Our sages tell us that "Five misfortunes befell our forefathers on the 17th of Tammuz," the first of which was Moses' breaking of the Tablets in wake of Israel's worship of the Golden Calf. Many centuries later, this was also the day on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached, enabling the enemy's conquest of the city, and leading to the destruction of the Holy Temple three weeks later on the 9th of Av. Ever since, Tammuz 17 and Av 9 are both fast days, and the three week period between them a time of sadness and mourning.
The Golden Calf, then, started it all. Indeed, that infamous betrayal, coming just a few weeks after the people of Israel stood at Sinai and heard G‑d proclaim, "I am the L-rd your G‑d... you shall have no other gods before Me," has become a prototype in the sayings of our sages for every sort bad and negative thing -- including things that, on the face of it, don't even seem that terrible. Let us examine two such sayings:
The first is from the Talmudic tractate Sefer Torah, 1:8
Seventy sages translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy. That day was as difficult for the people of Israel as the day on which the [Golden] Calf was made; for the Torah could not be fully translated.
The second is also from the Talmud, tractate Shabbat Shabbat 13b and 17a:
A count was conducted, and it was found that the sages of Shammai were more numerous than the sages of Hillel. Eighteen ordinances were enacted on that day... and that day was as difficult for the people of Israel as the day on which the [Golden] Calf was made.
Surely the translation of the Torah into a foreign language is not, in itself, undesirable. According to the Midrash Tanchuma, more than a thousand years before King Ptolemy ordered the translation of the Torah into Greek, Moses had already, by Divine command, translated the Torah into the seventy languages of the world. Nor can it be said that the Greek language is particularly problematic for Torah's translation, as Greek is one of the seventy basic languages into which the Torah was translated by Moses. In fact, the Talmud states that, of all languages, Greek is the most suited for the translation of Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:9).
So what is it about the translation ordered by Ptolemy that was so "difficult for the people of Israel"? And why does the Talmud compare it to one of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history--"the day on which the [Golden] Calf was made"?
The making of the Golden Calf is also cited as a model for another "difficult day" in Jewish history: the day on which the disciples of the Shammai outnumbered the disciples of Hillel. The Torah decrees that, in cases of disagreement between the sages, one should "follow the majority." The disciples of Hillel were more numerous than the disciples of Shammai, so that the final ruling on the disputations between these two schools of Torah scholarship almost always follows the more lenient approach of Hillel. On one occasion, however, the disciples of Shammai constituted the majority of sages in the study hall, and eighteen laws were enacted following their stricter interpretation of Torah law. "That day," says the Talmud, "was as difficult for the people of Israel as the day on which the [Golden] Calf was made."
Again, the comparison with the Golden Calf seems extreme, if not inappropriate. The enactment of these laws might have "burdened" us with additional and stricter prohibitions, but the even 365 basic prohibitions of the Torah can be said to be "difficult" until one appreciates their value as Divine guidelines for a constructive and meaningful life. The eighteen Shammaian laws were enacted in full accordance with the authority vested by the Torah in the sages: from the moment they were put to vote and a majority of the sages endorsed them, they became part of Torah law, as binding and crucial to the Jew as the most basic of the Torah's precepts. So why does the Talmud consider the event to be "as difficult for the people of Israel as the day on which the [Golden] Calf was made"?
The Golden Calf was made by Moses' brother, Aaron, on the 16th day of the month of Tammuz, in the year 2448 from creation (1313 bce).
Forty days earlier, Moses had ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G‑d. Due to a miscalculation, the children of Israel expected him to return on the morning of the 16th of Tammuz (after 40 days on the mountain, counting the day of the ascent), instead of the morning of the 17th (after 40 days, not counting the day of the ascent). When Moses failed to appear when expected, "They massed upon Aaron, and said to him: Arise! Make us a god that shall walk before us. For the man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt -- we do not know what has become of him" (Exodus 32:1).
When Aaron saw that the people could not be dissuaded from their plan, he took charge of operation himself in the hope of postponing the actual worship of the idol. He collected their gold and smelted it into the form of a calf. He then announced: "Tomorrow is a festival unto G‑d!" "Tomorrow" was the 17th of Tammuz, the date of Moses' return from Mount Sinai.
Were it not for the people's all-consuming enthusiasm for their new idol, which roused them from their beds at the crack of dawn the next morning, the 17th of Tammuz would indeed have been "a festival unto G‑d" in the sense that Aaron had intended -- the day on which Moses prevented Israel's error and rededicated them to the true service of G‑d. But when Moses descended from the mountain, the deed was already done. The people of Israel had violated their newly-made covenant with G‑d.
