THE SITE of the ancient city of Bablyon in Iraq 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The fast of Tamuz 17 begins a period of national mourning for the destruction of
the Holy Temple, ending with solemn day of Tisha Be’av. The month of Tamuz,
which marks the beginning of “the Three Weeks,” has traditionally been
associated with weeping and tragedy.
The name Tamuz originates from a
major Sumerian and later Mesopotamian deity, ultimately transposed in the Greek
pantheon as Adonis. The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashana 1,2) states that the
names of the months originated in the Babylonian exile. But even if that was the
accepted practice of nomenclature, why would the sages of Israel allow for
Jewish tradition to be so influenced by pagan culture as to identify one of the
months of the sacred calendar with an idol? The month of Tamuz expresses a
concept, and holds a secret that can be unlocked by its very name. This month is
about transformation, and by its name it issues a challenge to Israel to rise to
its national calling: Face idolatry head on, do not shirk or hide from the
responsibility of bringing about change.
We find a mysterious verse in
the book of Ezekiel which requires explanation: “He then brought me to the
entrance of the gate of the Temple of Hashem that is to the north, and behold,
there were women sitting, causing Tamuz to cry” (8:14).
that this Tamuz was an idol fashioned of iron, with eyes made of lead. When the
statue was heated, the lead melted, creating the illusion the idol was shedding
tears. The cult of Tamuz was about weeping – fabricated, crocodile
In his famed Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that
this verse refers to an immensely popular cult of performance art – the
precursor of “modern” Greek tragedy genre – that celebrated the death of the god
Tamuz. His death was portrayed in a play that became so much a part of popular
culture it was shown right at gates to the Temple.
How odd! Pagan
matinees performed at the gates of the Holy Temple? Women were so taken by this
tragic story that they would sit and cry over the pitiful, painful story of the
death of this character.
The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology describes
the origin of the ancient story. Tamuz, the lover of Ishtar, was forced to die
and descend to underworld. Ishtar bewailed his death with lamentations in the
midst of a choir of weeping women. This immensely popular scene was perpetuated
year after year; the scene was reproduced in funeral chants (later with the
names Adonis and Aphrodite).
The god was believed to die every year.
Laments for the departed Tamuz are even extent in Babylonian hymns, dirges
described by Sir James Frazier in The Golden Bough as “lament of the flutes for
Tamuz, to shrill mourning of women with flutes... melancholy rites.” The story
reflects the cycle of the year, the onset of winter and spring, and was an
invention of the pagan mindset that served to explain the phenomena of the
changing seasons. It is a story of great pathos.
But could this be the
same Tamuz that was bewailed at the gates of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem?
Maimonides was well acquainted with the cult of Tamuz referred to by Ezekiel. It
was the expression of cyclical, communal mourning; a twisted image of the life
cycle. From time immemorial, people have gotten “stuck” in the cycle of life:
despondent and in need of an explanation that makes them feel they are but
victims of malignant forces. The institutionalized theatrical culture of Greek
drama has its origins as a religious cult that romanticized sadness.
crying associated with Tamuz is our key to understanding the real tragedy of
Tamuz: The people of Israel are stuck in a cycle of meaningless mourning. For
many, the mourning for the Holy Temple itself has become the end, rather than
the means to an end.
But if the goal is the rebuilding of the Temple, how
did we get into this mindset, and how can we change? Are we expected to just
flail and wail over the Temple year after year? How ironic: Tamuz itself is
known to the Jewish people as the time of tears. But these tears are supposed to
be constructive. We have become stuck in a yearly cycle, much like the ancient
pagan cycle of lament, which seems to bring us back to the same old place,
satisfied with the mourning itself. Subliminally, instead of being motivated to
rise up, we are caught in the cult of tragedy.
The fabricated tears of
Tamuz are the romanticization of pain; being comfortable with the pain because
it is what we are used to. This is what Maimonides alludes to. We can become so
stuck in a place, so part of the cycle, that there is no way out of
But the whole idea of Tamuz is for us to confront those idolatrous
forces within our own psyche. Parts of the Jewish mindset have been taken over.
We have been lobotomized by the pagan mindset of weeping over Tamuz. The verse
in Ezekiel alludes to the weeping over our own lives, the tragic aspects of our
lives, because self-pity feels so good. So we do it again and again, year after
Mourning for the Temple is not about crying over the past, or
obsessing about something we cannot change; it is about becoming motivated to
rise up from mourning, to transform this world into a place for the Divine
The seductive qualities of the ancient pagan cult of Tamuz feed
off the human feelings of frailty, and the false feeling of vulnerability; the
cult of seeing life in the negative, as a tragedy. The very name of this month
beckons to us to break the cycle of pain and tragedy, to dry the tears and to
rise up out of the dust of mourning.The writer, a rabbi, is the director
of the international department of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem. For over
three decades the Temple Institute has been dedicated to every aspect of the
biblical commandment to build the Holy Temple.
Through its research and
educational programming, the institute seeks to highlight the universal
significance of the Holy Temple as a house of peace and prayer for all