Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The 17th of Tamuz
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in honor of

Avraham Chai son of Adina Chaya Ita

The Breaking of the Tablets on the Seventeenth of Tammuz

The Tree of Knowledge contained a mixture of elements - both good and evil. This, then, was Adam's sin: He ate from the tree, and this caused existence to fall to a level whereupon there existed a mixture of both good and evil.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Tamuz, 1561
2 min read
1. Back to the Original Sin
2. The Goal of Generations
3. Where Did Moses Go Wrong?
4. The Princess
5. The Rectification is Relevant to Us
6. A Spiritual Mending
7. Stages and Stage-Skipping
8. Passover in Spain. Next Year in Jerusalem.
9. Suggestions for Strengthening

Back to the Original Sin
Our Sages teach that five catastrophes befell the Jewish people on the Seventeenth of Tammuz. The first was the breaking of the Tablets when Moses came down Mount Sinai. And why were the Tablets broken? They were broken as a result of the Sin of the Golden Calf. According to tradition, had the Tablets not been broken, the phenomenon of death would have ceased to exist in the world. We are also taught that had these Tablets remained whole there would never have been an exile. In essence, the Sages are telling us that were it not for their fate, the first set of Tablets would have elevated the Israelites to a level of complete and absolute perfection - a level not unlike that which the Jews are expected to attain in the future. The First Tablets were intended to wipe away the stain of the Original Sin, for it was Adam's transgression that caused death to come into the world. The First Tablets, then, were meant to cleanse Israel of the effects of this sin.

And what was the Original Sin? Answer: Adam's eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Good and evil stand for life and death. In other words, the Tree of Knowledge contained a mixture of elements. This, then, was Adam's sin: He ate from the tree, and this caused existence to fall to a level which contained a mixture of both good and evil. If things had not happened as they did Adam might have merited eating from the Tree of Life, from which one "can eat and live forever." After having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, it was no longer possible to eat from Tree of Life; the two are irreconcilable. When it comes to attaining eternal life there is no room for deficiency; there can be only perfection. Where good and evil live side by side, there can be no eternal life - the two cannot coexist. The First Tablets belonged to a great and lofty realm; through them the Israelites would have merited eternal life, perfect lofty spiritual attainment and eradication of the universe's evil.

We might possibly say that the end of the damage caused by Adam's wrong was not intended to come suddenly with the giving of the Tablets; the rectification in fact began even before this. The giving of the Torah was intended to lead to lead up to the reception of the Tablets. The shattering of the Tablets actually returned things to their original state. This is how our Sages see the Seventeenth of Tammuz. It was meant to be an exalted day, a day of cosmic rectification. The Children of Israel, though, did not merit this. This meant the breaking of the Tablets which were meant to purify the sin of the Golden Calf. In other words, Israel was not yet ready to attain this lofty level of perfection and to become completely pure.

The Goal of Generations
Our entire history as a people has had this rectification as its aim - i.e., returning to a state wherein we reunite with the Torah and return to that height of "Matan Torah," the Giving of the Torah. In essence, the crisis is not merely one of spiritual decline. The very appearance of the Torah was marked by deficiency. The Torah, as a result, does not appear as absolute and undisputable truth; it does not appear in perfect clarity. There are discrepancies, doubts, questions. All of it is Torah; all of it is sacred. But there is a higher level, upon which there exist no difficulties or doubts. Everything is clear; everything is immediate and absolute, lofty and overflowing. This is what should have happened with the giving of the two Tablets. The highest level was supposed to be revealed, the loftiest echelon of Torah possible.

Where Did Moses Go Wrong?
According to the Zohar, this was, in a sense, the sin of the striking of the cliff (see Numbers 20). Moses, instead of talking to the cliff, struck it. The cliff represents an obstruction - a barrier which must be broken through in order to let out water, and "there is no water but Torah." If only Moses had spoken with the cliff, the water would have appeared in a natural, desirable manner, not through force. Had this been the case, the appearance of Torah would also have been different; it, too, would have been natural, in no need of force or exertion. While it is good to struggle for the purpose of attaining Torah, often one toils and exerts much energy, yet, in the end, barely manages to gain any significant insight. This is basically the nature of Torah study as we know it today. When one struggles, his studies are met with success. But it is not easy, and one manages to extract little more than a few drops.

