The breaking of the tablets and the breach in the wall around Yerushalayim on the 17th of Tammuz symbolize the danger and tragedy in the attitude that Jews and Torah are not inseparably one or that not every aspect of Judaism is vitally important.

The seventeenth of Tammuz is a public fast in remembrance of five tragic events which happened on that day.1 They are:

1) The tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments were broken by Moshe Rabbeinu when he descended from Mt. Sinai and saw the Jews worshipping a golden calf.

2) The daily offering was discontinued in the first Beis HaMikdosh because Jerusalem was under siege and it was impossible to obtain the animals needed.

3) The wall around the city of Yerushalayim was breached by the enemy in the times of the second Beis HaMikdosh.

4) Apostomos burnt the Torah.2

5) An idol was placed in the Beis HaMikdosh.3

Fast Day is inspiration for repentance

A fast is not just a commemoration or remembrance of a particular event; it is primarily a means whereby the tragic event is eliminated. Evil befalls Jews only because they have sinned.4 A fast serves as an inspiration and reminder for repentance, to come closer to G‑d. In the words of the prophet read on fast days:5 “Seek the L‑rd while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.” A Jew can repent on any day of the year. But on a fast, when G‑d “may be found” and “is near” to all Jews, and we are reminded of the evil which caused the troubles, it is much easier.6

Repentance causes past transgressions to be forgiven. When the cause of the troubles that befall Jews is thus removed, the elimination of the troubles automatically follows.7 It is therefore important to study the events which the fast commemorates and, in understanding them and their spiritual equivalents, we can learn in which areas to concentrate our efforts of repentance and service to G‑d.

The first tragedy to happen on the seventeenth of Tammuz was the breaking of the tablets. Yet this does not seem a severe enough occurrence to warrant a public fast. Before the tablets were given, the Jews had received many parts of the Written Torah. The Torah tells us that even before Mt. Sinai, “Moshe wrote all the words of the L‑rd...and he took the book of the covenant and read it in the ears of the people.”8 Rashi, the commentator par excellence on the Torah, explains that Moshe wrote down the Torah “from Bereishis until the giving of the Torah” and also the “mitzvos which they were commanded at Marah.”

Furthermore, forty days had passed from the time the Ten Commandments were said at Mt. Sinai until Moshe broke the tablets. In those forty days the Jews studied the Ten Commandments they had heard, and presumably9 wrote them down.10 Thus, not only had they already been given parts of the Torah, but they had heard the Ten Commandments and written them down. If they already possessed the Commandments, why was the breaking of the two tablets so tragic an event that because of it a public fast was instituted?

Judaism engraved in a Jew’s soul

The tablets were not given to inform the Jews of the Ten Commandments. They served another purpose, one which was uniquely instrumental in laying the fundamental relationship between Jews and Judaism.

The Ten Commandments were engraved in the tablets; and there is a major difference between engraved letters and letters which are written with ink on paper. In the latter, the letters, the ink, are not part of the paper. They remain separate, and even after they have been written they can be removed. Letters which are engraved in stone, however, are part of the stone. The letters cannot be removed without mutilating the stone.11

It was this which differentiated the Ten Commandments of the tablets from the Ten Commandments which the Jews themselves wrote down, and it was this which molded the way Jews would relate to them. The Commandments would be engraved in a Jew’s soul, a part of him, one with his essence.

This does not apply only to the Ten Commandments. The entire Torah, all six hundred and thirteen mitzvos, our Sages say,12 are encompassed in the Ten Commandments. Thus the entire Torah is etched in the soul of every Jew, forever inseparable.

The severity of the breaking of the tablets is now clear. A Jew may observe the Torah fully, carry out its every aspect. But if he considers Torah to be apart from himself, that he and the Torah are not one, such an attitude is serious enough to warrant a public fast. The tablets, which represent the absolute unity between Jew and Torah, have been broken.

A Jew may think that he can remove himself from Judaism, that Torah is like writing which can be erased. The engraving of the Ten Commandments teaches otherwise. A Jew cannot change what he is. Willingly or otherwise, Judaism is part of him, etched in his soul, unremovable. He can try to hide from the truth and not observe Torah and mitzvos — but he cannot change the truth.

Breaching of wall around Torah

The importance of every aspect of Torah, engraved in a Jew’s soul, is illustrated by another of the tragic events of the seventeenth of Tammuz, the breaching of the wall around Yerushalayim.

Not all of the wall was destroyed; most of it remained intact. The city itself, with the Beis HaMikdosh inside, had not yet been touched. Only the city wall was breached.

Spiritually, the city of Jerusalem and the Beis HaMikdosh represent Judaism proper, its basics.13 The wall around Jerusalem represents those aspects the sole function of which is to protect Judaism,14 such as extra meticulosity in performing mitzvos, or special measures or enactments to prevent the possibility of sin. These are not principles in Judaism; they are a wall protecting it.

A breach of this protective fence around Judaism may not seem so severe, for only the wall is broken, and that which is inside, Judaism proper, remains intact.

The fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz teaches that the tragedy of the breaching of the wall is that it leads to worse things. Because corrective measures were not take immediately — the Jews did not repent of their evil ways which were the root of the trouble — the city itself was captured and the Beis HaMikdosh destroyed.

So too in spiritual terms. Every element in Judaism, even those things which are but a protective wall, are vitally important. For, as noted above, every part of Torah (not just the Ten Commandments) is engraved in a Jew’s soul and therefore affect a Jew’s very existence. Moreover, if one part of the wall is allowed to be breached, others will follow, for “one transgression leads to another.”15 Judaism proper will be in danger.

If the tablets are broken, if the wall is breached, we must act: a fast day becomes necessary. We must draw closer to G‑d, give of ourselves, replenish the spiritual. Fasting reduces the physical body, “our fat and our blood.”16 “Fat” represents pleasure, “blood” excitement and enthusiasm. A fast means we minimize our involvement in physical delights, our pursuit of the pleasures of the body. We turn to the spiritual, come closer to G‑d.

Through our spiritual service we rectify the past sins and omissions which caused the events for which we fast. Moreover, in the Messianic era, the fasts will not only be abolished, but they will be transformed into festivals, as written: “Thus says the L‑rd, G‑d of Hosts: the fast of the fourth...and the fast of the tenth shall become times of gladness, joy, and festivals for the house of Yehudah.”17

Sichah, 17th of Tammuz, 5740, 5741, 5742