The Mishnah enumerates five tragic events that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, which was instituted by the prophets and sages as a fast day:

On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets were broken; the daily offering was stopped; the city walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apostomus burned the Torah [scroll], and placed an idol in the Sanctuary.1

While most of these tragic events are well known in Jewish history, there seems to be little mention as to the identity of Apostomus. When did he live and when exactly did he burn the Torah scroll? Is he also the one who placed the idol in the Temple, which is listed as the next item in the Mishnah?

And what is perhaps equally perplexing is that, throughout the long and at times bitter history of the Jewish people, it was unfortunately not unheard of for the oppressors of our people to burn a Torah scroll. What makes this tragic event unique to the point that it is one of the reasons for the fast of the 17th of Tammuz?

The Babylonian Talmud doesn’t seem to shed much light on this incident. Commenting on the source for this statement in the Mishnah, the Talmud simply states that “it was a tradition” that Apostomus burned the Torah.2

Greek or Roman?

According to some opinions, Apostomus was a Greek general or officer.3 This would place the time of this incident during the Hasmonean period of the Second Temple. According to others, he was a Roman officer,4 placing the time of the incident toward the end of the Second Temple or even a bit after the destruction of the Temple.

Moses’ Scroll

Along with the different opinions regarding the identity of Apostomus, there are various opinions as to which Torah scroll was burned. Some try to match this incident with other recorded incidents of Torah scrolls being destroyed, possibly shedding further light on the identity of Apostomus.

Some commentaries say that the scroll (or scrolls, see later) burned by the Greek general was actually the Torah scroll found by the high priest Chilkiyahu during King Josiah’s reign, when renovations were made to the First Holy Temple. Some commentaries explain that the Torah scroll found by Chilkiyahu was actually one of the original Torah scrolls written by Moses himself.5

Many6 question this, noting that in all likelihood the scroll was hidden together with the Ark of the Covenant toward the end of the First Temple period. As the Talmud says, “The works of Moses were everlasting and not destroyed.” Also, this scroll would have had to survive the Babylonian exile.

The Scroll of Ezra

Others identify the burned scroll with the Torah written by Ezra the Scribe at the start of the Second Temple era. It was the most authoritative Torah scroll and was used to copy and check the accuracy of all other Torah scrolls.7 According to some, the burning of this scroll was possibly done during a campaign to burn and eradicate all Torah scrolls that were found.8

Some say9 that the burning of the Torah scrolls took place during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (of the Chanukah story), or that he himself was Apostomus, for the Greeks burned Torah scrolls during their persecution of the Jews.10

Together With Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon

Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon was one of the ten martyrs brutally murdered by the Romans. The Talmud11 relates how during the Hadrianic persecutions, the Romans wrapped a Torah scroll around Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon, one of the great rabbis of his time, and burned him alive, placing tufts of wool soaked in water on his heart, so that he would die a slow and painful death. Some opine that it is the burning of this Torah scroll that is referred to in the Mishnah.

The difficulty with this explanation is that the Talmudic-era work Megillat Taanit lists the burning of Rabbi Chanina as a separate incident that happened on the 27th of Sivan.12

A Roman Officer

Some identify this incident with Josephus’s account: Around the year 50, a Roman officer seized a Torah scroll and, with abusive and mocking language, burned it in public.13 This incident almost brought about a revolution; but the Roman procurator Cumanus appeased the populace by having the Roman officer beheaded.14

Where Did It Happen?

The Jerusalem Talmud15 cites two opinions about where the incident of Apostomus burning the Torah scroll took place. According to one opinion it took place at the narrow pass of Lod (Lydda), and according to others at the narrow pass of Tarlosa.

Some see the placement of this incident in Lod as lending support to the last two opinions, as those incidents are said to have taken place in that area.16

Did He Also Place an Idol in the Temple?

Another possible clue as to the identity of Apostomus is a debate we find in the Jerusalem Talmud17 as to how one should read the next clause of the Mishnah, “. . . and placed an idol in the Sanctuary.”

According to one tradition, this is a continuation of the previous clause, and it is to be read “and he—a.k.a. Apostomus—placed an idol in the Sanctuary.”

This would lend support to the opinions that Apostomus was Greek and his burning of the scroll took place during the Second Temple period at a time that the Holy Temple was defiled.

However, according to the other opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud, this is to be read as a separate clause, and the placing of the idol in the sanctuary was done during the First Temple period by King Menashe, son of King Hezikiah.

Based on this, the incident of Apostomus burning the Torah scroll need not have been in connection with the desecration of the Second Temple and could have possibly happened at the hands of the Romans at a later time.

Significance of the Torah That Was Burned

As we noted, commentaries grapple with the question of the significance of Apostomus burning the Torah scroll to the extent that it is placed on par with other national tragedies.

If it was indeed the Scroll of Ezra or done during a campaign to destroy and eradicate all Torah scrolls, that would explain why it is listed as one of the five tragic events of the 17th of Tammuz. And if we say, as some do, that it was the first time a Torah scroll was purposely and publicly burned, opening the gate for the subsequent times this occurred, that too may help explain its significance.18 However, others explain that there wasn’t anything particularly significant about this Torah scroll versus other ones. So what makes this incident stand out?

That, however, explains commentaries, is the very point the Mishnah is making. Every single Torah scroll is invaluable to the Jewish people, for the Torah is our life and our identity. Thus, the destruction of even one, seemingly ordinary Torah scroll is on par with these cataclysmic national events.19

May we merit the fulfillment of the prophecy that these days will ultimately be transformed into days of joy and happiness with the coming of the Moshiach, may it be speedily in our days!20