Beit Midrash

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

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

Shivah Asar B’Tammuz

Breaking the Tablets, Mending the Tablets

The Mishnah teaches us that the tablets were broken on the 17th of Tamuz as a result of the building of the Golden Calf. Rav Kook explains that if we understand the essence of idolatry we can find a way to mend the broken tablets.


Rabbi Gideon Weitzman

2 min read
Reasons for the Fast
The seventeenth day of the month of Tammuz is a fast day. The rabbis state several reasons why this is the case and explain what it is that we fast for. They wrote: "Five events occurred to our forefathers on the 17th of Tammuz: the Tablets were broken, the eternal sacrifice was stopped, the city [of Jerusalem] was breached, Apastomus burned the Torah and erected an idol in the Temple" (Ta’anit 4:6).

Four of the reasons are connected to the Beit HaMikdash and to Jerusalem. The eternal sacrifice stopped being offered, the Torah was burned, and an idol was erected in the Temple. The city of Jerusalem itself was breached and it lay vulnerable to the final attack and destruction.

The eternal sacrifice was offered twice daily for the entire time that the Jewish people had a Temple in which to serve God. "God said to Moshe, ‘Command the children of Israel and tell them of My sacrifice, My bread for My fire, My pleasant smell you shall observe to offer Me in its time. Tell them that this is the fire offering that you shall offer to God, a year-old unblemished sheep twice daily for an eternal offering. One sheep in the morning and the other in the afternoon’" (BeMidbar 28:1-4).

This sacrifice represented an eternal link with God. During the time that the Beit HaMikdash was in active use there were two daily opportunities to communicate with God in this fashion. The beauty of this sacrifice was that it was eternal, twice every single day, in the morning and in the evening. Day in, day out, the Jew was able to link with his Creator through the medium of the eternal offering.

Then, during the First Temple period, the offerings ceased due to the siege on Jerusalem (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:2). The eternal link was broken, the sacrifices were no longer constant. This was obviously a day that signaled disaster, and had ramifications above and beyond the specific sacrifice. It represented a fracture in the relationship between God and His chosen people.

This day became a sad and tragic one, a time that spelled ill for the Jewish people and for their city, their Temple, and their relationship with God. During the Second Temple period the walls of Jerusalem were broken and the city lay open for conquest and destruction.

When the city and the Temple became defiled and exposed, the evil Greek Apastomus burned the Torah and erected an idol in the Temple itself. There is a discussion among the rabbis as to whether Apastomus both burned the Torah and placed the idol in the Second Temple. There is an opinion that he just burned the Torah and the idol refers to the idol set up by Menashe, the wicked Jewish king during the period of the First Temple (see Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 4:5).

All four of these events are reasons for the fast connected with the Beit HaMikdash and occurred during the time of the First or Second Temple. However, the first reason mentioned is apparently not connected with the Temple and took place at a much earlier date. Why did the rabbis link the breaking of the Tablets with the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash?

Building the Golden Calf, Breaking the Tablets
When we examine the events leading up to the breaking of the Tablets that God gave Moshe on Sinai, we read how Moshe ascended Har Sinai to receive the Torah directly from God Himself. He spent forty days and nights on Mount Sinai and, during that time, the people became impatient and agitated.

"The people saw that Moshe was late coming down from the mountain and they gathered around Aharon and said to him, ‘Make us a god that will lead us, as we do not know what has happened to that man Moshe who took us out of Egypt’" (Shemot 32:1).

The result of this demand by some of the camp of Israel was the Golden Calf. The people built an idol and they offered sacrifices to their handiwork and served it.

"God said to Moshe, ‘Go down as your people that you brought out of Egypt have become ruined. They quickly left the path that I commanded them and they have made a calf for themselves. They have bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and claimed that this is their god who took them out of the land of Egypt’" (ibid., 32:7-8).

Moshe took the Tablets that contained God’s law and hurried back to the camp to see for himself what was going on. "When he came close to the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moshe became very angry. He threw the Tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain" (ibid., 32:19). According to the Gemara, that day was the 17th of Tammuz and it is one of the reasons for the fast.

When the rabbis grouped together these five reasons for the fast of Tammuz, they were indicating that the root cause of all of these events was the same. Were it not for the sin of the Golden Calf, Jerusalem would never have fallen and the Temple would not have been destroyed. This is reflected in the words of the Gemara: "There is no calamity in the world that does not contain some measure of payment for the Golden Calf" (Sanhedrin 102a and see Rashi ad loc.; also Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 4:5). Every national tragedy that befalls the Jewish people is in part a punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf. However, we could explain that there is a more intrinsic connection between the Golden Calf and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash.

