THOUGHTS ON THE FAST OF 17 TAMMUZ
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
17 Tammuz 5782
Fasting for the Korban TamidDuring the Babylonian captivity (586-515 BCE), Jewish exiles commemorated the destruction of the Holy Temple and the First Commonwealth with a series of four fasts. We cannot be certain what particular aspect of Judah’s downfall was commemorated by each such fast. We are also uncertain of their precise calendrical dates; we know only in which months the fasts were held. With the rebuilding of the Temple, there arose the important question whether to continue the mourning rituals associated with the destruction. Zechariah provides a highly ambiguous answer. After admonishing the Jews to repent and behave more justly toward one another, he wrote, “The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons; therefore, love ye truth and peace (8:19).” What inference should we draw from this statement? On the one hand, Zechariah refers to the days in question as fasts; on the other, the prophet predicts their future transformation into festivity. The accepted halakhic interpretation is that of Rav Papa: “When there is peace (שלום), these days will be for joy and gladness. When there is persecution (שמד), these days remain as fasts. When there is neither peace nor persecution, the fasts become voluntary (Rosh Hashanah 18b).” Peace and persecution are, of course, amorphous terms. The commentators struggled to find a precise legal definition. The consensus of the overwhelming majority of Rishonim is that commemorative fasts were not observed during the Second Temple era (Rashi, Tosfot, Ramban, Tur, Meiri, Tashbetz). So long as that Temple stood -- and despite several rounds of political turmoil and associated carnage -- technically the era was a “peaceful” one. Maimonides believed that the Second Temple era was of intermediate status -- neither an era of peace nor one of persecution. In his opinion, Tisha b’Av remained an obligatory fast, while the other fasts became optional (Mishnah Commentary Rosh Hashanah 1:3). The opinion of the Rishonim is ultimately of limited value in answering our historical question. This is because the classical commentators relied on the exegetical analysis of a fourth century Amora to determine what had happened nine hundred years earlier. In contrast, modern scholars and historians look for more concrete documentary evidence of commemorative observances by Second Temple-era personalities. Yet evidence is scant and seemingly inconclusive; major figures in 20th century Judaic Studies are to be found on both sides of this debate. A brief summary of that evidence: (a) Josephus describes the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 BCE as having occurred “in the third month on the day of the fast (Antiquities 14:4:66).” Some interpret this to mean the fast of 17 Tammuz. The obvious problem is that Tammuz is the fourth, not the third, month. Since no traditional fast is scheduled for Sivan (the third month), there is plainly much room for speculation. (b) Rabbi Elazar ben Zadok reported that on one occasion his family did not complete the fast of Tisha b’Av because it was their day to bring the Wood Offering (קרבן עצים) and, thus, a private half-holiday (Ta’anit 12a). Some point to the simultaneous observance of Tisha b’Av and the Wood Offering as evidence that commemorative fasts were indeed observed (at the very least by kohanim) during the late Second Temple era. Yet, in fact, that proves nothing, because the annual date of the discontinued Wood Offering was observed by prestigious families as a private holiday for several generations after the devastation of 70 CE. Rabbi Elazar ben Zadok was a youngster when the Temple was destroyed. He lived to beyond the time of Yavneh. Thus, the story in question could easily have occurred decades later. (c) The Mishnah records how messengers were sent six times each year to inform distant Jewish communities of the precise date of the New Month (Rosh Hashanah 1:3). One such occasion was of course Rosh Chodesh Av, so as to ensure proper observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av. The implication of one version of the text (inclusive of the word אף) is that this occurred even when the Temple stood, although other manuscripts, and the original printed edition, are to the contrary. A careful examination of the post-Second Temple era reveals conclusively that commemorative fasts were unknown, not only in the Second Temple era, but even in the subsequent half century and until the waning years of Rabbi Akiba’s life. During the first Tannaitic generation immediately after the destruction, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai enacted many pieces of rabbinic legislation to remember the Temple (זכר למקדש), none of which called for fasting or a specific mourning period on the calendar. In the second Tannaitic generation, Rabbi Joshua contended with those extreme ascetics who wanted permanently to abstain from meat and wine in the absence of the performance of the Temple sacrifices and wine libations. Rabbi Joshua instead embraced the more moderate approach of leaving a small patch of wall unfinished and withholding a small item from a bride’s adornment; these acts were to be taken as symbols of mourning our national loss (Tosefta Sotah 15:11). It will be observed that, in this debate, neither side suggested fasting. Only in the third Tannaitic generation do we find Rabbi Akiba expounding upon the ambiguous verse from Zechariah and calling for the reinstitution of fast days. The fast of the fourth month is interpreted as 17 Tammuz, when a variety of calamitous events occurred. The fast of the fifth month is interpreted as 9 Av, the day both Temples were destroyed. The fast of the seventh is interpreted as 3 Tishri, the anniversary of Gedaliah’s assassination. The fast of the tenth is interprets 10 Tevet, the day Nebuchadnezzar placed Jerusalem under siege (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 68d). Had these fasts been widely observed for centuries, it would have been impossible for anyone to contradict the dates supplied by Rabbi Akiba’s exegesis. Instead, we observe that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Akiba’s leading disciple, pompously rejected his teacher’s interpretation and