The Origins of 17 Tammuz

I notice that in the list of tragedies which occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, it states that Moses broke the Tablets of the law when he descended from Mount Sinai – after he saw the Children of Israel worshiping the Golden Calf. But isn’t the real tragedy the fact that Israel had done such a terrible sin? Isn’t that the event that we should be mourning? Wasn’t the breaking of the Tablets just the aftereffect of their sin, not the tragedy itself?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s an excellent observation. You are right that the true tragedy was Israel’s sin, and that if anything Moses was well-justified in breaking the Tablets once he saw how unworthy of them the nation had become.

Even so, the Sages (Mishna Ta’anit 4:6) were quite precise in their language when they listed the breaking of the Tablets as the tragedy we commemorate on Shiva Asar b’Tammuz. (Note also that the Golden Calf itself was constructed on the 16th, the day before Moses returned, although Aaron was able to delay its worship till the next morning, of the 17th. See Exodus 32:1-6)

The reason for this is because on the fast days of our calendar we are not simply mourning tragic past events. We are mourning those events which still affect us today, which have permanently and irreparably altered our relationship with God. And from that perspective, the shattering of the Tablets is the actual event which more than anything else is tragically still with us today.

When Moses broke the Tablets, he did not merely do so as an expression of anger. He had a very specific calculation in mind. The Tablets signified a contract between God and Israel. The Sages compare it to the Ketubah – a marriage contract (see Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tisa 39, brought in Rashi to Exodus 34:1). Had Moses given the Tablets to Israel, we would have been “married” to God. And straying after idolatry so immediately would have been tantamount to being unfaithful to one’s spouse immediately after the wedding.

Moses thus destroyed the Tablets – the equivalent of tearing up the marriage document. This saved the Children of Israel. To a small degree, we were no longer God’s people – and as a result we were not as culpable for so serious an infraction.

Moses’s act thus saved us from immediate destruction but at the same time nearly sacrificed our status as God’s special nation. Moses had to pray for another 40 days to fully avert the nation’s destruction, and then spend yet another 40 days re-receiving the Torah at Sinai. Only after this entire period did Moses descend with the Second Tablets on Yom Kippur and did God re-accept us fully as His nation.

Even with this “happy ending,” much was lost in the process. The Talmud teaches us that had we retained the first Tablets no one would have ever forgotten any Torah he studied (Eiruvin 54a). The First Tablets represented a much higher, more pristine relationship with God – unlike the Second, which in some ways resemble a second marriage.

This is why we mourn the breaking of the Tablets rather than the Sin of the Golden Calf. As bad as the sin was, what truly altered our relationship with God till this day was Moses’s breaking of the Tablets. It was needed and actually what saved us, but in a sense it was more directly the cause of our mourning on 17 Tammuz.

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