Wednesday, July 27, 2005

17th of Tammuz (Archives)

“The fast of the fourth and the fast of the fifth month…. Shall be for joy and gladness”

Shavuot is barely behind us, and already we are at the last Shabbat before the “three weeks” of mourning for the Temple, culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av. An old Jewish folk saying describes the melancholy mood of the summer months in Jewish life: “Seven weeks counting; three weeks weeping; four weeks blowing [the shofar] -- and the whole summer is gone.”

From time to time, there have been those who have questioned whether all of this mourning practices are still necessary, given that today we have a sovereign State of Israel, what some might even call “the Third House.” Some years ago I wrote an article about this question for the Jerusalem Post, for which I interviewed Professor Moshe David Herr, historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was among the active members of a group known as ha-Tenu’ah le’Yahadut shel Torah (“The Movement for Torah Judaism”). This group, headed by the late Professor Ephraim E. Urbach, was created shortly before 1967 by a small group of religious intellectuals, its purpose being to examine the entire gamut of issues raised by the meeting between traditional Judaism and modernity and the existence of the Jewish state.

Following the Six Day War they also considered the above question. Their argument was in essence a simple one: Our generation has witnessed the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the ingathering of Jews from all parts of the earth, and the rebuilding of a modern city of Jerusalem (albeit not the Temple), inhabited by nearly half a million Jews, that might well be described as the crowning glory of the Jewish people. Has not the time come to abolish or at least modify some of these practices, which reflect the mood of a people living in dismal exile, yearning from afar for its homeland and holy city “where foxes walk,” rather than of a sovereign, proud nation living in its own land?

Prof. Herr described the atmosphere of the days following the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 as follows: “After the war there was a tremendous feeling of euphoria. On that first Tisha B’av, the atmosphere at the Kotel was more like that of a festival than of a day of mourning. On the 17th of Tammuz, barely six weeks after the victory in the war, some of us gathered at a private home for the weekday morning service, without reciting the various additions for fast days, and without Tahanun (the petitionary prayers recited every weekday, except when there is some degree of festivity). Afterwards cake and wine was served, and we drank Le-hayyim. During that first year, prominent rabbis from abroad, such as Dr. Shmuel Rene Sirat, later Chief Rabbi of France, also made festive meals on that day.

“Another troubling issue was that of Tisha B’av, and the three-week mourning period preceding it. Everyone agreed that Tisha B’av should continue to be observed as a fast—because of the Temple, which remained to be rebuilt, as well as because of the many troubles throughout Jewish history that were associated with this date, and particularly because of the terrible destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it seemed to us that the mourning period need not be so strict as it had become over the centuries, especially in the custom of Ashkenazic Jewry.

“We recommended returning to the norms in the Mishna and Talmud, which are basically those observed today by Sephardic Jewry: no mourning at all between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Av; no excessive rejoicing—weddings, etc.—from Rosh Hodesh on; and limiting restrictions on eating meat and drinking wine, on bathing and washing clothes, cutting hair and shaving, to the week of Tisha B’Av itself.” The position taken by Urbach and Herr’s group has both historical and halakhic precedence. The book of Zechariah relates that, after the return to Zion in 536 B.C.E., some people approached the prophet with the query, “Shall I weep in the fifth month, as I have done these many years?” (7:3). The prophet prefaced his answer with an ethical exhortation concerning the spiritual goal of fasting —to pursue truth and justice, kindness and mercy to ones fellow, etc. —and concluded with the hopeful words, “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah” (Zech. 8:19).

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) puzzles over these words: why are these fast days referred to in one place as “fasts” and in another as “days of joy”? The answer given is, that in times of peace (i.e., when Jews are not under the hands of the Gentile nations—thus Rashi), these shall indeed be days of joy; in times of persecution, they shall be fast days; when the situation is neither one way or the other, “if they wish, they shall fast; if they wish, they need not fast.” In fact, after the destruction of the Second Temple it became virtually universal Jewish practice to fast on all four “minor” fast days, Jews with good reason perceiving their situation as being far closer to “persecution” than to “peace.”

Herr added that even before 1967 there were those who felt that the restoration of Jewish sovereignty was sufficient justification to abolish all fasts with the exception of Tisha b’Av and , of course, Yom Kippur—recounting a rather amusing story in which Rabbi Mordechai Breuer happened to visit Herr at the latter’s parental home on one of these fast days, sometime in the mid-‘50s, when people were eating a modest meal for health reasons, and burst out, “Where is the wine? Where is the meat?” This last point is of particular significance at a time when the Prime Minister of Israel is negotiating some possible partial, symbolic Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Why, then, was it that hardly a trace of these proposed changes took root within the religious world? Even those synagogues in Israel which proclaim themselves to be “religious Zionist” continue to use the old text of Nahem; many religious people (even Sephardim!) refrain from shaving for the full three weeks; and, whatever individuals may do in the privacy of their homes, the public norm is to regard all of the fast days as sacrosanct. Even the religious kibbutz movement (Hakibbutz Hadati), which has been known for its fresh and pioneering thinking on many religious issues, accepts the old tradition on this point.

