by Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman
Tammuz. The time when the sun is at its zenith. Long days of intense, often harsh heat. Tammuz is the turning-point of the seasons; Tekufat Tammuz
is the Hebrew counterpoint to the summer solstice. The beginning of the proverbial “long hot summer.” In one Talmudic tradition Tammuz is described as
a time of special danger, when a person who walks alone in mid-day of Tammuz is exposed to the deleterious effects of ketev-merari (a phrase from Deut
32:24), a vague, harmful demonic force…. The light and warmth of the sun, one of the ultimate sources of all natural blessing and even of life itself,
can be a curse when there is too much of it, too intense (shades of global warming?).
In Jewish history, too, Tammuz is a time of harshness. Midway through the month is the 17th of Tammuz, the second of the four fast days for the destruction
of Jerusalem, the traditional date of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem (before the Destruction of the Second Temple; 2 Kings 25:3-4 gives the date
for breaching of the walls in the First Temple period as the 9th of Tammuz). As such, it is the beginning of the Three Weeks, bein ma-metzarim, “between
the breaches”—the period leading up to Tisha b’Av. It is a time of mourning, of denying ourselves certain physical pleasures and comforts, and of sober
reflection—not so much over individual faults, but of collective responsibility and sin.
An important Rabbinic tradition notes that, whereas the First Temple was destroyed because of “bloodshed, licentiousness, and idolatry”—the three cardinal
sins in Judaism—the Second Temple was destroyed “because of causeless hatred”—what we might today call factionalism: a situation in which religious and
national-political ideologies become the center of individual identity, running amok, and simple human empathy was lost in the shuffle.
But one ought not to make light of the sins of First Temple paganism either. Sexual licentiousness and ritual bloodshed seem to go hand in hand with certain
kinds of paganism. Interestingly, Tammuz was the name of one of the pagan deities worshipped during that age—the only such whose name is associated with
that of a Hebrew month. Tammuz—originally the Sumerian shephered god Dumuzid, or the Akkadian Dumuzzi—was consort of the female Inanna/Ishtar, whose death
and rebirth were associated with the intense like heat and drought of mid-summer followed by rebirth, through rituals of mourning. “The women weeping
for the Tammuz” described by the prophet Ezekiel (8:6-14) was among the shocking sights he observed when he was taken to the inner sanctum of the Temple
A third feature signaling the character of this month is the sequence of Torah portions read. During Tammuz, we read and almost always complete the second
half of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. As we have observed on other occasions, this is in some ways the most difficult book on which to get a handle.
It seems a potpourri of laws, stories, rebellions, and disasters.
In the first half of the book (roughly speaking: the parshiyot read in Sivan) , there is a sense of timelessness, of suspended animation, of being “nowhere”
in the desert. There is no interaction with other peoples; no real material needs (the Israelites eat the miraculous manna that falls every morning;
they drink water from the “Well of Miriam”; their garments and shoes don’t wear out). To be flippant, one might compare it to a reality show, in which
people are thrown upon their own resources simply to get on with one another, and the strengths and weaknesses of human nature (mostly the latter) are
revealed in all their nakedness. Or perhaps it can be compared to Sartre’s play No Exit; in which three people are shut in a room for eternity and the
conflicts among them play themselves out. “Hell is other people” becomes the motto.
The second half of the book is somehow more down to earth: there is interaction with other nations, as well as a sense of expectancy, of readiness, of
preparing to enter the land. A number of sections go down to the smallest technical details of how to settle the Land, of its boundaries, of dividing
the land among the tribes, of “extra-territorial” Levitical cities and cities of refuge—and even of how to handle an unusual case of inheritance in a family
where there are only daughters. There is also a change of leadership: Joshua instead of Moses; Pinhas instead of Aharon.
In Hukat and Balak the focus is on interaction (mostly violent) with other nations: the battles with Sihon and Og; fragments of ancient war poetry;
and the strange story of the sorcerer/prophet Bilaam, in which the people of Israel are observed entirely from without. There are more rebellions and
examples of poor behavior on the part of the people: the plague sent among the people for their lack of faith, and the brazen serpent sent to cure it;
and the sexual straying with the Midianite women at Baal Peor.
If one were to seek one central theme, it would be: the confrontation with a harsh, difficult reality (like that symbolized in Jewish history by the three
weeks?). The basic question asked by the Torah, if one may put it thus, is: how does one bring the lofty, unitive vision of Sinai down into the nitty-gritty
harshness, even cruelty, of the desert? Ironically, as these words are being written we find ourselves in the midst of a mini-war with the Palestinians,
one more chapter in a seemingly endless, “no exit” situation of ultimately pointless, un-winnable tribal warfare not so different from that portrayed in
these chapters of Torah.
As for the astrological symbolism: Tammuz is the month of Cancer: the crab, a sea crustaceans, living within a hard, protective shell (a symbol of turning
inward?); a dangerous creature that can snap and bite and even hurt badly. A crabby person is constantly grumpy and complaining. I don’t know whether
the two are connected (although whenever believers in astrology say “So-and-so is a Cancer” it always seems to have a particularly sinister ring), but
the homonymous cancer is a dreaded disease in which unseen disease cells multiply silently, destroying healthy organs over a period of months and years.
All of which are an apt enough collection of metaphors for what can go wrong in life, on both the personal and national level.
(For more essays by Rabbi Chipman, visit his blog