Rosh Hodesh Tammuz Torah Essay
As the weather heats up, school ends and summer begins, we enter the month of Tammuz. It is the first of the 3 summer months: Tammuz, Av and Elul. In the sixth year after the exile of King Yehoyachin, Yechezkel the prophet is given a vision of the Jewish people worshipping Avodah Zara, foreign gods. Among these gods was Tammuz, the Babylonian god of the sun (Yechezkel 8:14). Rashi explains that Tammuz means “heating”, like the glowing heat of a furnace. Though the names of the months of the Jewish calendar all have Babylonian origins, the name Tammuz is particularly odd. You might be wondering, why would we name a month after the Babylonian god of the sun?
For many Jews, the most notable day of Tammuz is the 17th, a fast day where we commemorate five negative events that befell the Jewish people and begin the mourning period of the 3 weeks. These 5 events are:
- Moshe broke the first set of luchot (tablets), after seeing the Jews worshipping the golden calf.
- The Jewish people were forced to stop bringing the korban tamid (daily offering), during the siege of the Babylonians.
- The Romans, led by Apostomos, burned a Torah scroll.
- The Romans placed an idol in the Temple.
- The breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 69 CE by the Romans.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains that the cycle of the Jewish calendar is not linear, but spiral. Each specific date is infused with a deep spiritual energy, and one can learn about the nature of the day by looking at the historical events that occurred. To understand the nature of the 17th of Tammuz, we will explore the first major event of the day: the breaking of the luchot.
After a year of plagues, miracles, and demonstrations of Hashem’s power, the Jews left Egypt and traveled to Har Sinai. A short seven weeks from the splitting of the Red Sea, the Jews stood before Har Sinai, heard Hashem speak and accepted the Torah from Him. This can be likened to the verbal acceptance of a contract, and the next step was to work out the details. The next day, Moshe ascended the mountain to learn the rest of the Torah from Hashem for 40 days while the people waited below. However, 40 days later, Moshe was nowhere to be found – or so they thought. The Jews made a simple miscalculation: Moshe didn’t include the first, incomplete day as part of the 40 days, and the Jewish people did. Therefore, they expected his return one day earlier, on the 16th of Tammuz. The Gemara (Shabbos 89a) explains that the Satan himself confounded the Jewish people, showing them an image of Moshe’s dead body when he didn’t return as expected. In a panic, the people ran to Aharon and asked him to fashion a replacement for Moshe. Aharon tried several tactics to delay the people, but they were to no avail, and Moshe’s return from the mountain was greeted not by a celebration of the Torah but with a feast of Avodah Zara. Upon seeing the Jews worshipping a Golden Calf, Moshe shattered the luchot. After begging Hashem for forgiveness for the Jewish people, Moshe ascended the mountain again, returning on Yom Kippur with the second luchot, which were much less miraculous.
At first glance, this is a story of colossal failure; Mere weeks after a mass Divine revelation, the Jewish people fell back to their old ways of idol worship. Seemingly, no amount of proof or miracles could undo the deep spiritual brainwashing of Egypt, which had conditioned them to doubt Hashem and His power, as Pharoah did throughout Sefer Shemot. The reaction of Bnei Yisrael to Moshe not arriving when they expected was to take control of the situation and exercise their dominance; they wanted things done on their terms, in a way that they could understand, not trusting in Hashem, Moshe, and the greater, unknowable plan of the world. They wanted to interact with the world in a way that they could dissect, analyze and boil down to a set of rules and laws, like nature. They didn’t want the leap of faith that comes with surrendering to the Almighty. They wanted control.
At this point, the future of the Jewish people looked bleak. Hashem proposed starting over with Moshe, and to abandon these people in the desert. Moshe, however, begged Hashem to give the nation another chance. Rashi (Devarim 34:12) explains Moshe’s heroism based on the last three words in the Torah:
וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל
“And for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all of Israel.”
What was the greatness that Moshe displayed “before all of Israel”? Rashi teaches that it was the initiative that Moshe took to break the luchot when he saw the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf. Based on the Gemara (Yevamot 62a & Shabbos 87a), Rashi explains that Hashem praised Moshe for this decision! Why would Hashem praise Moshe for destroying the first luchot, which, according to the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 47:1) contained all of Torah, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggadah, among many other miraculous properties?
Several sources (i.e. Rashi, Shemot 34:1, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma 3:9:30) explain that Moshe’s motivation for breaking the luchot was like the assistant to a king who destroyed a marriage contract before it was signed, so the bride wouldn’t be guilty of adultery. Moshe descended the mountain and saw the Jews engaging in the exact behavior that was prohibited in the Torah, and understood that if they never fully accepted the Torah, they would be far less culpable for their actions and could possibly evade punishment. Moshe knew that Hashem accepts sincere teshuva, and that the people might not be ready for the demands of the Torah in that moment, but they would grow into a nation that would live up to the ideals of the Torah. So, he broke the luchot, and gave them another chance.
The month of Tammuz can be seen as a month of brokenness, where the Jewish people resigned to their fate as just another nation, subject to the ebb and flow of nature. Or, perhaps this could be a month of recognizing the above and creating a different destiny. Tammuz, the Babylonian sun god, connects us to another event in Tammuz: the story of Yehoshua stopping the sun during the battle of Givon (Yehoshua Perek 12), which we believe occurred on the 3rd of Tammuz. This miraculous event shows that Hashem has control over the entire world, even the Babylonian god of the sun. The sun, which many ancient cultures saw as the symbol of all of the natural forces, is powerful, but Hashem is more powerful. When the Jews faced the challenge of the Golden Calf, they failed to see that Hashem’s control was greater than anything that they could imagine. They wanted to be regular, natural people, like everyone else, and even Moshe realized that they needed to work on their spiritual connection before being truly ready to become the Jewish people in the ultimate actualization of their potential.
The other 4 events of the 17th of Tammuz are moments of failure and breach in the Jewish’s people’s connection with Hashem, but the shattering of the luchot and the miracle of the sun standing still, serve as a reminder for how we may break the nature of Tammuz. Kabbalah teaches that every month has a unique arrangement of the 4-letter name of Hashem, and Tammuz is that name backwards. This symbolizes the strict judgement of the month, but it can also hint at the means to unlock the beauty of Tammuz: we must flip our perspective, completely and totally, and recognize Hashem everywhere. In moments of goodness, challenge, heartbreak and everything in between, it is our responsibility to recognize Hashem’s role and realize that we are not subject to nature. We are the Chosen People, with a unique relationship with Hashem, and He is always in “our corner”.
May this be a month of complete redemption, transformation, and seeing Hashem in every aspect of our lives.