The Saddest Time of the Jewish Year – Lighting our Way through the Darkness

The Three Weeks

The Saddest Time of the Jewish Year – Lighting our Way through the Darkness

Part of an Ongoing Series entitled Hidden Sparks Beneath the Surface

  Elisheva Tavor aka Betty Tabor Givin

For a better understanding of the background regarding how the name of a Babylonian sun god made its way into the Jewish calendar and the possible link between the name and the events which have followed the Jewish people throughout history, please see my two previous articles on Tammuz Part One and Part Two.

The Three Weeks – The 17th of Tammuz through the 9th of Av-

What is the significance of The Three Weeks? Why do we remember it? Why is it called Bein HaMetzarim (“between the straits”, i.e. between the days of distress)? Why is it referred to as the saddest time period on the Jewish calendar…why is it a time of mourning and fasting?

Looking back in history, as we move further away from the dramatic fire of Sinai we find ourselves encompassed by the thick, black darkness associated with this 4th month and the horrific events that began to escalate on the infamous 17th day… which according to Jewish tradition was the day Moshe came down from Mount Sinai tablets in hand and found the people dancing around the golden calf. At the sight of this rampant display of idolatry he threw the tablets with the precious Ten Words written by the very finger of HaShem to the ground (Exodus 32:19), crushing them into pieces at his feet. This was the first of many tragedies to befall the Jewish people during this month.

Perhaps the most well-known of these tragedies occurred a few hundred years later in approximately 586 BCE when King Nebuchadnezzar and his powerful Babylonian army breeched the walls of the Holy City of Jerusalem which led to the subsequent capture of the city and the destruction of the Holy Temple three weeks later on the infamous 9th of Av. With the city having been plumaged, burned and overrun, their Holy Temple destroyed, the Jewish people were then taken into Babylonian captivity (Jeremiah 52, II Chronicles 36, and II Kings 25).

One can almost hear and feel the deep emotion of the soulful lament of the captives through the poignant words of Psalm 137:1 in their response to the captors when asked to sing and play one of the songs of Zion…”By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Through the centuries and up through today, these words still have the endearing tendency to bring forth tears as they rip through the hearts of those who love Yerushalayim today. 

Seventy years later, under King Cyrus, the people were given the opportunity to return to their beloved homeland and begin the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. Sadly, only a small percentage of the people chose to return. The majority made the decision to stay in the comfort of Babylon and live in the culture in which they had become accustomed. From what I understand these people became the Iraqi Jews.

Ironically history repeated itself, for in the year 70 CE, the Roman army led by Titus came, breached the city walls, burned Jerusalem, and three weeks later, destroyed the second Temple as the Babylonians had destroyed the first. What was the date?  It was the 9th of Av, known on the Jewish calendar as Tisha b’Av, the selfsame day of the Babylonian destruction centuries before.

The memory of these horrific events that occurred thousands of years ago during this time period coupled with countless other tragic events that have taken place throughout the centuries since then, have continued to permeate the hearts and minds of the Jew and those who love HaShem and His Torah up to this day. This time period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av is well-known in Jewish circles simply as The Three Weeks. It has become a time of deep mourning, yet even in our mourning, we find hope.

Where is the Hope?                                                                                                                      

The message of hope is woven like a golden thread throughout the Torah from the very beginning …”And the earth was chaos (hamas) and void, and darkness (choshech), was upon the face of the deep…G-d said let there be light, and there was light. G-d saw the light that it was good…” (Gen. 1:2-4)

It is noteworthy that in the Kabbalistic writings of Sefer Yetzirah, translated the Book of Formation, each of the12 months are associated with a Hebrew letter. The 4th month of Tammuz according to this source is associated with the letter chet and the sense of sight. The method given to determine the key to this association is to look for the first place that the letter is found in the Torah. Given the dark history of the month of Tammuz, it is no surprise that the first place the Hebrew letter chet is found in the Torah is in the word choshech/darkness.

And what did HaShem do to the darkness? He transformed it into Light, took the chaos and transformed it into order…and saw that it was good. Therein lies our hope…the Light was always there just as it is today, for HaShem is Light…and He can shine His light on the chaos and turn it into order and give it purpose…even the chaos associated throughout history during The Three Weeks! 

The Three Weeks, Bein HaMetzarim, “between the straits” begins on the 17th day of this 4th month.  Interestingly enough there is a paradox here; for the gematria or numerical value of the number 17 is tov, meaning good. How can such a day that has been so tragic be called good? The Jewish sages teach that there are two kinds of good…good that is revealed and good that is concealed. Many things in Judaism as in all of life are not as simple as they seem at face value. Oftentimes, the concealed good is not made apparent until we look back. In the poignant words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “We live life looking forward but we understand it only looking back.” He continues by stating that, “Every bad thing that has happened to you thus far may be the necessary prelude to the good things that are about to happen because you have been strengthened by suffering and given courage by your ability to survive.” He illustrates by reiterating the story of Joseph. (From his article on his website entitled Improbable Endings and the Defeat of Despair).

You will remember the story…how young Joseph, beloved by his father Jacob and hated by his jealous brothers was thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and after spending a number of years in prison, released and through a series of  Divinely guided events, gained the position of being second in command to Pharaoh, the King of Egypt! Through all those years his heart broken father Jacob, because of a devious lie, believed his beloved Joseph to be dead; yet the story takes a surprising turn for the better when after a famine hits the land he is forced to send his sons down into Egypt to secure grain and the brothers unknowingly find themselves bowing down before their brother Joseph begging for grain. Here we find one of the most moving scenes in all of Torah when Joseph, overcome with emotion, weeps and lovingly reveals himself to his brothers. He tells them not to be troubled because G-D had sent him there before them in order to preserve life. In other words he said, you meant it for evil, but G-D meant it for good (see Genesis 45).

There is a tenet is Judaism that speaks to this phenomenon. It says that HaShem in His justice, coupled with His lovingkindness and His mercy, has provided a healing remedy or a repair for each and every seemingly bad thing that happens. In order to fully embrace this principle, we are required to delve deeply to discover those hidden sparks beneath the surface” and grasp firmly to that golden thread of hope that first appears in the Book of Genesis when it makes mention of the darkness being transformed into light.

The Hidden Message of The Three Weeks                                                                              

 Yes, there are 21 days of sadness, darkness and mourning that cannot be minimized; yet we find in the Torah that there are also 21 days referred to as mikrah kodesh, holy convocations, days that are set apart for joy and holiness as well (Leviticus 23, Psalm 104). They are as follows: Shabbat= 1 day, Rosh Chodesh= 1 day, Passover = 7 days, Shavuot = 1 day, Rosh Hashanah = 2 days, Yom Kippur= 1 day, Sukkot = 7 days, and Shemini Atzeret (Simchat Torah) = 1 day. Therefore we add the days, 1+1+7+1+2+1+7+1=21. Note that this calculation rather than being based on the festivals as celebrated in the Diaspora  ( which adds additional days)  is based on the festivals as listed in the Torah and celebrated within the Land of Israel as they will be in the future when all of HaShem’s children will return Home.

Furthermore, in Zechariah 8:18-19, we read that the fast days of the 4th month (17 Tammuz), the 5th month (Tisha b’Av), the 7th month (Fast of Judean Governor, Gedalia) and the 10th month (10th of Tevet) will be changed into “times of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts! ” It is significant to note that in the Hebrew text these two verses are clearly set apart by white spaces.

The Kabbalistic teachings of the Zohar bring out a thought-provoking analogy to these 21 days that we consider a period of mourning. It teaches that The Three Weeks has a hidden meaning…that it is actually the seed for what will become a day of celebration!

When we think of a seed, we think of it being planted, hidden from sight in the darkness…but it is here in this dark place…deep in the ground… where it splits open and takes in nourishment from the earth and the rain waters…and begins to grow… stretching up, up, up…towards the light, until it sprouts and breaks through the surface to become what it was created to be!

So as we are entering  into this Three Week period of mourning on the 17th of this 4th month and as we fast and pray and symbolically step into the darkness of what it has represented throughout history, may we remind ourselves to remember the inspiring words, “Everything no matter how bad, has the ability to turn around.”(Taken from Boechim,The Crying Voice).May we enter into a mindset of both national and personal teshuvah (repentance and return) may we more fully embrace the meaning behind the words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” 

As we challenge ourselves and one another not to fall into the pitfalls of our ancestors nor succumb to the darkness of the world around us, nor despair in our circumstances; but rather stand strong, Nitzavim, intent on seeking the good and discovering those ever present hidden sparks beneath the surface. May we continue to reach toward the light…and like the little seed, flourish and grow and become what we were created to be as we enter into the joy of being children of the King and look forward to the day when HaShem’s house will be a House of Prayer for all people and we will indeed walk together as One, Baruch HaShem!  

In the meantime, may all who fast have an easy and meaningful fast tomorrow.                                                            

Stay tuned for the 5th Month, Menachem Av – The Comfort of the Father                                            By Elisheva Tavor 14 Tammuz 5780


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