On today’s page we open the fourth and final chapter of Tractate Taanit again with a full chapter of mishnah which takes up a good chunk of today’s daf. The primary topic has now evolved from fast days that are declared in case of emergency to fixed communal fast days and the reasons they are observed. In many cases, the rabbis ascribe multiple disastrous historical events to these fixed fasts. For example:
Five calamitous matters occurred to our forefathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and five other disasters happened on the Ninth of Av. On the seventeenth of Tammuz,the tablets were broken by Moses when he saw that the Jews had made the Golden Calf; the daily offering was nullified by the Roman authorities and was never sacrificed again; the city walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apostemos publicly burned a Torah scroll, and Manasseh placed an idol in the Temple.
Some of these will be more familiar to modern readers than others. The story of the Golden Calf — Israel’s original sin at the foot of Mount Sinai — is one many will know. And those familiar with the historical books of the Hebrew Bible will know that Manasseh is remembered as one of the worst kings of Judah — so enamored of idolatrous practice he might even have indulged in child sacrifice (2 Kings 21:6). Though whether he placed an idol in the Temple is less clear.
But who was Apostemos and when did he publicly burn a Torah scroll? And furthermore, how do we know that all these things happened on the 17th of Tammuz? Indeed, in the Gemara, the rabbis debate and disagree about all these assertions. Why were the dates of destroying the tablets or the Golden Calf not specified in the Bible as days of mourning? And if it was the fast referred to by Zechariah as the fast of the fourth month (8:19) why not call it the 17th of Tammuz? And were the city walls of Jerusalem really breached on the 17th of Tammuz? Jeremiah (39:2, 52:6-7) states that this happened on the Ninth of Tammuz, though the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit IV, 5) concurs that the breach occurred on 17th of Tammuz; the rabbis claim the biblical record was “distorted,” apparently due to the troubled times. The prophets Zechariah, Haggai and Ezekiel all disagree on the precise dates of the destruction of the First Temple, too.
As for who Apostomos was, the rabbis don’t comment and so in our day, it is difficult to know. Experts argue as to whether his name was Greek or Latin or even Hebrew. Here are some theories: (1) he was a Syrian Greek of the time of the Hasmoneans, (2) he was the renegade Jewish priest Alcimus, (3) he was the Roman procurator Cumanus, (4) he was a Roman soldier called Stephanos.
Similar issues apply to the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av — still a major fast day on the Jewish calendar) which the rabbis also commemorate as the anniversary of five disasters:
On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die in the wilderness and not enter the land of Israel; and the Temple was destroyed the first time, in the days of Nebuchadnezzar; and the second time, by the Romans; Beitar was captured; and the city of Jerusalem was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt.
It is unlikely that all these events happened on the same day. But it was common talmudic practice to combine several events at the same time, both to give fewer dates of mourning greater significance and so as not to impose too heavy a burden on the community.
The mishnah goes on to outline a practice that will be familiar to Jews who observe Tisha B’Av today: From when the month of Av begins, one decreases rejoicing. And during the actual week in which Tisha B’Av falls, one does not get a haircut, launder clothes, eat two cooked dishes in a single meal, consume meat or drink wine. Rabbi Yehuda even suggests sleeping on the floor as a more overt way of being uncomfortable and externalizing the mourning, but his colleagues disagree.
These days, many Jewish communities have expanded this window of mourning to three complete weeks, some starting already on (you guessed it) the 17th of Tammuz.
Read all of Taanit 26 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 8th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.