The 17th of Tammuz is characterised by five catastrophes: 1. the two original tablets of the Law were smashed by Moses, 2. the Korban Tamid (perpetual sacrifice) stopped in the First Temple, 3. Jerusalem’s city walls were breached in preparation for the destruction of the Second Temple, 4. the first Torah scroll was burned by Roman authorities in retaliation for a Jewish assassination of a local official named Apostumus in 44 CE, and 5. the Romans erected an idol of Zeus in the Temple.
All of that likely sounds very far from our own experience, and that’s probably something to be grateful for. The real cavalcade of catastrophe, of course, comes three weeks later, with Tisha b’Av. So why mark the start of this three week period? I suppose there are likely many lessons to take away from the 17th of Tammuz being included as a minor fast, but chief among them to me is this: bad things don’t just happen overnight.
Tisha b’Av is a day of cataclysm. It seems that everything simply fell apart. But we know that’s not true. Take the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. It was precipitated by a vicious four-year civil war amongst the Jewish community prior to the final bloody siege of the Temple in 70. Prior to that, the civil war had built on tensions that had been simmering for a good half-century before the outbreak of rebellion. Jesus, who lived and died a generation before the Revolt, grapples with the same ideological and socio-political issues in his life as those who came forty years later would do. And, of course, those issues themselves – the tension between Jews who rejected Roman culture and hegemony versus those who accepted it and even assimilated – was a pattern which was already old, being a funny sort of recycled trope going back to the Maccabees and the Hasmonean Kings of Israel.
So, perhaps three weeks is not enough time to feel the build-up and breakdown of life which leads to such tragedies. Yet even that is helpful to us. Having the 17th of Tammuz kick off a period, a process that leads to the proper day of mourning three weeks later allows us to be reminded that nothing catastrophically bad (or good) happens without precedent and predecessors. The death and destruction of the 9th of Av in the year 70 didn’t have to happen. If a different choice had been made three weeks earlier, when the Romans breached the walls, and when Jewish extremists in the siege burned supplies to make people more desperate and likely to support their cause, a different outcome might have resulted.
Judaism often seems to want to impart to us an historical consciousness- and perhaps nowhere is that more clear than with the Three Weeks that we engage in this time of year. By beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and a taste (or not, as it were) of things to come, we should be reminded that history takes circuitous paths through events, but that things never stand in isolation. Perhaps it is of little comfort that our great catastrophes have context to them, but it may be of some help to realise that the context we evoke now demonstrates that nothing is inevitable. That if you go far enough back, anything could have been different.
Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet is rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue