Rosh Hodesh Tammuz Torah Essay - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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Rosh Hodesh Tammuz Torah Essay

Yael Leibowitz

Echoes of female song

As is well known, in the pre-Babylonian era, apart from the months of Nissan (Aviv), Iyar (Ziv), Tishrei (Eitanim), and Cheshvan (Bul), the Hebrew months of the year are referred to by their numerical place in the calendar. Nisan, the month in which Israel left Egypt and became a nation was the first month, Iyar the second, and so forth. That changes though, after the Jews return from exile. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashana 1:2), the Jews bring with them the Babylonian month names, and it is those names which we still use today.

Interestingly, the name of the tenth month, Tammuz, appears in Tanakh prior to the Second Temple period. In Yehezkel 8:13-15, the prophet describes a vision in which God shows him all the abominable behaviors that are taking place in the Temple in Yerushalayim. Yehezkel recalls, for example, “all the detestable forms of creeping things and beasts and all the fetishes of the House of Israel” (verse 10).

הִנֵּה כָל תַּבְנִית רֶמֶשׂ וּבְהֵמָה שֶׁקֶץ וְכָל גִּלּוּלֵי בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מְחֻקֶּה עַל הַקִּיר סָבִיב:

He then goes on to recall that the “elders of the House of Israel” were seen declaring “the L-rd does not see us, the L-rd has abandoned the country” (verse 12).

זִקְנֵי בֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל עֹשִׂים בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אִישׁ בְּחַדְרֵי מַשְׂכִּיתוֹ כִּי אֹמְרִים אֵין יְהוָה רֹאֶה אֹתָנוּ עָזַב יְהוָה אֶת הָאָרֶץ:

And then, after witnessing those two spectacles, God tells Yehezkel to prepare to see something “even more terrible” and draws Yehezkel’s attention to the north gate of the Temple” revealing the image of Israelite women sitting and “bewailing Tammuz” (verse 14).

וַיָּבֵא אֹתִי אֶל פֶּתַח שַׁעַר בֵּית יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר אֶל הַצָּפוֹנָה וְהִנֵּה שָׁם הַנָּשִׁים יֹשְׁבוֹת מְבַכּוֹת אֶת הַתַּמּוּז:

Tammuz the Babylonian god of vegetation, dies, according to Babylonian mythology, at the beginning of every dry season. As such, he must be brought back to life annually to inaugurate the rains. Mourning rituals by women, Babylonian myth contends, plays an essential role in Tammuz’s resurrection from the netherworld. Of course, from the Biblical perspective, such a practice is intrinsically abhorrent. And the fact that Israelite women were engaged in it is exceedingly disturbing.  But if we understand the role female singers played in ancient Israelite society, we can appreciate even more fully why this specific image is revealed to Yehezkel, and what it says about the state of Israel at the time of his prophecy.

Female singers appear throughout Tanakh, fulfilling several roles within society. Among the most famous are those who sing in the aftermath of military victory. The first of this sort is Miriam who takes a timbrel and leads the women in song after God splits the Sea for the Israelites, proving His supremacy over and against Egyptian forces (Shemot 15:2-1). Devorah the prophetess sings an even more elaborate song of triumph after Yael’s killing of Siserah and Israel’s defeat of Yavin’s army (Shofetim 4-5). And of course, just prior to Yiftach’s tragic mistake, his daughter runs out to him “with timbrel and dance” eager to give him the hero’s welcome she believes he deserves (Shofetim 11).

So influential were these female singers that men in power paid attention to the content of their chants. King Shaul, for example, becomes distressed when he discovers that the women welcoming Israelite troops home from battle were doing so while singing: “Shaul has slain his thousands; David, his tens of thousands!” (1 Shmuel 18:6-7)

וַתַּעֲנֶינָה הַנָּשִׁים הַמְשַׂחֲקוֹת וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הִכָּה שָׁאוּל באלפו [בַּאֲלָפָיו] וְדָוִד בְּרִבְבֹתָיו:

The songs of the women, Shaul understands, both reflect and shape public opinion.

For that very reason, after Shaul’s death, in David’s elegy for the fallen king and his son Yonatan, David cries: “Tell it not in Gath, Do not proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon, Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult” (2 Shmuel 1:20).

אַל תַּגִּידוּ בְגַת אַל תְּבַשְּׂרוּ בְּחוּצֹת אַשְׁקְלוֹן פֶּן תִּשְׂמַחְנָה בְּנוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים פֶּן תַּעֲלֹזְנָה בְּנוֹת הָעֲרֵלִים:

The public, musical jeering of the female enemy would bring more shame to the royal family than anything else. So, in his lament, David expresses his desperate hope that such shame is not rendered.

