Francine Klagsbrun’s latest work, Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the Year (illustrated by Mark Podwal; Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996) inserts into the rhythm of the Jewish months explanations of Rosh Hodesh (the celebration of the New Moon, traditionally a women’s holiday), historical events often omitted from the Jewish calendars hanging on most refrigerators, and interpretive nuggets to enjoy the year ’round. Tammuz, the midsummer month, marks several catastrophes, including the burning of the Talmud in Paris (1242) and the death (in 1105) of the brilliant Torah commentator Rashi. Here’s how Klagsbrun enriches our understanding of the conflation of myth and history in the Jewish past, as she explicates the name this month bears:
When the prophet Ezekiel recounted the abominations he had witnessed in a vision of the Temple courtyard, he included the women who sat together near its north gate bewailing Tammuz (8:14). The reference is to a goddess worshiping cult that survived in First Temple times in spite of the prophets’ many exhortations against paganism. The cult’s source was Babylonian mythology, itself rooted in earlier Sumerian beliefs.
It was a folk cult, particularly popular among women, who may have been more enticed by it than men because they were excluded from Temple ritual. It was built around the goddess Ishtar, lover of the beautiful fertility god Tammuz. Every year in the month of Tammuz, which bore the god’s name, he descended into the netherworld, and all vegetation withered and died (as it does during this hot summer month in the Near East). But Ishtar would go after him and despite many difficulties manage to resurrect him so that by the following spring the earth would blossom again. The women, and some men, bewailed the gods’ disappearance with formal dirges and mournful poems. When Ishtar returned and Tammuz after her, they paid tribute to her with incense and libations.
In Greek mythology the story of Venus and Adonis, who also dies but from whose blood the anemone flower grows, is related to that of Ishtar and Tammuz, Some scholars say that the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar [when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem] carries traces of the old mourning period for the god Tammuz. If so, these traces, like fragments of ancient myths in other aspects of the calendar, are buried beneath layers of historical meaning.