Ethics

For the week ending 12 July 2014 / 14 Tammuz 5774

Forgotten Fast Days: Zos Chukas HaTorah

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

This past Motzai Shabbos Korach, our dear, close family friend, Reb Chaim Daskal a”h, was niftar, after a prolonged and painful battle with cancer R”l. Never one to complain, Reb Chaim still exuded Simchas HaChaim and gratitude to Hashem even in his weakened and pain-filled state, the last time this author had the zechus to see him, merely a week and a half prior to his untimely passing. In fact, his tza’ava, will, reflects this as well, including how he wanted his own levaya, kevura, and shiva to be held.

One of the maspidim (eulogizers) at the levaya (at 1:45 A.M.!), Elimelech Lepon, mentioned that Reb Chaim passed away only after Shabbos was over, averring that the Malach HaMaves could not take have taken him on a Shabbos. You see, with an open house and a multitude of guests weekly, Shabbos was truly Reb Chaim’s special day. In fact, Mr. Lepon revealed that it was exclusively the merit of Reb Chaim’s extraordinary and warm Shabbos hospitality that won him over to personally begin keeping Shabbos properly.

When my father, renowned Kashrus expert Rabbi Manish Spitz, heard the tragic news of the passing of his friend of almost 40 years, he enigmatically exclaimed ‘Zos Chukas HaTorah’! His intent was that the week of Parshas Chukas is ‘mesugal l’puraniyos’, a time that has seen much hardship and tragedy for our nation. Therefore, it was fitting that only after Shabbos of Parshas Korach had ended and the week of Parshas Chukas officially began, that such an incredible man, in the prime of his life, passed away.

Yet, there is no mention in the Gemara of the week of Parshas Chukas being one of tragedy, nor is it mentioned by the Rambam, nor Tur, nor Shulchan Aruch! Not even in the Siman where tragedies and proper days to fast are mentioned, Orach Chaim 580! In fact, most are wholly unfamiliar with anything specifically attributed to this week. Yet, the Magen Avraham, citing the Sefer HaTanya[1] (an earlier source that the famous Kabbalistic work of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav), tells of a terrible, albeit fascinating, historical tragedy.

Friday of Fire

The Magen Avraham prefaces his terrible tale by quoting certain writings[2] explaining that it is “worthwhile for every Jew to cry for the burning of the Torah”. He then proceeds to tell of a customary annual fast specifically for this purpose, on Erev Shabbos Parshas Chukas. On that day, in the year 1242, 20 wagonloads (other versions state 24) filled with Gemaros and Talmudic literature, were burned in Paris by agents of the Church and King Louis IX. The pretext was a public debate between an apostate monk and several of the most eminent rabbinical authorities in France; the official verdict against them a foregone conclusion[3]. The impact and importance of this loss was tremendous. Keep in mind that this occurred over 200 years before the printing press was invented, and each of these volumes was a priceless, handwritten manuscript. In fact, this was considered such an enormous loss for Klal Yisrael, that the famed Maharam M’Rottenburg[4], an eyewitness, composed an elegy for our loss, ‘Sha’ali Serufa Ba’Aish’, deemed so essential, that it is incorporated into the Kinos recited every Tisha B’Av (Kinah 41).

The great rabbis at the time, at a loss to understand the extent of the tragedy, inquired of Heaven by means of a dream (known as a she’elas chalom) to discover whether this terrible event had been so decreed by Hashem. The heavenly reply was a succinct three words ‘Da Gezeiras Oraysa’. This is the Aramaic translation (see Targum Onkelus) of the opening verses to Parshas Chukas, ‘Zos Chukas HaTorah’, ‘These are the decrees of the Torah’ (Bamidbar Ch. 19, verse 2). The Rabbanim understood from this cryptic reply that the burning of the Talmud was indeed Heavenly decreed. Moreover, they gleaned that it was due to the proximity of the Parsha that the tragedy transpired, and not the day of the month[5].

Therefore, and as opposed to every other fast on the Jewish calendar, instead of a specific day established as a fast day, this one, designated a Taanis for Yechidim (fast for individuals), was set annually on the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas. For those fasting, Asarah B’Teves would not be the only Taanis that practically occurs on a Friday[6]!

Retribution for the Rambam?

Rav Hillel of Verona, a talmid of Rabbeinu Yonah, and another eyewitness to these events, wrote a famous letter[7] in which he considered the burning of the Talmud as a clear sign of Divine anger and retribution for the burning of the works of the Rambam, in the exact same place in Paris not even forty days prior!