Now we understand why the Talmud compares the day of the Torah's translation into Greek and the day of Shammai's triumph over Hillel to "the day on which the Calf was made," as opposed to the day on which it was actually worshipped. The day on which the Golden Calf was worshipped was the most tragic day in Jewish history -- the day that spawned all subsequent regressions and calamities experienced by our people. But on Tammuz 16, the day on which the Golden Calf was made, this was still a calamity in potential, with an equal potential for its prevention, and even its transformation into a positive occurrence.
What led the people of Israel to worship an icon of gold? If they were seeking a replacement for Moses, why did they not appoint another leader in his place? What is the connection between the perceived "disappearance" of Moses and their desire for a material representation of divinity?
Chassidic teaching explains that Moses was more than a leader to the people of Israel: he was a living model of the Divine immanence. As the Torah attests, Moses was an ish elokim ("man of G‑d") a human being who so completely conformed to the Divine will, who so completely negated his self to G‑d, that his mind, his personality, his very being, were pure, unadulterated expressions of the Divine truth (Deuteronomy 33:1, as per Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 11:4). In Moses, the people of Israel perceived how "There is none else besides Him": how a creature as individualistic and self-centered as man can manifest the truth that, in essence, he is but a ray of the Divine light.
With Moses' "disappearance," the people of Israel felt the need for a visual, tactual exemplar of the all-pervasiveness of G‑d. But this time they wanted a physical object as their prototype, in the belief that this would constitute an even greater testimony to the truth that "There is none else besides Him." If we take an icon of gold, they reasoned, the epitome of materiality, and hallow it as a representation of the Divine immanence, this will truly demonstrate how even the most mundane being is not separate from the Divine reality.
Indeed, several months later, the people of Israel were instructed to do just that: to construct a "sanctuary" for G‑d out of fifteen physical materials, the most dominant of which was gold. At the heart of the Sanctuary was to stand the gold-plated ark, topped by two keruvim (cherubs) hammered out of a block of solid gold. The golden keruvim symbolized the relationship between G‑d and Israel and marked the seat of G‑d's manifest presence within the physical universe. Furthermore, Israel's construction of this Sanctuary was to serve as their atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf!
Why was the Golden Calf the gravest of sins and the most perfidious of betrayals, while the golden keruvim were the epitome of holiness? Often, an extremely fine line distinguishes between the purest truth and the most distortive falsehood. Though ostensibly similar, the keruvim were the very antithesis of the Golden Calf.
When G‑d commands to construct a material receptacle for His presence, it becomes a holy, G‑dly object; when man chooses a material representation of the Divine presence, this is idolatry--a detraction from, rather than an affirmation of, the truth that "There is none else besides Him." For it is not the sanctified object that expresses the all-pervasiveness of G‑d, but the fact that it is serving as an instrument of mans fulfillment of the Divine will.
Where there is a Divine command to make a certain physical object or do a certain physical deed, the fulfillment of this commandment attests that the Divine will has permeated the whole of creation, down to and including the object or deed that realizes it. Where there is no such command, only the human choice of a certain object or ritual to embody mans relationship with G‑d, this is idolatry--the attribution of Divine qualities to something other than G‑d Himself.
(Indeed, the essence of idolatry is not the denial of G‑d's existence and supreme power, but the veneration of "other gods before Me"--the attribution of Divine significance to anything other than G‑d. If man, by his own initiative, chooses a certain object or force as a representation of the Divine or as a vehicle of relationship with G‑d, this is idolatry--see Mishneh Torah, Laws regarding Idol Worship, 1:1-2)
The Thirteen Imprecisions
Therein lies the parallel between the making of the Golden Calf and the translation of the Torah into Greek.
When G‑d commanded Moses to translate the Torah into the languages of the world, this achieved the introduction of the word of G‑d into all strata of human existence. Words and idioms, distilled from the most foreign of cultures and lifestyles, became a "sanctuary" housing the Divine wisdom. This was a Divine endeavor, achieved via Moses--the same medium through which G‑d first "translated" His supra-literary truth into the words of the Holy Tongue.
But when the seventy sages translated the Torah at Ptolemy's behest, this was a human endeavor, initiated by a mortal ruler. As such, it boded the possibility of becoming a Golden Calf--a humanly-defined vessel for the Divine truth. There existed the danger that instead of faithfully conforming to their sacred content, the foreign garments in which the Torah was being dressed would allow the distortion of its original sense.
Thus, the day that the Torah was translated into Greek was "as difficult as the day on which the Golden Calf was made." The Golden Calf was not an idol until it was worshipped the following morning; but the potential for idolatry was there--for the pagan feast that Moses found upon his descent from the mountain as opposed to the "a festival for G‑d" that Aaron had hoped for. By the same token, the Torah's translation into Greek constituted the introduction of a dangerous "otherness" to Torah, with the potential for subsequent distortion of the Divine truth.
