The mishnah in the fourth chapter of Ta'anis
tells us that five things happened on the 17th of Tammuz: 1]
The first set of Tablets of the Covenant which Moshe received
at Sinai were broken; 2] The regular, daily sacrifices ceased
to be brought; 3] The walls of Jerusalem were breached; 4]
Epistomos burned the Torah; and 5] An idol was erected in the
It is interesting to note that each of these events occurred
in a different epoch. Also, the mishnah does not list
them in historical order. Moreover, even before telling us
what occurred, the author of the mishnah advises us of
an additional five on Tisha B'Av. Thus there were a total of
ten horrendous events that happened on these two calendar
dates. Five and five are of course ten, but what significance
does that have?
The Chidushei Geonim suggests that the repeating five
implies some meaning relevant to the five Chumshei
Torah, while the number ten is that of the Commandments
inscribed on the broken tablets.
Clearly there is more here than meets the eye. Could it be
that Klal Yisroel twice trespassed on everything they
had agreed to keep? If so, one might also look for a tangible
difference between the first five commandments and the last
The gemora Yoma (9b) discusses the difference between
the destruction of First and Second Temples. "Rebbi Yochanan
said, `The fingernails of earlier generations were worth more
than the stomachs of the later ones.' Reish Lokish responded
saying, `On the contrary, the latter generations were better;
even though they suffered the tyranny of foreign rule, they
learned Torah assiduously.' To which Rebbi Yochanan replied,
`The Temple itself is proof. It came back in previous
generations but not to ours.' "
Loshon Sagi Nohor
There is something being hidden here in the mishnah.
Just when were the Tablets of the Covenant broken? The
midrash offers a calculation showing that Moshe came
down the mountain with them and broke them on the 17th of
Tammuz. Then he went up again to pray for Klal
Yisroel, and again to get the second set of Tablets of
the Law, each time staying another forty days. So it was Yom
Kippur when Moshe Rabbenu returned with the new Luchos
and a general pardon for Klal Yisroel.
The amount of mercy that Hashem has on hand for His children
on that most holy day of the year is impossible to fathom,
but clearly something is being left out of the
mishnah. The day Moshe Rabbenu shattered the first
tablets written with Etzbah Elokim was the same day
that the Jewish people made the Golden Calf, and declared
that a capering, bedeviled idol had delivered them out of the
bondage of Egypt. Klal Yisroel had violated the first
The Yerushalmi here on the mishnah tells us
that Rebbi Yishmoel taught, "HaKodosh Boruch Hu told
Moshe to break them. The posuk says, `I'll gladly
write on these tablets what I wrote on the earlier ones you
broke.' Meaning that Hashem told Moshe, `You were right to
break them.'" The Yerushalmi previously quoted Rav
Yudan in the name of Rav Yissa as saying, "There is no
generation that doesn't suffer from a dram of the sin of the
Golden Calf. As the posuk says, `Coming into the camp,
He sees the Golden Calf.'"
The Korbon Ho'Eidoh comments, "Every calamity that
befalls them is part of the final reckoning for the Golden
Calf or, differently stated, every generation pays a bit of
the debt that was incurred by that terrible sin." The
Korbon Ho'Eidoh goes on to say, "It seems Rav Yissa
learned from the juxtaposition of two pesukim: The
first one says, `They will inherit forever . . . ' followed
by, `Hashem relents of the sorrows of his people.' As such,
Klal Yisroel will carry the burden of sin for the
Golden Calf forever, and Hashem will have to relent of
punishing them again and again."
The Beginning of the End
The Ha'amek Dovor on parshas Beshalach offers a
twofold interpretation of the significance of the daily
sacrifices. Briefly stated, the korbon tomid served a
different function in the Temple than it did in the
Mishkan. While Klal Yisroel was still in its
days of wandering in the desert, the daily sacrifices served
to ensure the special kind of Providential supervision
required until all preparations had been completed for
entering the Promised Land. This, not unlike the Exodus from
Egypt, was a time when even small children were aware that
they were living on miracles. Even the fact that they had
bread and water was visibly a matter of Hashgochoh
But upon entering Eretz Yisroel things changed. Part
of the difficulty involved in the new reality of having a
homeland was that it was not readily apparent to what degree
Hashem was active in their daily lives. There was now room
for error. Thus the purpose of the daily sacrifices also
Once the Temple was built and Klal Yisroel was on
secure footing, and in a time of peace, the korbon
tomid served to ensure their parnossoh.
By creating a situation in which we could no longer perceive
Hashem as the immediate source of our livelihood, it should
have become clear to what extent Klal Yisroel had been
looked after until they reached that juncture. However, this
was not the case. The urge to turn to the deities worshiped
by the previous inhabitants became increasingly stronger.
On the 17th of Tammuz the outer wall of Jerusalem fell to the
enemy, and the Temple mount began to serve as a fortress.
Obviously normal life in the city had long ago ceased due to
the long siege and the ensuing lack of food, fuel and water.
Only now the omnipresent enemy must have destroyed all sense
of personal property and even minimal personal security. The
only thing left in the hands of the Jews was what belonged
both to everyone and to no one -- the Beis
Similarly, the next incident of desolation enumerated by the
mishnah is the burning of the Torah, Heaven help us.
