The 17th of Tammuz and Three Weeks

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

By Jackie Ross

Saturday, July 23 coincides with the 17th of Tammuz - the beginning of a notable, and sad, period in the Jewish calendar. However, since we do not mourn on the Sabbath all of the 17 of Tamuz observances are pushed off to Sunday the following day.

The 17th is like the other 3 minor fast days - no eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset (with exceptions given to the ill or infirm). The reason why we fast is to 1) remove distractions that could keep us from focusing on the purpose of the day, which are the acts the Jewish people did in the past that lead to catastrophe, as well as the self-destructive acts we continue to perpetuate until today, 2) do teshuva, recognize our shortcomings, feel regret over them, and make changes to our behavior so we don't do them again. Pretty heavy stuff. What is different about today from other fast days is the fact that this day not only has its own sad instances that should cause us to grieve, but it is the beginning of a three week period of increasing sadness for the Jewish people, climaxing with Tisha B'Av, the day that the Temples were destroyed (among other events)
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So what happened on the 17th that was bad enough to not only bring us to fast, but is the head of three weeks of mourning? There were actually 5 specific events that we are supposed to recall until today, they are:
  • When Moses descended from Mount Sinai (the first time), he saw some of the Jewish people worshipping a golden calf and destroyed the tablets with the Ten Commandments;
  • The daily sacrifice offerings in during the First Temple stopped (because there was a siege and the Kohanim couldn't get animals);
  • The walls of Jerusalem were breached leading to the destruction of the Second Temple;
  • The greek leader Apustamus burned a Torah scroll, the first instance of this, which set a president for burning Torahs and Jewish books in the future;
  • An image of a false god was placed in the Sanctuary of the Temple.
During the time from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, the 'Three Weeks' the Jewish people take on or refrain from acts in order to be aware of the events that have occurred in this period of time. Like with any of the Jewish Holidays, they are not mere anniversaries, but rather we are celebrating periods of time in the calendar that have certain spiritual realities to the day, which results in the holidays being during this time - such as the spiritual reality of freedom during the week of Pesach or Judgement during Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. During the three weeks the spiritual reality tends to not be favorable to Jews. It is advised to delay court cases with non-Jews or not to enter into contracts until the three weeks are up. Historically it has also been a time of increased danger for the Jewish people, and it is not recommended to engage in dangerous activities during this time. In Hebrew it is known as bein hametzarim, between the narrow straights. We acknowledge that events that have taken place by refraining from haircuts or shaving (much easier than the month plus that we abstain from during Sefirat HaOmer), holding weddings, or buy new clothing. The period of mourning intensifies during the last nine days, which we'll discuss as it approaches.

Fasting and refraining from dangerous or overly-pleasurable activities aren't the main point of the 17th of Tammuz or the Three Weeks. They are merely tools we should be using to remember the tragedies that befell the Jewish people because they sinned, as well as personal actions each one of us take that hinder the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash. May we all be moved to do sincere teshuva and not have to spend the 9th of Av this year in mourning!

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