The 17th of Tammuz marks the beginning of the ‘Three Weeks’, a period of semi-mourning lasting until Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av). It falls during the secular months of June or July. The fast is referred to in the Bible (Zachariah 8:19).
On the 17th of Tammuz in 69 C.E. the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the armies of Rome; after further fighting, three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, the holy Jewish Temple was set aflame. The delay of three weeks was because the Temple was in its own walled compound within Jerusalem; once the Roman soldiers had breached the walls and entered Jerusalem, they then had to fight their way to the part of the city where the Temple was and then breach the wall around the Temple compound. According to tradition, the 17th Tammuz was also the day Moses smashed the Tablets of the Covenant upon beholding Israel’s worship of the Golden Calf.
The Mishnah in Ta’anit 4:3 (part of the Oral Law) lists five tragic events of Jewish history that happened on the 17th of Tammuz:
- Moses smashed the first tablets upon seeing the Jews worshipping the golden calf.
- During the period of the first Temple, the besieged population of Jerusalem could not obtain an animal for the daily sacrifice.
- The walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans during the second Temple period in 3829 (69 C.E.).
- Apostamus, a Roman officer, burnt a Torah scroll.
- An idol was placed in the holy Temple.
How do we observe the Fast of Tammuz?
On the Fast of Tammuz we refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until nightfall. Beginning on the Shabbat before 17th Tammuz, we read the “Three of Rebuke” – three weekly readings from the Prophets which prophesy the destruction of the Temple, describe the sins which caused it, and admonish us to repent our ways.
During the Three Weeks of mourning, no weddings or other joyous events are held; like mourners, we do not cut our hair or purchase new clothes. Additional mourning practices are assumed during the “Nine Days” beginning on 1st Av, such as refraining from eating meat, drinking wine and enjoying music.
According to the Talmud, in messianic times the 17th of Tammuz will be transformed into a day of joy.
The three weeks of rebuke are followed by seven weeks where we read weekly portions of consolation, describing the future redemption and the rebuilding of the marriage of God and Israel. These seven weeks will end on Rosh HaShanah. This emphasises the constant possibility in Jewish history of teshuvah, or repentance.
Shacharit (Morning Service)
Selichot and Avinu Malkeinu are added to the Torah reading for the fast day. After the cantor repeats the Amidah, the congregation adds the Anenu. The Torah is read and three people are called up.
Mincha (Afternoon Service)
The Torah is read again and three more people are called up. The third person called up reads the Haftarah for the fast (Isaiah 55).