The Three Weeks

We are in the period of the Jewish year called The Three Weeks. The three weeks are a reference to the three weeks that start with the fast of the seventeenth day of Tamuz,  Shiva Assar Be-Tamuz, and end with the fast on the ninth of Av, Tisha be-Av.

In the words of Jeremiah the Prophet in the book of איכה (Lamentations) this period in time is called “בין המצרים “ between the barriers. Rashi in his commentary on Lamentations provides us with the following image. “A wall on one side and a wall on the other side boxing us in. There is nowhere to escape.

The beginning of the verse says, “all those who pursued her (Klal Yisroel) caught up to her between the walls.” Rashi continues to explain, this is also a reference to the three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and Tisha B’-Av. These two days represent two confining walls, like bookends, which mark  the beginning and end of tragic and difficult times.

In fact when we look back in Jewish history, we notice an inordinate amount of tragedies that occurred on these two dates.

The Mishna in Tractate Taanit lists 5 calamitous events that happened on the 17th of Tamuz, and 5 calamitous events that occurred on the 9th of Av.

This week we will discuss the five tragedies that occurred on the 17th of Tamuz, and next week we will concentrate on the tragedies that occurred on the 9th of Av.

The five events that occurred on the 17th of Tamuz are:

  1. Moshe broke the tablets with the 10 commandments

The Jewish nation arrived at Mount Sinai on the first day of Sivan. On the Sixth day of Sivan, the Jewish People received the Ten Commandments. They heard the first two commandments from Hashem, and then asked Moshe to relate the remaining eight commandments to them. The next day, the seventh of Sivan, Moshe went back up the mountain for forty days to receive tablets, and to learn from Hashem the remaining 603 commandments with all their details and particulars in the form of the oral Torah.

When Moshe went up the mountain, he told the Jewish people that at the end of forty days, early in the morning, he would return with the tablets. Since Moshe ascended the mountain in the morning, the seventh day of Sivan was not a full day as it started with sundown the night before. Therefore, the first day of the forty, was the eighth of Sivan. Counting forty from then, the fortieth day falls out on the seventeenth day of Tamuz. That was this day that as Moshe descended the mountain, he saw the Jewish people with the golden calf.

Upon seeing it, he threw down the tablets and broke them. It is interesting to know that Hashem supported Moshe’s decision to break the tablets.

This is not the place to explain the sin of the golden calf; I hope to dedicate an entire lesson on it in a future booklet. At this time, let us just say, that the Jewish people never wanted or requested an idol to worship. They wanted a substitute for their leader Moshe. A few people slipped into their old ways and actually worshiped  the calf as an idol, but that number was only 3,000 people out of at least 600,000, a very small percentage of the Jewish nation. The reason the entire nation was punished is, that since we are all responsible for one another, and they did not object or try to stop the problem, they became accomplices.

There is an interesting observation. Why does the Mishna cite the breaking of the tablets as the calamity and not the sin of the golden calf? Wasn’t that really the problem?

We can ask a second question. Hashem gave us a second set of tablets, so what is the big deal about the breaking of the first?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding the difference between the first and second set of tablets.

When Moshe went up to receive the first set of tablets, he went up the mountain empty handed. Hashem created the tablets in heaven, engraved the ten commandments on them, and then handed them to Moshe. Both the tablets and the writing were from Hashem.

The second time around, Hashem commanded Moshe to hew a set of tablets, similar to the first ones, from a mountain, and to bring those tablets with him to heaven. Hashem then engraved the ten commandments on those earthy stone tablets.

What is the significance of this change? Our sages explain it in the following way. A לוח means a slate or a tablet. There are verses in scripture which compare a heart to a slate.


(2) ספר משלי פרק ז

(ג) קָשְׁרֵם עַל אֶצְבְּעֹתֶיךָ כָּתְבֵם עַל לוּחַ לִבֶּך

King Solomon says in Proverbs: Tie them on your fingers, write them on the slate of your heart.

Based on this reference, the tablets on which the ten commandments were engraved, represent the state of the hearts of the Jewish people.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the Haggadah is the dayaynu’s. We all sing the song with spirit. But there is a most puzzling line in that list. We say, “If Hashem had only brought us to Mount Sinai, and not given us the Torah, Dayaynu.” (It would have been enough to give thanks for.)

What is the achievement of Mount Sinai without having received the Torah there?

One of the many answers given to this question is, that the Jewish people reached the very highest level a person can reach at Mount Sinai. This is indicated in the statement that “he” referring to the Jewish nation, camped at Mount Sinai. Our sages pick up on the use of the singular word “he” instead of “they”.  Wouldn’t that have been a more accurate description of a few million people?

Rashi answers the question: כאיש אחד בלב אחד  They camped “like one man, with one heart.”

This was the absolute highest level a person could hope to reach. This means, that each and every person had succeeded in elevating himself above his own selfish, personal interests. There was no me, and no you, it was we. This was because in their hearts, was only the pure desire to do the will of Hashem. Their material self, was completely neutralized and did not exert any influence on them at all.

In the words of our sages, they reached the state of Adam who was completely spiritual before he sinned. By eating from the tree of knowledge good and bad, he brought materialism into himself and created the state of affairs we have today.

Thus, the first set of tablets which were from heaven, represented the pure and holy state of the hearts of the Jewish people at that time. They were hearts that were completely compatible with the holy words of the Torah that Hashem was giving them.

