THE THREE WEEKS
For two thousand years, the most somber span of the Jewish calendar has been a three week period of semi-mourning stretching from the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, a minor fast day marking the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces in 586 B.C.E., to Tisha b’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av), commemorating a number of national disasters that occurred on this day, including more recently the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
THE 17th OF TAMMUZ
The Talmud (Ta’anit 4:6) reveals that the tamid (daily offering) ceased on the seventeenth day of the month of Tammuz, three weeks before Tisha b’Av (the date of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple), one of five major calamities occurring on that date. It was the same day that the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments was broken in response to the transgression of the golden calf, forty days after the Revelation on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32:19, Ta’anit 28b), and the day when the Clouds of Glory departed from Israel. The seventeenth of Tammuz was subsequently transformed into an annual fast day.
The tamid was not brought as atonement for a specific transgression or for thanksgiving, but rather as its Hebrew name expresses, as an act of elevation, of raising the individual and community closer to God. The Talmud, however, does not reveal when or why the tamid ceased, stating only “this (dating) is a tradition (Ta’anit 28b).” Rashi there states only that the offering could no longer be brought because the government at the time forbade it. Bartenura (Commentary on the Mishnah Ta’anit) explains that the termination of the tamid was due to the siege of Jerusalem by the Nebuchadnezzar. The Tiferet Yisrael (Commentary on the Mishnah Ta’anit) clarifies the opinion of Bartenura, noting that this occurred three years before the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.. Some commentators contend that the tamid ceased on this date by both the Babylonian siege as well as later in 67 or 70 C.E. during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
In any case, Jewish tradition connects the tamid with Mt. Sinai and the incident of the golden calf, adding further meaning to the recitation of the Ten Commandments in the midst of the ceremony, but also connecting those events surrounding the golden calf to the cessation of the tamid. (Ironically, the parsha of Pinchas, in which the Israelites are enjoined to offer the tamid, is usually read on the Sabbath immediately following the seventeenth of Tammuz, the day on which they ceased.) Pointedly, Jewish tradition does not note the cessation of any of the other offerings, even those of Yom Kippur or Passover, as a national tragedy. For it is the loss of the offering injecting elevation into the routine of everyday life that remains most sorely missed and needed.
The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) discusses five calamites that befell the Jewish people on the 9th day of Av (Tisha b’Av). The first occurred when the spies sent by Moses (Numbers 13) returned with a slanderous report, prompting the people to complain, resulting in the decree that they would be remain in the wilderness for 40 years. Subsequently, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the year 586 B.C.E., Babylonian forces entered Jerusalem and torched Solomon’s Temple and much of the city. The emperor Nebuchadnezzar, emulating the Assyrian practice of removing the upper and middle classes of a society and replacing them with those from a distant country as a way to minimize political unrest, deported much of the Jewish population to Babylonia. On the ninth day of the month of Av in 70 C.E., after three years of revolution, Roman forces breached the walls of Jerusalem and burned the Second Temple. Sixty-two years later, a second insurgency met the same fate as the previous one as, once again on the ninth day of Av, the Roman legions defeated the rebel leader Bar Kokhba at the fortress of Betar.
The final event in the list,
“Turnusrufus the wicked plowed up the Temple, and a decree was decreed against Rabban Gamliel to execute him.”
The latter act on the 9th of Av, massed with a series of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history, refers to the Romans tearing down the stones of the Second Temple building and plowing under the site. In 70 C.E., only the wooden parts of the Temple were burned, while most of the rock frame of the edifice still stood. The Talmud (Makot 24b), records,
“One time they (Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, and Rabbi Akiva) were coming to Jerusalem and when they reached Mount Scopus, they rent their garments (for the destruction of the Temple). When they came to the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies.”
Thus the fox was scurrying out of the actual remnants of the Temple. At this point, rebuilding the Temple would have been relatively easy, if the cooperation of the Roman government could be obtained. On the contrary, once Turnusrufus tore down the walls, the destruction was absolute and irrevocable; rebuilding no longer an option and any attempt to build the Third Temple more remote and difficult. Connected to this stage of destruction was a death warrant against Gamliel II.