Prof. Herr thought that all this is simply unthinking conservatism, symptomatic of rigidity and fossilization in religious thinking. Rabbi Zalman Koren, advisor to the Chief Rabbinate on matters of Jerusalem, suggested that the proposed changes (which were never accepted by more than a small number of people) grew out of a mood of euphoria that followed the ‘67 War; as the years passed, and the initial hopes held out by the unification of Jerusalem failed to be realized, the religious public returned to the feeling of living in an unredeemed, pre-messianic reality, including the observance of all the time honored customs of the three weeks. Then there are those who argue that: “We are not really independent, because every Israeli prime minister, right or left, has to keep one eye on Washington to see how it will react to his moves….” There are also cogent halakhic arguments against abolishing the “minor” fast days, notwithstanding Rashi’s comment about “Jewish autonomy.” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion noted that there are other authorities, such as Maimonides, who implies, and Rabbenu Hannanel, who states explicitly, that all of the fast days for the destruction of the Temple will remain in force until the rebuilding of the Temple.

“Seek the Lord where He is to be found”

This Sunday is the Seventeenth of Tammuz, one of the statutory fast days of the Jewish calendar; like all other fast days, the Torah is read at both the Morning and Afternoon Services (the section about the Divine forgiveness following the sin of the Golden Calf and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: Exod 32:11-14 and 34: 1-10; see on this HY I; Ki Tisa), as well as there being a haftarah read at Minhah, Isaiah 55:6-56:8, beginning with the above words. In fact, the fast days are unique in being the only days, apart from Shabbat and full festival days, on which there is a haftarah; they are also the only days, apart from Shabbat and Yom Kippur (which is anyway sui generis), at which the Torah is read at Minhah. (On Tisha B’av, there is also a haftarah at Shaharit, as well as a different Torah reading; we shall discuss these, God willing, at the proper time).

What is it about fast days that, more so than Hanukkah, Purim, Rosh Hodesh or even Hol Hamoed, calls for a special prophetic reading? Conceptually, the underlying idea of all fast days is teshuvah, repentance. The classical fast days, such as those discussed in Tractate Ta’anit, were declared in the event of various national disasters: drought, famine, war, pestilence, etc. The idea was not only to refrain from eating, but for the entire community to engage in an intense, concentrated effort of turning back towards God. Maimonides, in the opening paragraphs of his “Laws of Fast Days,” articulates the underlying theological principles: the belief in divine justice, of retribution for sin, the conviction that bad things do not happen merely by chance, but are indicative of divine displeasure, resulting from some deep-rooted evil in the community. Similarly, the statutory fast days, such as the 17th of Tammuz and the others commemorating various phases of the destruction of Jerusalem, are intended to “remember our forefathers’ evil deeds, which are like our own” (ibid., 5.1)—that is, they are not mere antiquarianism, but are intended to link together past and present.

The elements of the fast day, again according to Maimonides (Ta’aniyot 1.17) are three: 1) moral exhortation and collective soul searching, in which the community leaders call in known miscreants and ruffians in an attempt to call them to account and mend their ways; 2) extensive readings from the Torah, such as the blessings and curses, intended to bring home to the people the consequences of their wrong doing; 3) prayer—special public gatherings, in which the people beseech God’s mercy. In certain cases, this involves an elaborate liturgy, in which six additional blessings are appended to the regular Amidah. This element is probably the source of today’s custom of reciting Selihot on fast days; indeed, Maimonides sees this as the essential element of the fast day as a Torahitic institution (Ta’aniyot 1.1), the fast itself being only of Rabbinic provenance (1.4). In this context, the introduction of an additional Torah reading in the afternoon, replete with a prophetic reading of an exhortative character, makes much sense—particularly as the central prayer of the fast day, in the “street of the city,” was also held in the afternoon, when the people had already been fasting most of the day.

All this is by way of rather lengthy introduction to the text from Isaiah 55 on. The opening words evokes the central theme of the fast days: God’s closeness and readiness to hear prayer (notwithstanding that in R.H. 17a and Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva 2.7 this verse is used specifically of the Ten Days of Penitence in contradistinction with the fast days, when God hears public convocations “whenever he call unto Him”), coupled with the exhortation to the evil-doer to abandon his evil ways and even thoughts. The balance of the haftarah actually does not engage in chastising the people for their wrongdoing, but invokes certain theological concepts. The ineffability of God’s thoughts (“as high from you as the heaven is above the earth”); the sureness with which God’s word bears fruit (“like the rain moistening the earth”); God’s love for all, even those who think they are abandoned and remote from His purview (“the children of strangers... the eunuchs who observe my commandments”), ending with words of comfort and blessing (“For you shall go out in joy… I will lead them to my holy mountain and rejoice them in my house of prayer...”).


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