Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The 17th of Tamuz
קטגוריה משנית
To dedicate this lesson
1. When to Start?
2. Evoking Repentance
3. Questions Nobody Asks
4. When Was the City Captured?
5. Breaking the Tablets – The Power of Repentance
6. Interrelated Calamities

When to Start?
The Talmud relates (Taanit 26b):
"Five things happened on the Seventeenth of Tammuz: The Tablets of the Covenant were broken, the daily Tamid offering was discontinued, the city walls were penetrated, Apostomos burned the Torah scroll, and he erected an idol in the Temple."

From the Seventeenth of Tammuz, we begin to observe a number of mourning practices, and this continues for three weeks, until the Ninth of Av. One question that arises is: Do we begin observing these practices from the eve of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, or from the morning?

The late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked if it is permissible to hold a wedding on the eve of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and he wrote that this question appears to hinge upon an early rabbinic dispute: Do we recite Anenu in the Maariv prayer on the eve of the fast, or not?

The Rif (Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi) says that Anenu should indeed be recited in the evening, notwithstanding the fact that the fast itself does not begin until morning, and he brings support for his position from the Jerusalem Talmud. The Ma’or (Rabbi Zerachia ben Yitzchak HaLevi Gerondi), however, disagrees and explains that the Jerusalem Talmud holds that even the fast begins from the evening, but according to the Babylonian Talmud the fast starts from the morning, and therefore Anenu is recited in the morning prayers, not in the prayers of the preceding evening.

The Ran (Rabbi Nissim Gerondi) rejects the proofs brought by the Rif, but he brings other proofs in the name of the Ramban to the effect that the evening already has the status of "Taanit" (day of affliction):

"According to the Torah, a ‘day’ begins in the evening and ends in the evening, but [in the case of the minor fasts the sages] ruled leniently, declaring that it is sufficient for us to stop eating from the time when people generally eat, i.e., during the twelve hours of the day. Nonetheless, the affliction essentially begins in the evening, for if this were not the case it would not be forbidden to eat from the evening even if one decided that he would eat no more and went off to sleep."

The Ramban brings proof for his position from the Talmudic dispute over when the fast begins. One opinion is that it begins when a person finishes eating in the evening; a second opinion is that it begins after a person has gone to sleep. In practice, Jewish law rules leniently and demands both conditions: Only after a person decides that he is finished eating and goes to sleep is it forbidden to eat. If he wants to arise in the nighttime and eat, he must make a precondition to this effect. At any rate, this proves that affliction really begins with nightfall, and the only reason we are permitted to eat at night is that the sages made a special concession. Therefore, we must recite Anenu in the evening.

In practice, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that because what we have here is a dispute regarding a rabbinic law, it is permitted to be lenient in a time of pressing need and to marry on the eve of the Seventeenth of Tammuz.

The Ramban brings another proof that Taaniot begin from the evening: When a person takes upon himself to observe a personal Taanit, he must do so from the afternoon Mincha prayer of the preceding day. It is impossible to do so in the evening. The acceptance applies to the Taanit day per se, not to fasting, and because the day of the Taanit begins with the night, it cannot be received after it has already begun.

Evoking Repentance
What, in essence, is the purpose of our affliction? One might think that these fasts are days of mourning, days for remembering the hardships suffered by our ancestors, in the same manner that our festivals recall the joyous events of our past. Rambam, however, does not say this:

"There are days on which the entire Jewish people afflict themselves because of the calamities that occurred thereupon, and this is done in order to awaken the hearts and clear the paths to repentance. Doing this serves to remind us of our evil deeds and the deed of our forefathers, which was like our own deeds, and which was such that it brought these calamities upon them and us. Recalling these matters causes us to better ourselves, as it is written, "They shall confess their transgressions and the transgressions of their fathers.’" (Hilchot Taaniot 5:1-5)

From the above words of the Rambam, it is clear that the purpose of the fast is not to recall past tragedies, but to provide a means for "waking the hearts and clearing the paths to repentance." The Chatam Sofer notes this and, commenting on the words of the Rambam, writes:

"He has revealed to us that which would never have occurred to us, for we would have thought that these fast days are not for the purpose of repentance but for the purpose of mourning and grieving on the date of a tragedy, like rejoicing on the date of an event of good fortune.
"[That these fast days are occasions for mourning] is even somewhat implied by the Talmud (first chapter of tractate Megillah), where it is written that ‘if the Ninth of Av falls on a Sabbath, we push it off rather than move it foreword. Why? Because we do not advance calamity.’ Now if they were occasions for repentance we would certainly advance them, for ‘the zealous perform their religious duties with alacrity.’
"At any rate, the Rambam informs us that this is not the case, and based on his words it has become the custom to recite confessions and supplications on these days, for they were established for the purpose of repentance."

The Chatam Sofer continues, explaining that we must clarify what Rambam’s source is for the claim that these are days of repentance:

"However, his commentators do not tell us on what he bases himself. And on the face of things, if this is the case, how can the Prophets introduce something of which we find no semblance in the Torah?
"Now, it is perfectly acceptable to establish a day of rejoicing on an occasion of good fortune, like Chanukah or Purim. This is deduced from the Torah: If in the case of Passover, when we went from bondage to redemption, we recite songs of thanksgiving, how much more so in a case where we went from death to life. But to establish eternal mourning because of calamity – we find nothing of this kind anywhere.
"Rather, we must conclude that they were established for the purpose of repentance, as it is written, ‘They shall confess their transgressions,’ and affliction has the capacity to bring atonement and repentance, as exemplified by Yom Kippur, and the words of Rambam are correct."
"Nonetheless, I feel that this matter calls for further study, [for the Talmud states] ‘granted when there is no peace, but when there is peace [there is no need for such fasts],’ and this is an full-fledged obligation deriving from the Prophets…like the words of the Torah…and how is it that the Prophets introduced such a ruling?"

