- Question: [Monday, 20th Iyar 5781]
What happened on the 20th of Sivan and is it still accustomed to fast on this day?
The 20th of Sivan used to be in accustomed fast day which commemorated certain tragedies that occurred in both France and Poland in which Jews were persecuted on this day. Practically, the widespread custom even amongst Ashkenazi Jewry is to no longer fast on this day, although some communities are still accustomed to say Selichos on this day. The Chabad custom is not to fast nor to say Selichos.
Historical background: On the day of the 20th of Sivan in the year 1171, 31 Jews from the town of Blois [in the country of France], including whole families of men women and children, were burned at the stake due to the spread of a blood libel that one of their members had killed a Christian child. The absurdity of this claim, aside from being intrinsically false, was the fact that there was no known child to be missing and never a body to be found, but nonetheless the great hatred of their Christian neighbors towards Jews overcame any rhyme and reason and they decided to destroy the entire Jewish community of the town. The death of the Jews at the stake was most unique, as when it transpired the entire community sang the song of Aleinu Leshabeiach in a loud and happy tune, showing their resistance and pride to be part of the nation of God and not allow their spirit to be broken by their bloodthirsty neighbors. They indeed were offered an ultimatum to convert to Christianity in exchange for being killed and they all chose to be killed for the sake of God’s unity. This tragic event became known as “Gezeiros Blois,” and marked the first time that Jews were killed due to a blood libel. Another interesting event that happened was that the Jews did not die without a fight, and they forcibly took some of the smiling gentile spectators with them into the fire. Despite the above heroism, the event was most tragic and made waves amongst Ashkenazi Jewry. It was none other than Rabbeinu Tam who made a decree, to establish this day the 20th of Sivan, as a fast day for all generations, and he in fact stated that this fast day will be greater than the fast day of Tzom Gedalia. Rabbeinu Tam became so sick with grief from what happened, that he fell ill and passed away 14 days later. The sage, Rabbe Efraim Mibuna, compiled a lamentation/Kinos in commemoration of the destruction of this community, in which the details of the events and the tragic ending are described. Nonetheless, with time this fast became extinct and people stopped fasting on this day until another tragic occurrence happened in the year 1298 in which more than 100,000 Jews were murdered and more than 146 Jewish communities in Europe were destroyed in what became known as the Rintfleisch massacres. The Christians claimed that Jews desecrated their holy bread and therefore came to take vengeance. After this event, the sages reestablished the fast day of the 20th of Sivan and added more Kinos to be recited. With time, once again the fast they became extinct until the year 1648 with the Khmelnytsky Uprising, otherwise known as the Kozak war, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were tortured and massacred by the bloodthirsty human animals. On this day of the 20th of Sivan the community of Nemirov was annihilated. After things settle down in the year 1750, the Vaad Arbah Haratzos reestablished the fast day for the 20th of Sivan for the entire community of Poland for them and for all the generations to follow. Leading the tribunal and reestablishing of the fast day was Rav Shabsi Hakohen, known as the Shach. In his Sefer Megilas Eifah, the Shach describes the exact events that transpired at this time in the community of Nimrov. This fast day is recorded in the Poskim [Taz, M”A, Siddur Yaavetz] as a fast day for the Jewish community of Poland, and the M”A concludes that each community should follow their custom. Regarding the Chabad custom, the Rebbe writes that even when the Rebbe Rayatz was in Poland, he did not fast on this day.
Sources: See Taz 566:3, M”A 568:10 and 580:9; Siddur Yaavetz; Siddur Derech Hachaim; Megilas Eifah of the Shach; Sefer Yavan Metzulah; Sefer Mieimek Habacha [Rav Yosef Kohen] p. 49-52; Sefer Dor Dor Uminhagav [Ashkenazi] Chapter 10; Sefer Hasichos 5751 Behalosecha 19th Sivan Os 13