Due to their high profile in ancient society, Israelite prophets artistically employ the image of these female singers. To encourage Hezkiyahu not to fear King Sancheriv of Assyria for example, Yishayahu depicts Yerushalayim metaphorically as a female singer rejoicing in Sancheriv’s fall: “Fair Maiden Zion despises you, She mocks at you; Fair Jerusalem shakes her head at you” (Yishayahu 37:22).

זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה עָלָיו בָּזָה לְךָ לָעֲגָה לְךָ בְּתוּלַת בַּת צִיּוֹן אַחֲרֶיךָ רֹאשׁ הֵנִיעָה בַּת יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם:

But in addition to celebratory songs, women were also known in Israel for their professional mourning skills. If words such as צעק, זעק, ילל,and  הלל, convey the act of spontaneous crying, the word בכי speaks to a more stylized, intentional expression of mourning. Such mourners do not simply express their own private pain, rather, they skillfully create an environment of mourning befitting the circumstances. In that same lament over Shaul and Yonatan, David calls on those professional mourners: “Daughters of Israel” he says to them, “Weep over Shaul” (2 Shmuel 1:24). Likewise, it is the female professional mourners who are conscripted by Yirmiyahu to elicit the appropriate emotional response to his prophecies: “Thus said the L-rd of Hosts: Listen! Summon the dirge-singers, let them come; Send the for the skilled women, let them come. Let them quickly start a wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears, our pupils flow with water.” (Yirmiyahu 9:16-17).

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת הִתְבּוֹנְנוּ וְקִרְאוּ לַמְקוֹנְנוֹת וּתְבוֹאֶינָה וְאֶל הַחֲכָמוֹת שִׁלְחוּ וְתָבוֹאנָה. יז וּתְמַהֵרְנָה וְתִשֶּׂנָה עָלֵינוּ נֶהִי וְתֵרַדְנָה עֵינֵינוּ דִּמְעָה וְעַפְעַפֵּינוּ יִזְּלוּ מָיִם:

 And, as a means of communicating the international import of his prophecy, Yehezkel proclaims: “This is a dirge, and it shall be intoned: The women of the nations shall intone it, They shall intone it forever over Egypt and all her multitude” (Yehezkel 32:16).

קִינָה הִיא וְקוֹנְנוּהָ בְּנוֹת הַגּוֹיִם תְּקוֹנֵנָּה אוֹתָהּ עַל מִצְרַיִם וְעַל כָּל הֲמוֹנָהּ תְּקוֹנֵנָּה אוֹתָהּ נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה:

For that reason, when Yehezkel sees the vision of Israelite women mourning for Tammuz, he realizes that the vision is not just about the small handful of women who happen to be performing the pagan rite. Rather, he understands, as we do now as well, that those women are both representing and impacting the hearts and minds of those left in Yerushalayim. He understands that their act reflects a deep, systemic problem, and that complete exile is an inevitability.

But just as the prophets warn of impending tragedies, they also assure us that no crisis is permanent and no suffering interminable. And in future visions of a restored Yerushalayim, the singing women manifest again. Thus, in his depiction of a rebuilt Yerushalayim, Yirmiyahu quotes God as saying: “I will build you firmly again, O Maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels and go forth to the rhythm of the dancers” (Yirmiyahu 31:4).

עוֹד אֶבְנֵךְ וְנִבְנֵית בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹד תַּעְדִּי תֻפַּיִךְ וְיָצָאת בִּמְחוֹל מְשַׂחֲקִים:

May this Tammuz, the beginning of our annual mourning for our communal losses, be the month that heralds communal nechama, and may the mourning cries of women in Israel be transformed once again into songs of thanksgiving and celebration.

For more on the topic of women and song, see: Goitein, S.D. and Carasik, M., 1988. Women as creators of biblical genres. Prooftexts, pp.1-33.

Yael Leibowitz

Yael Leibowitz

has her Master’s degree in Judaic Studies from Columbia University. Prior to making Aliyah, Yael taught Tanakh at the Upper School of Ramaz, and then went on to join the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women where she taught advanced Bible courses. She has taught Continuing Education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as Resident Scholar at the Jewish Center of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning and is a frequent lecturer in North America and Europe. Yael has a book forthcoming on Ezra-Nehemiah through Koren Press, in collaboration with the Matan Kitvuni fellowship. For more of Yael’s writing visit: