June 14, 2024
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The Forgotten Fast Days of Sivan

This Sunday, June 19, is the 20th day of the month of Sivan. While the significance of this day has been forgotten due to it being overshadowed by other tragedies, it was once a very important day for Ashkenazic Jewry. Initially, the 20th of Sivan was declared a day of fasting and mourning after an infamous blood libel against the Jews of Blois, France in 1171. It was the first —and, unfortunately, not last—of this odious charge against Jews in Europe. It resulted in the burning alive of 31 prominent Jews. The foremost Rabbi Jacob known as Rabbenu Tam decreed that this day should henceforth be commemorated as a day of fasting and mourning.

This was the last major decision by Rabbenu Tam, as he passed away shortly thereafter on the 4th of Tamuz.

According to Edna Kalka Grossman:

Several centuries later, in 1650, The Shach, Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen of Vilna, again declared the 20th of Sivan to be a day of mourning and fasting. This was to commemorate the events that began on the 20th of Sivan, 1648. It was on that day that the first of the Chmielnicki massacres took place in Nemirov, a town in the Polish-Lithuaninan commonwealth, currently in Ukraine. The Cossacks and their Crimean Tartar allys penetrated Nemirov in the disguise of Polish soldiers. Jews died en masse as martyrs when faced with the demand that they convert to Christianity: “They arrived … as if they had come with the Poles … in order that he open the gates of the fortress … and they succeeded … and they massacred about 6,000 souls in the town … and they drowned several hundreds in the water and by all kinds of cruel torments. In the synagogue, before the Holy Ark, they slaughtered with butchers’ knives … after which they destroyed the synagogue and took out all the Torah books … they tore them up … and they laid them out … for men and animals to trample on … they also made sandals of them … and several other garments.

“The head of the yeshiva [in Nemirov] was the Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Michel son of the Gaon Rabbi Eliezer [of Zlatschov] who knew the entire Torah by heart and was well versed in all areas of wisdom… and he preached to them on the Shabbat before the decree and warned the people, that if, God forbid, the enemy will come, that they should sanctify the name of the Lord and not denounce their religion. And so did the holy people, and even he [Rabbi Yechiel Michel] jumped into the water to save his life… He was caught by [a Cossack] who wanted to kill him but the Gaon begged that he not kill him for a large amount of silver and gold was to be had at his home.. [The Cossack] walked with him to his house, found the place where the wealth was hidden and allowed him to live. The Gaon then went with his mother to hide in a house for the night… and in the morning the two went to the Jewish cemetery, so that if they were murdered, it would be in a proper place of burial…Near the cemetery, a townsman, a shoemaker, found him and began beating him. The Gaon’s mother begged that she be killed in his place, but he killed them both…”

Rabbi Yechiel Michel’s life was extinguished on the 22nd of Sivan, but on the 20th, we mark the yahrzeit of the unidentified Jews of Nemirov who were slaughtered on the 20th of Sivan, a day of mourning and fasting that we have once again forgotten.

The masacres unleashed by Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648 lasted for almost two years and affected the towns listed in the map below. Even one hundred years after these events, their memory was still inspiring pogroms in this area of Eastern Europe. The number of Jews killed in Chmielnicki’s massacres is difficult to estimate. Some estimate ten of thousands, others estimate hundreds of thousands.

Rosh Chodesh Sivan as a Fast Day

The Jews of Worms, Germany, fasted a half day on the 1st of Sivan to commemorate the massacre that occurred there, at the hands of Crusaders, in the year 1096. This fast is mentioned by the medieval German pietist Rabbi Eliezer Rokeach as well as the prominent Ashkenazic Halakhist Rabbi Jacob Moelin, known as Maharil. Rabbi Joseph Karo knew about it too. It is also mentioned prominently in the Worms “memorbuch.” It is perhaps the sole instance where both Hallel (for the first of the month) and Vayechal (Torah reading for a fast day) were read on the same day. According to the research done by Dr. David Wachtel, this fast was still kept as late as the 19th century and perhaps even up until WWII. Although the Halacha proscribes fasting on Rosh Chodesh, the trauma of the event was such that an exception as made in this case (the scholar Daniel Sperber contends that the Talmudic proscription only applies to things like Taaniot Geshamim a [public fasts declared for a drought] and the like). The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Menahem Azarya of Fano mentions this fast and says that this is a rare exception and others should not follow such a thing (i.e. declare a fast on Rosh Chodesh).

Setting off in the early summer of 1096, an army of around 10,000 men, women and children proceeded through the Rhine valley, towards the Main River and then to the Danube.

Emperor Henry IV ordered the Jews to be protected when he learned of Emicho’s intent. After some Jews were killed at Metz in May, John, Bishop of Speyer, gave shelter to the Jewish inhabitants. Still 10 men and one woman who were found outside the fortress were slain by crusaders on May 3. Later on they came back and killed the rest of the community as well.

On May 18, a Sunday, they reached Worms. They immediately went about spreading rumors that the Jews had killed a Christian child, and that they had poisoned the town’s wells. The local population joined in and every Jew that they captured was killed. The Bishop of Worms attempted to shelter Jews, but 8 days later the crusaders broke in to his episcopal palace and killed the Jews inside. This was on Sunday May 25, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, and the mekonen, Rabbi Chaim ben Yitzchak Lifshitz writes בקריאת הלל לשוררה—while they were saying Hallel they were killed. At least 800 (and some versions say 1,100) Jews were massacred in Worms when they refused Christian baptism.

The 20th of Sivan was so well established among many Central European and Eastern European Ashkenazim that post-Holocaust, some communities decided to use this day to mark the Shoah (particularly the communities of Hungary where most of the deportations took place at around this time).

Even recently, Rabbi Natan Karelitz zt”l of Bnei Brak discouraged performing weddings on this day (http://www.bhol.co.il/41599/הגרנ-קרליץ-היום-כ-סיוון-אין-לערוך-חופות-.html)

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