In the future, Torah will pour fourth bountifully. This will come about as a result of people being drawn to the Torah and longing for it. True, attaining Torah will continue to involve an element of struggle, but the exertion will bring with it endless blessing. The Sages teach us, on a number of occasions, that the nature of Torah in our present existence is nothing compared to what will be in the days of the Messiah. It may be likened to unripe fruit, like dates which remained on the tree and did not ripen - very little of their flavor remains in comparison with a full-sized ripe fruit. In the future, Torah will appear in its true, lofty form.
The sin of striking the cliff was not Moses' alone; Moses is intimately connected to the Jewish people. The nation of Israel finds itself entangled in a complex situation, a mixture good and evil; there is an "Erev-Rav" in its midst - a great mixture of nationalities. When it comes to the transgressions carried out in the wilderness, the Israelites are the good and the Erev-Rav is the evil - and the two of them are mixed together. Moses is like the soul of this entire generation, and hence is unable to ascend to a level which the populace itself is unable to reach. He therefore becomes angered: "Listen now, you rebels!"

The Sages inform us that, in the future, Torah understanding will abound, and there will be no need for teachers or study partners because each individual will learn on his own; Torah will simply flow out of the heart. Torah and life - at present I give you Torah, but in the future I will grant you life. Life recalls the Tree of Life. "It is the Tree of Life for those who cling to it." Torah is called a Tree of Life in the sense that it will appear naturally, clearly, and freely. After Moses struck the cliff, only a small amount of water came out in comparison to what could have come out. Similarly, we too exert great energy trying to open the wellspring of Torah, but are only partially successful. By striking with force only drops come out.

The Princess
I have come across an interesting idea in the Cabbalistic work, "Tikkunei HaZohar," which has bearing on what we have been discussing here. It is a story that appears in other sources as well, about a princess who sits in an ivory tower. The tower is surrounded by a snake. The king announces that whoever succeeds in killing the snake can have is daughter as wife. This is an analogy: the princess represents the Torah - the lofty Torah. Generation after generation, Torah scholars have made all sorts of attempts to kill the snake in order to receive the princess. Righteous Sages and pious Rabbis alike try, each one in his own way, to subdue the snake. The snake represents, of course, evil; the princess - absolute good. It is necessary to do away with evil, to eliminate evil in order that there be no more constraining and constricting barriers - only perfect goodness.

The Sages teach us that, in the future, Moses will redeem Israel. What they mean is that Moses' soul, his great and lofty spirit, will cause the Jewish people to be redeemed. We indeed find a number of allusions to the effect that Moses will participate in the future redemption. He will redeem the Jewish people, and will lead Israel in attaining its goal. Moses did not merit entering the Land. Perhaps it is this fact that underpins the above idea. Moses' not meriting entrance into the land of Israel signifies a lofty goal that has not yet been realized: The people of Israel have not yet entered the land in the fullest possible sense. In the future, Moses will come to the land of Israel and redeem the Jewish people. He will lead us into the land again and rectify whatever was lacking the first time. In making up for whatever was missing, he will cause the appearance of the complete and lofty Torah and merit receiving the princess - i.e., the revelation of the heavenly Torah.

Indeed, the Prophets have said: "Do not yet call me 'my husband,' but, 'my man.'" In other words, the bond between God and Israel is one of betrothal; actual marriage has not yet been effected. The bond is not yet complete. A complete bond implies, as we said, that all impeding and constricting factors be done away with. That "the Good" alone remain. In such a situation, there will be no need for the Tree of Knowledge; we will merit the Tree of Life. Life will naturally continue indefinitely, and a living Torah will naturally appear in its fullest and most complete manner in the land of Israel, and Moses will merit entering the land. This is the ultimate level. With it, our bond with the Holy Land and will become a bond of marriage.

