The Enigma of Tammuz

June 22 2020/ Rosh Chodesh Tammuz , 5780

It is well-known that the names of the Hebrew months are a relatively recent innovation. From the time of the Exodus (approx. 1313 BCE) throughout the First Temple period, the Jewish nation counted their months according to the ordinal number system, i.e. First month, second month, etc. Then suddenly, at the time of the return of the Exiles, and the rebuilding of the second Temple, in the year 323 BCE, the Jewish people adopted the popular Middl Eastern names in use (and in many cases still in use in countries such as Turkey and Iran) at that time.

In other words today we call the First Month, – Nissan, the Second – Iyar, etc. , the popular names of the months in use in Mesapotamia, and first found in our Tanach, the Bible, in the Books of Esther, and Daniel. While most of these “new” names are quite benign, one name in particular really stands out, – the name of the fourth month, Tammuz!

The reason why it is so enigmatic, especially for Jews, is that it seems to be the name of an ancient idol, (possibly the source of the Assyrian Osairus, and later the Greek Adonis) and the Torah gives us a specific prohibition against even pronouncing the name of an idol- (viz. Exodus 23/13)!

What’s more, in a particularly scathing prophecy, the Prophet Ezekiel is shown by G-d how the ְוְהִנֵּה־שָׁם֙ הַנָּשִׁ֣ים יֹֽשְׁב֔וֹת מְבַכּ֖וֹת אֶת־הַתַּמּֽוּז׃ (ס)  “And the women there ( in the Temple), sat and caused the crying of the Tammuz” Ezekiel 8/14.

In order to resolve the issue of the idolatrous name it has been suggested that Tammuz is actually a euphemism for the original name “dim-muze” meaning “burn-up”!

But what of the sense of the phrase?

In the ancient world, the heat of the summer caused the withering of the spring flora, and was believed to be the cause of a certain amount of depression which fell upon the world. The ancient pagans associated that sadness with the death of the god, dim-muz.

In the Jewish world the month of Tammuz also was a sad month because on the 17th of that month, the great siege of Jerusalem began. But Tammuz was also, to a certain degree the start of our redemption. The very beginning of the Book of Ezekiel begins “In the thirtieth year (of the destruction of the Temple) in the fourth month on the fifth day…. Ezekiel received his first prophecy on the river Kvar, (today, in modern-day Kurdistan) , and eventually saw the Third and final Temple of Jerusalem in all its eternal glory!

Perhaps the name Tammuz has been adopted to remind us that yes, a month can be historically sad for a variety of reasons, but we also have the capacity to transform it into a month of joy and gladness, and most importantly into a month of redemption!