The Saddest Time of the Jewish Year


The Saddest Time of the Jewish Year

Part of an Ongoing Series entitled Hidden Sparks Beneath the Surface

By Elisheva Tavor 

All of the months are interrelated each connecting to the next in the cycle of the seasons, the ‘round’ of the year…set up by the Creator from the beginning for our benefit to make up what we call time…each is significant to the whole…and each carries within it a special spark that lies hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered…to connect us deeper to Him. This month with its abominable name and its dark history that follows us into the next month, although challenging, is no exception! We just have to dig deeper to find the sparks!

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

The Three Weeks

What is 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?

As we move further away from the dramatic fire of Sinai we find ourselves encompassed by the thick, black darkness associated with the month of Tammuz and the horrific events which began to escalate on the infamous17th day which according to Jewish tradition was the day Moshe came down from  Mount Sinai and found the people dancing around the golden calf. At the sight of this rampant display of idolatry he threw the tablets with the Ten Wordswritten by the very finger of HaShemto the ground (Exodus 32:19), crushing them into pieces. This was the first of many tragedies that occurred on the 17thof Tammuz.

Possibly the most well-known event that occurred during this time period  a few hundred  years later in approximately 586 BCE was the capture of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Holy Temple, led by King Nebuchadnezzar and his powerful Babylonian army. With the city having been plumaged, burned and overrun, the Holy Temple destroyed, the Jewish people were taken into Babylonian captivity. (Jeremiah 52, II Chronicles 36, II Kings 25). Seventy years later, they were allowed to return (only a small percentage did) and rebuild their temple.

Ironically enough, history repeated itself, for in the year 70 CE, the Romans came, breached the 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 9thof Av, known on the Jewish calendar as Tisha b’Av

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 17thof Tammuz and Tisha b’Avis well-known in Jewish circles as simply 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 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 interesting that in the Kabbalistic writings of Sefer Yetzirah, translated the Book of Formation, each of the12 months are associated with a Hebrew letter. The 4thmonth of Tammuz according to this source is associated with the letter chet and the sense ofsight.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 17thday of Tammuz. Interestingly enough there is a paradox here; for the gematria or numerical value of the number 17 is tov, meaninggood. How can such a day that has been so tragic be called good? In actuality, it could be said 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)

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 badthing 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 in 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 21 days of joyful festivities 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 Jeremiah 8:18-19, we read that the fast days of the 4thmonth (17 Tammuz), the 5thmonth (Tisha b’Av), the 7thmonth (Fast of Judean Governor, Gedalia) and the 10thmonth (10thof Tevet) will be changed into “times of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts…”It is significant to note that these two verses are set apart by white spaces.

The Kabbalistic teachings of the Zoharbring 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 sightin the darkness…but it is here in this darkness…deep in the ground where as it splits open, it takes 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 enter into this Three Week period of mourning on the 17thof Tammuz and symbolically step into the darkness of what it has represented throughout history, may we remind ourselves to remember the poignant words, “Everythingno 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.”

May we challenge ourselves 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, 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, become what we were created to be as we enter into the joy of being a child of the King, Baruch HaShem!








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