Thursday, June 29, 2017

The fast Day of Erev Shabbos Parshas Chukas

By Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
‘Zos Chukas HaTorah’ 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.


  1. Dear HV,

    I’m sure all are aware of the recent arrests in Lakewood. There are so many infuriating aspects that have not received any attention. The Asbury Park Press went to town with new articles every day about the Lakewood Orthodox community defrauding the government. They have given all our non Jewish neighbors an outlet to express their hate. This is unacceptable. I take this as a personal affront. I do not steal from the government so please do not give the entire community a guilty verdict without a trial. Even more so, the individuals arrested have not had a trial, and I personally know one couple that truly needs government programs to survive and has no money that would have made receiving programs justified. If the Asbury Park Press would treat any other community as this, there would be a large outcry with protests in the street. We have community leaders, the Lakewood Vaad to represent us. If the Vaad would truly represent us, they would have raised money for funds to sue the Asbury Park Press and pay for lawyers to protect those arrested as being unfairly targeted as Orthodox Jews. Sadly, the Vaad threw them and the rest of the community under the bus. Instead of crying out “Innocent until proven guilty” and this is not a widespread community problem, they are saying the fun is over. Mayor Coles strongly condemned those arrested who again forgot we live in a country where innocent until proven guilty. Duvi Honig, a self-appointed askan, said they cannot be blamed because of the burden of expenses the Lakewood Orthodox Jews face. What?! So he is implying that many in the community are doing this because they have to. How does that sound to our neighboring communities? Maybe these people should think before they talk? If these arrests would have happened to Chassidim, their leaders would’ve protected them. Only in Lakewood, can this happen. For the FBI to make public arrests like they did, just shows there is someone with an agenda. Maybe the current Attorney General wants to run for Governor. The truth will come out soon. Generally, if someone is falsely reporting income, as has happened to individual in the past, s/he will receive a letter in the mail and would need to repay. FBI needs to arrest dangerous individuals. Not make a scene such as they did.

    Moshe Cohen
    Lakewood NJ

  2. "Sefer HaTanya[1] (an earlier source that the famous Kabbalistic work of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav)"

    Typo there. Should be "(an earlier source than the famous Kabbalistic work of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav)".

    Tanya Rabbosi, a work centuries before the Hasidic Tanya.