16 Tamuz 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Balak and the 17th of Tammuz
by Daniel Pinner
Parashat Balak begins with Balak, king of Moab, confronted with the Children of Israel approaching his territory, turning in panic to Midian, desperate for an alliance. Together they sent their representatives to call on Bil’am (Balaam), the heathen prophet and charmer on the banks of the River Pethor, hundreds of miles to the north in Aram, to hire him as a spiritual mercenary.
Four times this spiritual hit-man tried to curse Israel and failed when God turned his curses into blessings. The Midrash interprets the phrase “Hashem put the word in Bil’am’s mouth” (Numbers 23:5), as Bil’am was about to utter his first curse-turned-to-blessing, to mean: “He twisted his mouth and tore a hole in it, like a man who drives a nail into a wooden board” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:18 and Tanhuma, Balak 12).
The Midrash interprets “Hashem encountered Bil’am, and put a word in his mouth” (Numbers 23:16), Bil’am’s second curse-turned-to-blessing, just as graphically: “Like a man who puts a bridle on the mouth of an animal and guides it to wherever he wants – so God pierced Bil’am’s mouth” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:20 and Tanhuma, Balak 13).
Having tried twice to curse Israel and having failed both times, Bil’am realised that his mission was hopeless. Nevertheless, he tried a third time:
“Bil’am saw that it was good in Hashem’s eyes to bless Israel, so he did not go – as in both previous times – towards witchcraft, but instead faced the desert” (Numbers 24:1). He faced the desert either in order to face Israel, who were then in Arvot Moab (Ibn Ezra), or to recall Israel’s sin of the golden calf (Targum Yonatan), or to ensure that, even though he would be forced to bless Israel, “he would bless them with a parched blessing” (Sforno).
Even though he was constrained to bless Israel, this third blessing was designed to hurt us:
“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani quoted Rabbi Yonatan: What does the verse, ‘The wounds of a friend are faithful, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful’ (Proverbs 27:6) mean? – The curse with which Ahijah the Shilonite cursed Israel is more beneficial than the blessing with which the wicked Bil’am blessed them. Ahijah the Shilonite cursed Israel by [comparing them to] a reed, as it says ‘And Hashem will smite Israel, just as a reed is shaken in the water’ (1 Kings 14:15). Just as a reed flourishes where there is water, it re-grows even after being cut down, its roots are numerous, and even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it they cannot move it from its place, rather it bends to and fro with them; and when the winds subside the reed remains in its place, [so is with Israel]. But the wicked Bil’am blessed them by [comparing them to] the cedar [‘…like cedars by the water’ (Numbers 24:6)]. Just as the cedar cannot flourish where there is water, its roots are few and its branch does not re-grow after being cut down, and even though all the winds of the world which blow upon it they cannot move it from its place – but when the south wind blows upon it, it immediately uproots and overturns it on its face” (Sanhedrin 105a-106b).
Rabbi Yonatan, a 4th-generation Tanna, was Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani’s main teacher (Pesachim 24a), and Rabbi Yonatan was a student of Rabbi Akiva (Yerushalmi Ma’asrot 5:2).
Hence this Talmudic teaching, contrasting Ahijah’s curse with Bil’am’s blessing, was inspired by Rabbi Akiva – the master, one of the greatest of all the rabbis in the Talmud, the man who fought with all his physical and spiritual might to restore Jewish sovereignty to Israel after the Roman conquest, the man who inspired and spiritually led the Bar Kochba Revolt, the man who was eventually tortured to death by the Romans and who, upon seeing the sun rise as he was drawing his final breath, cried out “Shema Yisra’el – Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One” (Berachot 61b and Yalkut Shimoni, Deuteronomy 837).
Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Balak invariably falls around the 17th of Tammuz; indeed, and this year, Shabbat Parashat Balak falls precisely on the 17th of Tammuz.
(This is by no means unusual: it is the 18th time in the last 100 years.)
“Five things happened to our fathers on the 17th of Tammuz… The Tablets of Stone were smashed; the Tamid [the twice-daily Burnt-Offering of two sheep, one in the morning and one at dusk] was stopped; the city-walls [of Jerusalem] were breached; Apostomos burnt the Torah; and set up an idol in the Holy Temple” (Ta’anit 4:6).
This is the reason that the 17th of Tammuz has been ordained as a fast-day for the generations. Of course, since the joy of Shabbat over-rides mourning, we do not fast this year on the 17th of Tammuz. In previous years, whenever the 17th of Tammuz has fallen on Shabbat, the fast has been postponed by a day. (Whether or not we will still be fasting this coming Sunday we will only know on Sunday.)
The first of these disasters, the smashing of the Tablets of Stone, happened when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Jews worshipping the golden calf.
The second, the cessation of the Tamid sacrifice, happened both during the First Temple and the Second.
According to the Rambam (Laws of Fasts 5:2) and the Mishnah Berura (549:1), the Mishnah speaks of the Tamid having ceased in the First Temple, under the reign of Tzidkiyahu (Zedekiah), the last king of Judea, who was besieged by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. “All the priests’ officers and the nation betrayed greatly, like all the abominations of the other nations, and they defiled the House of Hashem” (2 Chronicles 36:14). The Divine punishment was the invasion of Judea by the Babylonian army – and the rest is history.
