What is the 17th of Tammuz about?

The 17th of Tammuz marks the beginning of that part of our calendar known as 'the three weeks.' For many, this initiates a period of mourning for the lost Temples in Jerusalem. This period can also teach us about the rhythm of spiritual time and about how the Rabbis used the calendar as a teaching tool. For example, more than one event is said to have occurred on the 17th of Tammuz.

(ו) חֲמִשָּׁה דְבָרִים אֵרְעוּ אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּשִׁבְעָה עָשָׂר בְּתַמּוּז וַחֲמִשָּׁה בְּתִשְׁעָה בְאָב. בְּשִׁבְעָה עָשָׂר בְּתַמּוּז נִשְׁתַּבְּרוּ הַלּוּחוֹת, וּבָטַל הַתָּמִיד, וְהֻבְקְעָה הָעִיר, וְשָׂרַף אַפּוֹסְטֹמוֹס אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, וְהֶעֱמִיד צֶלֶם בַּהֵיכָל. בְּתִשְׁעָה בְאָב נִגְזַר עַל אֲבוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁלֹּא יִכָּנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ, וְחָרַב הַבַּיִת בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה וּבַשְּׁנִיָּה, וְנִלְכְּדָה בֵיתָר, וְנֶחְרְשָׁה הָעִיר. מִשֶּׁנִּכְנַס אָב, מְמַעֲטִין בְּשִׂמְחָה:

(6) There were five events that happened to our ancestors on the seventeenth of Tammuz and five on the ninth of Av.On the seventeenth of Tammuz: The tablets were shattered; The tamid (daily) offering was cancelled; The [walls] of the city were breached; And Apostomos burned the Torah, and placed an idol in the Temple. On the ninth of Av It was decreed that our ancestors should not enter the land, The Temple was destroyed the first And the second time, Betar was captured, And the city was plowed up. When Av enters, they limit their rejoicing.

In this source sheet, we are going to explore five of the events that are said to have taken place on the 17th of Tammuz.

1. The Tablets were destroyed

ה' דברים אירעו את אבותינו בשבעה עשר בתמוז כו': נשתברו הלוחות מנלן דתניא בששה לחדש ניתנו עשרת הדברות לישראל רבי יוסי אומר בשבעה בו מאן דאמר בששה ניתנו בששה ניתנו ובשבעה עלה משה מ"ד בשבעה בשבעה ניתנו ובשבעה עלה משה דכתיב (שמות כד, טז) ויקרא אל משה ביום השביעי וכתיב (שמות כד, יח) ויבא משה בתוך הענן ויעל אל ההר ויהי משה בהר ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה עשרים וארבעה דסיון ושיתסר דתמוז מלו להו ארבעין בשיבסר בתמוז נחית אתא ותברינהו ללוחות וכתיב (שמות לב, יט) ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל וישלך מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אותם תחת ההר:

§ The mishna taught: Five calamitous matters occurred to our forefathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz, one of which was that the tablets were broken. From where do we derive that the tablets were broken on this day? As it is taught in a baraita: On the sixth of the month of Sivan the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish people. Rabbi Yosei says: It was on the seventh of that month. According to the one who said that they were given on the sixth of Sivan, they were given on the sixth, and on the seventh Moses ascended to Mount Sinai. According to the one who said that the Ten Commandments were given on the seventh of Sivan, they were given on the seventh, and on the seventh Moses ascended to Mount Sinai, as it is written: “And He called to Moses on the seventh day out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16), and it is written: “And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and he went up into the mount, and Moses was on the mount forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:18). The calculation is as follows: There were twenty-four days remaining in Sivan, plus the first sixteen days of Tammuz, which comes to forty days. On the seventeenth of Tammuz, Moses descended, came, observed the people worshipping the Golden Calf, and broke the tablets. And it is written: “And it came to pass, as soon as he came near to the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses’ anger burned, and he cast the tablets out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount” (Exodus 32:19). This shows that the tablets were shattered on the seventeenth of Tammuz.

This passage from the Gemara deals simply with the calculation of dates. Why do you think that, in the eyes of the Sages, a day primarily associated with mourning the destruction of the Temple has its roots in the Torah's narrative? Do you see a link between the breaking of the Tablets and the breaking of the walls of Jerusalem?

2. The continual daily sacrifice in the Temple ceased

The Gemara in Taanit says that we know “from tradition” that daily sacrifices at the Temple ceased at this time. The classic Mishnah commentary 'Yachin' written by R' Yisrael Lifschitz has more to say:

ובטל התמיד
כשצרו, עלי ירושלים כשנחרבה, באותו יום לא נמצאו עוד כבשים להקריב ול"נ שר"ל בימי הורקנוס וארסתבולוס כשצרו זע"ז וכן משמע נמי מב"ק [דפ"ב ב'], מיהו אי קאי אזמן חורבן, היינו זמן חורבן ראשון שצר נבוכדנצר על ירושלים ג' שנים. אבל בית שני לא משכו ימי המצור רק מניסן עד אב וא"כ כשהובקעה העיר פשיטא שפסק הכל והתמיד עמם:

"The continual offering ceased." When they laid siege to Jerusalem and it was destroyed, because on that day there were no more lambs for the daily offering. It appears to me that the this passage is referring to the days of Hyrkanus and Aristobulous (the last of the Hasmonean kings), when they laid siege to one another (during their civil war.) So it also seems from Baba Kama 82b. However, if the passage refers to the time of the destruction of the Temple then it means the destruction of the 1st Temple when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem for three years. It could not be referring to the Second Temple because then the siege only lasted from Nisan to Av, and if so when they broke into the city it is obvious that everything ceased, the continual offering included.

Another tradition teaches that the daily sacrifice was offered without interruption from the revelation at Sinai until the 17th of Tammuz when the walls of Jerusalem were broken. When we mark its cessation, what exactly are we mourning?

3. The walls of the city were breached

הובקעה העיר בי"ז הוה והכתיב (ירמיהו נב, ו) בחדש הרביעי בתשעה לחדש ויחזק הרעב בעיר וכתיב בתריה (ירמיהו נב, ז) ותבקע העיר וגו' אמר רבא לא קשיא כאן בראשונה כאן בשניה דתניא בראשונה הובקעה העיר בתשעה בתמוז בשניה בשבעה עשר בו:

Was this tragedy something that occurred on the seventeenth of Tammuz? But isn’t it written: “In the fourth month, on ninth of the month, the famine was severe in the city” (Jeremiah 52:6), and it is written immediately afterward: “Then a breach was made in the city” (Jeremiah 52:7), which clearly indicates that the city was breached on the ninth. Rava said: This is not difficult, as here the verse is referring to the First Temple, whereas there, in the mishna, it describes the destruction of the Second Temple, as it is taught in a baraita: Upon the destruction of the First Temple, the city walls were breached on the ninth of Tammuz; and at the destruction of the Second Temple they were breached on the seventeenth of Tammuz.

Why would we mourn the breaking of the walls of Jerusalem as a separate event from the destruction of the Temple? Does this line from Psalms suggest any thoughts?

The fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av often seem to blur the distinction between the destruction of the First and Second Temple. The Babylonian Gemara above differentiates between the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second by the Romans, but the Jerusalem Talmud (see here for advanced source) says that the walls were breached both times on the same day: the 17th of Tammuz. It explains the passage from Jeremiah that confused people about the dates. Take a moment to imagine what such horrific destruction would do to your memory.

4. Apostomos burned the Torah

This incident is the big mystery of the Mishnah. The Gemara Taanit 28b simply comments that it is a tradition handed down from our ancestors that a Roman (?) general named Apostomus burned a Torah scroll. Some scholars associate Apostomos with Antiochus Epiphanes, the evil Greek king of the Hannukah story. Others say the Mishna is referring to the following incident recorded by Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews XX 5:4

(4) 4. Now before this their first mourning was over, another mischief befell them also; for some of those that raised the foregoing tumult, when they were traveling along the public road, about a hundred furlongs from the city, robbed Stephanus, a servant of Caesar, as he was journeying, and plundered him of all that he had with him; which things when Cureanus heard of, he sent soldiers immediately, and ordered them to plunder the neighboring villages, and to bring the most eminent persons among them in bonds to him. Now as this devastation was making, one of the soldiers seized the laws of Moses that lay in one of those villages, and brought them out before the eyes of all present, and tore them to pieces; and this was done with reproachful language, and much scurrility; which things when the Jews heard of, they ran together, and that in great numbers, and came down to Cesarea, where Cumanus then was, and besought him that he would avenge, not themselves, but God himself, whose laws had been affronted; for that they could not bear to live any longer, if the laws of their forefathers must be affronted after this manner. Accordingly Cumanus, out of fear lest the multitude should go into a sedition, and by the advice of his friends also, took care that the soldier who had offered the affront to the laws should be beheaded, and thereby put a stop to the sedition which was ready to be kindled a second time.

Another explanation:

את התורה
נ"ל דר"ל אותה תורה שכתב עזרא, שהיה בעזרה, כדאמרינן במסכת סופרים שממנה הגיהו שאר ספרים [ועי' מ"ק פ"ג מ"ד]. או נ"ל דר"ל ששרף כל תורה שמצא. ואפ"ה קאמר התורה לשון יחיד, שכוונת אותו רשע הי' לבטל תורה בכללה מישראל:

"Burned the Torah." It appears to me that this is referring to the scroll of the Torah written by Ezra the Scribe which was kept in the Temple courts and from which all other scrolls were checked and corrected, as it says in tractate Soferim (see mishna Moed Katan 3:4). Or it appears that this means they burned every Torah scroll they could find and the reason that the mishna says 'the Torah' in the singular is that the intent of that wicked one was to completely erase the Torah from among Israel.

5. An idol in the Temple

The Mishnah records that someone placed an idol in the Temple in Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz, the ultimate act of descration - but it does not say whom. Once again there is an argument between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds over who was responsible for doing this evil deed. The Babylonian Talmud thinks it was the same Apostomos named above, and comments:

העמיד צלם בהיכל מנלן דכתיב (דניאל יב, יא) ומעת הוסר התמיד ולתת שקוץ שומם וחד הוה והכתיב (דניאל ט, כז) ועל כנף שקוצים משומם אמר רבא תרי הוו ונפל חד על חבריה ותבריה ליה לידיה ואשתכח דהוה כתיב אנת צבית לחרובי ביתא ידך אשלימת ליה

From where do we derive that this occurred on the seventeenth of Tammuz? As it is written: “And from the time that the daily offering shall be taken away and the abomination that causes appallment is set up” (Daniel 12:11), The Gemara asks: And was there only one idol placed there? But isn’t it written: “And upon the wing of detestable things shall be that which causes appallment” (Daniel 9:27)? The plural, “detestable things,” indicates the presence of at least two idols. Rava said: There were initially two idols, but one fell upon the other and broke its hand. And an inscription was found on the broken idol that read: You want to destroy the Temple; I have given you your hand. It is as though one idol said to the other: You are seeking to destroy the Temple by causing Israel to pray to you; I, too, give you a hand to assist you.

But the Jerusalem Talmud brings a variant reading which attributes this act to the Israelite King Menashe. Which do you think is the greater tragedy - a foreigner placing an idol in the Temple or an Israelite king? Why?


Believe it or not, this is just a brief presentation of the sources on the 17th of Tammuz. If you want to take a look at the bonus source which teaches how the 17th of Tammuz is also the beginning of the teshuva/repentance season - click here.