17th of Tammuz: A Fast for Walls?

“Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and men from Judah, and I inquired of them about the Jews who had survived, who remained of the captivity, and about Jerusalem… They said to me, ‘The remaining ones, who remained of the captivity there in the province (of Judah), are in great humiliation; the wall of Jerusalem is breached, and its gates have been set afire.”

“And thus, when I heard these words, I sat and wept and grieved for days, I fasted and prayed before the God of heavens…” –Nehemiah 1:2-4

In the Jewish year, there comes a time of traditional mourning, starting in the month of Av (usually around late July or August), in which we mourn for the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The ninth of Av is historically a very bad time in our history. It was on this date that World War One started, which led to World War Two and the Holocaust with it. It was the date which the Spanish Inquisition began, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and again the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, as well as the exact date in which the spies from the book of Numbers gave their bad report about the Land of Israel, and thus the generation had to embark on a forty-year wandering in the wilderness. Thus, it’s no wonder that we observe a 24-hour fast of mourning on that day.

Obviously, the Ninth of Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year, and yet, the three weeks of quasi-mourning leading up to it start with the 17th of Tammuz, a day in which we fast from morning until evening. With such a big day of mourning for the Temple and other events in our history, why is it that we still observe a fast on the 17th of Tammuz, commemorating the day in which both Babylonians and Romans broke through the walls of Jerusalem? Perhaps just as important a question to ask, what is the difference between the two fast days?

In order for us to get an answer to these questions, we have to go back in time to the era of walled cities and their symbolism in the ancient world. We already see the above reference from Nehemiah in which he says, “I sat and wept and grieved for days…” But again, why? We get a hint at the above verse, that those who “remained in captivity in the province (of Judah), are in great humiliation…” Why mention this? Thank you Captain Obvious, people who got conquered are humiliated. Turning to other news, the sky is blue. Why include that in the report?

Because their humiliation had to do with the broken walls. Back in the ancient world, walls represented a very strong aspect of national strength and sovereignty. A city could be a city, but there was really no security to it unless it had a wall, and no one wants to reside in a city without a strong aspect of security. A people could be conquered, but to have a city without walls meant true humiliation and vulnerability.  Decades before Nehemiah’s time, the Babylonian armies had broken down the walls of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and destroyed the First Temple. Afterwards, the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian, and still the Jews who resided near or in Jerusalem knew no security, because the city had no walls. This meant that their neighbors could take complete advantage of them. Indeed, the book of Nehemiah makes mention of dealing with their troublesome neighbors time and time again. This also meant that if the Temple was to be rebuilt, it could potentially be raided at the will of any large gang who so desired to do so. In other words, for any Jews living in Judah at this time, sovereignty and security was only a distant dream.

Are we beginning to see the connection? In order for Jews to achieve their mission on earth, sovereignty and security is a must. Perhaps it is not too far off to say that had there not been Nehemiah the Jewish builder who got his hands dirty building the wall, with a “hammer in one hand, and a sword in the other,” there could never have been an Ezra the Scribe and the Men of the Great Assembly. There never would have been a return of Jewish courts and national law, which is our foundation of the renewal of Torah life on earth. There never would have been a reigniting of our great connection to Hashem after seventy years of exile. Even after the destruction of the Second Temple, there never would have been the laying a foundation for the nation of Israel for maintaining that connection while in our long, two-thousand year exile. The walls of Jerusalem were of imperative importance.

Indeed, in some particular Jewish prayer books, in the eighteen blessings that are said three times a day, before we say the blessing that says, “Blessed are you HaShem, builder of Jerusalem,” there is in smaller print a meditative instruction to pray for the future (Or present?) “Messiah son of Joseph,” a leader and/or spirit of the nation that has been said in some circles to lay a national and sovereign foundation before Messiah son of David comes.

Thus it is that even these days, while we as a nation have more strength and sovereignty than we have had for the past two-thousand years, we still remember the day that the walls fell and the world’s greatest loss happened three weeks later with the fall of the Temple. Because it is through our G-d-given political sovereignty and protection that our connection to Hashem and our being a light unto the nations can truly flourish, just like it was for Nehemiah to build the walls as a protection for the renewal of the Temple Service that was to come. As George Orwell so potently said it, “People sleep safely in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” We lost our sovereignty and security when we lost the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz.

May Hashem continue to build and protect the walls of Jerusalem, and may we always remember the great loss of the walls during this time of mourning.

About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He works in the City of David, and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and daughter.
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