This time, however, the negative possibilities of the endeavor were averted, or at least greatly minimized. The Talmud relates that Ptolemy isolated the seventy sages in seventy different houses to prevent their collaboration on an imprecise translation: the Hellenic king wanted a literal rendering of the Torah, so that he and his scholars would be free to interpret it according to their own understanding and not be dictated by the Mosaic tradition of the Jews. Nevertheless, the seventy translators departed from the literal meaning of the Torah's words in thirteen places where such a translation would be open to misinterpretation, each independently recognizing the problematic places and substituting an identical word or phrase which, while not a precise translation from the Hebrew into the Greek, was a faithful rendition of the Torah's intent.
This is the deeper meaning of the Talmud's words that the "difficulty" lay in that "the Torah could not be fully translated." Had the seventy sages fully -- that is, precisely and exactly translated the Torah into Greek, it would have been exposed to misinterpretation and distortion. It was only because they succeeded in presenting Ptolemy with a less than literal translation that this tragedy was averted. Indeed, their translation yielded the positive result of bringing G‑d's word to the Greek world, and showing the way for the subsequent translators of Torah who would spread the light of Torah to all peoples and cultures of the earth.
The World According to Hillel
The parallel between the Golden Calf and the Torah's translation into Greek is an extremely subtle one: the first was outright idolatry, the gravest of sins proscribed by the Torah; the second was a permissible, and, in many ways, beneficial, endeavor to expand the influence of the Torah in the world. Nevertheless, the potential danger of the translation is, in essence, the very same danger posed by idolatry: the introduction of a foreign element into our relationship with G‑d, an "otherness" that belies the Divine exclusivity expressed by the axiom of our faith, "There is none other beside Him."
Even more subtle is the parallel between the making of the Golden Calf and the triumph of Shammai over Hillel in eighteen disputations of Torah law. For here we speak of a legitimate development of Torah law, sanctioned and mandated by G‑d's instructions as to how His will should by applied to our lives. Shammai's disciples understanding of the Torah, even when rejected by the final ruling, is a valid expression of the Divine will; when endorsed by the majority of Torah sages, it becomes the only valid way in which to implement the Divine will in practice. Nevertheless, the triumph of the Shammaian approach to Torah carries the potential for the very same "otherness"--albeit in subtlest of forms--represented by the Golden Calf.
As mentioned above, the school of Hillel tended to a more lenient application of Torah law, while the school of Shammai was characterized by strictness and severity. This was not a matter of a benevolent group of sages on the one hand and a group of harsh, uncompromising jurists on the other, but the product of two different perspectives on the very function of Torah.
Living as a Jew means daily grappling with a basic dissonance in our perception of reality. On the one hand, we affirm that "There is none else beside Him" (Deuteronomy 4:35); on the other hand, we are daily confronted with a world that blatantly exhibits its elseness and besideness.
To address this dissonance, G‑d gave us the Torah, which is a set of guidelines on how to impose the Divine will upon the world. By implementing Torah in our lives, we create a world that is not separate from G‑d but subservient to Him; a world that does not contradict the exclusivity of the Divine reality, but is the instrument of its realization.
The 613 mitzvot (Divine commandments) of the Torah consist of 365 prohibitions (e.g., not to work on Shabbat, not to eat meat with milk) and 248 positive commandments (to give charity, the put on tefillin). In other words, the Torah has a two-pronged approach to resolving the seeming contradiction between the Divine unity and the worlds perceived separateness: abnegation and cultivation.
In the "abnegation" mode, the negation of a part of the physical universe vanquishes its otherness. For example: the human appetite might desire a non-kosher food; the Torah commands not to eat it; by suppressing his craving for the sake of his commitment to the Divine will, the person demonstrates that his physical desire, and the desired physical object, are devoid of value and significance. They might exist, but they are "nothing" to him. The only "something" is G‑d, for He is the only being of any significance.
In the "cultivation" mode of Torah, a part of the world is developed into an instrument of the divine. A piece of leather exists, bearing no manifest relationship with G‑d; the piece of leather is fashioned into a pair of tefillin, an object whose obvious function is to fulfill a Divine command. A physical object has transcended its otherness to exhibit its subservience to G‑d. It has not been made to nothing; indeed, its "somethingness" has been cultivated and developed. But its somethingness is no longer separate from (and thus opposed to) the Divine being, but is now its extension and expression.
Which of these two modes of Torah's interaction with the world is more primary to its overall function? This is the underlying difference between the two most basic schools of Torah law, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. From the Shammaian perspective, the Torah is basically "negative," its primary function being to expose the nothingness of the physical reality. True, the Torah also includes cultivative elements, but these, too, are a function of its abnegative effect on the world. When the Torah commands to develop a piece of leather into a pair of tefillin, this is just another way of abnegating the physical realityby demonstrating how even the spiritually "useful" elements of the physical world possess no significance of their own, save for their capacity to serve G‑d.