The epithet Turnus is a play on the Greek word tyrant; Rufus is Latin for “red-headed,” but also a common family name of many prominent Romans. Thus Turnusrufus is a generic epithet meaning “Roman tyrant. The oppressive Turnusrufus is generally attributed to be the Roman Governor of Judea in the Bar Kokhba period (c. 131), Quintus Tineius Rufus. However, Gamliel was already deceased for more than 15 years by that time (Eruvin 41a), dying around the year 115. (The tomb of Gamliel II is located near Tel Yavneh outside the modern city of Yavneh.) Instead, Turnusrufus probably refers to Domitian, who, as mentioned, ordered the death of all descendents of the House of David, which would most certainly include Gamliel. Warned by a Roman general, Gamliel escaped and hid until Domitian’s death in 96 (Ta’anit 29a). (This enhances the irony of the wife of Turnusrufus giving money to Rabbi Akiva.) The previous episode of the fox, where the Holy of Holies still stood, occurred before the plowing under of the site and death threat against Rabban Gamliel, but following the pervious episode was the rise to prominence of Elazar ben Azaryah and Akiva. The date of Domitian’s destruction was in 86.
From the first day of Av, Jews traditionally do not eat meat, except on the Sabbath until after Tisha b’Av (this period called The Nine Days); a few abstain during the entire three week period. Accordingly, cooks prepare an assortment of dairy and vegetarian fare during this time of year. Fava bean soups and stews are common among Sephardim during the Nine Days before Tisha b’Av, a source of protein during this meatless period.
The meal before the fast of Av also consists of dairy foods and usually contains dishes made from lentils and eggs, both ancient Jewish symbols of mourning.
Red Lentil Soup
(6 to 8 servings)
3 tablespoons (45 ml) vegetable or olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped (2 cups/480 ml/8 ounces/225 grams)
3 medium (about 3 ounces/85 grams each) carrots, chopped
2 stalks (4 ounces/115 grams each) celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups (2 liters) chicken broth, beef broth, or water
2 cups (480 ml/14 ounces/400 grams) red lentils, washed and drained
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
4 scallions, chopped (optional)
1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic and sauté until softened (5 to 10 minutes).
2. Add the broth or water, lentils, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer until lentils are very tender (about 30 minutes). Remove the bay leaf. If desired, puree the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If desired, garnish with scallions.
Creamy Red Lentil Soup: After the lentils are tender, stir in ½ cup (120 ml) cream and simmer over low heat until heated through.
Red Lentil and Tomato Soup: Add 2 cups (480 ml/14 ounces/400 grams) peeled, seeded, and chopped plum tomatoes with the lentils.
Edjah Shiriyya (Iraqi Noodle Omelet)
About 8 medium pancakes
This dairy omelet, also spelled ijjet, is popular during the Nine Days before the fast of Tisha b’Av and other dairy meals.
1 pound very fine egg noodles or broken angel hair pasta
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 to 1½ cups grated kashkaval, kefalotyri, Munster, Cheddar, Gouda, or other hard cheese
About ¾ teaspoon table salt, or 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
Ground white or black pepper to taste
Butter or oil for frying
Plain yogurt or jam (optional)
1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until al dente. Drain and let cool slightly.
2. Toss the noodles with the eggs, cheese, salt, and pepper.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Drop the noodle batter by ½ cupfuls to form 4-inch pancakes or 2 tablespoons for small pancakes and fry, turning once, until golden on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Serve warm, if desired, accompanied with yogurt or jam.
