Celebrate the 17th of Tammuz

I ate breakfast today, on the (postponed) fast of the 17th of Tammuz. If you could see my waistline, that would not surprise you. And those that know me well – the foodie that I am — know that I miss meals as often as there are solar eclipses. So, what makes this breakfast different from all other breakfasts?

Today is the 17th of Tammuz. A Jewish day of fasting. I woke up fully aware of the date and the required fast as I poured the granola into my yogurt. It is a day that I believe we no longer need to recognize, observe and especially refrain from food on. Let them eat cake!

A little history: The 17th of Tammuz begins three weeks of mourning in Jewish tradition that culminate on the 9th of Av. It comes from the historical teaching that on this date the Romans encircled the city of Jerusalem and breached its walls. Within three weeks’ time they advanced to the Temple Mount and destroyed the temple that housed our sacrifices and served as the focal point of our prayer and ritual. Two-thousand years ago — that was a sad day.

A lot of time has passed since then. We have evolved. Today, we have established countries, cultures, customs, foods, habits, stereotypes and a homeland. We have lost wars and won them; been oppressed and even oppressors. We have lived and learned. Our history has shaped our destiny in profound ways. But, we are back in the city we mistakenly lament on this day and for the next three weeks, and I can’t be a part of its mourning. What is there to grieve about, cry over, and tear our clothes for? What is so sad here?

Time to move on? A scene from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Time to move on? A scene from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Jerusalem is bustling, vibrant and packed with coffee shops and study houses. Walk the streets of this town and the dreams of Moses and Joshua, Akiba and Ben Gurion seem to blend into one reality. A land where the religious can believe freely, where the secular can fully choose, and where anyone in between has an address and can share their brand with others. Here buildings are leaping up from the ground. Culture, fashion, foods and wines are as sophisticated as New York and Paris and Moscow. This place is being born, not being mourned.

Close your eyes to those sights in Jerusalem and you will hear clanks of cranes and dump trucks erecting the latest structure, while in the background the dialogue — often mistaken for bickering (Israeli style, where you scream and get red-faced and then go out for coffee together) — about a myriad of topics, from who is a Jew to which characteristics our esteemed public officials are missing, to who makes a better tasting burekas – Mifgash Hasheck in Talpiyot or Hyman in Mahane Yehuda — hums along with the orchestra of the buses and street musicians and beggars asking for a coin.

These are the sounds of a city that is alive and beating.

These are the sights of a city that shares its pulse with anyone who walks its history-laden streets. It’s infectious. Thank God! These sights and sounds are the proof of a narrative that we have never experienced in our 2,000-year history.

And how do we celebrate that? By fasting. By crying. By remembering the town that was destroyed even though it has since been rebuilt and is a living, breathing, animated miracle. Those that mourn during this period do so for stones and not souls; for temples and not for creatures. Is that something to mourn for? Especially when those stones are the foundation of a city whose air ripples with steamed milk and honey?

Stop fasting on this day. Don’t mourn for the next three weeks. Eat! Eat a lot. Eat chocolate rugelach from the Marzipan bakery. Drink ice coffee from Aroma. Inhale the air and laugh at the stray cats jumping from one trash can to another with swagger and arrogance. Remember what this day was, and more importantly what it is – a celebration of our journey and our arrival.

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Editor’s note: The opening sentence was changed to reflect the fact that the fast was postponed by a day this year to accommodate the Sabbath.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.