Divrei Torah Blogs

The 17th of Tammuz

Should will still be fasting on the 17th of Tammuz?

The 17th of Tammuz commemorates a variety of disasters to have befallen to the Jewish people, most notably the breach of the walls of Jerusalem during the siege of the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. other disasters to have occurred on this day include Moses coming down from the mountain and seeing the people dancing with the Golden Calf — and shattering the tablets with the 10 Commandments, Apostumus  burning a Torah, and thousands of Jews being murdered in Toledo, Spain, in 1391.

The 17th of Tammuz marks the beginning of "the three weeks," a period of mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple and a variety of other disasters.

I admit to feeling a great deal of ambivalence about the minor fast days, like the 17th of Tammuz, when Jews traditionally fast during daylight hours.

As I write this, I sit in my home in Jerusalem.   I can go out on my balcony and see the Temple Mount and the walls of the old city.  I lived in the Jerusalem that is filled with hundreds of thousands of Jews, and that is governed by Jews. it seems just a bit odd, almost ungrateful for the miracle of living here, to continue to mourn the destruction of the city as if the current redemption never happened.

Velveteen Rabbi brings a teaching from Rabbi Everett Gendler that suggests dropping minor fast days because we’ve added new holidays and don’t have the emotional space for too many "special" days.  But somehow, it seems a bit feeble as an argument to give up the fast days.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests finding new meaning in the holiday focused on the symbolism of the "breaking of the plates."

Rabbi Reuven Hammer says the way to acknowledge changing circumstances is by making the fast a optional, not mandatory. I’m not sure this helps much in an era when pretty much all non-Orthodox Jews would consider the minor fast days optional, to the extent that they even know about them.

The rabbis in the Talmud have said that in the future, in the Messianic Era, the fast days will be turned into days of feasting.  Instead of abstaining, we will be partying.  But are those our only options?  Fast or feast?

An interesting question on the spiritual meaning of this day has brought by "In my humble Jewish opinion."  She questions whether it is better to observe the fast, focused on the spiritual issues, but break it at 6 p.m., or to distract oneself with things like movies and keep it all the way until the end.  there are some Commandments that I believe it is important to obey whether or not we get the spiritual message, but rather simply to demonstrate our obedience to the Commandments.  But since the whole idea of fasting is to remind us, to cause us to reflect on the events of the day, it is totally clear to me that it would be better to get the spiritual message and to break the fast early, than to obey the letter of the law, but miss the point.  Sometimes people separate halachah from religion and spiritual meaning, treat it as if it is totally an end in itself divorced from God.  The more I think about it, the more trouble I have with that approach.

I’ve decided the way I will observe the fast this year will be to go for a run that brings me in and out of the city walls, and I will reflect on the breach of the city walls, and cut back on my food consumption, and certainly avoid any "treats," but to go ahead and drink water and eat modest food.  It’s my way of acknowledging the day, but also acknowledging that times have changed and it is miraculous to be living in Jerusalem.

Whether you fast or not, may you find meaning in the day.

Rav Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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