Friday, June 16, 2006
Today is כ' סיון, the twentieth day of the month of Sivan. For most Jews, for most Orthodox Jews, it’s a typical Erev Shabbat on the cusp of the Summer. Aside from a very few cognoscenti (mostly historians, reciters of piyyut, and readers of the TaZ and the Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim sec. 566 and 568, respectively), no one knows that this day is in any way out of the ordinary.
It is, however, very much out of the ordinary. It marks the judicial murder of forty members of the Jewish community of Blois in the year 1171, as the result of a Blood Libel. No less a personage than R. Jacob Tam, just a month before his death, decreed a fast day in memory of the victims. This unilateral act by Rabbenu Tam was unparalleled and signified the depth of the trauma that the massacre caused the Jews of Northern France. (The fullest discussion is by Professor Robert Chazan here and here.)
The fast, however, didn’t take. After a few generations it fell into desuetude. One is tempted to think that it fell victim to fading memories and the expulsions (and subsequent disappearance) of French Jewry.
Then came Bogdan Chmielnicki ימשו"ז. In 1648-9, leading his hordes of Ukrainian Cossacks, Chmielnicki revolted against his Polish overlords and, in tandem, led an assault on the Jews of Poland that ended in between 150,000-200,000 Jews dead, representing over 15%-20% of the World’s Jewish population. They were massacred with a cruel ferocity that was only equaled by the Nazis, who had the benefit of modern technology. By all accounts, Polish Jewry was decimated. The Council of the Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratzot) went bankrupt. A thriving community headed into a tailspin from which it would never recover. One could make the case that the next three hundred years of Eastern European History, especially the impact of Sabbatianism and Frankism, were a direct result of the ravages of the Cossacks.
Seeking a way to memorialize this first Holocaust (and I use the term advisedly), the remnants of the Vaad (not wishing to add a new day to the Jewish calendar, seized upon כ' סיון, as an already existing day that had been forgotten, and made it a day of fasting and mourning for the victims of the Ukrainians. It appears to have held its own for a number of generations, at which point it fell, once again, into oblivion. (Cf. Mishnah Berurah sec. 480 s-p. 16). Later troubles eclipsed earlier ones. However, I agree with Larry Domnitch:
Although the twentieth of Sivan is not currently observed communally in most communities, it is still a most appropriate time to remember those victims of persecution from France to Eastern Europe. The memory of their martyrdom may have diminished, overshadowed by the enormity of the Holocaust and the passage of time, but they perished because they were Jews. The twentieth of Sivan still gives an opportunity to pay homage to their memory.
Oh, and what about Chmielnicki? He’s the national hero of the Ukraine. His statue (above) sits in the center of Kiev…
Not far from Babi Yar.
(I’d like to acknowledge Larry Domnitch and A Simple Jew for making this post easier to write).