for Shabbos work? The answer is that one also hires the chazzan to perform some weekday activity, such as giving bar mitzvah lessons, teaching in the congregation Hebrew school, or running the shul’s youth activities.

None of these solutions resolve the schar Shabbos concern regarding a chazzan who is hired to daven only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To avoid the schar Shabbos problem, the custom developed for the chazzan to lead one of the selichos, and thereby he is paid a “package deal” remuneration that includes some weekday work (Elef Hamagein 585:24; Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 28 note 145).

What if the chazzan is traveling from a distance for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and it is not worthwhile to pay his transportation for a third trip for selichos? In this instance, there is a simple solution to the schar Shabbos predicament, since the chazzan is also being paid for his travel time, and this itself becomes the havlaah.

Note that a halachic difference results between the two approaches I have presented why the chazzan also leads selichos. According to the Leket Yosher’s approach, the chazzan should preferably daven every one of the selichos days, whereas according to the schar Shabbos reason, it is adequate if he davens any one of the selichos days. According to both approaches I have mentioned, there is no particular reason why a chazzan should daven specifically the first night of selichos.

Why begin Motza’ei Shabbos?

Indeed, why do Ashkenazim begin selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos?

We always begin reciting selichos on Sunday because it is close to Shabbos, and everyone learns Torah on Shabbos since he does not deal with his financial matters and therefore has time to learn Torah… and since people are happy and joyous because of the mitzvah of learning Torah that they were able to do on Shabbos, and also because of the Shabbos pleasures that they celebrated, and we say that the shechinah rests when one is happy because of performing a mitzvah, therefore it is good to pray then (Leket Yosher).

Others explain the reason we begin selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos is because the beginning of the week represents the beginning of creation, and we are performing teshuvah for man who is the goal of all creation (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 581:3).

At least Four

Ashkenazic custom is that, when Rosh Hashanah begins on Monday or Tuesday, we begin selichos the week before, to make sure that we recite selichos for at least four days before Rosh Hashanah. One reason mentioned for this practice is because, originally, people fasted on the days of selichos, and they wanted to fast a total of ten days. Since there are four days during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah that one may not fast – Shabbos, the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur – we recite selichos for at least four days before Rosh Hashanah (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 581:3).

A Word about Attributes

We mentioned above that the main “prayer” of the selichos is mentioning the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. What exactly are the thirteen attributes? For that matter, can we attribute personality characteristics to Hashem?

Humans are not capable of understanding who Hashem is. The Torah requires that we understand that Hashem does not have moods (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:11). When we describe Hashem’s different attributes, we are explaining Hashem in a way that we as human beings will be able to comprehend Him, since we cannot comprehend Him in any other way (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:9). Thus, providing thirteen different attributes of Hashem’s mercy is simply a human way for us to appreciate more specifically and in a greater way what Hashem does and has done for us, and what is our responsibility to fulfill the mitzvah of being like Hashem, which I will explain shortly.

To quote Rabbeinu Bachyei: Although we no longer know how to beseech nor do we properly understand the power of the thirteen attributes and how they connect to Hashem’s mercy, we still know that the attributes of mercy plead on our behalf, since this is what Hashem promised. Today when we are without a kohein gadol to atone for our sins and without a mizbei’ach on which to offer korbanos and no Beis Hamikdash in which to pray, we have left only our prayers and these thirteen attributes (Kad Hakemach, Kippurim 2).

Who Knows Thirteen?

To quote the Haggadah, I know thirteen! Thirteen are the attributes.

What are the thirteen midos?

The Torah says: Hashem, Hashem, who is a merciful and gracious G-d, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. He preserves kindness for thousands of generations by forgiving sins whether they are intentional, rebellious or negligent; and He exonerates (Shemos 34:6-7).

There are many opinions among the halachic authorities exactly how to calculate the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. The most commonly quoted approach is that of Rabbeinu Tam, who includes each of the names of Hashem at the beginning of the verse as a separate attribute.

What do I do?

At this point, I want to return to the above-quoted Talmudic source of the selichos, and note a curious and very important point.

Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them.” The Hebrew word that I have translated as should perform this order is yaasu, which means that the Jews must do something, definitely more than just reading the words. If all that is required is to read these words, the Gemara should have said simply: They should read these words. Obviously, action, which always speaks louder than words, is required to fulfill these instructions and accomplish automatic atonement.

What did the Gemara mean?

