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Calendar Controversy

When Yamim Nora’im “Fell” on Disputed Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creation of the Jewish Calendar

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

·         Determining whether each month is 29 or 30 days.

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

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

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

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

In Eretz Yisrael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Controversy

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

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

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

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

Enter Rav Saadia

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

Pronouncing his Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Meir’s Retort

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

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

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

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

Two Different Pesachs

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

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

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

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




The Four “Exiles”

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

Golus Bavel

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

Persia

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

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

Greece, or more accurately, Hellenism

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

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

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

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

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

Rome

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

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

The Arabs

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

A lesson!

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

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




The Twentieth of Sivan

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!