The 20th of Sivan commemorates a number of tragedies that befell the Jewish people over the centuries. Some of them were so horrifying that a Jewish scholar wrote that “the newer tragedies make earlier ones be forgotten . . .”1

The Martyrs of Blois: 1171

In the year 1171 in the French town of Blois, a local Christian servant claimed to have seen a Jew throw the corpse of a child into the Loire River. Despite the fact that no child was ever reported missing, no corpse was found, and there was a lack of any corroborating witnesses, the Jews of the town were arrested and tortured.

Initially, the count of Blois, Theobald V, was willing to free them if they gave a large ransom. However, an Augustinian bishop intervened and validated the servant’s testimony by ordeal (i.e., he “tested” if the servant was telling the truth by seeing if he would float on water), and the ransom negotiations collapsed.

The count then gave the prisoners the choice to either be baptized or burned alive. All of them chose to give up their lives rather than betray their faith. On May 26, the 20th of Sivan, in the year 1171 (4931 on the Jewish calendar), 312 Jews—including 17 women as well as some children—were tied up and burned at the stake.

According to an eyewitness account, the fires weren’t consuming their bodies, so the count had the Jews beaten to death, and they then threw their bodies into the fire. As they were being killed, the Jews sang “Aleinu leshabei'ach,” "It is incumbent upon us to praise the L‑rd of all," which is usually recited at the conclusion of all daily prayers and includes praise to G‑d that we are able to recognize His true unity.

As a result of this tragedy, the Jews of England, France and the Rhineland, together with Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Meir, known as Rabbeinu Tam (grandson of Rashi and the Jewish leader at the time), declared the 20th of Sivan to be a day of fasting and atonement. Perhaps due to the tragic news, Rabbeinu Yaakov Tam died on the 4th of Tammuz, just three weeks later.

Although this was not the first blood libel, this was the first in which the government openly participated in it, and the first time that Jews were killed due to the libel. This was ultimately seen as the harbinger of many similar tragedies and the eventual expulsion of the Jews from France.

For more about this tragic story, see The Martyrs of Blois.

First Crusade: 1096

Even before the libel at Blois, which occurred between the Second and Third Crusades (1147–49 and 1189–1192, respectively), the month of Sivan was already considered a tragic time for the Jews of France and the Rhineland. During the Crusades, thousands of Jews were massacred. After the First Crusade, in which the Jewish communities around the Rhine River were destroyed by Christian Crusaders, the rabbis composed a prayer called Av Harachamim (Father of Compassion), originally recited on the Shabbat before Shavuot, which is at the beginning of the month of Sivan. This prayer not only commemorates those who were killed sanctifying G‑d’s name, but also foretells that G‑d will eventually avenge all the blood that was spilled.

As such, the 20th of Sivan became a general day that commemorated those killed during the Crusades.

Rintfleisch Massacres: 1298

Due to newer tragedies, the fast of the 20th of Sivan fell by the wayside until another tragedy struck at that time of the year.

In the year 1298 in the Franconian region of Germany, due to accusations that the Jews desecrated the Christians' holy bread, a certain Lord Rindtfleisch (or “Rintfleisch”) gathered a mob around him and convinced the masses to kill the Jews. The entire Rottingen community was destroyed. From there the mob spread to additional communities, where they pillaged and burned. In some communities, they gave the choice for the Jews to either convert to Christianity or be burned. As such, entire families and communities were killed and burned, including many of the leading rabbis of the time. In all, over 145 communities in France, Bavaria and Austria were destroyed.

Following these massacres, the rabbis of the time reestablished the 20th of Sivan as a day of atonement, since many of these massacres occurred during this time of the year.

Chmielnicki Pogroms: 1648–49

Over the centuries, this fast again fell by the wayside and wasn’t observed by the masses until a new tragedy struck.

In 1648, the Ukrainian Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki incited a rebellion against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which ruled over the Ukrainian region at the time. The Cossack hordes swarmed throughout Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, destroying hundreds of Jewish communities in their wake.

Although the massacring continued to occur throughout the many years of the rebellion, the sudden destruction of many communities beginning in the spring of 1648 is considered the harshest time of all.

During these pogroms, thousands of Jews were burned, buried alive and/or cut to pieces, among other atrocities. The Cossacks’ sheer cruelty and heinousness would only be rivaled later by the Nazis.

The events of this era are known as Tach VeTat, an acronym for the Hebrew years [5]408–[5]409, equivalent to the years 1648–1649.

Following the Chmielnicki pogroms, a group of Jewish leaders known as the Council of Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratzot) reestablished the 20th of Sivan as a fast day for the entire community of Poland.

Why the 20th of Sivan?

The 20th of Sivan was also the day that thousands of Jews in Nemirov, Ukraine, one of the first cities to be attacked by the Cossacks, were massacred.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, known as the Tosafot Yom Tov, who actually had been the rabbi of Nemirov a mere five years before its destruction, decreed that the selichot (penitential poems) originally composed for the martyrs of Blois be recited on the 20th of Sivan to commemorate the Chmielnicki pogroms as well.

Rabbi Shabbatai HaKohen, known as the Shach (1621–1662), one of the leading rabbis of the time, writes that an additional factor in choosing this date was that it never falls on Shabbat.

20 Sivan Nowadays

Up until World War II, it was quite common for Jews in Poland to fast on the 20th of Sivan. Nowadays, however, it is primarily observed by certain Chassidic communities that originated from Hungary.

Between May and June of 1944, close to 500,000 Jews from Hungary were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, most to be killed in the gas chambers. After the war, Hungarian rabbis decided to commemorate the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jews of Hungary on the 20th of Sivan every year.

Although most don’t fast on the 20th of Sivan, the sadness of the events of this month are felt in the recitation of the Av Harachamim prayer on the Shabbat when we bless the new month of Sivan (unlike other Shabbatot, when we do not recite the prayer when blessing the new month).

May we soon see the fulfillment of the conclusion of this prayer, the time when our nation will dwell in security and safety in the Holy Land.