Hundreds of thousands of observant Jewish families begin the "Three Weeks" of gradually-increasing mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temples and Israel's exile on Tuesday, with the fast of the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz.
This is the day on which Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces breached the walls of Jerusalem in 422 BCE, after 18 months of siege, on their way to destroying the First Temple three weeks later. (Note: Some date the destruction of the first Temple 586 B.C.E.)
The Three Weeks end on the 9th of Av - Tisha B'Av - the date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, roughly 2,500 and 2,000 years ago respectively, the second destruction by Roman forces taking place in the year 70 C. E.
The 17th of Tammuz marks other calamities in Jewish history as well. It is the date on which Moses, having descended from Mount Sinai for the first time, saw the people sinning with the Golden Calf and broke the first set of Ten Commandments. In addition, the priests of the First Temple era were forced on this day, a year before the Temple's destruction, to stop offering the daily sacrifice due to the shortage of sheep.
The Talmud also teaches that on this date some decades earlier, the evil King Menasheh had an idol placed in the Temple's Holy Sanctuary. Later, during Second Temple times, a Roman general placed an idol in the same place and publicly burned the Torah.
The fast begins in the early dawn hours and not the night before, unlike the Yom Kippur and 9th of Av fasts. It ends after the evening Maariv prayer shortly after 8 p.m. in Israel; for other locations, click here .Note that in may cities an hour must be added for Daylight Savings Time. For Hebrew, click here.
Mourning customs such as no weddings, parties, or haircuts, continue until the morning after Tisha B'Av; there are slight differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic customs.
Maimonides (Rambam) explains that the purpose of days of fasting and mourning is not to remember the hardships suffered by our ancestors, in the same way that we remember days of joy, but rather to “awaken [our] hearts and clear the paths to repentance. This reminds us of our evil deeds and those of our forefathers [that] brought these calamities upon them and us. Recalling these matters causes us to better ourselves, as it is written, They shall confess their transgressions and the transgressions of their fathers.’”
Like other fast days, the morning prayers on the 17th of Tammuz include special selichot prayers, mourning our losses and asking for forgiveness. Excerpts from the selichot of the 17th of Tammuz:
"We rebelled against Him Who dwells in heaven, therefore we were scattered in all directions... We acted rebelliously before Thee with slandering tongues, therefore our tongues were made to learn to utter lamentation... The tempest-tossed afflicted people were utterly broken up and dispersed; the dry land became a boat wrecked for lack of a captain; she received [punishment] for her sins with principal and double interest, with mourning and moaning... Their adversaries assailed them on that day and... drove the nation like a chased gazelle, and there was none that sought to protect it... Turn to us, O Thou that dwellest on high, gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth. Say to Zion, Arise! And we shall arise. Convert the 17th of Tammuz into a day of salvation and comfort." (translation by Rev. Abraham Isaac Jacob Rosenfeld).
For Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's A7 Judaism section article on the Three Weeks, click here.
For yeshiva site articles on the Three Weeks, click here
(Updated from an article by Hillel Fendel)