This morning started like any other minor fast day—waking up in the dark (3:45 am!) to drink coffee, hydrate and have some food. Today is the not-so-well-known Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, and the start of The Three Weeks, which will end with Tisha B’av on July 30th.
Today is also a reminder of how important Jewish summer camp is in the lives of Jewish children and young adults. Jews who do know about these holidays no doubt know about them from summer camp. These are not holidays students learn much about in Hebrew school as they occur during the summer, when Hebrew school is on break. Not only do people who attend Jewish summer camps know about these holidays they experience them.
Observances of these special days vary from camp to camp and person to person. In more traditional camps, there is no swimming, live music or eating of meat (except on Shabbat) during the 9 days of Av. Camps tend to make a siyum, the completion of a study of a Jewish holy book at some point during the 9 days, as this permits the eating of meat for one meal. The camp wide learning and experiencing of the siyum has potential to be a wonderful educational opportunity.
Tisha B’Av is very memorable to anyone who has ever attended an overnight camp. Who doesn’t remember sitting in a circle as a bunk, outside in the dark, with a candle illuminating Eicha (Lamentations) books, as readers sing or read the traditional biblical text in low voices?
Tisha B’av usually means cancelation of such activities as swimming and boating and climbing. Some post b’nai mitzvah campers fast so competitive basketball, soccer, tennis and softball are also out. They are usually replaced by special programming about the destruction of the Temples and expulsions from various countries throughout history. Some camps run simulations, stations, walks through periods of Jewish history.
As the day ends, there is a shift toward thinking about rebuilding. The mood begins to shift at mincha, when we put on tallit and tefillin—which were “skipped” during the morning service.
Many campers have memories of Israeli mishlachat (delegation) members planning a special program on the lake at the end of Tisha B’av, which somehow meaningfully involved lighting rope which formed a word or phrase in Hebrew letters for all to see. We then break our fast when it gets dark, after 9 pm.
Tisha B’av is a little easier to relate to than the 17th of Tammuz as we have rituals and read a book of the bible on Tisha B’av. The 17th of Tammuz, which marks the start of “The Three Weeks,” is a bit harder. It is not well known at all.
And it is especially hard to mark when at home, away from a community.
One way to mark the day is by learning what it is about in the first place:
In the Mishna Taanit (4:6), we learn:
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:
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.
So what should a person stuck at home, likely indoors due to Covid and 90 plus degree weather, do today? We can reflect on the above text, and consider the importance of the temple in Jerusalem. We are taught in the Jerusalem Talmud that the walls of both temples were breached on that day. But that is admittedly a pretty abstract and far off for most kids.
Perhaps children can better relate to the famous biblical story of Moses, the tablets, and the Golden Calf. Consider reading this story today. It is at the same time a well-known story child can understand, and it is also a complex story.
The Seventeenth of Tammuz occurs forty days after the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Moses ascended Mount Sinai on Shavuot and remained there for forty days. The Children of Israel made the Golden Calf on the afternoon of the sixteenth of Tammuz when it seemed that Moses was not coming down when promised. There are questions about the exact counting of the days, but Moses descended the next day (which was forty days, by his count). He saw that the Israelites had constructed the Golden Calf—in violation of the laws Moses received from God, and he smashed the tablets.
The rabbis offer various views on what exactly happened. May focus on Moses’ anger. Here is a useful article exploring these various views.
This 17th of Tammuz, many children are feeling sad and maybe even a bit angry that camp is not taking place. It may be a nice time to unpack the Moses story and discuss what we do with our anger. How can we use our anger productively? Remember that Moses got a second chance and a “redo” when he got a 2nd set of tablet—but this time he had to do the writing!
May we all have an easy fast and a meaningful Three Weeks.