The first day of the month of Tammuz falls in the heat of summer,
when grass dries up and flowers begin to fall. In the Middle East,
this is a burning season when no rain falls and at midday the
heat is too intense for work. This new moon is the gateway to
two fast days that mourn the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans,
the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the Jewish people:
the seventeenth of Tammuz, and the ninth of Av. This season marks
the exile and suffering of the Shekhinah herself, who is willing
to wander and to experience pain for love of Her creatures. It
is the time of the heart, when we let ourselves feel the sorrows
of the world. It is the time when the spent flower falls to earth,
and we do not yet know if new seed will come.
The first of Tammuz has a long mythic history associated with
mourning. One ancient legend says that this was the day that Adam
and Eve were driven out of Eden, to wander in a harsh world and
labor to get bread out of the earth.1 Another story tells that
this was the day Moses struck a rock in anger, trying to get water
out of it.2 As a result of his rage, the Holy One forbade him ever
to enter the Promised Land. Ancient Near Eastern myths connect
this day with the god Tammuz, who died at this time of year and
went down to the underworld. The first of Tammuz is a day of exile,
reminding us that from this point forward the sun will begin to
creep from the sky, leaving the world in ever-greater darkness.
Just as the first of Tevet is the beginning of the journey toward
light, the first Tammuz is the beginning of the journey into the
“Man born of woman is short of days, and fed with trouble.
He blossoms like a flower and withers,
and vanishes, like a shadow...”
Sefirah: Chesed/Tiferet (Love/Glorious
World: Yetzirah (Emotion)
Yet this is also a day of return. When Moses strikes
the rock, water bursts forth, and the well of healing and life
is reborn. This water, from the well of the prophet Miriam, will
travel throughout the world from now on, passing through all the
bodies of water on earth. It may sometimes hide underground, but
it will continue to flow.3
It will revive our spirits even in far-flung places. On the first
of Tammuz, the water, and the power of life, goes underground,
into the crops we have planted and the earth we have tilled. We
will harvest the force of life and eat it. On the first of Tishrei,
we will celebrate the new seeds that we have gathered, and the
Shekhinah will return from exile to take up residence within our
hearts. On the first of Tammuz the flower falls, but in the flower
is the new seed that is to come.
|On the first day of the cycle of Tammuz,
no creature has a shadow, for it is written: ”Nothing is hidden
from God’s sun”(Psalms 19:7). The globe of the sun has
an outer covering. The proof of this is that it is written: “God
has sent a tent for the sun” (Psalms 19:5), and a lake of
water stands before it, and when it goes forth, the Holy One tempers
its strength in the water lest it go forth and burn up the world…
—Genesis Rabbah 6:6
The Story of the Season
It is no surprise that Jewish legend connects
the first of Tammuz with the exile of the first couple and the
end of the perfect paradise. Tammuz, the tenth month of the Hebrew
calendar, is named for the Sumerian god Tammuz, a beautiful young
god who married Inanna, guaranteeing fertility to the world.4 In
some versions, he dies, and Inanna descends to the underworld
to rescue him. In other versions, Tammuz revels with other women
while his bride Inanna goes on a personal journey to the underworld
and becomes caught there by her sister Ereshkigal. When Inanna
returns, she is so angry that she kills her husband. Only through
the kindness of Tammuz’ sister Geshtinanna, who offers half
her life-force to her brother, can Tammuz be free, for half a
year, from the realm of death. Many Mesopotamian poems of the
time tell the elaborate story of Tammuz’s life, love, demise,
and rebirth. He represents the standing grain that is cut down
in service to human life, and grows again the following year.
Like many cultures, ancient Israel knew the story of the god
who died on the summer solstice as the light of the sun began
to diminish. Israelite women once mourned the god Tammuz' tragic
death on the first of the month Tammuz by wailing at the gate
of the Temple. We know about this because the prophet Ezekiel
complains of Israelite women mourning the death of Tammuz at the
gates of the Temple5. Although it was against monotheistic Israelite
practice to engage in this weeping, the mourning for Tammuz allowed
women to express the sadness of the diminishing of light and the
mortality of human beings. In later times, Jews expressed that
sadness as they mourned the Temple’s destruction and the
exile of the Shekhinah. They wrote elaborate poems longing for
return to Jerusalem and for the Shekhinah to once again be a joyful
mother of the Jewish people.6 Jews today still find the metaphor
of exile, and of the wandering Divine presence, to be powerful.
Also, in recent times, some modern Israeli poets have revived
the tradition of writing laments for Tammuz as an expression of
the brokenness of the world.
According to Jewish legend, the first of Tammuz is the anniversary
of the birth of Joseph, the son of Jacob.7 Jewish tradition chose
that day for Joseph’s birth partly because his mother Rachel
was said to have conceived nine months before, on 1 Tishrei. Joseph
may be associated with Tammuz because he, like the Tammuz of the
myth, goes down into the pit. His brothers throw him into a literal
pit, and then he is sold into slavery. Finally, when he is falsely
accused of adultery with his master’s wife, he is cast into
a dark prison. It seems that God has abandoned him.8
Yet each time he descends, Joseph rises again. In the end he rules
over all Egypt and saves his family from famine, just as the grain
harvest saves the people from hunger. Joseph tells his repentant
brothers that it was God who ordained that he descend in order
that he be able to bring his family to safety. Joseph’s
trials are symbolic of the wistful sadness of this season, but
his triumph reminds us that the harvest is also life-preserving.
