Remembering the 17th of Tammuz

Shani Abramowitz
on July 17, 2019

The 17th of Tammuz is a fast day that, while minor, holds an exceptional power to carry us through the particularly dark political moment in which we find ourselves. The 17th of Tammuz is a day that, for me, draws up wells of sadness, nostalgia and disappointment — and it is on this day that I think most clearly about what could have been for the Jewish people. I think about our potential, and how on that day, when the sliver in the surrounding walls finally unraveled, and the walls of Jerusalem were breached, everything changed.

The 17th of Tammuz is a certain, but preliminary day of mourning — it is a day that initiates a longer, three-week period of sorrow that culminates in the fast of the 9th of Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples.

The 17th of Tammuz is a day that is historically fraught for the Jewish people. It is believed that on this date, Moses, in reaction to seeing the Golden Calf, shattered the two original tablets containing the Ten Commandments; the daily Tamid sacrifice was no longer offered in the Temple; more than 4,000 Jews were killed in Toledo and Jaen, Spain in 1391 and the Kovno Ghetto was liquidated on the 17th of Tammuz 1944.

But for all of the inherited historical trauma of the 17th of Tammuz, there are a number of redemptive moments that might help us remember the importance of the work ahead — that essential work that can only be born of darkness. It is believed that on this same date, following the flood that nearly destroyed the entire world, Noah sent out the first dove to see if there had been a respite in the waters. While this dove found no place to rest, his flight was in so many ways a gesture of hope — a hope that the work of repairing the world might finally begin. We also know that following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses ascended Mount Sinai for a second time, to beseech God for the forgiveness that the Jewish people so desperately needed and to begin the slow task of carving the commandments over again.

In our current moment, both historical and political, it feels as if the proverbial walls of Jerusalem have been breached, and that we are running at breakneck speed toward our own demise. It feels as though we have lost touch, that we are quickly losing our grip over rhetoric and policy and that our leaders in the United States, Israel and around the globe have continuously failed to make choices that lift up democracy, denounce racism, sexism and xenophobia and attempt to halt what feels like the inevitable and unbearable slide toward tribalism and jingoism. The world is turning at what feels an unbearable speed, and we are struggling to maintain our balance.

Right now, it is extremely difficult to believe that there might be hope in our future, that there might be a light to unearth from this crushing darkness and fear. And while the 17th of Tammuz sets in motion a longer and more involved mourning period, we must remember and cling to those seemingly small redemptive moments if we stand any chance at making change in this world. The charge of the 17th of Tammuz is just this: to seek out and hold close the little burrowing moments of light, even in the face of overwhelming fear and desperation. The 17th of Tammuz reminds us that our potential has not been stamped out, that the cracks in the walls, however large, might be a threshold through which change and progress may enter.

Shani Abramowitz is a rising fourth year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree in Bible. Originally from Chicago, Shani is a former J Street Organizer and spent the last year working at the New Israel Fund as the Elissa Froman Social Justice Fellow. In the fall, Shani will be working as a Rabbinic Intern at the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

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