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The Tragic Symbolism of 17th of Tammuz

Tammuz 5782 | July 2022

“Five things befell our forefathers… on the 17th of Tammuz the tablets were broken, the daily sacrifice (korban tammid) ceased, the city was breeched, Apostamus burned the Torah, and an idol was placed in the sanctuary.” (Mishnah Taanit 4, 6)

The Mishna relates that five tragedies befell us on the 17th of Tammuz. [i] The breach of Jerusalem’s walls is one in a series of horrible events. So, is this simply a day to mourn the fall of the final barrier to the same destruction we mourn on Tisha B’Av or do the events of this day hint at a unique issue our nation must address? [ii]

What is it we mark on this day?

The Mishna relates five events that involve physical objects – the two tablets (luchot), walls of a city, the korban tammid, Torah scrolls, and an idol. Objects do not feel pain, they do not bleed. They are replaceable or removeable – it should not be a big deal. And yet it is. Because objects can be meaningful, physical representations of other ideas – symbols.

In a way symbols are what separate humanity from the rest of God’s creatures. Symbols are part of our daily life and form the bedrock of civilization; language, culture, even modern currency are all symbols. Our ability to use symbols is based in our capability to think abstractly, on a mature mind capable of complex thinking.[iii]

Unfortunately, people don’t always like complexity, and so there’s a tendency to over-simplify, misunderstand the symbolism, or conflate the symbol for what it is meant to symbolize.

According to Rambam these misunderstandings led early humankind to worship false gods in the first place. (Hilchot Avoda Zara Chapter 1) We have been making these mistakes practically since the dawn of time.

Broken symbols symbolize broken ideals

The tablets were broken

The luchot were a physical reminder of our covenant with God, and the resulting responsibilities and connection. When we worshipped the Golden Calf, or allowed our brothers to worship it, we broke the covenant and damaged that connection. In a sense, first we smashed the idea the luchot represented, then Moshe smashed the luchot. The destruction itself a symbol of the repercussions of our misguided actions.

The daily sacrifice (korban tammid) ceased

The korban tammid can be understood as a representation of our constant devotion to the service of God. The two opinions as to when the korban tammid ceased to be offered place it either when the walls were breached in the year 70 C.E. or in the time of Aristoblus II and Hyrkanus II, the Hasmonean brothers who started a civil war and invited the Romans in to settle it.[iv]

Historically, in both these times the priesthood and Temple service was no longer a means to connect to God but rather a self-serving means to political power. The ideals of Divine service were lost long before cessation of the physical offerings.

The city was breached

Walls distinguish the character of a city; the walls of Jerusalem united and secured the religious, political, and social capital of the Children of Israel. A study of the relevant accounts in Neviim, Gemara , and Josephus reveals that by the time the walls of the city were breached Jerusalem had already consumed itself from within.[v] The various political and religious groups could not band together to unite against their common enemy but instead sabotaged each other at every turn; Jerusalem had already lost its character as “the city of righteousness” and “a city joined together”.

An idol was placed in the sanctuary

Perhaps we can understand the idol as a symbol of the fallacies of paganism – the belief that creation is the result of many warring forces vying for power as opposed to one true God who created everything in harmony. Or perhaps these “empty idols” are symbols that do not stand for anything, held up by human misconception alone.

It is unclear when this idol was placed on the Temple Mount – perhaps it was in the time of the Syrian-Greeks or maybe after the destruction of the Temple, when Jerusalem was declared a pagan city, Ilia Capitolina. In both these periods the Jewish people were internally fractured and had ceased to distinguish themselves as God’s nation and so Jerusalem was no longer the capital of Monotheism. Jerusalem and the Temple were disgraced and devoid of purpose long before the empty idol was erected as an ultimate indignity.

Apostamus burned the Torah

The Torah scroll is more than the words inscribed upon it. It is “a tree of life for those who hold steadfast to it”. The words of the written Torah as interpreted by the Oral Torah guide the Jewish people through an ever-changing existence.

