Etz Hayim logo

tzom tammuz | shiva asar b'tammuz

Quick links: Days of Mourning and Repentance | The Three Weeks | Customs and Liturgy | Haftarah of Admonition


Tzom Tammuz falls on 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz (Shiva Asar B'Tammuz) beginning at dawn and ending at sundown [Actually, when the first stars come out]. Tzom Tammuz is known in the Tanach as the fast of the fourth month and is associated with a coming time of joy and happiness for Judah—Mourning on 17th Tammuz is a prelude to return, a way of living the exilic hope of Divine messianic fulfilment.

The word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts. The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace. (NRSV, Zech. 8:18-19)

Fasting on 17th Tammuz, associated by the people of Zechariah's time with hope in the restoration to Eretz Israel, of the city, and of the Temple in Jerusalem, continues today to provide comforting hope in God's continued presence in shaping history.

The Fast of Tzom [“tzom” means “fast”] Tammuz is associated in Jewish memory with many calamitous dates in Jewish history. On this day Jews fast, refrain from joyous celebrations, observe special prayers and Torah readings. It is on this day also that the “Three Weeks,” a period of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples begins. The “Three Weeks” come to an end with the fast of Tisha B'Av (The 9th of Av).

The Three Weeks: 17th Tammuz - 9th Av

The Babylonian Talmud (Ta'anit 26b; 28b) and associated Gemara discuss the “five” tragedies which were reputed to have occurred on 17th Tammuz.

  1. The breaking of the two tablets of the Law by Moses.
  2. The daily offering (Korban Tamid) was discontinued in the Temple.1
  3. The breaching of the walls of Jerusalem.2
    1. by Nebuchadnezzar, culminating in the destruction of the 1st Temple in c. 586 BCE.
    2. by the romans in 70 CE.3
  4. The Greek, Apostomos4, burned a copy of the Torah (Ta'anit 4:6). This event was later associated with the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt.
  5. An idolatrous image was placed in the Temple.5 

Days of Mourning and Repentance

The 17th Tammuz is linked by historical references and spiritual development with the 9th of Av, a day of national mourning and affliction which recalls the destruction of both Temples and culminating exile. This connection is early, appearing in rabbinic sources in the Mishnah (Ta'anit 4.6) and further developed in the Talmuds and later commentary.

The Mishnah, Ta'anit 4.6 

The Three Weeks — Bein Ha-Mezarim

The days between the 17th Tammuz and the 9th Av are known as Bein Ha-Mezarim (Between the Straits) and are designated days of national mourning and repentance. Jewish tradition recognizes a connection between the events of the 17th Tammuz, which have their foundation in the building of the Golden Calf (and the Breaking of the Tablets), and the events of the 9th of Tammuz and subsequent events through history: all Israel's suffering is a consequence of apostasy. There are parallels between the burning of the Torah scrolls and the breaking of the Tablets of the Law. The discontinuing of the Daily offering and the introduction of an idol into the Temple equate with the Golden Calf. The thinking is that had there never been the Golden Calf the Temple would never have been destroyed and the exile and suffering would never have happened.

“There is no calamity in the world that does not contain some measure of payment for the Golden Calf.” (Sanhedrin 102a)

Yet despite the clear accusations directed at the people of Israel over the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:7, 8) theological reflection has also viewed the sin of the Golden Calf as a necessary prerequisite to redemption.

The Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 4b) notes,

R. Joshua b. Levi said: The Israelites made the [golden] calf only in order to place a good argument in the mouth of the penitents, as it is said, O that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me and keep all My commandments etc.

This statement implies that repentance overcomes even the most grievous sin; the sin of the Golden Calf provides as opening to repentance through the pathway of premeditated collective sin with a necessary “ascent through descent” process of rehabilitation.

Megillat Esther
Jeremiah, fresco, Michelangelo Buonarroti [»]

The Fast of Tammuz, the intervening Three Weeks, and the 9th of Av, however, do not simply provide moments in time to mourn the past but, as the rabbis suggest, “provide a good argument” for living the future. Maimonides taught that the purpose of days of fasting and mourning was not to reflect on the hardships of the past in a similar way to our memories of joys. The days of fasting are days in which “to awaken our hearts and clear the paths to repentance.” The reminders of our past transgressions and those of those who went before us are opportunities to better ourselves and do teshuvah (Maimonides, Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Ta'anit 5.1).

Haftarot of Admonition

The 17th Tammuz is a “seasonal” opening to an important period of introspection and communal reflection which reaches a high point at Tisha B'Av. The haftarah readings for the three Shabbatot between these two dates [known as the Haftarot of Admonition, t’lata d’poranuta] are taken from Jeremiah and Isaiah, prophets who seek to forcefully “wake up” and warn Judah. The prophet is important because he/she was able to find God in their own times, very often when all those around them fail to perceive the connection between God and the world. Their words make connecton possible between history and the future. Prophets and prophecy were not always welcome—even in our own times this fact can be appreciated—but these prophets with their urgent and disturbing rebukes continue today to demand our attention. As Jonathan Sachs puts it, “They were the world’s first social critics and their message continues through the centuries.”

Customs and Liturgy on 17th Tammuz

Fasting. It is customary for healthy adults to fast from morning to evening on 17th Tammuz. Pregnant and nursing women and under age children are exempted from the obligation.

Prayers. Selichot (penitential) prayers related to the day are added into the morning prayers—The Thirteen Attributes of God's Mercy may be omitted from the selichot if praying without a minyan; some include the Avinu Malkeinu in both morning and afternoon prayers. The Aleinu prayer is also added.

Torah Readings. The Torah reading for both morning and afternoon is Ex. 32:11-14; 34:1-10. The Haftarah is taken from Isa. 55:6–56:8.

Other customs. Weddings and other celebratory occasions are generally not held on any day on or between between 17th Tammuz and 9th Av. Some refrain from having their hair cut and other activities so as to add to the austerity measures a period of fast invites. Some increase their Torah study at this time and pay more attention to charitable activity.

1. Some place the date for this calamity to the days before the "first" destruction when sacrifices were discontinued, three weeks before the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple (c. 586 BCE). The Babylonian Talmud (Ta'anit 26b) cites “tradition" as the source of this knowledge. Others suggest a later date at the end of the Hasmonean period which associated the cessation of the daily offering with the scarcity of offerings (because of a siege) and the tradition of an idolatrous image being introduced to the Temple by Apostomos. Josephus (Wars of the Jews) claimed that the cessation of sacrifices coincided with the destruction of the Temple on 17th Tammuz 70 CE.

2. The Talmud discusses the inconsistency between Jeremiah 52:6 which implies the walls were breached on the ninth day of Tammuz and Ta'anit 26b and 28b which say the 17th Tammuz, together with Mishnah 4:6 which associates the two dates with various events. According to Raba there is no contradiction. One refers to the First Temple and the other to the Second Temple—a position with which Rashi agrees. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 4.5) suggests the breaches occurred on the 17th in both cases but the people became confused and miscalculated the calendar so that Jeremiah recorded an erroneous date. Later commentators agreed with Raba's view and in The Tur and the Shulchan Aruch, (Orech Chayim, 549) suggested that the breaches did occur on different dates but because of their proximity and the burden of two fasts on the people the two events were combined on 17th Tammuz.

3. Some place the date of the destruction of the First Temple to 423 CE based on the Second Century Rabbinic work, Seder Olam Rabbah, traditionally attributed to Yose ben Halafta, c. 160 CE but most probably containing later additions. The conflict in dates results in a gap of 163 years. Jewish and Christian sources may use either one or the other date as an historical reference point.

4. Historians are unable to accurately place Apostomos. Some suggest he was a Roman general during the Roman occupation of Israel while others place him in the Greek Period.

5. See BT. Baba Kama 82b for Talmudic discussion placing this event in the Hasmonean Period. Others say this was done by King Manasseh of Judah c. 697-642 BCE (2 Kgs. 21:7).


Image credits
Jeremiah, Michelangelo Buonarroti. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. [source LINK]


    Page Updated: 14 July, 2014    
    Last Site Update: 1 September, 2022 | 5 Elul, 5782
                                                                                           Web Design: Elisheva
corner_shadow bottom shadow corner_shadow