On the 800th anniversary of the York Massacre

On the 800th anniversary of the York Massacre:

Yom Kippur as Jewish History

On Yom Kippur, Jews come to shul for a plethora of reasons. Many come for reasons of faith. Others come for reasons of culture. Still others come for reasons of both faith and culture. Some come out of a sense of guilt. Some come out of a sense of nostalgia. Others do not know why they come – except for a feeling of keeping in touch. But keeping in touch with what?

It is keeping in touch with a sense of belonging, of knowing that you occupy a place in the drama of the Jewish People, that you have a position in the unravelling of our history, that you are a participant in Jewish destiny, that you carry the collective memory of those generations who have come before you which you hope to bequeath to those generations who will come after you. This is what unites us here today, in Israel and in all the lands of the Diaspora – a sense of belonging and an unspoken understanding of the history and the experience of our people across the centuries.

And yet, we tend to emphasise the individual rather than the collective on Yom Kippur. We reveal our misdemeanours of the past year and our hope that we shall do better in the year to come. In one sense, the concentration on the self as opposed to the people is not surprising since it may be related to the loss of sovereignty and our dispersion amongst the nations. In our past history, Yom Kippur was elevated to the lofty position it now occupies.

When Ezra the Scribe returned to Eretz Israel from exile to rebuild the Second Temple, Yom Kippur was of lesser importance. But the Day grew in importance because of the tragedies of Jewish history. The great national misfortunes of the past, it was argued, were due to the sins of the People. With the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, Yom Kippur became the keystone of the sacrificial system of the Judaism of the Exile. Yehoshua ben Hananiah said, ‘Woe unto us! What should atone for us? We are lost on account of our sins’. To which Yochanan ben Zakkai, perhaps the architect of the Judaism of the Exile, replied, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice. By mercy and truth is iniquity atoned for.’ Yom Kippur is not only about individual repentance. It is also about national repentance. It is only about personal teshuvah, but teshuvat ha’am, the renewal of the people.

The Yom Kippur service as we know it today if we look carefully is replete with the warnings and messages of Jewish history. It tells of persecution and martyrdom, of courage and defiance. Within the pages of the machsor are the testimonies of past generations. Therefore if we are faithful to the national spirit of Yom Kippur which pervades all of us, then we should appraise the words which we recited yesterday and today and understand why they appear before us.

When we started last night before we read Kol Nidrei, we hear

ועל דעת הקהל

אנו מתירין להתפלל עמ העברינימ

The last word  העברינימ                is translated as ‘transgressors’, yet it can also be regarded as a play on ‘Iberi’ – the Hebrew for ‘Iberian’. This sentence then reads that ‘we give leave to pray with the Iberians’. And who are the Iberians? They are the Marranos – those who converted to Christianity  however,

superficially. Even the Marannos were welcome on Yom Kippur.


Or this afternoon, when we doven Musaf we read U-Ntanneh Tokef Kedushat Ha’Yom. It is attributed to Kalonymos ben Meshulam of Kolonymos in the memory of the martyr Amnon of Mainz. This prayer greatly appealed to Jews who suffered due to the religious fervour of the Crusades and the savagery and murder which the upholders of the Cross visited upon many a Jewish community.

At Blois in France on Wednesday 26th May 1171, 31 Jews, the entire Jewish community of the town, were collectively burned at the stake. The leading rabbinic authority of the time, Rabbenu Tam, a grandson of Rashi, was so shocked that he declared that day the 20th Sivan a fast day to be observed by all the Jews of France, the Rhineland and England. a fast which was deemed more important than the fast of Gedaliah and on a par with Yom Kippur.

Ephraim of Bonn later recorded the impression of an eyewitness at the tragedy that ‘as the flames mounted high, the martyrs began to sing in unison a melody that began softly but ended in full voice.’ The fast day which Rabbenu Tam declared has passed into obscurity but the melody which the martyrs sang at their deaths passed into the memory of the Jewish people. The words of that melody began, ‘Aleynu l’shabeiuch….’.

It was to remember the martyrs of Blois that the Aleynu prayer was added to the Yom Kippur musaf, to be read solemnly, a commemoration of the Kiddush Ha’shem of 1171, for the 31 martyrs of Blois.

One of the followers of Rabbenu Tam was Yom Toy ben Yitzhak of Joigny, a Tosafist and poet who composed a moving elegy to the Blois martyrs. He accepted an invitation to teach and study with the prosperous and growing community in York in England. No doubt, he like other French Jews thought that England was a safer place for Jews since there had never been any real persecution here. However, in 1164 Henry II changed from using Christian moneylenders to using Jewish ones. Blood libels, which were once unknown in this country, became a recurring theme in an England stirred by the religious passions of the Crusades, St Harold of Gloucester in 1168, St Robert of Bury St Edmunds in 1181, St Adam of Bristol in 1183. Yom Toy of Joigny or, as he is now known to us, Yom Toy of York composed the Omnam Ken which we read last night.

The line, ‘pnei lelbon mkom uvon lhusim’ is believed to refer to the deteriorating situation in England for the Jews at the end of the 1180s. In 1190, a fanatical mob fuelled by the passions of Lent and spurred on by youthful zealous Crusaders and malevolent debtors attached the Jews of York. In a desperate attempt to escape, they found themselves trapped in Cliffords Tower in York. There they faced the murderous intentions of their vengeful and primitive assailants who waited outside. William of Newbury wrote six years later about Yom Toy of York in Cliffords Tower on that day, erev Shabbat Ha’Gadol:

‘There was among them a certain elder, a most famous doctor of the law, according to the letter which killeth, who had come from countries beyond the sea to instruct the Jews in England, as it is said. This man was held in honour among them all, and was obeyed by all, as if he had been one of the prophets. So, when at this conjuncture his advice was asked, he replied, “God, to whom we ought not to say, Why dost Thou this? Command us to die now for His law – and behold our death is at the doors, as ye see; ….’

And so, in imitation of Masada, the fathers killed their families and then did away with themselves. Legend has it that Yom Toy of York was the last to die by his own hand. Those who chose not to commit suicide were butchered by the mob. 150 Jews died that day 800 years ago.

Yom Kippur is thus about reclaiming Jewish history through the distortions and omissions of history. It is a renewal of the memory, the Jewish memory. Yom Toy of York wrote Omnam Ken. It is an acrostic whose verses spell out the aleph bet. Yet all our machzorim, Birnbaum, Routledge and the rest miss out the last two verses.

These last two verses spell out the initials of Yom Toy’s name. In this year, the 800th anniversary of his death, the 800th Yom Kippur after the massacre of the Jews of York, it is right to complete Omnam Ken as Yom Tov wrote it:

יומ יומ



טוב למעון

יהי עז

מלולך םלחתי

‘Day by day they seek You.

You who are a good source of strength, may the strength of Your word be “I have forgiven” ‘.


Yom Tov of York died in the year 4950. In an age when we celebrate the mythology of Good King Richard the Lionheart and his noble Crusaders, his words have come down to us on this Yom Kippur. Zichrono livracha. May his memory be for a blessing.

Sermon given at the New North London Synagogue Yom Kippur  10 November 1990

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