The Month of Tammuz

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:

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.

What is Tzom Tammuz?

Image: “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70” by David Roberts. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

If you have a Jewish calendar – or if you use the excellent online calendar at hebcal.com – you may have noticed something called “Tzom Tammuz.”  That translates to “Fast of Tammuz” which isn’t terribly enlightening, so I thought you might like to have a bit more info.

Next month we will observe the somber day known as Tisha B’Av, [“Ninth of Av”] when we remember the destruction of the Second Temple along with other disasters in Jewish history. Tzom Tammuz is part of the preparation for that day. It is a dawn-to-dusk fast to recall the day the Romans breached the city wall of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It falls exactly three weeks before Tisha B’Av, and that three week period is a time of special mourning and attention. (Tammuz and Av are months in the Jewish year, both of which fall in the late summer.)

A “minor fast” like Tzom Tammuz is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

The destruction of the Temple was one of the watershed moments in Jewish history, the end of one age and the beginning of another. Biblical Judaism effectively ended then, because the sacrificial cult and everything that went with it was no longer possible. Rabbinic Judaism – the dominant form of Judaism in the world today – had not yet been born. That would happen in the following months, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai moved his students to the academy at Yavneh.

While there are some who look forward to rebuilding the Temple someday, Reform Jews believe that the time for it is past. God moved us into a new period of history, one in which our sacrifices would be made of prayers and song, rather than of animal gore.

I personally do not fast on Tzom Tammuz, but I keep it as a quiet day of reflection and study. The Three Weeks from the fast until Tisha B’Av are a time to reflect on Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, a topic that is sadly pertinent today.

In 2016 Tzom Tammuz begins at dawn on Sunday, July 24.

 

 

Why Three Weeks of Communal Mourning?

The three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av are traditionally a time of mourning in the Jewish world. They are called “The Three Weeks” and traditionally Jews avoid public entertainments, buying new clothing, and getting haircuts during that time. The period begins with Tzom Tammuz, and include three Shabbats which have special readings from the Prophets (Haftarot.) 

The Prophets in Jewish tradition reproach Israel for the rupture of relationship with God. (For more about Jewish readings of the Prophets, read “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.) In the world of the Prophets, Israel has become selective in her reading of Torah, and too often observes the letter of ritual law while flouting both the spirit of that law and the ethical commandments. The Haftarah readings during the Three Weeks are:

  1. Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
  2. Jeremiah 2:4–28 plus 4:1–2 or 3:4
  3. Isaiah 1:1–27

Now one may well ask, what is the point of observing this period of time, especially for liberal Jews who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple?

This can be a time for reminding ourselves of the consequences of communal sins. If we are to grow and learn as a people, then we must not forget the times in the past when we have gone wrong. The sages teach us that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, and the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinom, usually translated “baseless hatred.”  So this is the time to ask if Torah is truly the “operating manual” for our institutions and families, or are there things that we prioritize above Torah? And as for sinat chinom, this excellent article by Rabbi Shmuel Weiss asks some interesting questions.

This can be a time to remind ourselves that we are truly Am Echad, one people. Whatever our differences about practice, our history is unfortunately full of occasions when outsiders made no distinction between secular and observant Jew. What point is there in treating one another badly, when the world is so cruel?

This can be a time to learn about mourning. Grief is part of the human condition; only those who die as very young children manage to live their entire lives without experiencing it. Over the centuries, generations of our ancestors crafted this period in which we may or may not experience grief for the Temple itself, but in which we can read the words of lament, and observe the fact that the entire season is shaped as a process. There is the approach of disaster (the Three Weeks), the acute phase of loss (Tisha B’Av) and then the much longer period of Consolation, which stretches for seven full weeks. One way to get the most out of this period is to approach the various readings as a student, learning from our forebears how to mourn.

These are only three possibilities for growth during the Three Weeks. What experiences have you had of this period in the Jewish year? Does the thought of mourning for the Temple make sense to you? Why – or why not?

What is Tzom Tammuz?

I am watching the sun sink towards the horizon ending the day of Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, so this post will reach most of my readers too late for the actual day this year.

The 17th of Tammuz is a “minor” fast day in the Jewish year. It commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. It begins a three week period of increasingly deep mourning in Jewish life, running from Tzom Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, the day on which we remember the destruction.

A minor fast is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

Tzom Tammuz is the beginning of a three week period of mourning that leads up to Tisha B’Av, when we remember the Destruction of the Temple. I’m going to write a good bit more about that in coming days, but for now, just now that we have entered a time of mourning in Jewish life.

These minor fasts mark significant events in our life as a people. When you thinking about milestones in your own personal history, are there days you remember because they led up to major events? Do you do anything to mark them?