After the Rambam’s passing (in 1204), many great scholars who did not agree with his philosophical observations in his ‘Moreh Nevuchim’ and ‘Sefer HaMada’ banned his sefarim, with a tremendous controversy erupting throughout the Torah world[8]. Eventually, a number of his detractors submitted copies of his work to the monks of the Dominican Order to determine whether the Rambam’s works contained heretical ideas. The Dominican Friars, naturally, summarily concluded that the Rambam’s writings were not only false, but blasphemous. In 1234, inMontpelier, France, they publicly collected and burned all copies they found of ‘Moreh Nevuchim’ and ‘Sefer HaMada’. Similarly, in 1242, afanatical mob burned many of the Rambam’s writings in Paris. Less than 40 days later, at the exact same site, the 24 wagonloads of the Talmud were burned, on Erev Shabbos Parshas Chukas[9].

According to Rav Hillel’s letter, the famed Rabbeinu Yonah, one of the Rambam’s primary opponents, took the Talmud burning as a Divine sign, and publicly and vociferously denounced his former position and opposition against the Rambam’s writings and instead emphatically concluded “Moshe Emes V’Toraso Emes, V’Kulanu Bada’in!” “Moshe and his Torah are true (here referring to the Rambam), while we all are liars”[10]. He planned on traveling to the Rambam’s grave (in Teverya) and begging forgiveness. Some say this tragic incident was the catalyst of Rabbeinu Yonah’s writing what came to be known as his Magnum Opus, ‘Shaarei Teshuva’.

Further Grounds for Fasting

After discussing the burning of the Talmud, the Magen Avraham offers another reason for fasting. On this very day, Erev Shabbos Chukas, two entire cities of Jews were brutally decimated, as part of the Gezeiras Ta”ch V’Ta”t, the Cossack massacres led by Bogdan Chmielnitsky ym”sh[11] in 1648 - 1649, as recorded by the Shach.

Although most know of the Shach as simply one of the preeminent halachic authorities, due to his extensive and authoritative commentary and rulings on the Shulchan Aruch, few know that he also wrote a sefer titled ‘Megillas Eifa[12], detailing the horrific slaughter of tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands!) of Jews (and hundreds of entire communities) during these terrifying years. Among his entries he mentions the two cities that were wiped out on this same day in the year 1648 (5408). Hence, the Magen Avraham avers, that it is proper to fast (Taanis Yachid) on Erev Shabbos Chukas, due to both of these tragedies happening on this same day in history.

20th of Sivan

However, that was not the first of the tragedies of Gezeiras Ta”ch V’Ta”t. That occurred on the 20th of Sivan, 1648 (5408), when the Cossacks attacked Nemirov (Nemyriv), in the Ukraine, and destroyed the Jewish community, numbering over 6,000. Several hundred Jews were drowned; others burned alive. The shuls were ransacked and destroyed, with even the Torah parchments desecrated and used as shoes. Since this horrifying catastrophe was unfortunately the first of many to come in the following years, the Shach, at the conclusion of his ‘Megillas Eifa’, declared a personal fast on the 20th of Sivan for himself and his descendants[13]. This was soon codified as a public fast by the Vaad Arba Ha’Aratzos, the halachic and legislative body of all Lithuanian and Polish Jewry[14]. Indeed, the Magen Avraham concludes his passage that in many places in Poland, the custom is to fast on the 20th of Sivan for this reason. Additionally, the Shach, the Tosafos Yom Tov, and Rav Shabsi Sheftel Horowitz[15], as well several other Rabbanim of the time, composed specific Selichos to be recited on this day annually.

The First Blood Libel

However, the 20th of Sivan was not chosen as a fast day exclusively due to the annihilation of the hundreds of Jewish communities during Gezeiras Ta”ch V’Ta”t. It actually held the ignominious distinction of being the date of the very first blood libel, in Blois, France, almost 500 years prior, in 1171 (4931)!