The darkness of the winter gives the land rest so that it may
If Lag B’Omer represents the perfect union of heaven and
earth, the 1st of Tammuz introduces disjuncture and pain into
that union. We have spent the time from Rosh haShanah to the first
of Nisan building the dwelling-place of the Shekhinah, and all
springtime we have lived in that holy place. Now we must let it
go. Like Adam and Eve, who must leave Eden to contend with their
new mortality, we must leave the light-filled realm of spring
and endure a period of reaping, where all that we grew is cut
down. We must regard the fact that history is full of injustice,
exile and death—that we do not live in a perfect world.
Yet with mortality comes fertility. Adam and Eve conceive, and
we too look forward to conceiving new things in spite of, or because
of, what we have lost. This is a day to remember that there is
a path back from the underworld, and that we are able to make
the earth a kinder place.
Go forth and weep,
O daughters of Zion, for Tammuz,
For bright Tammus, for he is dead.
The days to come will be cloudy days,
Days of souls' eclipse, of untimely autumn.
In the clear morning
Let us go to the grove that has grown dark with gloom,
To the grove that is hidden in dreams and mysteries,
To the altar of Tammuz, to the altar of light.
What dances shall we dance
Around the altar,
What dance shall we dance for Tammuz today?
Let us turn right toward him, then left,
Seven times seven,
Let us bow, let us bow down to him: “Come back!”
—From “The Death of Tammuz,” Shaul Tchernikovsky
toward the trumpets of light,
toward the sun on its summit of rock.
Bright guardian, watch over your flock
lost in the countries of drought…
Kneel and behold the tints
that set the days aflame,
its dazzling brothers ruling everywhere
when they climb the battlements
with their green braids
and open, like a city, our new day.
—From “Tammuz,” by Nathan Alterman
Translation by Robert Friend
© Jean Cantu
Steps of the Season
Just after the full moon of Tammuz, the 17th
of Tammuz falls. This is a fast day remembering the Roman attackers’
breach in the wall of Jerusalem, the end of Temple sacrifices,
and the beginning of the fall of the Second Temple.9 It marks a
time of chaos and desperation in the lives of the Jews of the
Temple period, when different sects fought one another, setting
fire to the Temple they had promised to protect. According to
legend, the 17th of Tammuz also marks the day the Israelites in
the wilderness worshipped the Golden Calf in rebellion against
God’s wishes. This fast day reminds us how, when we are
attacked and feel frightened and angry, we often use our resources
against ourselves. We blame those close to us rather than joining
to find the real cause of the problem. The 17th of Tammuz is a
time of reflection on our worst instincts.
Tisha B’Av, the 9th of the month of Av (the
month after Tammuz), is the day of the destruction of the Second
Temple, and also, according to myth, the day of the destruction
of the First Temple. It was also known as the day the Holy One
decreed that the generation of Israelites wandering in the wilderness
would not enter the land of Israel.10
The Inquisition began on the 9th of Av, as have many other tragedies
of the Jewish people. Some connect this day to the Holocaust.
It is a day to give voice to loss and suffering, to recount stories
of innocent victims of cruelty and violence across time and space.
On Tisha B’Av, we fast, refrain from eating, drinking, sexual
activity, and even studying Torah. We read the Book of Lamentations,
a long poem in which Israel appears as a mourning widow, a bereaved
father, a violated maiden, speaking of helplessness, sorrow, and
rejection by the Divine. Tisha B’Av is the day of brokenness
|R.Yose then discoursed on the verse:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping;
Rachel weeping for her children, for they are not.” He said;
we have learned that on the day that the Sanctuary on earth was
laid waste and Israel went into captivity with millstones on their
necks and their hands bound behind them, and the Shekhinah was banished
from the house of her Husband to follow them, when She came down
she said: I will go in front and weep for my home and my children
and my Husband. When she came down and saw her home devastated and
the blood of saints spilled in its midst and the holy shrine and
temple burnt, She lifted up her voice, and the higher and lower
angels quaked and fell. The voice ascended to the place of the King,
and the King wanted to turn the world into chaos again. Many armies
and hosts of angels went down to meet her, but she would not accept
consolation… She went all around the land of Israel and then
into the wilderness…
—Zohar I, 203a
One story about Tisha B’Av says that when
the Temple was burning and the Romans were breaking through the
gates, the priests stood in the Temple courtyard with the keys
to the Temple. They did not want the Romans to have them. So they
threw them upward, saying: "Holy One, I can no longer take
care of these, so I return them to You." Somewhere at the
height of the arc of the priests’ throw, the keys disappeared.11
They will be returned, it is said, only when the Third Temple,
the Temple of peace, is finally built.
