Image: The ruins of Babylon, in a photo from 1932. (Link)
Tammuz 5774 begins this weekend, at sundown on June 23, 2017.
Welcome to Tammuz! We observe it in the summertime, just as did the ancient Babylonians, who named it after their god Tammuz.
One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.
But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. So the month of Tammuz still carries the name of the Mesopotamian deity. In ancient Babylon, the month was dedicated to the god, and it began on the first new moon after the summer solstice. The shortening days and the blistering heat made a setting for a period of ritual mourning for the god, who was understood to die and be resurrected annually, similar to the Greek Persephone and Ra/Osiris of Egypt. He’s even mentioned in the Tanakh as one of the foreign gods sometimes worshipped in Jerusalem, much to the distress of the prophets:
Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me, ‘Have you seen this, O son of man? turn yet again, and you shall see greater abominations than these!” – Ezekiel 8:14-15
There are no holidays in Tammuz, and only one fast day: on the 17th of Tammuz there is a fast from sunrise to sundown in memory of breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the beginning of the end for Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. That day begins the “Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we recall the destruction of the temple and other disasters.
Tammuz isn’t a happy month. In Israel, the weather is miserably hot. According to midrash, the sin of the Golden Calf is said to have taken place in Tammuz. There are also some notable yahrtzeits (anniversaries of deaths) in the calendar this month:
- The Lubavicher Rebbe – of Chabad (1994)
- Rabbenu Tam – Grandson of Rashi, a great French rabbi (1171)
- Rabbi Chayyim ibn Atar – a great Moroccan Torah scholar (1743)
- Rashi – The great rabbinic writer of commentaries (1105)
This is usually a quiet month in synagogues. Behind the scenes, preparations for the High Holy Days are underway. Many people take vacations now. It is quiet, but a time of gathering energy, of things just over the horizon. Stay as cool as you can.