According to one of the Selichos recited on that day ‘Emunei Shelumei Yisrael’, which lists the place and year of the tragedy, the King offered the 31 innocent Jewish prisoners (some listed by first name in the Selicha!), including several Gedolim, Baalei Tosafos, the chance to convert. When they refused, he ordered them burned alive! The martyrs recited Aleinu L’Shabayach in unison as the decree was being executed. Although, as recorded in ‘Emek HaBacha’, a chronicle of the terrible devastation of the Crusades (starting in 1096 / 4856; known as Gezeiras Tatn”u[16]), the martyrs’ bodies did not burn, still, this tragedy foreshadowed and portended future cataclysmic events for the Jewish people. In fact, this terrible libel was a major factor in the expulsion order of Jews from Francea mere ten years later.

The great Rabbeinu Tam and the Rabbanim of the time instituted the 20th of Sivan as a fast day, even exclaiming that this fast is ‘akin to Yom Kippur!’.[17] The Selichos established for 20 Sivan, aside for the one mentioned previously, which actually describes the horrendous pyre in Blois, were written by the Gedolim of the previous generations regarding the destruction of many Jewish communities during the Crusades (Gezeiras Tatn”u; many Kinos of Tisha B’Av are recited in commemoration of these tragedies as well), including Rav Shlomo HaBavli[18], Rabbeinu Gershom, and Rav Meir ben Rav Yitzchak, the author of Akdomus.

Re-Establishing the Fast

In fact, it is due to the dual tragedies that occurred on this day that the Shach declared the 20th of Sivan a fast day[19]. In other words, he didn’t set a new fast day; rather he re-established the 20th of Sivan as a fast day, as it already had the distinction of a day that went down ‘in infamy’ almost 500 years previously. Therefore, it was only fitting to commemorate the unspeakable Cossack atrocities with a fast, on this very same day.

Chronicles of the disastrous occurrences of this day do exist and can still be found. Aside for the Shach’s ‘Megillas Eifa’, there is also Rav Nosson Nota of Hanover’s ‘Yavein Metzulah’ and Rav Avraham ben Rav Shmuel Ashkenazi’s ‘Tzar Bas Rabbim’, all written by eyewitnesses to the carnage and wanton destruction[20].[21]

Although nowadays it seems not widely commemorated or even known about[22], nevertheless, the 20th of Sivan is still observed among several Chassidic communities, mostly of Hungarian origin. During the Holocaust, Hungarian Jewry was R”l decimated mainly over the span of the months of Sivan and Tamuz in 1944. Therefore, Rabbanim of Hungary re-established the 20th of Sivan as a fast day for Hungarian Jewry[23].

Recent events have proven to us the timelessness of the dictum of ‘Zos Chukas HaTorah’ - where tragedies beyond our understanding happen to the Jewish people in exile. Our pain and tears over the recent senseless and brutal abduction and murder of three of our finest young men Hy”d, have driven home the point to us that throughout our long and protracted exile there have been no dearth of reasons to fast. May we soon welcome Moshiach, and have no further need for fast days.

The author wishes to thank Rav Yitzchak Breitowitz for his help in clarifying much of the historical content of this article.

This article is dedicated L’Ilui Nishmasam shel R’ Chaim Baruch Yehuda ben Dovid Tzvi and Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach Hy”d.


[1]Magen Avraham (O.C. 580, end 9), quoting the Sefer HaTanya (50; Inyan Arba Tzomos). This version of the tragic events is also later cited by the Elya Rabba (ad loc. 4), Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc. 4), and Mishna Berura (ad loc. 16).

[2]The Oz V’Hadar Mishna Berura (ad loc. 16) references this to be referring to the teachings of the Arizal (Shaar HaKavannos of Rav Chaim Vital, Drushei Tikkun Chatzos 1 and Pri Eitz Chaim, Shaar Tikkun Chatzos Ch. 3).

[3]The full proceedings of this debate was recorded by one of the Rabbanim who defended the Talmud, Rav Yechiel ben Yosef, the Rosh Yeshiva in Paris and father of the Rosh, in a sefer titled ‘Vikuach’. For more background on this tragedy, see Artscroll’s Kinos and Tefillos for Tisha B’Av (Introduction to Kinah 41).

[4]Aside for the Kinah he wrote, the Maharam referenced this great loss in his responsa (Teshuvos Maharam M’Rottenberg 250), citing the reaction of Rav Shmuel of Falaise, another of the Rabbanim who unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the Talmud from being burned. On a historical side note, the Maharam M’Rottenberg, was later niftar (in 1293) in captivity after being unjustly imprisoned, in order to force the resident Jews to pay an exorbitant ransom to fill the Emperor's depleted coffers. The Maharam refused to allow himself to be ransomed, fearing that it would set a dangerous precedent of rulers holding Rabbis captive and forcing the unfortunate Jews to pay the price. Indeed, a short while after his passing, the Emperor attempted to do the same for the Maharam’s prized pupil, the Rosh, who only narrowly avoided capture, escaping to Spain.

