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Jewish World Review
Week of 20 Sivan
Nemirov massacres and the Chmielnicki uprising
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Medieval Europe offered its inhabitants little in the way of prosperity or security, especially the Jews unfortunate enough to live
there. In 1096, a mere three months into the First Crusade, the ragtag army of Urban II obliterated Jewish communities up
and down Germany's Rhine River, communities guilty of nothing other than lying in the path of Crusaders who sought
distraction from the tedium of the road. Two centuries of Crusading, undertaken to free the Holy Land from heretical
Moslems, inflicted a steady fallout of collateral damage upon Jews from Paris to Jerusalem.
In the 14th Century, the Black Plague that wiped out over a third of Europe struck Jews less than half as often as gentiles,
ostensibly because of Jewish dietary standards and hygiene. Knowing nothing of germ theory, however, superstitious
Europeans assumed that the Jews had poisoned or cursed their well water and responded, predictably, with violence. Blood
libels, pogroms, and expulsions left tens of thousands of Jews dead, with the survivors emotionally and spiritually traumatized.
But there seemed to be a faint ray of hope on the eastern horizon. As early as 1334, King Casimir III of Poland invited the
Jews to settle in his country, and by 1500 the Golden Age of Polish Jewry had begun. Over the next century, the Jewish
population tripled to 150,000 as Polish Jews established a successful merchant class, while the talmudic academies and
scholars of Poland rivaled any throughout the Diaspora.
In a tragically familiar pattern, the financial success of Polish Jews precipitated an eventual decline in their piety and spiritual
commitment. Materialism, arrogance, factionalism, and corrupt business ethics eroded the Torah foundations of the
community, while persecution by the Church and resentment from an impoverished peasantry made the position of the Jews
ever more precarious.
In the 1630s, a series of Cossack uprisings in the Ukraine sparked a wave of unrest throughout Eastern Europe. The
Cossacks, warlike descendants of Russian serfs renowned for their skill as horsemen, had been recruited by the kings of
Poland in the previous century to repel Tartar invaders from Crimea to the East. So well had the Cossacks performed their
duties that, with the threat of the Tartars eliminated, the Polish government revoked the privileges and autonomy it had granted
the Cossacks as payment for their services.
In 1648, a leader rose up among the Cossacks in the person of Bogdan Chmielnicki, who unified a band of former serfs,
robbers, and escaped criminals into a devastating military force. Assuming the title of Hetman, or Captain, Chmielnicki allied
himself with his former adversaries, the Tartars, then launched a revolt against the Polish nobility, routing 8000 soldiers of the
Celebrated by the peasants and serfs as a hero and savior, Chmielnicki incited a peasant rebellion against the nobles.
Whipped into a frenzy of violence and vengeance, the peasants struck out at the most accessible object of their oppression --
the Jewish tax collectors and moneylenders who, in their minds, represented all the injustice of the Polish system. Grateful for
the opportunity to allow the rabble vent their anger against the Jews, the Polish nobility did nothing to defend them.
A wave of massacres broke across Poland as the Cossacks drove the uprising from town to town and subjected their victims
to almost unimaginable brutality. The historian Nathan Nata Hanover in Yeven Metzula records: "Some were skinned alive
and their flesh thrown to the dogs. The hands and feet of others were chopped off and their bodies flung into he roadway
where wagons ran them over and they were trampled by horses... Children were slaughtered at their mothers' breasts, and
they were sliced open like fish... no form of unnatural death in the world was not inflicted upon them." And although Jews were
the primary target of violence, the rebels ravaged and beheaded Roman Catholic clergy, while churches were pillaged and set
In what has become known as the Gezeiras Tach V'Tat (the evil decree of the Jewish years 5408 -- 5409, but which
continued for an additional three years), an estimated hundred thousand Jews lost their lives, and hundreds of communities
disappeared. But amidst the long travail of savagery, one day stands outs beyond all the rest.
On the twentieth day of the month of Sivan, 1649, the rebels fell upon the Polish town of Nemirov. In a single day,
Chmielnicki's Cossacks slaughtered 6000 Jews until the Bug River turned red with Jewish blood. The following year, the
Council of the Four Lands, an autonomous Jewish governmental body over Eastern Europe, established the date as a day of
fasting and lamentation. In some communities, the mournful Selichos prayers are still recited in commemoration of the
With his forces widely scattered and the Tartars having betrayed him by allying themselves with the Poles, Chmielnicki
negotiated a treaty in August 1649, only to reignite his rebellion in 1652 when the Tartars switched their allegiance back to the
Cossacks. During the interim, the Jews of Poland found themselves victims of violence from the Poles who, incomprehensibly,
accused them of collaboration with the Cossacks. Further ravaged by a cholera epidemic in the summer of 1652, many Jews
fled Poland for Germany, Lithuania, Russia, or the Balkans.
The aftermath of the Chmielnicki massacres, however, was even more far-reaching. Demoralized and disillusioned, the Jews
of Europe cast about for some way to make sense of the devastation that had left so many dead and so many more with
shattered lives. Surely, G-d would not have subjected them to such senseless pain and suffering unless it were part of a greater
plan. Surely, there had to exist some divine method behind the madness. Surely, a tragedy of this scale could only be
explained as the chevlei Moshiach, the prophesied and long-awaited birth pangs of the Messiah.
Seeking to make sense out of insanity, the Jews of Europe assuaged their scarred psyches by indulging hope in the coming
dawn of messianic redemption. Barely a decade later, many of them would believe their faith rewarded with the appearance of
the charismatic leader Shabbsai Tzvi, who convinced much of European Jewry that he was indeed their prophesied Redeemer.
The catastrophic rise of this false messiah and his eventual conversion to Islam left an already broken Jewish people even
more bereft of hope and faith. It began an era of spiritual darkness for the Jews of Europe from which they would only begin
to emerge with the birth of the Chassidic movement half a century later.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
Independent Judea under Shimon HaMaccabee
The Great Revolt begins
Dedication of new walls of Jerusalem
© 2006, Rabbi Yonason Goldson