On this Sunday, we will observe the 17th of Tammuz, beginning the period of the Jewish calendar known as “The Three Weeks.” This period serves to commemorate the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the events leading to the Destruction of the Temple. Many Jews today find difficulty connecting to these events because the Temple is far removed from the center of their religious practice and the founding of the State of Israel has raised objections about the contemporary relevance of these fast days.
Amazingly, questions surrounding the relevance of fast days to mourn the Destruction of the Temple date all the way back to Biblical times. After the Temple was rebuilt, the prophet Zechariah is asked if it is still relevant to observe those days which commemorate the destruction of the First Temple. Zechariah explains that God is not interested in fasts; He wants His people to construct a just and equal society. Furthermore, those fast days will become days of rejoicing (Zechariah chapter 8).
Moving into the Talmudic period, the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a-b) relate to the prophecy of Zechariah and set up a framework for determining when the fast days will indeed become festivals. The rabbis explain that in a time of true peace one is to rejoice, if it is a time of persecution there is a requirement to fast, and in a time of neither peace nor persecution fasting is optional (with the exception of the 9th of Av).
More recently, questions have arisen surrounding the relevance of these fast days after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. Many have argued that in an era when Jewish people have sovereign control over the Land of Israel it cannot be treated as a time of persecution and therefore fasting is at the very least optional. Others contend that the miracle of the State and the “beginning of redemption” warrant for the fast days to become festivals.
Whether one chooses to fast on the upcoming fast days, we would all be well served to return to the prophecy of Zechariah. God is much more concerned with the society that we have created rather than the fasts we take upon ourselves. Can we say with confidence that we have done all that we can to make our society a just one that protects the weak and cares for those who are less fortunate than us? On this 17th of Tammuz let us challenge ourselves to take one step towards achieving Zechariah’s ideal.