Rav Shabsai Hakohen, more popularly known as the Shach, was the first rov to institute a fast day on the 20th of Sivan in commemoration of the “Gezeiros Tach V’Tat” (the terrible Chmielnicki massacres
in Southern Poland and the Ukraine in 1648-1649). It would seem, however, from his own words, 22 that he had prescribed the fast day only for his family and descendants. This would explain why, in 1652, the Council of the Four Lands 23 also declared a fast on 20 Sivan; they were establishing one for the public at large.24
A very moving dirge commemorating the tragedy was also written by Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller,25 which was published in Cracow, 1650, 26 where he had set up residence in 1644. In it, he lists by name twelve of the almost three-hundred communities that were totally decimated during the massacres. It begins with the standard “Keil Malei Rachamim,” but then becomes very original and deserves proper historical attention.
THE CAUSES OF THE TRAGEDY
The tragedy of the Gezeiros Tach V’Tat was so immense and shocking 27 that the rabbonim felt very strongly that only specific aveiros of the Jewish people could bring about such mass destruction.
In his work on Aggadic narratives, 28 Rav Berachia Berach, a leading rov of that generation, lists breeding of pigs, Shabbos desecration,29 davening without the proper focus and intentions, false interpretations of the Torah by “darshanim” (sermonizers), the sale of rabbinical positions even to those qualified, and luxurious (not immodest!) clothing, as some of the sins that were the “causes.” He calls for an immediate “tikkun” (fixing) of these “terrible sins” as he coins them.
THE MI SHEBEIRACH
The most popular institution as a consequence of the Gezeiros Tach V’Tat, and practiced in some kehillos to this very day, was the “Mi Shebeirach” written by Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller. It is even possible that the Mi Shebeirach was first introduced by his rebbi, the Maharal of Prague, 30 but he certainly was the one who made it very popular. This tefillah should not be surprising, because the terrible problem of talking in shul, unfortunately, seems to have existed in Jewish society throughout the Middle Ages.31 Although the text that appears in most siddurim has:
“May Hashem….bless he who guards his mouth and tongue32 from talking during prayer…”
the more authentic version 33 adds and specifies: “from Boruch She’omar until the completion of the davening and during the reading of the Sefer Torah, even words of Torah and certainly idle chatter and the spreading of rumors….”
There is no question that Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller was opposed to any type of idle chatter in a holy place like a shul.34 With this Mi Shebeirach prayer, however, he was not focusing on that particular issue but on the prohibition against speaking during one’s personal davening, the tefillah of the shliach tzibbur and the reading of the Torah. Perhaps, he felt the best way to attack this serious problem was a step by step approach; he, therefore, first focused specifically on these areas.
HAMAN AND CHMIELNICKI
In a previous article, 35 I attempted to explain a connection between the foiled plan of Haman to wipe out the Jewish people and its partial fulfillment during Chmielnicki’s massacres. In that article, I tried to explain this connection by demonstrating, at least, one similarity between the spiritual status of the Jewish people then, in 1648-1649, and whenever Amaleik had the upper-hand over them throughout Jewish history.
The connection pointed out in that discussion was that talking in shul during davening is an Amalekite lack of hakoras hatov – not acknowledging the “good” that Hashem does to us by permitting us to daven to him. It is also an act of leitzonus, the essence of Amaleik, in that talking in shul belittles the sanctity of the shul and is essentially a denial of Hashem’s presence there. The only proper retribution for such an Amalekite attitude was, unfortunately, destruction at the hands of Amaleik, as by Bogdan Chmielnicki, the 17th century Haman/Amalekite.
Recently, I came across a kabbalistic approach to explain another fascinating connection: The souls of the Jews in 1648 had “been around” during Haman’s lifetime in an earlier gilgul and had bowed down to the statue as the Gemara tells us. That act constituted a violation of the commandment to sanctify Hashem’s name. During the Gezeiros Tach V’Tat, when those souls which were reincarnated in new bodies sacrificed their lives en masse rather than convert to idolatry – in those days in the form of Greek Orthodox Christianity – they made the necessary tikkun for their souls.
23 They were Great Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia and Volhynia.
24 The Taz, quoted earlier in note 1, mentions “leaders of the three lands.” He was probably referring to Poland, Ruthenia, and Volhynia.
25 His name is alluded to in the last stanza.
26 It is simply called “Selichos for 20 Sivan.”
27 In a fascinating story (legend?) (Yalkut Ohaiv Yisroel, pg. 110), we are told that the holy saint of Apte studied all of Rav Dovid ben Shmuel’s commentary (Turei Zahav, see above note 1) “al pi kabbolah” and found everything completely correct except one statement! Rav Dovid ben Shmuel HaLevi then came to him in a dream and told the Apte not to be surprised since that statement was written during the 1648 massacres when he could not focus properly on the subject he was studying.
28 Zera Beirach, Amsterdam,1662, Volume 2, Introduction.
29 These first two sins were the expected and natural consequence of a bigger problem: living with and having too much contact with gentiles, which, according to Rav Berachia “led to other even more serious sins which cannot be written.” This problem was especially acute with isolated families living in the villages among the gentiles.
30 See “The Maharal of Prague” (Heb.), pg. 26.
31 See J. Katz, Tradition and Crisis, 1961, pg. 180.
32 Mishlei 21:26.
33 This is the earliest printed version found in the Selichos of 20 Sivan published in Cracow; see above.
34 See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 151:1 and the meforshim there.
35 See Hakovetz,”Purim: New Historical and Hashkafa Insights,” Brooklyn, 2003.
 Megillah 12a. This statue of an idol was first erected by Nevuchadnetzar, see Daniel 3:6.
 See Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvos, mitzvah #9.
 Megillas Eiva, Yerushalayim, 5759, page 128.