Reflections on 17 Tammuz

Today is the 17th day of Tammuz: a minor fast day in Jewish tradition, inaugurating the "Three Weeks" of mourning leading up to Tisha b'Av. According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf.

The Three Weeks are also called bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the straits." They're a kind of narrows, a temporary and temporal Mitzrayim. During these weeks, many Jews don't celebrate weddings; some eschew instrumental music (a source of joy), haircuts (a nod to vanity), and even saying the shehecheyanu (blessing of gratitude sanctifying time.) These mourning customs are intensified during the nine days of leading up to Tisha b'Av.

I've read some striking and resonant things about minor fasts like 17 Tammuz. In God In Your Body, Jay Michaelson writes:

I approach the five Temple-related fast days by expanding the metaphor of the Temple's destruction to embrace the principle of separation itself. Then I see my fast not merely as mourning, but also as the path to healing...

I draw strength from the knowledge that around me as I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are also fasting on this communal day -- even if my reading of the day's significance is different from theirs. Jews have never agreed on why we do anything; we have four new years, and three names for the Passover holiday. Yet community is built by doing... Secondly, and relatedly, is the aspect of humility in spiritual practice. Every year, I learn from the tradition, even if my relationship to it is no longer as orthodox as it once was...

I approach the five Temple-related fast days in the spirit of practice, and practice requires form. If we only do the practice when we feel like it, it isn't a practice.

Really good points, all. But for many liberal Jews, minor fasts like this one are barely on the map, and ditto the customs of the Three Weeks that follow. In The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that an increasing number of Jews maintain an observance of 9 Av, but not an observance of minor Temple-related fast days like this one. As Rabbi Everett Gendler writes:

There is a practical reason for phasing out certain of the minor fasts, aside from loss of the significance they once had. Now that we have added observances to the calendar -- Yom ha-Shoah, Yom ha-Atzma'ut, and more -- we need to drop those that mean little to us, lest we fill the calendar up with holidays. If too many days are special, what's special about special days?

He has an interesting point. Many liberal Jews no longer ardently hope for the restoration of the Temple-that-was, preferring instead to embrace the paradigm shift into rabbinic (and post-rabbinic?) Judaism as a necessary turn in the unfolding of history's spiral. For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

There's a kind of slantwise answer in this quotation from Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi:

There is a danger posed by the Three Weeks with its list of catastrophes that befell the Jewish people one generation after another. The danger is a paranoia that declares that everyone else in the world is wrong and therefore their fate is of little concern to us. Instead, we should generalize from our experience and become involved in the universal... The teshuvah for the Three Weeks is to examine how we have distorted the particular. In the midst of remembering our history, we must reclaim as well our role as planetary citizens.

It falls to liberal Jews today to turn and re-turn these narrow straits into a container for meaning in a way that shifts our focus to the universal. This drash by Reb Arthur Waskow finds resonance in the teaching that this date marked Moses' shattering of the tablets. He suggests that Moses shattered the tablets just as we today shatter a wineglass at every marriage. The breakage, paradoxically, seals the covenant of the relationship.

Whether by fasting or not, today Jews remember the breakage of Jerusalem's city walls -- the first step toward the destruction of the Temple, and the rebirth of Judaism which ultimately followed. Even as we prepare ourselves in three weeks to mourn the Temple's fall, and the experiences of exile that 9 Av represents, can we see the breaching of those city walls as a kind of sacred shattering, opening the possibility of something lasting and new? When the walls between us fall, and the dust of their collapse settles, what can we create in the new negative spaces that are left behind?


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