We do not know when Apostomos burned the Torah. Nevertheless, I think we can learn a lesson from a similar event, the burning of the Talmud, the Oral Torah, in Paris, Tammuz 1242. Tradition tells us that when the Jewish community looked for a reason for this tragedy many understood that it was a result of the crusade they had waged against the writings of the Rambam, which led to the burning of his works.[vi]

The vitality of the Oral Tradition lies in its ability to contain complexity and contemplate novel ideas – “there are 70 facets to the Torah,” and “these and those are the words of God,” and “a disagreement for the sake of heaven will stand in the end”. Or perhaps the devastation goes deeper, perhaps we lost the values of derech eretz that must precede the Torah – ideas of respect and healthy discourse. These fundamental tenets were abandoned when closed-minded Jews were unable to find room in our rich tradition to tolerate Rambam’s novel insights; soon after scores of Torah scholars watched the Torah they thought they were defending go up in flames.

History repeating itself

Time and again we see symbols breaking only after the ideas they once represented had been demolished. As important as these symbols are, in the end they are mere objects. It does not seem likely that we have fasted for two millennia over the physical destruction of objects. It’s more likely that we fast on the 17th of Tammuz to commemorate and repair the loss of the ideas and ideals they symbolize.

Or perhaps we fast to internalize the lesson of symbolism itself. After all, the fast can be understood as a symbolic act to reflect our mourning or provoke our repentance. Yet we still mix up the symbol that it symbolizes, the tool and the goal. Some speak of Orthodoxy, halakha, and rabbinic leadership as if they exist independently of God, of people, and of Torah values. Some speak of upholding tradition as if it were an end unto itself, instead of a means.  Some speak of the State of Israel and Zionism as if these are established institutions that can never be corrupted and will never fall. Too often we hold onto symbols without examination or introspection.

Fast days are times of introspection. Maybe on this day we can finally learn our lesson. What would have happened if our ancestors had stopped trying to protect the walls and instead healed the internal fractures in our people? What could happen now if we stop focusing on preserving the symbols and instead work to understand and build the complex ideas they represent?


[i] There are a series of four fasts we use to mark the destruction of the Temples and the associated losses of Jewish unity and sovereignty. These fasts have literally been “on the books” since the destruction of the First Temple, the original dates are marked by Yirmiyahu and later the prophet Zechariah discusses “The fast of the fourth, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth…” Each number refers to the month in which they fall out.

When the siege of Jerusalem began in Tevet there was still a chance for salvation, but we did not heed the signs and repent. So, we mark the siege with a fast to mourn and repent. On Tisha b’Av we mourn the destruction of both Temples, the subsequent exiles, deaths, and destruction of Jewish life as they knew it.

The importance of Tzom Gedalya, the fast of the seventh, is also a question. In brief, it makes sense to mourn fighting and violence with the Children of Israel as well as the end of hundreds of years of Israelite settlement in the Chosen Land.

[ii] In Ashkenazic tradition the 17th of Tammuz also begins the period of mourning known as Bein Hametzarim – between the straights – or the Three Weeks. The length and customs of mourning differ, and in Sephardic tradition there are little if any traditions of mourning before Rosh Chodesh Av, which compounds the question of why we fast on the 17th.

[iii] For more on the impact of symbols in general and in Judaism see Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch’s HaMitzvot k’Smalim.

[iv] While they were fighting they managed to come up with a system to keep the korban tammid going, until someone decided to use the system to send a pig to the Temple instead of the normal goats. Most other exiles and destructions of the Israelite Kingdom can also be traced back to Israelites calling in other nations to settle internal disputes.

[v] Final chapters of Melachim II 24-25, Yirmiyahu 36-43, TB Gittin 55b-58a, The Jewish War Josephus Flavius

[vi] Professor Yisrael Ta-Shema’s Knesset Mechkarim: Iyunim Be-sifrut Ha-rabbanit Bi-ymei Ha-beinayim, Vol. 2, p. 45, fn.128-129

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.