The Rectification is Relevant to Us
All this is not unrelated to our present existence. Were it possible for the Tablets to be given today, this elevated state would manifest itself among Israel. These, then, are some ideas which I gathered from the words of our Sages. I also saw it written that every day the king announces, "Whoever kills the snake will receive the hand of my daughter in matrimony!" What is meant by the words "every day"? The renown Vilna Gaon explains that the reference here is to the proclamation made each day when "a divine voice calls out from Mount Chorev (Sinai), saying, 'Woe to man! He must be careful not to belittle the Torah!" (Mishnah, Avot). This announcement is made every day in order to protect the Torah from disgrace because it does not appear in its full glory, because it appears in a narrow and constricted manner instead of in the magnificent manner it ought to. This announcement understandably awakens all sorts of defenders who wish to uplift the Torah from its disgraceful state. As a result, Israel proceeds, generation after generation, to rectify the Original Sin, and other sins which hinder the complete and lofty appearance of the Torah.

We are in a constant process of rectification and progress. We proceed from one station to the next, rectifying one trait after another. Each generation fixes a particular trait. Generally speaking, the attribute of fear of God is clarified, deepened, sharpened, and purified during the more difficult and trying periods in Jewish history; the attribute of love, during more pleasant times when God's goodness is discernable, for when God's love for Israel is revealed, Israel's love for God is also awakened. Generation after generation, step by step, one trait after another is being mended. We are, at present, in the last stages of this task, though we do not know how much longer the process will take. We have clearly finished most of the work. At present we are working on... Torah.
The difficulties which we presently face were foreseen by our Prophets, who likened them to birth pangs. The Mishnah brings a number of opinions regarding what may be considered a birth pang proper.

A Spiritual Mending
Five events took place on the Seventeenth of Tammuz: (1) The tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed were broken by Moses when he descended from Mount Sinai; (2) the regular daily sacrifice was abolished; (3) the Romans made a breach in the walls of Jerusalem during the siege of the Second Temple; (4) the wicked Apostomos burned a Torah scroll and (5) placed an idol in the Temple of God. The breach in the walls was a physical hardship. But the rest of the perils were of a spiritual nature. If we look closely, we notice that these troubles can be paired up. For example, Apostomos' burning the Torah and the breaking of the Tablets are essentially the same: they represent the destruction of the Torah. The same things happen on the same day, yet with a separation of many years between them. Similarly, the abolition of the daily sacrifice and the erection of an idol in the Temple are two sides of the same coin - idolatry as opposed to worship of the one true God.

We commemorate these tragedies because they need to be put right. The Torah must be mended, restored to its source. The same is true regarding the divine service in the Holy Temple - our bond with God must be revitalized and reinforced. The two of these are channels which allow Israel to forge a bond with the Almighty - from God to us; from us to God: He illuminates our path with Torah, and we worship Him through prayer, the regular daily sacrifice, and the Temple service.
I came across something interesting in the Siddur (Prayer book) of Rabbi Yaakov Emden. The Sages teach us that a Jew who prays in the Diaspora must direct his heart to the land of Israel; one who prays in Israel must direct his heart to Jerusalem; those in Jerusalem, to the Holy Temple; in the Holy Temple, to the Holy of Holies. Clearly the intention is not that one who prays outside of Israel direct his heart to Israel, and no further, or that the supplicant in Israel direct his heart to Jerusalem alone, etc. The reason that the Sages phrased their words the way they did is because it is difficult to direct one's heart to a place so far away. Therefore, in the exile one aims first of all for Israel. Yet, this lesson certainly contains an even deeper message.