Emulate Hashem

To answer this question, we need to realize that one of the most important of the 613 mitzvos is the commandment to emulate Hashem. To quote the Gemara: Just as Hashem is gracious and merciful, so you should become gracious and merciful (Shabbos 133b). When Hashem told Moshe: Whenever the Jews perform this order, I will forgive them He meant that when we act towards one another with the same qualities of rachamim that Hashem does, He forgives us. Reciting the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy is the first step towards making ourselves merciful people who emulate Hashem’s ways. Yaasu means learning to internalize these attributes by doing them, and thereby making ourselves G-dly people. “Doing” the thirteen attributes means not only understanding the absolutely incredible amount of tolerance that Hashem manifests, but also includes realizing how accepting we must be of people who annoy and harm us!

This sounds great in theory. What does it mean in practice?

Here are several examples, all taken from the sefer Tomer Devorah, to help us comprehend what our job is:

1. Whenever someone does something wrong, Hashem is always at that very moment providing all the needs of the offender. This is a tremendous amount of forbearance that Hashem demonstrates. Our mitzvah is to train ourselves to be this accepting of those who annoy and wrong us.

2. We should appreciate the extent to which Hashem considers the Jews to be His people, and identify with the needs of each Jew on a corresponding level.

3. Hashem waits with infinite patience for the sinner to do teshuvah, always being confident in this person’s ability to repent and change, and continues to provide the sinner with all his needs. Similarly, we should not stand on ceremony to wait for someone who wronged us to apologize.

4. Hashem emphasizes the kindnesses that a person does, and continues to shower the person with good, while in the interim overlooking the sins a person has performed. Similarly, when I know that someone wronged me, but at the same time I have received chesed from him or her, I should ignore that they wronged me – after all they also have helped me. The Tomer Devorah emphasizes specifically the chesed that one receives from one’s spouse, which should, without question, supplant any criticisms one has of him or her.

5. When a person does teshuva after sinning, Hashem loves him more than He loved him before he sinned. As the Gemara states: In a place where baalei teshuvah stand, full tzadikim are unable to stand. The parallel responsibility incumbent on a person to someone who wronged him is that when he sees that the person wants to makes amends, he should befriend and accept him at a greater level than he had previously.

Conclusion:

We see that the recital of the thirteen attributes serves not only to teach how we should appreciate all that Hashem does for us but also as a model to teach how we should constantly treat our fellowman.




The Twentieth of Sivan

Question:

“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?”

Answer:

The Twentieth of Sivan was established in Ashkenazi communities as a day of fasting and teshuvah to remember two major tragedies of Jewish history. First, let us discuss 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 the 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 someone 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.”

In a future essay, I hope to discuss why we no longer blow trumpets on fast days.

The Creation of Fast Days

To continue our quotation of the Rambam, “Furthermore, the Sages required a fast on every menace that afflicts the community until Heaven has mercy” (Rambam, Hilchos Taanis 1:4). “There are days on which calamities occurred that all Israel fasts in order to arouse people to teshuvah” (Rambam, Hilchos Taanis 5:1). The Rambam then proceeds to mention the fasts that are part of our regular calendar year: Tzom Gedalyah, Asarah beTeiveis, Shiva Asar BeTamuz, Tisha B’Av and Taanis Esther.

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, whereby he would forgive them, telling them that he would execute them in a painful way should they refuse baptism. 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 aleinu 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 the 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 for 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 (about 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 Brooklyn). 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 happened 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 4907-9/1147-1149 and the Third Crusade, which was forty years later, in 4949/1189.

Gezeiros Tach veTat

The fast of the 20th of Sivan also memorializes an additional Jewish calamity. Almost five hundred years later, most of the Jewish communities of eastern Europe suffered the horrible 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 a period of 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 the Ukrainian population against their Polish overlords. Aside from nationalistic and economic reasons for the Ukrainians revolting 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 by 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 the Swedes, 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 are words 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 was using these words to refer to Yavan, Greece, referring to 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, held with respect similar to that 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 citadel 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 Yisasschar. 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 their 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 explanation for 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 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 resembles that of 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 actually 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 that are 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 inclusion of the akeidah is significant, since these selichos were included to commemorate the martyrdom of Jews who sacrificed their lives rather than agreeing 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 liturgy for the recreated 20th of Sivan used the original selichos procedure, created to commemorate the martyrs of Blois almost five hundred years previously (Siddur Otzar Ha’tefillos, Volume II, Section II, page 65).

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 Poland in his day (580:16). Perhaps, it was assumed that the custom was required only 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.

Notwithstanding this, I have been told that in some communities that no longer observe the 20th of Sivan as a day of selichos and fasting, still have a custom not to schedule weddings on this day. Personally, I would advise people to avoid scheduling the wedding this day, but to instead make the chuppah either before sunset on the 19th, or to wait until after dark, thus pushing off the chupah to the 21st of the month.

Conclusion

We now understand both the halachic basis for why and how we commemorate such sad events in Jewish history, and why we no longer observe the 20th day of Sivan. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu save us and all of klal Yisrael from all further difficulties!