According to Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, the Mishnah speaks of the Second Temple period, when there were no sheep to sacrifice when Jerusalem was besieged.
The Talmud describes the situation vividly: “When the Hasmonean kings fought against each other, Horkenos was outside [of Jerusalem besieging it], and Aristobolos was [besieged] within. Every day, [those inside the city] would send money out [and those outside would send sheep in; and those inside Jerusalem] would sacrifice [those sheep] for them as their Tamid offerings. There was a certain old man [inside Jerusalem] who knew Greek philosophy. He mocked them…telling those [who were outside]: As long as they occupy themselves with the Temple Service, they will never fall into your hands. The next day, when they sent their money out, they sent in a pig" (Sotah 49b, Baba Kama 82b, Menahot 64b).
Horkenos and Aristobolos were brothers, sons of King Alexander Yanai. Both claimed the throne, and led Israel into civil war. Horkenos, commanding the forces outside of Jerusalem, made a pact with the Romans, and a contingent of Roman soldiers collaborated with him in besieging Jerusalem. With the help of the Roman army, Horkenos eventually defeated his brother Aristobolos; Horkenos became king, the monarchy became incorrigibly corrupt and Roman control over Israel increased until the ultimate destruction of the Holy Temple.
The third disaster, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls, occurred when Rome invaded in the Second Temple era, the result of a Jewish civil war.
(As Jeremiah 39:2 records, the Babylonian army breached the walls of Jerusalem on the 9th of Tammuz, which was commemorated as a day of mourning at the time. After the Romans breached the walls on the 17th, the two commemorations were combined.)
The fourth disaster, Apostomos’ burning of the Torah, occurred during the Greek-Hellenist occupation of Israel. The Tiferet Yisrael explains that Apostomos, the Greek ruler, burned the Sefer Torah which Ezra the Scribe had written, and which was kept in the Holy Temple. This Sefer Torah was the most accurate and reliable one in existence, and all others were copied from it – which is why its destruction was so catastrophic.
And the fifth disaster was the erection of an idol in the Temple. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:5) quotes two opinions. According to one, it was Apostomos who erected it upon conquering Jerusalem in the Hasmonean period (Second Temple); according to the other, the reference is to King Menashe, in the final century of the First Temple (2 Kings 21, 2 Chronicles 33).
The last four of these disasters reflect the sin of and punishment for the golden calf very clearly: they were violations of the Holy Temple and its sanctity. It is central to Judaism that our sins are always punished measure for measure, and these disasters were indeed appropriate punishments for the original sin of 17th Tammuz – the original perversion of worship of Hashem. For the fathers’ distortion of the Temple sacrifice, the sons were punished – on the same day, centuries and millennia later – by having the Temple sacrifice brutally ripped from them.
After forgiving the sin of the golden calf, God told Moshe: “Now go and lead the nation to where I have told you; behold – My angel will go before you. And on the day that I will remember, I will remember the sin for them” (Exodus 32:34). Rashi, based on a long narrative in Sanhedrin 102a, comments: “Currently I hearken to you, not to destroy them all together. But forever, forever, whenever I will remember their sins to them, I will exact from them part of the punishment for this sin, together with their other sins. And every punishment that ever comes upon Israel includes some of the punishment for the sin of the calf”.
The three-week period of mourning which the 17th of Tammuz ushers in concludes with the 9th of Av – the day which commemorates, among other disasters, the destruction of both Holy Temples and the fall of Beitar (Ta’anit 4:6).
The defeat of Israel by the Roman Empire began on 17th Tammuz when, after a four-year siege, four Roman legions (the Fifth, Twelfth, and Fifteenth to the west, and the Tenth on the Mount of Olives to the east), commanded by Titus (who nine years later would become Emperor of Rome) and his lieutenant, the renegade Jew Tiberius Julius Alexander, breached the First (innermost) Wall and captured the Antonia Fortress.
The defeat culminated with the destruction of the Holy Temple three weeks later, on the 9th of Av 3830 (70 C.E.).
But even then the Jews were not defeated, and continued fighting for their freedom for generations.
The final defeat only came on 9th of Av 3895 (135 C.E.). Bar Kochba’s forces retreated from Jerusalem to Beitar, a town in the foothills of Judea, 11 km (7 miles) south-west of Jerusalem, which became their final stand against the might and fury of Rome.
In Bil’am’s fourth and final curse-turned-to-blessing, this heathen prophet declaimed: “I will see him, even if not now… A star has stepped forth from Jacob and a sceptre has arisen from Israel…” (Numbers 24:17).
This is a prophecy of Israel’s restoration of sovereignty in the future time yet to come, a prophecy of the Mashiach (see for example Targum Yonatan ad. loc.). Rabbi Akiva applied this prophecy to Bar Kochba – “the son of the star” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:5, Eichah Rabbah 2:5).
Indeed, Bar Kochba could have defeated the Romans and restored Jewish sovereignty to Israel – if only he and the generation would have merited it. Rabbi Akiva didn’t live to see the Bar Kochba Revolt defeated: he was murdered in 3880 (120 C.E.), fifteen years before the destruction of Beitar (Sifrei, Vezot ha’Berakhah 357:7 and Seder ha-Dorot).
But Rabbi Akiva and his teachings, and the spirit of Beitar, yet live on in the Jewish nation today.