The Seventeenth of Tamuz A Fast Day
By Josh Schwartz
The seventeenth day of the Jewish month Tamuz is a fast day and the beginning of a sad period in Jewish history. It is the beginning of the period of time called "the Three Weeks" during which we observe many customs of mourning. During this period of time no weddings are performed and mirth and joy are suppressed. This period ends with another fast day, Tisha B'Av, the ninth of the Jewish month Av.
These days of fasting as well as the period which is between them are set aside to remind us of a series of sad events which took place two thousand years ago concerning the destruction of the holy Temple and our exile from our land.
The seventeenth of Tamuz seems to be a day in which calamities were destined to take place for five sad events occurred on this date:
The first sad event was when Moses broke the first Tablets of the Ten Commandments which he brought down after spending forty days and forty nights in seclusion on Mount Sinai alone with G-d and no food. It was the time immediately after the Jews had left Egypt and had not yet come into the Land of Israel. After Moses' absence of forty days, they had made a golden idol to worship. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and seeing the Jews worshiping an idol instead of giving them the Ten Commandments, he threw them down and they broke into pieces. Although G-d subsequently forgave the Jews, still it was a stain on our history.
The second tragic event was many years later when the Jews were living securely in the Land of Israel. They again turned to idolatry and in doing so in effect stopped observing the Ten Commandments. When the Jews go too far off the proper path, then G-d sends in an oppressor. The holy Temple came under siege and it was on this day that the sacrifices were stopped, those sacrifices that helped to atone for our sins.
During the Second Temple period, when the Jews had returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile and rebuilt their land and temple, they had their long periods of following G-d and had great leaders and teachers. But eventually disunity and strife began to wither away the unity and take them from the service of G-d to in-fighting. It was during this time that the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem which brought a terrible famine to the city. On the seventeenth of Tamuz the wall of Jerusalem was breached and the city was captured and the beginning of our long exile began.
Two other calamities happened on this day. Apustamus, the leader of the occupying forces publicly burnt Torah scrolls and an idol was placed in the holy Temple.
For these five catastrophes which are blemishes on our collective Jewish history we observe the fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz.
As mentions above, this begins the Three Weeks, a period in which happiness is diminished. We do not make weddings. We refrain from listening to happy music, purchasing clothing that makes us happy such as a new dress or suit, but underwear or socks which don't make a person feel happy are permitted. Haircuts are not taken during this period either and we don't eat new fruits of the season that we have not eaten of this year.
What we must do, however, is to contemplate our long exile and the reasons that brought us to it. One was abandoning G-d and his holy Torah and the other was the constant infighting that tore unity apart. Much of this had to do with each person seeking his own personal pleasures even at the expense of observance of the divine commandments and the abandonment of his fellow Jews.
We must spend these three weeks looking for ways in which we can strengthen our commitment to Jews and Judaism, to strive to increase our observances of the mitzvot, and to do our best to help out our fellow Jews, both financially, emotionally, spiritually and materially. For certain, if all of us were to improve in these areas, our long exile would be over, our holy temple would be standing, and the righteous messiah would have come to proclaim truth and justice throughout the world. But it all starts with you and me, right now, to accept in our hearts to improve in these areas.
For more on Tisha B'Av, see our article in this month's Jewish Magazine
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For more on Fast Days, see our Archives
from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine