This Saturday is the Hebrew date of the 17th of Tammuz. Long observed as a fast day, it commemorates when the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem ultimately leading to the destruction of the first Temple on the 9th of Av in 587 BCE. The three weeks between this day and the 9th of Av stand out in the Jewish calendar as a time of acts of public mourning which increase as we get closer to the date of the actual destruction. Even though it is still common not to hold weddings during this time, there are many different levels of practice commemorating this time.
Last year, Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the North American branch of the Shalom Hartman Institute noted in a Facebook post how the coffee shops and shwarma stands in Jerusalem looked as full of seeming observant Jews wearing kippot during the 17th of Tammuz as on any other day. This reflects the long-standing debate about whether fasting is still an appropriate response to destructions that happened many centuries ago. Even in ancient times, the rebuilding of the Temple called into question whether traditional fast days commemorating destruction. The prophet Zechariah gave a message that those traditional days of mourning would become days of joy. The feeling of security brought on by the Second Temple was short lived, but the prophecy aspires that those days of mourning could become days of joy.
Rav Pappa who was one of the major rabbis from the latter half of the Talmudic period read the verse a saying that in a time of peace, these days will become a celebration, but when there is not peace, and it is a time of persecution, these days will continue to be fast days. He adds, however, that in times that are neither explicitly times of peace or persecution, if one wants to, they should fast, but this also means that someone could choose not to fast. Throughout the middle ages, rabbis saw the practice of fasting as such a widespread and established custom that even during times of relative peace (of which there were many throughout Jewish history), as a community they still observed these fast days. For many, this changed following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and Jewish control of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Kurtzer’s observation from last year shows how the religious culture in Israel has changed so that the expectation to fast is no longer part of the public religious conscious.
This year, the observance of the fast includes another wrinkle. Because the two days of commemoration fall on Shabbat, a day which is supposed to be full of joy, we delay the observance of the fasts to Sunday following the teaching and the natural response that we delay the recognition of catastrophes. Because of the way the observance does not happen on the day itself, many rabbis are more comfortable finding reasons not to fast.
It’s fascinating to have my first Canada Day being a resident fall on a traditional fast day. It’s not the first time that a day fell during a holiday or vacation, but it does highlight the difference in the source of safety in an ancient city and a contemporary democracy. For the ancient Jerusalemites, safety came from walls that kept out invaders. The Siloam Tunnel that runs underneath the Old City was an engineering feat that allowed for a source of fresh water that meant that the city could survive a much longer siege. The protection of the walls assumed that nothing would have to go in or out. The
most urgent contemporary dangers of hatred and bigotry, however, are much subtler and don’t stop at any sort of wall or boundary. Instead of depending on boundaries to protect us, we live in a society that depends on our active participation to create a country that appropriately cares for its residents and provides safety to its diversity. Whether you treat this Sunday as a celebration or somber commemoration, I hope that you can recognize our communal sources of strength and protection to better protect against the vulnerabilities that can tear us apart.