Stages and Stage-Skipping
It is important that one advance no more than one level at a time. A Jew who resides outside of Israel must first direct his heart such that it absorb the sanctity of the land of Israel. This is the first step. Next, he must direct his heart so that it climbs up to the next step...there must be order - one does not enter the house through the window. From the land of Israel, to the sanctity of Jerusalem, then to the Holy Temple, and finally to the Holy of Holies. Rabbi Yaakov Emden says that each of us, when we pray, must feel as if he is in the Holy of Holies, standing before the Holy Ark. One must conjure up such an image in one's mind. The heart must be directed to this location because it is the place whereto all the prayers in the world arrive before ascending upward. This, then, is the course that must be followed: via Jerusalem, into the Holy Temple, until one finally stands in the Holy of Holies itself.

The Torah teaches us that one day can influence an entire year. The Spies spent forty days searching out the land. In response, Israel's entrance into the land was delayed forty years, as the verse states, "[The punishment] shall parallel the number of days you spent exploring the land. There were forty days, and there shall be one year for each day, a total of forty years until your sin is forgiven" (Numbers 14:34). If this is the case, then the opposite must be true as well. That is, forty days of positive elevation have the strength to shorten the forty years. We, at present, find ourselves in those very forty days during which the Spies carried out their mission. They set out on the twenty-ninth of Sivan and returned on the ninth of Av. For us, then, these ought to be seen as days of rectification.

Passover in Spain. Next Year in Jerusalem.
People always ask me a lot of questions when the Three Weeks roll around. What sorts of activities are permissible and which are forbidden. Recently, I was asked if it is permissible to pray at the graves of the righteous during the Three Weeks. I responded that it is a must. This is exactly the time to pray. Then they asked me if it is permissible to go to the Wailing Wall. I responded that, of course, one is obligated to go there. One must go there in sorrow, to feel a connection to the place. This is the whole point of Tishah B'Av - to strengthen the bond.
Some people are hesitant about going to the Wailing Wall on Tisha B'Av because they are afraid that they might enjoy themselves. But on Passover they travel to Spain - there is a very inexpensive hotel there and it is possible to go on the most beautiful day trips and enjoy exceptionally kosher food as well. In Spain one need have no reservations about saying, "Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem." In Jerusalem it is problematic; in Spain, no problem.

Nobody asks me what to learn during these Three Weeks, only what is forbidden to learn. Nobody asks me what sort of new things to do. This, though, is exactly what needs to be asked. "How can we improve our love for the land of Israel and our thirst for the Holy Temple?" What could be more relevant than this? When the Ninth of Av arrives one must be careful not to say to his fellow, "Have an easy fast." Rather, "May it be God's will that we merit complete redemption." The fast is meant to be painful. One has to feel it. It is advisable to study the laws of the Temple, chapters of Mishnah or Talmud dealing with the Temple, Aggadah, or Emunah dealing with this subject.
It is a real problem that people think that the holiest Jewish sight is the Wailing Wall, yet they are completely oblivious to the Temple Mount. Such people need to be enlightened. We must go and pray on all sides of the Temple Mount, not only the Western Wall. We must go to the southern wall, the eastern wall, etc. We have to circle the entire Mount, to proclaim that these are mere wall - what is important is what is inside.

Suggestions for Strengthening
We need to search for methods which will strengthen our bond with the site of the Temple, methods which will be acceptable to the entire nation of Israel. We must come up with a plan for strengthening which allows for everyone to participate without clashing. I suggest that we organize increased walks around the Temple Mount. We must bring people to these walls and allow them to pray while looking down at the Mount. Seeing makes a strong impact. God allowed Moses to see the land of Israel without allowing him to enter. Seeing in itself is an important act, even without entering. During the three pilgrim Festivals Jews would journey up to Jerusalem in order to see, and the act seeing affects us. When a Jew looks out at the Temple Mount, the place of the Temple, he is impacted. On the southern wall of the Temple Mount there are some stones which were tread upon by Mishnaic Sages. It is quite a feeling to walk upon the very stones that the great Sages of the Second Temple walked. One must experience it, feel it, internalize it...
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