If you pause to think about it, Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz is an odd fast day. Mishnah Ta’anit 5;6 tells us of five tragedies that happened on the 17th of Tammuz, and five on the Ninth of Av. Still, we tell ourselves and our children that we fast on the 17th of Tammuz because the walls of Jerusalem were breached, leading to three weeks of fighting before the Temple was destroyed.

But once we know the Temple was destroyed, why fast separately over the breaching of the walls? We understand the separate fast day for the tenth of Tevet, since that was the beginning of the siege, the first firm indication that destruction was a possibility. But what makes the breaching of the walls worth a fast of its own?

I think the approach to the answer to that question requires us first to remember a statement of Rambam’s in Hilchot Ta’aniyot¸ Laws of Fast Days. While I do not know of sources that disagree, I have met many Jews today who resist absorbing the lesson of this paragraph. In 5;1, Rambam introduces the fasts we all know by saying

יש שם ימים שכל ישראל מתענים בהם מפני הצרות שאירעו בהן כדי לעורר הלבבות ולפתוח דרכי התשובה ויהיה זה זכרון למעשינו הרעים ומעשה אבותינו שהיה כמעשינו עתה עד שגרם להם ולנו אותן הצרות, שבזכרון דברים אלו נשוב להיטיב שנאמר +ויקרא כ”ו+ והתודו את עונם ואת עון אבותם וגו’….

There are days when all Israel fasts due to the troubles that occurred to them on those days, to arouse the hearts and open the ways of repentance, and it shall be a memory of our evil deeds and those of our forefathers that were like ours now, until it caused them and us those troubles, for in remembering these matters, we will return to be good, as it says (Vayikra 26;40) ‘they shall articulate their sins and the sins of their forefathers…

Note, first, that Rambam is comfortable with asserting that our deeds are what lead to our troubles; further, that those troubles came by virtue of the deeds of that generation, and that we continue those deeds themselves. This is not the generic “we should repent” that we often hear, and certainly not a call to learn more Torah, say more Tehillim, or do more acts of kindness (meritorious as those all are). Rambam unhesitatingly connects the troubles to the deeds that preceded them, and sees as the first step of ridding ourselves of those troubles that we articulate what we did wrong. The way out of these troubles, the way to arouse our hearts and open the paths of repentance, starts with recognizing what we did wrong.

What Makes This Day Different

That implies that each fast has its own character, its own sins that led up to it, and its own path of repentance to get out of it. For Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz, it suggests that the five tragedies of the day revolve around a central sin or type of sin. To experience the fast properly, to have it in fact arouse our hearts in the proper way, we need to know what links these tragedies, so that we can resolve to do better at that in the future.

To review, the five events the Mishnah focuses on are: the breaking of the Tablets, the cessation of the daily sacrifice (in the first Temple or perhaps during times of civil war in the second), the breaching of the walls (in the second Temple), the burning of a Torah scroll, and the placing of an idol in the main room of the Temple. What do these have in common?

The answer lies, I think, in what came before. Moshe came down the mountain after forty days receiving the Torah, after the Jews had heard Hashem speak directly to them and then having spent the time waiting for Moshe’s return, only to find the Golden Calf. The heights to which the Jews had reached, the crowns they had been given to mark their receipt of the Torah, it had all been lost. The breaking of the Tablets expressed the loss of what had come before.

Moving to the next one: for hundreds of years, twice a day, the Jewish people offered a communal sacrifice to Hashem. Day in, day out, the entire time the Temple stood. Until the 17th of Tammuz, when they no longer could. The same is true of the burning of the Torah and placing an idol—that which had been well-accepted until that point, that which had been basic and fundamental to an aspect of national existence (the sanctity of the Torah, the immunity of the Temple to idolatry) had been broken.

The walls had been breached. The modes of life that had until then seemed solid and unbreakable had been sundered. That, as I understand it, is the tragedy of Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz. And it differs from the Ninth of Av, because it wasn’t the total destruction that came on that day, it was a significant step along the way.

What We Mourn

The important difference of 17 Tammuz was that it was not yet the end; had it been the end, had it been a step along an inevitable road, I think we would have let it be swallowed up in Tish’ah be-Av. Our according it its own day tells me that it is separate, that the breach that occurred on that day was not the end, it was a significant stopping point along the way. Where matters might have turned out differently.

When Moshe broke the Tablets, he guided the people in mourning, spent forty days praying for them to avoid annihilation, and then another forty preparing for the second Tablets. From the depths of the sin came the new path, the path of the second Tablets (and the Mishkan, a different discussion).

When the daily sacrifice stopped, it is not clear that such a rethinking took place. If it was in the first Temple, when Yirmiyahu was calling for the Jews to surrender, they obviously did not listen to him. If it was during the civil wars (as Tiferet Yisrael suggests), there is no evidence that that served as the wakeup call it needed to be.

And when the walls were breached. Did the Jews of the time realize that the jig was up, surrender and hope the Romans would spare the Temple? Or did they stick with their resistance, insist that the only option was to keep fighting, to keep hoping, to keep doing what they had been doing?

Taking a New Path When the Old One is No Longer Viable

The fast of Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz, I am suggesting, is a fast of the failure to see when a change is needed. When do we admit to ourselves that the path we have followed until now has either been wrong, or has been so irretrievably broken that we can no longer take it?

To make it clear: this will never be easy, because the path we are talking about is a path we have followed, and that has seemed right and good to us, for a very long time. The Jews had offered the daily sacrifice for four hundred years when it stopped; the walls of Jerusalem had not been breached in a long time, the Torah was not generally burnt, and an idol had never been in the sanctuary.

Our instinct, in all those situations (and others) is to insist that we will rebuild, we’ll put it back the way it was. I was struck, years ago, by a responsum of the Chavot Yair in which he speaks about his community holding fast to their customs because they still expected to go back from the exile that had been imposed on them. Meaning that these Jews had become so attached to where they were living, that when they were kicked out, they spent years hoping to make it back there (even though “there” was a town in Eastern Europe, a stop like any other on the road of exile).

That’s as a communal matter, but it comes up in personal issues as well. When we face health issues, or job issues, or communal issues, how often do we say, “must be time to switch gears”? I know of some people who have and do, and it’s always remarkable to see, because it’s so difficult to do. Most of us insist that we have to fight this and make our way back to what was before.

But part or most of the message of this fast, I maintain, is that we have to recognize times when what was can no longer be. We have the examples in the Mishnah from history; to me, they suggest that anytime there is a surprising and not easily fixed break with the past, we are supposed to reconsider our way forward, and choose carefully how we go. Because that break from the past is a call to change, which we ignore at our peril. But which, if we pay attention to it, can do for us what Moshe Rabbenu did after the sin of the Golden Calf—secure forgiveness and a new road, not the same as the old one, but a viable and productive one on which to walk towards our future.