[5]The Shibolei Leket (263, Ha’arugah HaTishi’is Seder Taanis, Din Arba Tzomos) cites this as well, albeit with a slight variation. First of all, from his writing it seems he was an eyewitness as well. Second, he refers to it as 24 (and not 20) wagonloads filled with ‘Sifrei Talmud, V’Halachos V’Hagados’, similar to the Maharam M’Rottenburg’s version. Third, according to his version, the Heavenly response received was ‘V’Da Gezeiras Oraysa’, ‘And these are the decrees of the Torah’. Accordingly, the Rabbanim understood the response to mean that Yom Vav (the sixth day) of Parshas Chukas specifically was the gezeira. This vav is understandably not present in our Targum Onkelos on the pasuk of ‘Zos Chukas HaTorah’, as the pasuk does not state ‘V’Zos’. Interestingly, the Maharam M’Rottenberg makes no mention of the she’elas chalom in his Kinah dedicated to this tragedy. Neither does the Mishna Berura (ibid.), who summarized the reasons for the fast.

[6]For more on this topic and why Asarah B’Teves is the only Taanis Tzibbur that can fall out on a Friday, as well as the halachos of a Friday fast, see article titled ‘Fasting on Friday’.

[7]This letter is brought in Chemdah Genuzah (pg. 18), as well as Otzar HaGedolim (vol. 7, pg. 105), and cited in Torah L’Daas (vol. 2, Parshas Chukas pg. 280 - 281) and Kuntress Peninei Gevuros Akiva (Parshas Chukas pg. 3). Rav Hillel even mentions that the ashes of the burnt sefarim of the Rambam mixed together with the ashes of the burnt Talmud.

[8]These letters, back and forth between the great scholars of the time, have been collected as the third volume of Kovetz Teshuvos HaRambam V’Igrosav, titled ‘Igros HaKina’os’.

[9]For more on the historical aspects of this see Rabbi Avraham Meir Weiss’s recent Mishnas Chachamim (pg. 265, footnote 50) and the Artscroll Kinos and Tefillos for Tisha B’Av (Introduction to Kinah 41).

[10]This is a paraphrase of the quote Chazal attribute to Korach after he was swallowed up by the earth at the conclusion of his ill-fated rebellion against Moshe Rabbeinu! See Gemara Bava Basra (74a) , Midrash Rabba (Parshas Korach Ch. 18, end 20), Midrash Tanchuma (Parshas Korach 11), and Kli Yakar (Parshas Korach Ch. 16, 34 s.v. nasu).

[11]A genocidal and bloodthirsty mass murderer who could have given Adolf Hitler ym”sh a run as most notorious Anti-Semite in history, Chmielnitsky ym”sh is nevertheless still considered a national hero in Ukrainefor being the father of Ukrainian nationalistic aspirations. The Cossacks’ sheer brutality and scale of their atrocities was unsurpassed until the Nazis. According to noted historian Rabbi Berel Wein, the only reason why the Cossacks did not manage to kill as many Jews as did the Nazisym”sh was that there were no mechanized weapons to enable easy mass murder back in the 1600s. It was not due to lack of trying, R”l.

[12]Although this author could not find this sefer among the works of the Shach, I was able to locate it annexed to the back of Rav Shlomo Ibn Varga’s Matteh Yehuda, a fascinating (and unfortunately horrifying) work detailing the trials and tribulations Klal Yisrael has gone through in different lands over the millennia of our prolonged exile. Although Rav Varga died over a hundred years prior to Gezeiras Ta”ch V’Ta”t, the Shach’s shocking account and vivid descriptions of the massacres were later included in this important work. This author plans on going through it properly on Tisha B’Av!

[13]The Shach added an additional reason why he chose this date (also cited in Shaarei Teshuva - O.C. 580, end 9): 20 Sivan cannot fall out on a Shabbos in our calendar, ensuring and enabling fasters to be able to do so on that day every year. The Shach (as well as later the Yaavetz in his Siddur Beis Yaakov) especially mourned the loss of the city’s Chief Rabbi, Rav Yechiel Michel, a tremendous Talmid Chacham. Interestingly, a few short years earlier, the famed Tosafos Yom Tov, Rav Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, served as the town’s Rav.

