The 17th of Tammuz: Meaning & Story | Aleph Beta

The 17th of Tammuz

The Meaning of Tzom Tammuz

Ami Silver


The 17th of Tammuz is the tragic start to the Three Weeks, a period of intense mourning that culminates with Tisha B'av – the day the Temple was destroyed. And if that's not enough, the Mishna lists a couple more calamities that took place on the 17th of Tammuz.

The first one was at Mount Sinai, when Moses shattered the tablets of the Ten Commandments upon seeing the Golden Calf. Then, during the Babylonian siege of the First Temple, it was the day the Kohanim ran out of animals to sacrifice for the daily offering. Generations later, on this very day, a Roman general named Apostamos publicly burned a Torah scroll. He then placed an idol in the most sacred room in the Temple.

Is it just a coincidence that all these terrible moments happened on the same day? Is the 17th of Tammuz just the Israelites’ bad luck day, or is there a common theme that runs throughout the events of this day?

Join us as we explore this tragic day in Jewish History – and never think of the 17 Tammuz the same way again.

Watch Rabbi Fohrman's series on Sinat Chinam, Baseless Hatred, here.

Learn more about the 17th of Tammuz, by checking out Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, The Three Weeks & Nine Days, and Tisha Bav!


What Is The 17 Tammuz & Its Story?

Shiva Asar B'Tammuz is a fast day, commemorating the fall of Jerusalem to foreign hands. Twice in our national history, a foreign army broke through the walls of the holy city on this day. It marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, a period of intense mourning, that culminates with Tisha B'av – the day the Temple was destroyed. And if that's not enough tragedy for one day, the Mishna lists four other calamities that took place on the 17th of Tammuz.

What happened on the 17th of Tammuz? Just Israel's Bad Luck Day?

The first one was at Mount Sinai. This was the day that Moshe shattered the luchot, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, upon seeing the Golden Calf.

Then, during the Babylonian siege of the First Temple, it was the day the Kohanim ran out of animals to sacrifice for the daily, tamid offering.

Generations later, on this very day, a Roman general named Apostamos publicly burned a Torah scroll. He then placed an idol in the heichal – the most sacred room in the Temple.

But is it just a coincidence that all these terrible moments happened on the same day? Is the 17th of Tammuz just Israel's bad luck day, or is there something else going on here? Is there a common theme that runs throughout the events of this day?

What Is 17 Tammuz Really About?

It seems that, in one way or another, most of these events led up to the Temple's destruction. It really makes sense then, that it's the beginning of the Three Weeks. But there's one event here that doesn't fit the mold… one that's clearly not like the others.

The breaking of the Tablets has nothing to do with Jerusalem, or the Temple. It didn't even take place in the land of Israel. It happened hundreds of years before the Temple was built, out in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai.

So which one is it? Either this fast is commemorating a collection of events that just happened to fall out on the same day; or it really is a day that commemorates Jerusalem, and the luchot made it in by happenstance.

Or, maybe there's something about this day that we're not seeing, something that ties all of these events together. We need to take a deeper look at the story of the breaking of the luchot to understand what it's doing here and what it might have to teach us about the meaning of this day.

Understanding the Original Calamity on 17 Tammuz

So, what was going on when Moshe broke the tablets? Forty days have gone by since God revealed the Ten Commandments, and Moshe has been up on the mountaintop, talking with God.

The entire nation is camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, waiting for Moses to return, when something begins to stir in the camp (Exodus 32): וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר – the people saw that Moshe was late in coming down the mountain. They expect him to return by now, but he's nowhere in sight. So what do they do?

וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן – they gather around Aharon

וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו – they say to him

ק֣וּם עֲשֵׂה לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ – make a god to walk before us.

כִּי־זֶ֣ה מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם – because this man, Moshe, who took us out of Egypt

לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ – we don't know what happened to him.

Before you know it, everyone hands their gold over to Aaron, who throws it into a cauldron and makes a golden calf. The people then look at their statue and say: אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם – "This, Israel, is your god who took you out of Egypt."

What?! They just experienced the real God speaking to them at Mount Sinai! They witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea! Now they're replacing God with a statue, and saying that this inanimate cow brought them out of Egypt? It just doesn't make sense.

And if we go a bit further back, the cow's not the only thing they're confused about. When they don't know what happened to Moshe, they say that they need אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ – a god to walk before them. But if Moshe is missing, why do they want a god? Why don't they just turn to Aharon or Miriam and ask one of them to take charge? Instead, they ask for a god to take Moshe's place.

Then, they call Moshe: מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ – this man, Moshe – אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם – who took us out of Egypt… All of a sudden, it's Moshe, the man – a human being – who took them out of Egypt; not God! It's as if God Himself, capital G-O-D, has completely disappeared from the picture, and He's been replaced by Moshe, the man…

But how could this be? How could the people confuse Moshe for God? They're standing at Mount Sinai. God's cloud is hovering on top of the mountain.

It seems really strange, but ask yourself, is this the first time the people tried replacing God with Moshe? Was there another time they wanted Moshe to take on God's role, to stand in His place?