But clearly, Epistomos did not burn the entire Torah, nor are
we told that he destroyed every available Torah scroll.
According to the Tiferes Yisroel it was a single
sefer Torah written by Ezra and kept in the
Azoroh of the Temple. It may have been the scroll used
for the Hakheil ceremony held every seven years on the
first day of chol hamoed, immediately following
Shevi'is, when the king himself read publicly in front
of Klal Yisroel from a scroll that had been handed to
him by the Cohen Hagodol, who received it from Sgan
That Epistomos perpetrated such a violent act of destruction
intentionally, and probably with as much spectacle as he
could manage, was enough to spiritually harm everyone present
or anyone who would ever hear of it.
Beginning from the End
According to the approach of the Chidushei Geonim, the
proper way to understand the mishnah is to identify
each of these events as correlated against one of the books
of the Chumash as well as one of the first five of the
Ten Commandments. Breaking the Tablets of the Law, which has
now been identified as the sin of the Golden Calf, thus
stands parallel to Bereishis and to, "I am the L-rd
thy G-d who took you out of Egypt."
Cognition of Hashem as the Creator of the universe implies
belief in Him. Once one accepts the premise that the world
did not, Heaven forbid, "create itself," then he has already
come to the conclusion that he is a creature. Avrohom Ovinu
is the paradigm.
Thus, idol worship in the form of the Golden Calf, which in
turn was a direct cause of breaking the Tablets of the Law,
was a denial of Torah as well as a refusal to accept the
authority of the master of Bereishis.
What remains is to see how the rest of the mishnah
fits in with the assumption of the Chiddushei Geonim.
What does the cessation of the regular, daily sacrifices have
to do with sefer Shemos and with, "Thou shall not have
any other gods before Me"? How does breaching the city's
outer walls relate to Vayikra and to the prohibition of
taking Hashem's Name in vain? How does the burning of the
Torah parallel sefer Bamidbar or Shabbos? And
finally how can setting up a graven image be correlated to
sefer Devorim and to honoring one's father and
Beginning from the end is easiest, in this case. The
Gemora in the first chapter of maseches
Kiddushin tells us that there are three partners in the
making of every member of the human race: the mother, the
father and HaKodosh Boruch Hu. Quite beside the fact
that life can only come about when peace prevails in the
human element, one can readily see from here that the
Gemora is implying that respect for one's father and
mother is tantamount to a proper relationship with Hashem as
Each of us has to understand that he did not appear in the
world out of nowhere. This implies not only a sense of
gratitude, but also an awareness that one is not entirely
independent. An infant is clearly the most defenseless being
under the sun. Were it not for the fact that a small child is
fed, clothed and bathed by its parents, it would have little
chance of survival even if it didn't fall into the hands of
predators. The persistent revelation that this is in fact the
human condition from birth until the very last breath of life
is in itself a source of faith. One cannot make it through
life on his own.
Further, the gemora in Sanhedrin states that
the sole purpose of Israel's worshiping idols was to permit
promiscuity. Similarly the Rambam's approach in Hilchos
Avodoh Zora is that worshiping deities actually begins
with an enlarged consciousness of the greatness of Hashem,
but is fed by a kind of despair that one's needs can only be
communicated through an intermediary.
Ultimately, this leads to worshiping oneself. Setting up a
graven image to Beauty means that its worshiper considers
himself beautiful; serving an idol devoted to prowess in war
stems from the fact those bowing down to it ascribe it to be
Thus when the mishnah in Ta'anis tells us that
Epistomos or someone else brought in a statue which may or
may not have been pesel Michah, it means that the
intentional abstract emptiness of the Temple was being
replaced with the persona of some natural force.
Actually this is not unlike the prohibition of shechitoh
bachutz described in the last chapter of maseches
Zevochim; in order to trespass on this issur one
must get hold of an animal that has actually been designated
and sanctified for Temple use, and slaughter it somewhere
beyond the precincts of the Mikdosh. In short, it has
to be holy before you can profane it.
Erecting a statue in the place that HaKodosh Boruch Hu
has chosen to be as a dwelling is much the same. Whoever did
that, and whatever state of affairs made such an action even
vaguely feasible, intended to chase Hashem out of the Temple.
But even so it was an inverse admission of the Presence of an
Ultimate Power other than man's on earth.
The Road to Repentance
The road to repentance is much the same as the garden path of
sin -- the difference being that the first, and biggest step
is much shorter. Just as one has willingly forgotten about
the proper place that Hashem has in daily human life, so too
the task now before us is to reinstate our knowledge of that
fact on an hourly basis.
For an observant Jew, every moment of the day is filled with
declarations of Hashem's presence. We call these mitzvos.
Lowered standards of observance may have at one point been a
matter of cognizant choice, but they quickly become a matter
of habit. Reinstating behavioral patterns at any level is not
an easy thing to accomplish, and here it has an added
dimension of self-denial. As there is quite a lot to do
before Rosh Hashanah, I'm certain you'll agree that the 17th
of Tammuz is none to early to start.