Fast days

The Torah-reading for fast-days has a hidden message to help us through hard times.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Mass-prayer at Beit El
Mass-prayer at Beit El

On the regular fast days (17th of Tammuz, 9th of Av morning, Tzom Gedaliah on the 3rd of Tishrei, 10th of Tevet, and the Fast of Esther) the Torah-reading is part of the aftermath of the golden calf. The first reading (Kohen) is Exodus 32:11-14, Moshe’s pleading with G-d that He relent of His fury against the Children of Israel. Then the second and third readings (Levi and Yisrael) continue with Exodus 34:1-10, G-d’s giving the replacement Tablets of Stone to Moshe.

This is of course appropriate: the purpose of fasting is to mourn over past sins. And the narrative of Israel’s repentance after disgracing themselves by celebrating the golden calf, and of G-d’s subsequent forgiveness of that sin, is a clear precedent that we always have the capacity and opportunity for repentance and subsequent forgiveness.

On this fast, the 17th of Tammuz, this episode is all the more appropriate, because the sin of the golden calf and Moshe’s response of smashing the two Tablets of Stone occurred on the 17th of Tammuz [1].

As we begin the Three Weeks, the annual period of mourning for our lost Land, lost independence, lost Holy Temple, this sequence of events can offer some measure of succour.

The golden calf was a disaster, and when Moshe saw it he smashed the Tablets of Stone – and G-d Himself vindicated him with the words: יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁשִּׁבַּרְתָּ!, You did well by smashing them (Shabbat 87a, Yevamot 62a, Devarim Rabbah 5:13, Targum Yonatan to Deuteronomy 10:2, et al.) [2].

G-d Himself declared that smashing the two Tablets of Stone brought benefit into the world! And if smashing this most sacred of objects served a beneficial purpose, then we can deduce that every [apparent] destruction can yet bring benefit – even though we may be unable, at this current stage of history and with our current limited understanding to comprehend what that benefit may be.

Nevertheless, the fact that G-d Himself endorsed this destruction can give us some encouragement on this day of disasters.

And another aspect: After Moshe smashed the two Tablets of Stone and shocked the Children of Israel into stunned introspection and repentance, G-d gave us the second Tablets of Stone to replace those which Moshe had smashed:

“Hashem said to Moshe: Carve for yourself two Tablets of Stone like the first ones, and I will write on the Tablets the words which were on the first Tablets, which you smashed” (Exodus 34:1).

We pause for a moment to analyse the verb that the Torah uses here: Several translations use the verb “break” rather than “smash”. However the verb שִׁבַּרְתָּ is in the pi’el form, a more intensive form of the verb than the pa’al form שָׁבַרְתָּ (you broke). Hence our translation here, “you smashed”, more intensive than “you broke”.

In another two paragraphs we will see the full significance of this Hebrew verb שִׁבַּרְתָּ; in the meantime we note that after forgiving the sin, G-d restored the Tablets of Stone to Israel. We and He continued, our relationship with each other as restored as the Tablets of Stone.

Forty years later, Moshe recalled this incident, using the identical words: “At that time, Hashem said to me: Carve for yourself two Tablets of Stone like the first ones...and I will write on the Tablets the words which were on the first Tablets, which you smashed” (Deuteronomy 10:1-2).

In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the verb “you smashed”, appears in the form שִׁבַּרְתָּ. And in both cases this form contains an exquisitely subtle message.

Hebrew grammar has a rule that the last stressed vowel of a phrase or a sentence should be elongated [3]. In Exodus, the word שִׁבַּרְתָּ appears at the end of a sentence, and in Deuteronomy it appears at the end of a phrase: ...הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִֽאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר שִׁבַּ֑רְתָּ. The cantillation-mark under the word שִׁבַּרְתָּ is an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, which marks the end of a phrase and follows the same grammatical rules as the end of a sentence.

So according to the normal rules of Hebrew grammar, the verb should be written שִׁבָּרְתָּ, with a kamatz under the bet, instead of שִׁבַּרְתָּ, with a patach under the bet. A difference so minuscule that it cannot be carried over in any translation. A difference so minuscule that few people who read the Torah in the Hebrew original would ever notice it. But the form שִׁבַּרְתָּ definitely does not belong at the end of a phrase or a sentence.

So why does the Torah vowellise this verb against the normative rules of grammar?

– I suggest:

The Torah is giving us the subtlest and gentlest of hints that when Moshe smashed the Tablets of Stone, it did not mark the end. To be sure, every Jew present must have been shocked. To see Moshe Rabbeinu himself smash the Tablets of the Torah! Could anyone survive such a horror?! If we, the Jewish nation, have sunk so low that even Moshe himself smashes the Torah – can the Creation itself yet endure?

– Yes, says G-d. Not directly. Not explicitly. But He encoded it, so obliquely, in His words. Even though He spoke the verb “you broke” at the end of the sentence, He nevertheless pronounced it שִׁבַּרְתָּ and not שִׁבָּרְתָּ. Telling Moshe, and all of us: No, this is not the end of the sentence.

Though this is a disaster, there will yet be a continuation. You will have to search – but if you search, you will find the consolation, the ever-so-subtle hint that Torah, Jewish history, has not come to its end.

This is the message which we so desperately need in our times of disaster – the times of disaster which begin with the 17th of Tammuz.

And with this exquisitely subtle message of hope and comfort, we can look forward to the time which G-d promised us through His prophet Zechariah: “The fast of the fourth month [the 17th of Tammuz], and the fast of the fifth month [the 9th of Av], and the fast of the seventh month [Tzom Gedaliah, the 3rd of Tishrei], and the fast of the tenth month [the 10th of Tevet] will become happiness and rejoicing and festivities for the House of Judah” (Zechariah 8:19).

May this time come soon, for us and for all Israel!


[1] The Mishnah (Ta’anit 6:4) lists the smashing of the two Tablets of Stone as one of five disasters which happened on the 17th of Tammuz. Though the Torah does not give the date explicitly, it is simple enough to calculate: G-d gave us the Torah on the 6th of Sivan; early the next day (7th Sivan) Moshe ascended Mount Sinai and remained there 40 days and 40 nights, bringing us to the 17th of Tammuz (following Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartinura’s commentary on the Mishnah ad loc.).

[2] The phrase יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ, literally “your strength is made straight”, or more idiomatically “you have used your strength for a good purpose”, has entered Hebrew as a standard idiom meaning “well done!”.

[3] The technical name for this rule is צוּרוֹת מִשְׁתַּנּוֹת, literally “changing forms”.