Why Idols?
Elsewhere I have written about the fine line that exists between worshiping God and using religious fervor and feeling to turn away from God.1 Those who felt a particular closeness to God were also led astray to worship idols. This explains why today we do not really have an inclination to serve other gods and to make idols. In the same way that we do not have the same religious yearnings for God that our forefathers had, so, too, we do not have the same desire to make gods and to bow down to them. This has both a positive and a negative side. In the positive we do not serve idols, but in the negative we do not always serve God as we should.

In his poem about the month of Tammuz, Rav Kook wrote, "In every generation the Golden Calf will encompass the breaking of the Tablets of Testimony." The Rav implies that every generation has its own Golden Calf. In some generations it is an actual idol, in others it is things that people worship and are subservient to. We are ruled by money, by power, by fashion, by the pursuit of pleasure. We associate these concepts with a life force of their own and allow them to dictate how we live our lives.
Through our "new idols" the Tablets are broken in every generation. These idols prevent us from serving only God and serving Him properly. Every generation has a small measure of the Golden Calf, as every generation has its own particular form of idolatry.

Is there hope that eventually we can shed the yoke of idolatry? Can we find any indication in the sources for a method to find our way back to God and to Divine service?

Killing the Idols
There is a fascinating passage of Gemara that discusses an event that occurred during the Second Temple period. The Gemara answers an interesting question. Let us assume that we do still have certain tendencies to idolatry, but these are only to serve items similar to the idols, but not actual idols. How is it that we do not find the masses serving idols anymore?

The Gemara explains this using a metaphoric story about how the rabbis slew the evil inclination to serve idols.

"The rabbis fasted for three days and three nights and a fiery lion came out of the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies. A prophet said, ‘This is the evil inclination to serve idolatry,’" and they eventually managed to overcome it and kill it.

"Since this is a time of mercy let us also do away with the evil inclination for sexual immorality as well." They asked for mercy and the inclination was given over to them. They said that if they would kill it then the world would be finished and so they held it captive for three days. They looked for an egg [that they needed to prepare a particular medicine] and could not find one in the whole Land of Israel.

"What should we do? If we kill it then the world will be destroyed, if we ask from Heaven for partial destruction of the inclination such a thing will not be granted us." They blinded its eyes with dye and they let it go. This was effective so that one does not have sexual attraction for relatives (Yoma 69b).

The Gemara here describes the roots of idolatry and suggests a way to overcome it. The rabbis fasted and prayed that God should allow them to overcome their greatest enemy, the inclination for worshiping other gods. When we look at the stories of the Tanach and throughout the early history of the Jewish people we are struck by how much they were plagued by idol worship. It was rampant and so widespread that when the rabbis were given this opportunity to eradicate one problem they chose to kill the inclination for idolatry.

They were given the chance to overcome the inclination and it appeared to them as a lion of fire. The inclination is dangerous, it is fiery and fierce. It is powerful like a lion and destructive like fire. But, like fire, it can be tamed and guided to be very useful in our lives.

When they later attempted to kill another vice in our lives, the inclination for sexual immorality, they were faced with a terrible dilemma. The world needs to continue and this is dependent on it being populated. The world is populated and driven by the inclination for procreation and sexual activity. This is the positive side of that urge. The rabbis beautifully describe the tension that the Sages experienced, between their desire to make a better world and their realization that this goal may be out of reach. So they did the best that they could and settled for limiting the inclination.

Out of the Holy of Holies
What is truly remarkable about the passage is that the rabbis stated that the lion came out of the Holy of Holies. The place that is the holiest site in the world contains the ultimate in sanctity, the Tablets of the Covenant. In addition, it contains the fiery lion of idolatry. Rav Kook explained that the rabbis wanted to convey to us an important message about Divine service.

Both true service of God and false, forbidden worship come from the same source. They both emanate from a desire to be spiritual and to bring that spirituality as close to us as possible. Both the Tablets of the Law and the fiery lion of idolatry reside in the Kodesh HaKodashim.

This should make us realize how careful we need to be when we come to define normative liturgical practice. Even though we may feel that we are performing the right deeds and serving God in the most correct way possible, we have to be careful not to step over the line to idolatry.

