1) 1171; Blois, France - the first time Jews were killed due to a blood libel
A Jewish man was washing leather hide at a lake as a Christian on horseback approached from the other side. When the Christian’s horse saw the white leather of the hides it got spooked and refused to get any closer. Based on no more than that, the Christian rode into town and announced that he saw the Jew deposing the corpse of a Christian child in the lake.
At the time, the count of Blois was having a well-known affair with Pulcelina, a Jewish woman. This was deeply offensive to the Christian population of Blois, and it led to the imprisonment and burning alive of the entire Jewish community (around 35 people).
This was a literal violation of habeas corpus. Not only was no corpse found, no child had even gone missing.
Rabeinu Tam lived in Orléans at the time, just a single day’s journey away. He established the 20th of Sivan as a fast day in commemoration of those Jewish martyrs, and this fast was observed throughout Europe for several centuries.
2) 1648; Nemirov, Ukraine - the first massacre of the Khmelnytsky Massacres
In the mid-17th century, Ukrainian nationalists wanted independence from Polish authority. They organized around Bogdan Khmelnytsky, a ruthless, anti-Semitic Cossack whose statue still stands in the capital of Ukraine.
The first Jewish center that was attacked was Nemirov. Nemirov had a much larger Jewish population than Blois and it was also a fortified city. Terrified by the Cossack threat, many Jews from surrounding communities flocked there for protection.
Unable to physically overpower the city’s defenses, the Cossacks resorted to deception. They approached the city bearing Polish flags, making the inhabitants believe they were coming to protect them. Several Greek Christian inhabitants were aware of the deception but urged the Jews to open the gates anyway.
Overwhelmed by the enemy from within and without, over 6,000 Jews chose to be slaughtered rather than kiss the cross.
The Khmelnytsky Massacres continued for another year and a half, but when the Va’ad Arba Aratzos had to choose a day on which to commemorate the tragedy, they chose the 20th of Sivan.
This decision mirrored the decision in the Talmud to commemorate the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av rather than the 10th. Although the majority of the Temple burned down on the 10th, all the Talmudic rabbis except R’ Yochanan felt that “אתחלתא דפורענותא עדיפא” - the start of the tragedy is weightier, and we ought to commemorate the beginning of the tragedy rather than its culmination.
Although “only” 6000 Jews were killed on that 20th of Sivan, that was when the Khmelnytsky Massacres started and that’s when we commemorate all 30,000 lives lost during that horrible year and a half.
That fast day was widely observed throughout Europe for nearly 300 years, essentially from the day it was enacted until the Holocaust. Why the Holocaust itself didn’t get a religious Jewish fast day is a fascinating question but for another time.
In Jewish literature, Bogdan Khmelnytsky is often referred to as “חמיל”. This shortened name stands for the phrase חבלי משיח יבוא לעולם - the birth pangs of the Messiah will come to the world.
1648 was already considered a Messianic year in the Zohar, and proofs were brought from several Pasukim to support that prediction. Barely 15 years after the culmination of the Khmelnytsky Massacres, one of the most successful Messianic movements in history, let alone Jewish history, was ignited. Though it came to nothing, in many ways we’re still experiencing its aftershocks. In more ways than one, Sabbateanism is still with us.
Nevertheless, although we now have a sovereign secular Jewish state, we are still in exile. Almost 400 years later, we are still waiting.
3) Shabtai Tzvi - 1666 especially