Thus, when Torah allows for both a prohibitive and a permissive interpretation of a certain law, the school of Shammai naturally embraces the option that is consistent with its understanding of Torah's overall function: to proscribe and prohibit, thus negating the "somethingness" of the physical reality.
Hillel had a different perspective on Torah. In his view, the Torah comes not to negate the physical reality, but to reveal how its "somethingness" is of a piece with the "somethingness" of G‑d. So it is the Torah's "cultivating" mitzvot which express its ultimate function. The Torah, of course, also includes many prohibitions, but these are but the necessary ground rules that allow for the proper cultivation of the world as a vehicle of G‑dliness. For the physical world includes certain elements whose Divine potential is beyond our capacity to reveal; unless these are "abnegated," they will interfere with our cultivation of those elements which we are equipped to deal with. But when faced with two possible interpretation of a law in Torah, the Hillelian sage will opt for the permissive rather than the prohibitive, for he is inclined to include as much of the world as possible in the Torah's "cultivative" domain.
Both the Shammaian and Hillelian approach are legitimate perceptions of Torah; both affirm the truth that "There is none else beside Him." But in a very subtle way, the approach of Shammai recognizes an "otherness" to the world that is completely absent from the Hillelian view. In effect, the perspective of Shammai says: The world exists; therefore it must be abnegated. The world challenges the singularity of G‑d; therefore it must be disavowed.
From the perspective of Hillel, however, the "existence" of the world is not an adversary to be vanquished, but an enigma to be revealed; not a rebellion against the Divine sovereignty to be put down, but a potential to be realized. The world according to Hillel possesses no "otherness" in the first place; what we perceive as its independence and separateness of being is but the expression of the Divine being that pervades it.
As long as the Shammaian approach to Torah was subservient to the Hillelian, it posed no threat to the integrity of Israel's relationship with G‑d. On the contrary, it complemented it as a parallel vision of the Divine blueprint for life. For man's service of G‑d includes both the cultivation of his self and world as a receptacle for G‑dliness, as well as the abnegation of self and world before the all-transcending truth of G‑d. There are times in a person's life that the first element must take precedence, and times when the second element should be accentuated; times when he must view the world as a Hillelian sage, and times when he must look at it with a Shammaian eye.
But the day that the sages of Shammai outnumbered the sages of Hillel and their vision of Torah became the basis of its actual practice, was "as difficult for the people of Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made." When the abnegative approach of Shammai supplanted the cultivative approach of Hillel in the actual, day-to-day practice of Torah, the danger existed that the Jew might eventually be led to view his world as something "other" than G‑d, something alien to the truth of its Creator. In this sense, it was a day rife with a potential threat akin to that posed by the making of the Golden Calf.
But unlike the day on which the Golden Calf was made, which led to the day on which it was actually worshipped, the danger implicit in the brief reign of Shammai had no adverse results. The numerical superiority of the school of Shammai was short-lived; on the following day, the majority reverted to Hillel and his disciples. With the exception of the eighteen laws voted on that day, the actual practice of Torah law follows the Hillelian approach.
In fact, the day of Shammai's victory had a mitigating effect on his severity. For even as his view triumphed over that of Hillel, it was influenced by the very process of debate and defense against the other opinion. In a number of cases, we actually find the disciples of Shammai propagating a more lenient view than Hillels disciples; this was the result of the day on which eighteen laws were decided according to the opinion of Shammai, but not without being influenced by the defeated opinion of Hillel.
Because of this day, even when a person must, by necessity, adapt a "Shammaian" approach, it is mitigated by the vision of Hillel. Even when the circumstances necessitate the subjugation and abnegation of the materiality of his existence, this is accompanied with the recognition that, ultimately, there are no alien or "other" elements in G‑d's world, where everything is one with its creator and source.
Our sages tell us that the words of a tzaddik (perfectly righteous person) are never without result. Even if they are not realized immediately, they ultimately achieve fulfillment.
The same applies, says the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, to Aaron's proclamation, "Tomorrow is a festival unto G‑d!" On that first "tomorrow," Aaron's hope was not realized: the 17th of Tammuz became the day on which the Golden Calf was worshipped, the Tablets of the Covenant constituting the "marriage contract" between G‑d and Israel were broken, and the very day fated to become the scene of many tragedies in Jewish history -- including breaching of Jerusalem's walls which led to the destruction of the Holy Temple three weeks later on the 9th of Av and the exile of Israel from their land.
But as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) promises, G‑d will transform the 17th of Tammuz into a festival and a day of joy, when the tribulations and sufferings of galut will yield the Divine harmony and perfection of the messianic era. Then, the positive resolution of the making of the Golden Calf anticipated by Aaron will be realized, as the error and regression of Israel's sin will be transformed into a heightened appreciation of the all-pervading reality of G‑d..