This Tuesday, the Jewish nation will mark one the saddest days of its history: the fast day of Shiva Asar Be’tamuz, the 17th day of the month of Tamuz.
On this date, 1,944 years ago, the Roman Legion broke through the walls of Jerusalem. From then until today, for almost 2,000 years, the Jewish nation has carried in its heart the sorrow and pain of Jerusalem’s destruction and marks the date of the walls being breached by not drinking or eating.
This day – the 17th of Tamuz – is the beginning of a period of three weeks during which we focus on the memory of Jerusalem’s destruction; a period culminating with the fast of Tisha (9th) Be’av.
The purpose of fasting on this day is to reawaken our sense of loss following the fall of Jerusalem into the hands of the enemy, to repair our actions and repent, a complete tshuva, so that God will return to His house and rebuild our Temple.
This is the main idea on which this day is centered. But our sages have noted four additional events that took place on exactly this date of 17 Tamuz; sad occurrences that add weight to the sense of loss on this days.
The other four events are: Moshe Rabeinu breaking the two Tablets of the Covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai; a Roman minister named Apostomos burning a Torah scroll approximately 16 years before Judah’s “Great Rebellion” against Roman rule; cancellation of the sacrifice of the korban tamid, the perpetual daily offerings, in the Temple and the placement of an idol for the purpose of idol worship inside the Temple. All these occurred in addition to the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Roman Legion.
If we take a look at these five distressing events which we mark on this day, we learn that they represent three different ideas. The breaking of the tablets and the burning of the Torah by Apostomos represent breaking and burning the Divine message which is revealed in the Torah; cancellation of the korban tamid as well as the placing of an idol in the Temple represent defamation of the sacred in the severest way; however the breach of Jerusalem’s walls symbolizes the national fragmentation that the nation of Israel experienced during those dark days when the Jewish state’s capital was brutally conquered and then completely destroyed by a strange and cruel conqueror.
The fast of Shiva Asar Be’tamuz is not just a day of mourning, but mainly a day when we should deal with active memory, the kind that pushes us to return to the source and try to repair what was destroyed on that day. The three ideas which we mark on this day are inseparable; they share a reason and a connection, and they push us to desire and yearn for a complete repair of all three.
We must remember on this day that the Jewish nation that was exiled from its land almost 2,000 years ago has never given up on it. In every place and time, Jews declared the optimistic hope, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Also today, when a significant portion of the nation is in the Land of Israel, living in it and developing it, we still hold within us the longing for the complete return of all segments of the nation, from every background, to the land of our forefathers. We remember on this day that we do not have the will or the permission to give up on connecting any Jew anywhere in the world to the Land of Israel.
We must also remember on this day that for thousands of years, the Jewish nation got its spiritual and moral heritage from the Torah. This same book that changed the entire world and influenced every major revolution in the world is our book – the Bible. Others have tried to burn our Torah many times. It was done 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel by the Romans; it was done by priests in Paris in 1244, in Italy in 1553, in Poland in 1757, and more recently in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. All these attempts failed and the Jewish nation did not, as a result of them, abandon its loyalty to the Torah. And today, as we are witnessing renewed flourishing and the return to the Jewish bookcase, we must strengthen this trend of gaining inspiration of values and spiritual treasures from the Torah.
The third thing to remember on this day is the Temple. This huge spiritual center served as the nation’s beating heart, the place where everyone felt a strong and tangible closeness to God, the house that united all the sectors of the Jewish nation. It was destroyed and we still feel its loss. Many of the phenomena that pain us today stem directly from the loss of the Temple. On this day, we must remember this loss, feel the pain of the destruction, and hope for a complete redemption. When it comes, only then will we be made aware of how much it was lacking.
Every memory is linked to another; links connected in tragedy and hope. If we connect to our roots and to our sources, we will merit the building of the Temple, and merit having the Divine Presence rest in the Land of Israel in all its glory.
The author is Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.