The fast of the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, known as Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, is the start of a three-week mourning period for the destruction of Jerusalem and the two Holy Temples.
The fast actually commemorates five tragic events that occurred on this date:
1. Moses broke the tablets when he saw the Jewish people worshipping theGolden Calf.
2. During the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, the Jews were forced to cease offering the daily sacrifices due to the lack of sheep.
3. Apostomos burned the holy Torah.1
4. An idol was placed in the Holy Temple.2
5. The walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans, in 69 CE, after a lengthy siege. (Three weeks later, after the Jews put up a valiant struggle, the Romans destroyed the second Holy Temple on the 9th of Av.)
The Jerusalem Talmud maintains that this is also the date when the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem on their way to destroying the first Temple.
Healthy adults—bar- or bat-mitzvah age and older—abstain from eating or drinking between dawn and nightfall.
Pregnant and nursing women may not have to fast. Someone who is ill should consult with a rabbi. Even those exempt from fasting, such as ill people or children, shouldn’t indulge in delicacies or sweets.
It is permitted to wake up early before the fast begins and eat, provided that prior to going to sleep one had in mind to do so.
During the morning prayers we recite selichot (penitential prayers), printed in the back of the prayer book. The “long Avinu Malkeinu” is recited during the morning and afternoon prayers.
The Torah is read during the morning and afternoon prayers. The reading—the same for both morning and afternoon—is Exodus 32:11–14 and 34:1–10, which discusses the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, how Moses successfully interceded on the Israelites’ behalf and attained forgiveness for their sin. After the afternoon Torah reading, the special fast-day haftarah, Isaiah 55:6–56:8, is read.
During the Amidah prayer of the afternoon service (Minchah), those who are fasting add the paragraph Aneinu in the Shema Koleinu blessing. (It is also added in the cantor’s repetition of the Amidah in both the morning and afternoon services, as its own blessing between the blessings of Re’eh and Refa’einu. Additionally, the priestly blessing is also added in the repetition of the Amidah in the afternoon service.
If the 17th of Tammuz falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed until Sunday.
Abstaining from food and drink is the external element of a fast day. On a deeper level, a fast day is an auspicious day, a day when G d is accessible, waiting for us to repent.
The sages explain: “Every generation for which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is as though the Temple was destroyed for that generation.” A fast day is not only a sad day, but an opportune day. It’s a day when we are empowered to fix the cause of that destruction, so that our long exile will be ended and we will find ourselves living in messianic times; may that be very soon.
The Jewish (Un)tragedy
It would be incorrect to associate our national state of mourning with a feeling of tragedy at a national level.
It is unfortunate that some Jews have cultivated a culture of national tragedy, not over the destruction of the Temple per se, but mostly over what they perceive as the tragic history of the Jewish people. To choose to perceive ourselves as the heroes of tragedy leads in the end to self-loathing and a loss of self-confidence, creating a culture that identifies with our enemies and their goals. In addition, as noted earlier, perceiving one’s existence as tragic creates an expectation of pity and compassion from others. It goes without saying that this causes other nations to shun us.
Without a doubt, we the Jewish people have experienced tremendous hardship and pain throughout our history—more so, perhaps, than other nations. But Jewish history is anything but tragic. It is the history of hope and faith and of moral uprightness in the face of primitively immoral despots and religions, most of which have disappeared from the world. Jewish history is the ultimate anti-tragedy. It is the story of mankind’s search for the possibility of sanctifying our corporeal existence here on earth.
Walking through the ruins of the second Temple, and faced with the pain of the oncoming exile, most of the sages wept; but not Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva, the Moses of his generation, met the disaster with a restrained joy. When asked the reason for his unexpected response, he explained that the prophets had foretold of many difficult periods in the history of our nation, and of good periods, leading in the end to the ultimate good of the true and complete redemption. He continued, “Now that I have seen that the negative has come to pass, I am certain that so will the good!”
Rabbi Akiva epitomizes the Jewish faith and confidence in the immanence of goodness and holiness, even in the face of tremendous adversity. He passed this quality on to his student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who founded the mystical Judaic tradition in his book the Zohar (literally, “Radiance”). Throughout the ages, the ability to see with rectified sight has been passed down through the Jewish people, and specifically in the writings of Kabbalah and then Chassidut.
May this month of Tammuz be the month in which we undertake to see the world as did all our holy teachers. By transforming our sight, we will merit to see G d usher in the era of the true and complete redemption.