The fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz is the only fast that mourns something that did not happen on that day. Sure, plenty of bad things happened on the 17th of Tamuz, the Mishna ( Ta’anit, chapter 4) spells them out in great detail:
“There were five events that happened to our ancestors on the seventeenth of Tammuz: The tablets were shattered; The tamid (daily) offering was canceled; The [walls] of the city were breached; And Apostomos burned the Torah, and placed an idol in the Temple.“
All these tragic events, took place at various points in history; the shattering of the tablets in the time of Moses, the cessation of the daily offering in the year 64 BCE during the Hasmonean civil war between supporters of King Alexander Yannai and Queen Shlomtzion’s two sons, the walls breached when the Romans crushed the Great Rebellion and destroyed the Second Temple. There is a debate as to when exactly the last two events, Apostomos burning the Torah and the placement of an idol in the Temple, took place.
Yet none of these reasons is the full reason for fasting on the 17th of Tammuz. A little-known fact about the 17th of Tamuz is that it had an earlier incarnation on a different day. The book of Zechariah describes a heartbreaking episode that took place in Babylon, not long after the destruction of the First Temple. In a heart-rending incident, combining hope and despair, the elders expelled from Jerusalem to Babylon, ask Zechariah if there is any hope. God tells Zechariah to
“address this inquiry to the priests of the House of God and to the prophets: “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” (Zechariah, chapter 7)
In other words, the elders of the Jewish people wanted to know if they should hope at all. Should they fast and mourn the destruction of the First Temple, or has all hope been lost, and can their memory of the Temple and an independent national Jewish identity be relegated to the past? Is it time for them to move on?
“Thus said God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.”
The fourth Biblical month is the month of Tammuz. Yet this is not referring to the 17th of Tamuz we are familiar with; it is referring us to another fast of Tamuz we are less familiar with:
“[king] Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, King Nebuchadrezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. They besieged it and built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day of the fourth month, the famine had become acute in the city; there was no food left for the common people. Then [the wall of] the city was breached…” (Jeremiah chapter 52)
The similarities cannot be overstated. Just a few days—and a few hundred years— apart, the walls of the city of Jerusalem have been breached; in the time of the First Temple, it was on the 9th of Tammuz, whereas four hundred and ninety years later, during the Time of the Second Temple, it was on the 17th of Tamuz. The destruction of both Temples took place on the exact same ominous day: the 9th of Av—Tisha Be’Av.
After the destruction of the First Temple and being expelled to Babylon decided to fast; not only did they fast on the day of its destruction, but they also mourned the day the walls were breached. Centuries later, as the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached, the city set ablaze, and the people of Jerusalem expelled the Jewish people started fasting again—this time on a different day. The similarities were striking. Once again, a fast in the month of Tamuz, once again mourning the walls of the city being penetrated by the enemy.
Yet while the penetration of walls spells catastrophe to a city which draws its protection from thick walls, at the same time, there is no calamity in the mere destruction of a wall. Why is it then that the Jews of the First Temple and the Second Temple and the Second Temple established a fast for something that in and of itself can be harmless.
To answer this we must understand that while sometimes we mourn an end, this time we mourn the beginning. The verse in Eicha (1:3) says:” All her pursuers overtook her In the narrow places—Bein Hametzrim.” The Midrash on Eicha explains this is talking about the days between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av.
There are various customs limiting joy and celebration during these days, days which have come to be known as “the three weeks”. When we fast on the 17th of Tammuz, we do not fast merely for the breaching of the walls; we acknowledge the impending sense of doom.
This is why during the time of the Second Temple, Jews did not fast on the 9th of Tammuz as they had done when they were in Babylon, although they did continue to fast on the 9th of Av. The fast of Tammuz is a way for us to contextualize the beginning of the tragedy. It is an acknowledgment that destruction has begun. This is why after the destruction of the Second Temple, the date of the fast was moved a few days over as the fast was reinstituted. It is at this time that we mark the impending destruction of everything that comes with it.
But there is also a positive side to this.
The great American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said once: “every wall is a door.”
With the breaching of the all, there is also a blessing. Rabbi Meir Horowitz of Dzhikov in his book Imray Noam explains that just as the fast of Tammuz marks the destructive breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in the past, the day will come when this month will symbolize the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem as the city is built into a world-famous metropolitan.
As we fast the 17th of Tammuz and enter the period of the three weeks of mourning, let us remember that every wall is a door, let us remember that with every destruction comes the process of building, and let us remember that if we want to rebuild as a nation we must correct our past mistakes. The rabbis teach us that Jerusalem was destroyed because of “baseless hatred”. Let us begin a time of being less judgmental, embracing others who disagree with us, and adding kindness into everything we do.