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The Seventeenth of Tammuz: Canceling the Fast

Dr. Yoel Rappel
| 13/06/2015

According to Jewish tradition, five events took place on the 17th of Tammuz: Moses smashed the tablets of the Law, the daily offering was abolished at the time of the Second Temple, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman general Titus, and the Torah scroll was burnt by Apostamos, who also erected an idol in the Temple (time unknown).

The Rabbis set this day as a fast day, which is observed by tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands Jews, to mark the breach of the wall of Jerusalem, just as the 10th of Tevet marks the start of the siege on the city by Nebuchadnezzar. Is it proper to fast today when Jerusalem is united and under Jewish sovereignty? Has not the time come to change the laws and observances in the face of a new reality that has canceled the original reason for the fast?

Actually, this question is not new; it arose 2,500 years ago, first mentioned in the Book of Zechariah. Two years before the Second Temple was dedicated, the people questioned the relevance of the fasts related to the destruction of the First Temple. The prophet’s answer is unexpected. He warns of an upset in the world of values, and promises that in the future, the fasts of 17 Tammuz, 9 Av, Gedalia, and 10 Tevet will be days of joy and gladness for Israel.

Zechariah, one of the last prophets who lived early in the Second Temple period, believed that the deliberation on modernity versus tradition, of change versus endurance, was a valid discussion. However, in those days, the moral condition was the decisive reason for preserving the fast. When asked if and how to observe the fast, he responded: There is room for discussion, but in another time, not now. But has not that time arrived? Perhaps we need not turn the fast into a celebration, but surely we can and should alter the substance of the day.

In Israel, this discussion commenced in the latter half of the previous century, with the birth of the Movement for Torah Judaism and gathered force in the wake of the victories in the Six Day War. Rabbis, Torah scholars, thinkers and philosophers all proclaimed, “For the first time since the Second Temple destruction, the place where the Shechina resides is in our hands; the holy city is no longer disparaged and in mourning, but waits to be rebuilt by her sons.” Prof. Ephraim Urbach, one of the Movement’s leaders and a leading 20th century Talmud scholar, expressed this hope about the fast of Tisha B’av: that “observant and Torah learning Jews, who genuinely desire to see a rejuvenation of Halakha, will find the courage to create a significant society of Jews devoted to Halakhic authority and ready to stand up for their beliefs.”

Where can we find those courageous Jews who seek a revitalization of Halakha? It should be clearly stated that the majority of Jews in Israel, secular but also many religious, do not fast on 17 Tammuz. So is it not time to act and cancel this fast? The establishment of the State and the achievements of the Six Day War have led to the addition of two new holidays in the Hebrew calendar – Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Should we not subtract other days that are obsolete?

Dr. Yoel Rappel, a graduate of the Schechter Institute, has worked in recent years as a researcher at the Eli Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and as the director of the Eli Wiesel Archives, both at Boston University. He has published 29 books, 14 of which are on Jewish topics.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

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