It happened right here at Mount Sinai, just 40 days earlier. When God revealed the Ten Commandments to the nation and spoke to them directly, they went into a panic. It was so overwhelming for them, they thought they were about to die. They turned to Moshe and begged him (Exodus 20:16) דַּבֵּר־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְנִשְׁמָ֑עָה – please, Moshe, you speak with us – וְאַל־יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּ֛נוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים – don't let God talk to us anymore – פֶּן־נָמֽוּת – lest we die. They couldn't handle this direct contact with God. They wanted Moshe to be their intermediary and speak in God's place.

And now, they're waiting for Moshe to come down the mountain, and he seems to have disappeared. What could have possibly happened to him? Maybe they think that Moshe died up there. Maybe he's not coming back. This is what happens when you get close to God. No one can relate to God directly, not even Moshe himself.

A sense of dread begins to settle in. Suddenly, the people are on their own, stranded in the desert. They're camped around a mountain without a plan or a map – and now, without their guide. In their desperation, they say, "Let's make a god – אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ – to walk before us." They've lost their demigod Moshe, now they need something to go before them and make them feel safe, even something as absurd as a golden cow.

And really, it's kind of understandable. It reminds me of those mornings when I bring my daughter to preschool and she cries and holds onto my leg, and doesn't want to let me go. But then I reach into my pocket and give her something of mine – a handkerchief, or even a crumpled up picture from my wallet – and the tears stop. She clutches the object in her arms, smiles at me, and we kiss goodbye. All she needs at that moment is something to hold onto, to make her feel like I'm still with her.

Now, this is cute when it happens between a child and a parent, but when we do this with God, it's a real problem. Because when it comes to God, a security blanket isn't a sweet momento. It can actually distance us from God.

And this is exactly what happened with the golden calf. First the people had Moshe, to spoke to them instead of God. But soon enough, they're saying it was him, not God, who delivered them from Egypt. Then once Moshe is gone, they're too scared to be alone with God, they need a second line of defense. So they build a statue in his place and it becomes their symbol for God.

It wasn't so much an idol for them to worship, as it was an attempt to protect themselves from God. The Torah calls the golden calf (Exodus 32:4) עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה. The plain meaning is a molten calf. But interestingly, in modern Hebrew, the word masecha also means "mask." In a sense, the people used the calf as a mask for God. They created it to take God's place, and to distance themselves from Him, so that they wouldn't have face God directly.

Moshe can see this when he comes down the mountain. He realizes, that it's not just the calf that's the problem, it's what the calf represents. He sees that the people aren't ready for a direct relationship with God.

And here Moshe is holding the luchot in his hands, a physical gift that God Himself handcrafted for His people. Nothing like it had ever existed before. But as precious and unique as the luchot were, it wasn't worth giving them to the nation if they were going be misused as yet another replacement, another mask for God.

And so Moshe smashed the luchot to the ground to send a message to the people: Your relationship with God will never be possible if you keep trying to hide from it, if you keep choosing symbols over God Himself. Moshe challenged the people to stop running away, and to finally confront their fears of entering into a relationship with God.

It was a wakeup call about the dangers of symbols, and how easily they can be misused.

Finding a Common Theme Behind 17 Tammuz

So, does all this relate to Shiva Assar Be'Tammuz? Can it help us understand the meaning of this day?

Let's go back to the list from the Mishnah: The tamid was the daily offering in the Temple, it was its beating pulse. The word itself means "always" or "constant." Even when our city was surrounded by enemies, the fire in the Temple continued to burn, the service of the Kohanim was unshaken. Until one day, it all came to an abrupt stop. The Babylonian army blocked anything from entering the city, and the priests ran out of animals to sacrifice. That everlasting fire was no more, and in an instant, the symbol of our enduring connection to God was lost.

It was once unimaginable that the holy city God's eternal home could ever be destroyed. But on the 17th of Tammuz, this belief came crashing down before our very eyes. Jerusalem's "unbreakable" walls turned to rubble beneath the feet of enemy armies.

Then, Apostamos showed us how devastating the actions of a single man could be. He took a Torah scroll, the embodiment of God's word, and set it on fire for all to see. It's an act of hatred that we've seen replayed throughout history, during the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms and Nazi Germany. It's a haunting sight, the height of desecration and cruelty. One man stood in complete defiance of all that we believe in, and there was nothing we could do to stop it. He then placed a foreign god in the heichal, turning God's holiest, most intimate space into a house of idolatry.

The luchot, the tamid, Jerusalem's walls, a Torah scroll, the heichal – these are some of the most sacred objects in our world. They're the closest things that we have to God Himself. Losing any one of them would be reason enough to fast. But on Shiva Asar B'Tammuz, every one of them was shattered.

We mourn their loss, and the sense of connection with God that they offered us.

The Meaning of the Fast of 17 Tammuz

But symbols are not ends in themselves. All too easily, we can fall into the trap of relying on them and ignoring what they're meant to represent – our living, breathing relationship with God.

This day challenges us to evaluate where we stand vis-a-vis God. How do we hide behind the symbols in our lives, instead of relating to God directly? Is prayer a time when I bear my heart to my Creator, or am I focused on getting through all the pages? When I perform a mitzvah, am I checking off boxes in my mental to-do list, or am I seeking to connect to God through my actions?

Shiva Asar B'Tammuz pushes us to confront these difficult questions. It's a time to look beyond our symbols and relate to the foundation of our relationship with God. In a sense, it's the ideal way to enter into the Three Weeks, and use it as a time for clarification, growth, and rebuilding.

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