claimed “the fast of the tenth” should actually be 5 Tevet, the date on which Babylonian Jewry learned of the First Temple’s demise (Ezekiel 33:21). (Rabbi Akiba’s interpretation was rejected also by the Karaites, who suggested four alternate dates, with strong Scriptural support for their opinion.) The laws of Tisha b’Av are debated in Tannaitic literature almost exclusively by sages of the fourth generation, who functioned in the Galilee after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the execution of Rabbi Akiba. Lamentations Rabbah, a homiletic Midrash, does not cite any sage from before that fourth generation. The earlier rabbis of the Yavneh period (70-132 CE) are recalled in the embellished narrative as though they were heroes of Biblical antiquity. These are all clear indicators that fasting and the chanting of Lamentations are novelties of the mid-second century CE. When the political winds shifted in the fifth Tannaitic generation, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi made a failed attempt to abolish (or at least to downplay) the commemorative fasts (Megillah 5b). This could have been contemplated only if the rituals themselves were of recent vintage and had yet to develop an emotional hold on the Jewish people. On what basis did Rabbi Akiba select 17 Tammuz as a fast day? The Mishnah lists five tragic events in Jewish history that purportedly happened on that date: The first set of tablets were shattered; the daily sacrifice (Korban Tamid) ceased to be brought; Jerusalem’s walls were breached by the enemy; Apostomus burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the Temple (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6). However, the broken tablets can be discounted as a motivating factor behind Akiba’s decision. There was no oral tradition on this matter. Complex analyses of multiple Scriptural passages are needed to try to pin down the precise date on which Moses smashed the tablets. This chronological reconstruction was developed to connect Shavuot with the Revelation at Sinai; its conclusions post-date Rabbi Akiba by a generation (Shabbat 86b). Secondly: According to the Bible, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the invading Babylonians on 9 Tammuz (Jeremiah 52:6-7). How could the Mishnah contradict Scripture? The Jerusalem Talmud offers the radical suggestion that the Bible is wrong because, as a result of chaos and the fog of war, the timeline became muddled. Talmud Bavli simply distinguishes between the First Temple, when the city’s defenses were punctured on 9 Tammuz, and the Second Temple, when essentially the same event occurred on 17 Tammuz. The problem with this answer is that it contradicts Josephus’ detailed – and eyewitness -- account of Jerusalem’s fall. Josephus writes that the first wall was captured on 7 Iyyar, followed by the capture of another wall on 16 Iyyar (War of the Jews 5:7:302, 5:8:347). Thirdly, it is unclear who Apostomus was or when he lived. Some point to the account in Josephus, where a Roman soldier was beheaded for having desecrated a Torah scroll (Antiquities 20:5:115). That incident, however, took place shortly after Passover, not on 17 Tammuz. Others point to Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon’s executioner, who wrapped him in a Torah scroll and lit the sacred parchment on fire (Avodah Zarah 18b). But tradition tells us that that event occurred on 27 Sivan, not on 17 Tammuz. Some scholars look to the Hellenistic era, when Torah scrolls were burned under the anti-Judaic regime of Antiochus Epiphanes. However, that sacrilege happened on 15 Kislev, not on 17 Tammuz (I Maccabees 1:54-56). Fourthly, the Talmud (Ta’anit 28b) directly connects the placement of an idol in the Temple with the cessation of the Korban Tamid by referencing the verse, “And from the time that the continual burnt-offering shall be taken away, and the detestable thing . . . set up (Daniel 12:11).” Yet the Talmud is uncertain who set up the “abomination of desolation,” suggesting that it might have been either Apostomus during the Second Temple era, or King Manasseh during the time of the First Temple. Fifthly: Of the five tragedies under discussion, only the cessation of the daily sacrifice (Korban Tamid) can be confirmed as having taken place on 17 Tammuz. Josephus commented that “the people were grievously troubled by it (Wars of the Jews 6:2:94).” Yet the Mishnah’s list of five tragedies can readily be explained. The original Fast of Tammuz was on 9 Tammuz and commemorated the 6th century BCE breach of Jerusalem’s walls. The renewed Fast of Tammuz commemorated the permanent cessation of the daily sacrifice. A prior, temporary cessation of that sacrifice in the Hellenistic era was accompanied by the destruction of Torah scrolls and the placement of an idolatrous image in the Sanctuary. And because it is often considered desirable by the sages (both in the Talmud and, especially, in the Midrash) to retroject every Judaic institution to the deep Biblical past, the fast was also connected to the destruction of the tablets, given that that event could reasonably be associated with that same date. It now becomes clear why Rabbi Akiba turned 17 Tammuz into a day of fasting and mourning. More than any other sage, Rabbi Akiba expounded upon the Tamid section found in this week’s Torah reading (Numbers 28:1-8) to derive legal and homiletic points. Commenting on the verse, “It is a continual burnt-offering, which was offered on Mount Sinai (28:6),” he emphasized that after its first observance on the morrow of the Revelation it never ceased to be brought (Hagigah 6b). Korban Tamid represents an unbreakable bond between God and Israel that is reinforced daily. Loss of that symbol could lead some to believe that that relationship had been discontinued and that Israel had been superseded, in terms of God’s favor, by another, different people. Accordingly, the loss of the daily sacrifice can be considered to be almost on a par with the burning down of Israel’s sanctuary to God, the Temple. The overall lesson for us today is that our service of God must be perpetual. There are no days off in the religious life of the observant Jew. If we desire to receive the Almighty’s constant love and attention, we must be willing to -- and must, in fact -- reciprocate.