Chatam Sofer’s closing comment refers to the Talmudic text in tractate Rosh Hashanah, which says that these days call for fasting only "when there is no peace," but when peace comes these days will be occasions for joy and celebration. Chatam Sofer remains puzzled as to how the Prophets can establish these as days for joy and celebration.

Now, when it comes to the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’av, a likely explanation is that the Prophets established these as days of joy because they are by their nature holidays, but were corrupted. The Seventeenth of Tammuz was supposed to be the day of the receiving of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the Ninth of Av was the day when the Spies were supposed to return from the Land of Israel and proclaim, "The land is very good!"

Questions Nobody Asks
Every year, as the Three Weeks (of mourning over the Temple’s destruction) approach, people ask me all sorts of questions relating to the nature of mourning: What is and is not permissible in kindergartens? Can movies be watched? Fieldtrips? Swimming?

All such questions pertain to mourning practices, but nobody ever asks about what sort of paths should be followed to achieve repentance during these days! As we have said, the essence of these days is not avoiding the "Shehecheyanu" blessing and refraining from marriage; these days are supposed to stir the heart and evoke repentance, as the Rambam writes.

When Was the City Captured?
The Rambam writes that though in the First Temple period the city was penetrated on the ninth of Tammuz (as Scripture says), the sages moved the fast day to the Seventeenth of Tammuz, because our principal grief is over the Destruction of the Second Temple. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, gives a different explanation for the changed date: "There is a mistaken account here."

The "Korban HaEidah" illuminates the words of the Jerusalem Talmud: "The weight of their calamities caused them to err in their reckoning, and Scripture did not want to alter their account, as if to say, ‘I share his suffering’ (Psalms 91:15)."

The Jerusalem Talmud brings proof for its position from the verse, And it came to pass in the eleventh year, in the first day of the month, that the word of the Lord came unto me, saying: 'Son of man, because that Tyre hath said against Jerusalem: aha, she is broken that was the gate of the peoples; she is turned unto me; I shall be filled with her that is laid waste." Tzur is full of joy over the destruction of Jerusalem, and that was on the first of the month. The sages of the Jerusalem Talmud ask: Which month are we talking about here? On the first of Av the Holy Temple had not yet been burned down. By the first of Elul a long time had passed since the Temple’s destruction, and a single day is enough for word to reach Tzur from Jerusalem. We see, then, that "there is a mistaken account here."

The calamities convoluted their calculations. "R’ Yochanan said: This may be compared to a king who was busy working on some calculations. Suddenly a messenger came in and told the king that his son had been taken prisoner, and this caused the king to err in his calculations. In response, the king exclaimed, ‘Let this day become the starting point for a new reckoning.’"

Later, the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud point out that the verse in Ezekiel prophesies of the future. Now, "does a person err regarding a calamity that has not yet arrived? How, then, could Ezekiel have erred at the outset of his writing? After all, he did not know of the destruction until he himself wrote of it, as is explicit in the verse!" (Korban HaEidah).

He provides no real answer to this question. However, the continuation of his writing reveals that he does not change his assumption that even the prophecy preceding the Destruction is in keeping with the impending miscalculations – "I share his suffering."

Breaking the Tablets – The Power of Repentance
The first thing that happened on the Seventeenth of Tammuz was the breaking of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the sages say that if we had received the first tablets, death would have been uprooted from the world, the Jewish people would never have been subject to exile, and Torah study would never be forgotten. The sages explain that had the first tablets not been broken, we would have returned to that transcendent level occupied by man before the first sin, that lofty future state to which we ever aspire.

On the other hand, the Talmud tells us that the Sin of the Golden Calf occurred "in order to provide an passage for penitents." I.e., Israel did not actively pursue this sin; rather, God arranged their downfall in order to teach them the path of repentance.

Let us consider for a moment the implications of this. Were it not for the Sin of the Golden Calf, Israel would have risen to the loftiest of levels. What is more, as a result of this sin, "there is no generation that is completely free of the retribution of the Sin of the Golden Calf." Now, all of this was done in order to teach the path of repentance, to show us that it is possible to overcome even the worst of crises, for even so grave a sin as the Golden Calf allowed for repentance.

Interrelated Calamities
Everything that happened on the Seventeenth of Tammuz was a continuation of the breaking of the Tablets of the Covenant and the Sin of the Golden Calf. The burning of the Torah parallels the breaking of the tablets; the discontinuation of the daily offering and the erection of an idol in the Holy Temple correspond to the Sin of the Golden Calf.

The daily Tamid offering constitutes the center of divine service, day after day, interminably. Of all offerings, it is the single, constant sacrifice that is most important. It teaches us to endure without falling into the rut of routine, to renew oneself each day despite the monotony. Regular prayer, yet prayer that is not recited out of blind habit, is the most essential aspect of serving God. True worship is not achieved through a spiritual "high" that disappears as quickly as it comes. Rather, true service is service that is constant and unabating.

The Midrash therefore says, "This is a fundamental rule of the Torah – ‘[Offer up] one lamb in the morning.’" By serving God persistently and regularly we give expression to the true and essential service within us.
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