[14]Pinkas Vaad Arba Ha’Aratzos; cited by the Taz (O.C. 566, 3; although he quotes it as the Vaad Shalosh Ha’Aratzos) and Shaarei Teshuva (O.C. 580, end 9), as well as Rav Nosson Nota of Hanover’s ‘Yavein Metzulah’ and Rav Avraham ben Rav Shmuel Ashkenazi’s ‘Tzar Bas Rabbim’ (Reshumos vol. 3, pg. 279). See also Yad Shaul (Y”D 228, end 136), Daas Torah (O.C. 580, 4), Siddur HaShelah, Siddur Bais Yaakov (of the Yaavetz) Siddur Derech HaChaim (of the Chavas Daas), Yesod VeShoresh HaAvodah (Shaar 9, Ch.11) and the introduction to sefer ‘Yesh Manchilin’. This fast is also mentioned by several other authorities including the Magen Avraham (ibid. and in O.C. 568, 10), Elya Rabba (O.C. 566, 3), Maadanei Yom Tov (ad loc. 1; aside for the Selichos he wrote), Pri Megadim (ad loc. M.Z. 3), Eishel Avraham (Butchatch, O.C. 580; at length), and Mishna Berura (ibid.).

[15]He was the son of the Shelah and Av Bais Din of Prague, as well as the author of Vavai HaAmudim. His Selicha was printed in the Siddur HaShelah. In the aftermath of these tragedies, the Tosafos Yom Tov (cited in the end of Shaarei Efraim, Hilchos Krias HaTorah) also composed a famous Tefilla against talking in Shul.

[16]For this reason alone, the Taz (O.C. 493, 2), although maintaining that one need only keep the restrictions of Sefira only up to Lag B’Omer, nonetheless, exhorts us to continue with the prohibition on weddings even after Lag B’Omer until shortly before Shavuos due to the horrific tragedies perpetuated by the Crusaders to many Ashkenazic communities during the second half of Sefirah (Gezeiras Tatn”u). See previous article titled ‘Switching Sefirahs? - Understanding Your Minhag and its Ramifications’.

[17]In fact, the tragic events in Blois distressed Rabbeinu Tam so much, that he passed away a mere 14 days later, 4 Tamuz 1171 (4931).

[18]Rav Shlomo HaBavli is referred to by the Rishonim with great veneration. For example, he is quoted by Rashi (Parshas Terumah Ch. 26, 15 s.v. v’asisa) and the Rosh (Yoma Ch. 8, 19). The Maharshal (Shu”t Maharshal 29) writes that Rabbeinu Gershom, teacher of all Ashkenazic Jewry, learned Torah and received his mesorah from Rav Shlomo HaBavli.

[19]Shach, in the conclusion of his ‘Megillas Eifa’, also cited in Shaarei Teshuva (O.C. 580, end 9).

[20]Be forewarned: Much of the content is quite graphic and gruesome in its explicitness. The Cossacks’ sheer depravity, cruelty, brutality, and bloodlust was simply unprecedented in scale and scope, R”l.

[21]Additionally, there are several contemporary sefarim that give a thorough summary of the tragedies of Gezeiras Tach V’Tat and the 20th of Sivan, including Sefer HaTodaah (vol. 2, Chodesh Sivan, Kaf B’Sivan, ppg. 357 - 360), and Netei Gavriel (on Hilchos Shavuos, Chelek HaBirurim 6, ppg. 282 - 299). Especially of interest is Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff’s recent article titled ‘The Twentieth of Sivan’.

[22]There are several reasons raised to explain this. One is that the original decree from the Vaad Arba HaAratzos to fast on the 20th of Sivan was for a hundred years. Another theory is that the decree was only on Jewry who lived in those lands. In fact, the lashon of the Magen Avraham (O.C. 580, end 9), as well as the Mishna Berura (ad loc. 16), bears this out, as they mention the fast as only a ‘minhag Poland’. Nowadays, there are not many Jewish kehillos left in Polandor Ukraineto uphold this. See also Yad Shaul (Y”D 228, end 136), and the Maharsham’s Daas Torah (O.C. 580, 4).

[23]See Netei Gavriel (ibid. ppg 297 - 299), citing the Pinkas Minhagim of Kehal Yereim of Budapestfrom 5706 / 1946 and the Mishnas Yaakov (O.C. 580).

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