For this reason, Rabbi Elazer in the Talmud teaches us, that if the first tablets had not been broken, we would have never forgotten a word of Torah that we learned.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עירובין דף נד/א

ואמר רבי (אליעזר) [אלעזר] מאי דכתיב חרות על הלוחות אלמלי לא נשתברו לוחות הראשונות לא נשתכחה תורה מישראל

The Torah and the Jewish heart were of the same material. They would join seamlessly to be one, never to be separated.

Our Sages also teach us, that had the first tablets not been broken, no nation in the world would ever be able to subjugate us.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עירובין דף נד/א

רב אחא בר יעקב אמר אין כל אומה ולשון שולטת בהן שנאמר חרות אל תיקרי חרות אלא חירות

רש”י עירובין דף נד/א

על הלוחות – בשביל הלוחות היו בני ישראל בני חורין:

Rashi explains that through the connection that we would have had to the Torah, we would have been free of any oppressors. The Jewish people would have been at such a high spiritual level, the nations of the world would not have been able to get near us.

This is the reason why Moshe felt he had to break the tablets. Upon seeing the state of the Jewish people, he realized they were no longer fit for such holy tablets. They would not be able to relate to them coming from where they were at this time.

This being said, we now have a small clue as to what was lost with the first set of tablets. This loss of holiness will not be restored until the משיח  comes.

With this in mind, we can see a connection between the five calamities which occurred on the Seventeeth of Tamuz.

The other four are:

  1. The walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached during the first and second Holy Temples.

As we learned earlier, had the first tablets not been broken, the Jewish nation would not have been subject to the oppression of any other nation. We would have been on such a high spiritual level, that the nations of the world would have looked up to us and followed our example of how to lead a holy life.

  1. They stopped bringing the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices.

The story behind this is, that the walled city of Jerusalem was under siege during the first Holy Temple, and no one could exit or enter. Thus, the Jewish people were not able to purchase sheep for the daily sacrifice. When they ran out of animals in the city, they would lower two baskets full of gold over the wall, and one of the enemy guards would replace the gold with the two sheep necessary for the daily sacrifices. But then, someone tipped them off and told them, “Don’t you get it? As long as they bring these animals as sacrifices, there is no way you will be able to conquer them!” When they heard that, they put two pigs in the baskets, and as they pulled the baskets up, the pigs dug their nails into the walls and they started to crumble.

The daily sacrifice was something that had started at Mount Sinai, and continued uninterrupted since then. On the seventeenth of Tamuz, this unbroken connection to Sinai ceased to exist.

  1. Apustumus (a Roman official) burned a Sefer Torah

The commentaries do not tell us exactly when this happened, but it is approximated to be about sixteen years before the great rebellion against the Roman Empire, about 135BCE. Nevertheless, the idea is clear. This was a terrible disgrace to the Torah and something that demoralized the Jewish people. If the first set of tablets were not broken, there is no way in the world that the Sefer Torah could have been burned. A Sefer Torah would have been so hallowed that a non-Jew would ever have been able to lay a hand on it, let alone burn it. But, because the tablets were broken, the Torah is not untouchable.

  1. Menashe, one of the Kings of Judah, brought a graven image into the sanctuary of the Holy Temple.

Our sages teach us, that the Holy Temple was a carry-over from Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people clearly witnessed the divine presence of Hashem. The Holy Temple was to preserve the impressions they received on Sinai since in the Holy Temple it was also possible to clearly see the divine presence of Hashem. There will be more about this next week when we discuss the meaning of the loss of the two Holy Temples.

Suffice it to say for now, that in a way, the Holy Temple represented Mount Sinai. Had the Jews remained at the level of holiness that they had at Sinai, the Holy Temple would also have always maintained its level of holiness. It would then have been impossible to breach the sanctity of the sanctuary with an idol.

The day after Moshe broke the tablets, he went back up Mount Sinai for another forty days, to beseech Hashem for forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf. At the end of the forty days, Hashem told Moshe He had forgiven the people and that Moshe should come up Mount Sinai with the new set of tablets, hewn from a mountain. This set of tablets represents the earthy hearts of the Jewish people, who had fallen from their great spiritual height of the original Mount Sinai. The second tablets which we received on Yom Kippur, are the tablets that the Torah we have today, is based on.

Because of our earthy hearts, we forget what we have learned, almost as soon as we have learned it. Because we are trying to pound spirituality into an earthy heart of stone, spirituality comes with great difficulty, and with much effort. And, as a result of our low level of holiness, the nations of the world are on our case, and driving us crazy. What are we to do?

There is a very inspiring concept hidden here.

When Hashem decided to give the ten commandments to the Jewish people for the second time, He told Moshe to bring up a set of stone tablets. And on those earthy material stones, Hashem would engrave the holy words of the ten commandments!  Similarly, Hashem tells us, bring Me your earthy hearts, and I will engrave My holy Torah on them! All I ask of you is to serve me with all your heart; do my mitzvahs, learn my Torah. If you give me your heart, even though it is earthy, I will engrave my Holy Torah on it and make it holy. What an amazing idea. Hashem is ready to engrave His holy Torah on my lowly earthy heart. What a privilege!

This is our task in life. To make ourselves worthy of Hashem’s Torah. May we all merit to accomplish this in our lifetimes.

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