When Moshe came down from the mountain and saw that the people had broken the rule against idolatry he needed to act. He understood that if they served the Calf they would be unable to comprehend the Tablets as well, and so he smashed them to pieces. When religious rite is misplaced it has to be curtailed and limited. Moshe broke the Tablets and later the rabbis killed the inclination to idolatry.

Rav Kook explains that the timing of this story in the Gemara is essential. When the rabbis killed the inclination to idolatry they also seriously affected the permitted desire for serving God. When idolatry ceased, so did prophecy. When the burning desire to be close to God stopped, the communication with God ended as well. In a situation where the people were consumed with a love of God we had prophecy but we also suffered from the desire to worship idols. When you take away the idolatry you curtail prophecy.

Therefore the rabbis said that the 17th of Tammuz was the day that the tablets were broken and this was the day on which the activity in the Temple stopped as well. The Beit HaMikdash was the forum for our communication with God. When the Tablets were broken, this connection was severed.

Mending the Tablets
Can we somehow serve God without having to suffer from the desire for idolatry? The fact that love of God and heresy come from the same source should tell us that we can tame the fiery lion of idolatry. If idolatry were a force of pure evil, then we would have to run away from it as we run from destructive fire. But the fire of idol worship comes from the Holy of Holies and can be directed to the service of God as well.

Idolatry is taking the physical and worshiping it, raising it to the level of a god, a divine being. This is forbidden, and we are prohibited from imagining God as a physical being or making a physical likeness of Him. (See Shemot 20:3, the commandment not to make idols, which is one of the Ten Commandments.) However, we should not conclude from this prohibition that we are not to use the physical world around us. In fact, the opposite is true; we are commanded to utilize the physical world in order to serve God. All of the mitzvot that we have are performed using physical objects. We wear tefillin, we eat matzah, we give money to charity, and so on.

Nowhere is this felt more than in the Land of Israel. This is a physical land that has attached to it a large number of mitzvot. We are commanded to live in the Land, to give from its fruit to the cohanim and to the poor. We are told to leave the produce that grows in the corners of the fields and not to work the land every seven years. All of these are physical mitzvot connected to a physical land. Through these actions we sanctify the physical world, we elevate the world to Divine service. Such is the Land of Israel.

This is what Rav Kook meant when he wrote, "The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise, it illuminates the soul to comprehend the unity of the world. In Israel we feed from the light of the wisdom of Israel, from the essence of the spiritual life that is specific to Israel. This perspective in its essence is the overcoming of the unified world over the divided world. This is the basis for the defeat of idolatry" (Orot HaKodesh, Volume II, page 423). In Israel we have to learn how to take the physical world and fuse it with the spiritual world. In doing so we overcome idolatry. This is the unity of the world, the unity of the physical with the spiritual.

When Moshe saw the people worshiping idols, he broke the Tablets of the Law that God had given him. This was on the 17th of Tammuz. Moshe then went up the mountain again and received a new set of Tablets and brought these to the Jewish people. The second time was more successful and the people were ready to accept and uphold these laws.

The Gemara presents an argument as to what exactly was contained in the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant. One of the Sages is of the opinion that only the second set of Tablets was kept in the Aron. The other opinion is that not only was the second set of Tablets placed there but so were the broken pieces of the first set of Tablets (See Baba Batra 14b). If the Aron was to contain the law, then it made sense to store the second set of Tablets there. But why should the people also put the broken stones of the first Tablets there?

The Gemara taught us a great lesson here about our fight against our own form of idolatry. Moshe not only stored the law itself, but he gave the people the potential to overcome idolatry that was symbolized by the broken pieces of the first Tablets. The Tablets were broken because the people had built the Golden Calf, and that was forbidden, but the potential for Divine service was stored in that misguided act as well. The Tablets represent the law, the broken pieces represent the great potential to serve God.

The 17th of Tammuz begins the sad period of the three weeks that ends with the fast of the 9th of Av. This is a time to consider mistakes of our history and to start correcting them. The rabbis taught us that it all started with invalid Divine service. Let us find the path back to true worship of God, through His Torah, in His Holy Land.

Rabbi Gideon Weitzman is the Head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with the Halacha. He studied for many years in Yeshivat Beit El and teaches in various educational institutions.

This essay is taken from his second book, "In Those Days, At This Time - Essays on the Festivals Based on the Philosophy of Rav Kook." The book is available in bookstores or directly from the author. Contact him at:[email protected]

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