This story teaches a deep truth. At moments when we are most
in pain, we cannot always hold onto the deepest, most joyful parts
of ourselves. We yield ourselves up to our suffering, hoping that
Someone will hold onto the keys of our hearts until we are ready
to receive them back. The time from the first of Tammuz to Tisha
B’Av is a time when we throw the keys of our hearts upward,
knowing that we are able to receive them back when it is time.
The summer solstice, in many cultures, is a time
for harvest and celebration, and for other peoples it is a time
for sacrifice. In Slavic countries the summer solstice is a period
of celebrating the earth’s marriage to heaven, while the
Celts regarded it as the time when the god was sacrificed, symbolizing
the harvest. In Finland this day was a celebration of the sun
goddess Beiwe, and offerings of reindeer meat were made to her.
In Nigeria, the height of summer is the time to celebrate the
goddess Inna and the yam harvest.12
In Christianity, the birth of John the Baptist is celebrated at
this time. Yet for Jews, the first of Tammuz is sad rather than
celebratory, perhaps because in the Near East, the summer season
is the most fragile and perilous for the success of the harvest.13
Ideas for Celebration
One way to celebrate the first of Tammuz is by
making journeys to forests to appreciate the warmth of summer,
lie on the soil and observe the beginnings of fading in the plant
and animal life, as well as our own frailty and mortality. We
can consider our worries and uncertainties, and unburden them
onto the compassionate Divine. As many modern Israeli poets have
done, we can write poems about the myth of Tammuz in order to
express our sorrow at the fading light. Sometimes I use this time
to create poems and artwork about the destroyed Temple, or put
a stone on my table at home to represent the foundations of the
Temple and the hope that the Shekhinah/the Holy One will dwell
This is also the right time to find ways to ease the sorrow of
the world. Donate time or money to save the rain forest or clean
up your local town or city. Support habitats for animals that
have been displaced. Start working at a homeless shelter or an
immigrant aid society. Donate to feed refugees or fight for the
rights of migrant workers. To look after exiles is the work of
the Shekhinah and is holy to do, particularly at this time.
From the first of Tammuz to the ninth of Av is a season when
exile seems like a permanent condition. Yet just six days after
the ninth of Av, the holiday of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of
Av, arrives. This is a dancing festival celebrating love, harvest,
and the mystery of rebirth after exile. It is the moment when
the promise of new life bears fruit. To go from 1 Tammuz to Tu
B’Av is to go through the valley of death toward the hidden
spark of light.
The first of Tammuz represents the world of water, or the heart.
It is a good time to take an inventory of our emotional state,
and of what is paining us. Tammuz is a good time for letting go
of what no longer serves us, and beginning to make our hearts
empty and open in preparation of the new year, which will arrive
in three months.
The Place of Ashes
“The priest shall carry [the sacrifice] to a clean place
outside the camp, to where the ashes (deshen) are poured
out, and burn it up on a wood fire; it shall be burned on the
ash heap.” —Lev. 4:12
“Humans shelter in the shadow of your wings; they feed
on the abundance (deshen) of your house."—Psalms
You burn all your names;
the forest of them goes up like a torch of branches.
You are brittle leaves; you crumble where I step.
You are dry moss, in an instant eaten to nothing.
You crouch in a house of smoke; thin darkness lives there.
I live on your ash heap,
carry away feathers
of your fire, speak to each ember prayers it understands.
I live at the altar’s east side where sun
bends down to scour the stone,
and eat the cinders of your house.
The names you have not yet burned
walk naked among the drifting wreaths of air.
 Jubilees 3:4. Back
 Machzor Vitry, Supplement 14; Ginzei Yerushalayim III,
78b. Back to 
 In fact, the 1st of Tammuz signals the return of Miriam’s
well for another reason. In the biblical text, Miriam is stricken
with leprosy by God because she challenges Moses' authority.
She is sent out of the camp for seven days. According to the
Talmud (Taanit 29a), on the day before the 1st of Tammuz, she
is gathered in to her people again. This story is a painful
one in which a woman leader is humiliated for her desire to
lead and to prophesy. It is a story of unfair exile. Yet Miriam's
people do not move on, but wait for the exiled prophet to return.
On the 1st of Tammuz, Miriam becomes free to begin her journey
again. This is another tale of exile associated with this day.
Back to 
 Adelman, Penina. Miriam’s Well: Rituals for Jewish
Women Around the Year (Biblio Press, 1986); Wolkstein, Diane
and Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth:
Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (Harper and Row, 1983).
Back to 
 Ezekiel 8:14. Back
 See poems by the mystic Yehudah haLevi. Back
 Midrash Yalkut Shemot, 1. Back
 Genesis 37-50. Back
 Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 28b. Back
 Babylonian Tamud, Taanit 26a-b. Back
 Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 29a-30b. Back
 Telesco, Patricia. 365 Goddesses (HarperCollins,
1998). Back to 
 Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy (Harcourt, 1987).
Back to 
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