Middle Eastern Baked Noodles (Macarona al Horno): Spoon the pasta mixture into a greased 13- by 9-inch baking dish or two 9-inch pie plates and bake in a 375-degree oven until firm and golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving
Ful Akhdar ma Laban (Syrian Fresh Fava Beans with Yogurt)
The name Aleppo derived from the Arabic word haleb (milk), referring to the abundance of the area’s dairy products, primarily consumed in the form of jiben (soft cheese) and leban (yogurt). Either or both of these are ubiquitous for breakfast and dinner, both dairy meals. Mixing yogurt with vegetables is a common Middle Eastern practice, imparting a unique touch with an interesting combination of flavors. Middle Eastern yogurt tends to be somewhat tarter as well as thinner than the commercial American brands and, indeed, many Syrians find American yogurt so bland that they insist on homemade. Therefore, adjust the amount of lemon juice in the sauce to your personal preference. When making a large batch of ful, the children in the family were frequently drafted for the tedious but necessary step of removing the skins from the beans.
¼ cup olive or vegetable oil
2 medium onions, or 6 to 8 scallions, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled, or about 3 cups canned fava beans
1½ cups water
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
1 clove garlic, mashed with about ½ teaspoon table salt, or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon brown or granulated sugar
About 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon ground mustard
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of grated nutmeg
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and, if using, garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the beans, then the water, cilantro, and sugar. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until tender, 10 to 20 minutes for younger beans; 20 to 30 minutes for older beans; about 30 minutes for canned beans. For older, larger beans, rub to loosen the skins, then discard the skins. Drain and return the beans to the pot.
2. To make the sauce: Combine the yogurt, garlic, sugar, lemon juice, mint, mustard, pepper, and nutmeg. Add to the beans and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until heated through.
3. Gradually stir a little of the yogurt mixture into the egg, then add the egg mixture to the beans and stir until thickened — do not boil. Serve warm or chilled.
NOTE – If using young pods, cut them into 1-inch pieces and cook them with the beans.
Chakchouka (Maghrebi Tomato-Pepper Stew with Eggs)
(6 to 8 servings)
This Northwest African Jewish vegetable stew (also spelled shakshuka) can be made from various combinations of vegetables (such as zucchini and potatoes), but always contains tomatoes and peppers. The stew frequently serves as a base for cooking eggs: Sometimes the eggs are poached on top of the stew, other times they are beaten and stirred into the stew to scramble. When served with eggs, it is a popular breakfast dish and during the Nine Days before Tisha’ b’Av. Without the eggs, it is served as a part of a meze (Middle Eastern appetizer assortment) or with other salads for lunch.
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups/8 ounces)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
8 green Anaheim chilies or medium green bell peppers, peeled, seeded, and sliced
6 cups (about 1½ pounds) tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
About 1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon turmeric
4 teaspoons vinegar (optional)
6 to 8 eggs
1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent (5 to 10 minutes).
2. Add the chilies or peppers and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, turmeric, and if desired, vinegar and simmer over medium heat until the tomatoes are softened (about 20 minutes).
3. With a spoon, make 6 to 8 indentations in the vegetables. Carefully break an egg into each indentation. Cover and cook over low heat or bake in a 400-degree (205 C) oven until the eggs are set (about 10 minutes). Serve immediately accompanied with pita bread.
ALTERNATIVES – Roast the peppers until blackened, place in a bag until cool enough to handle, then peel, seed, and chop. Add to the cooked tomatoes.
– Divide the tomato mixture between 6 to 8 smaller baking dishes, make an indentation in the center, break in an egg, and bake in a 400-degree (205 C) oven until the egg is set.
– Lightly beat the eggs, add to the stew, and stir until set.
Tchatchouka (Syrian Tomato-Pepper Stew with Eggs): Omit the turmeric.
Chakchouka (Tunisian Tomato-Pepper Stew with Eggs): Add 2 teaspoons ground cumin and a pinch of cayenne or 2 tablespoons harissa (chili paste).
Mengedarrah (Middle Eastern Lentils and Rice)
4 to 6 servings
After the Persians brought rice from India to central and western Asia, people began cooking this grain with other Middle Eastern favorites, including various vegetables, bulgur, noodles, and especially legumes, the latter providing complementary nutrition. Some of these dishes served as filling and healthy everyday fare, while others were intended only for special occasions. The medieval Arabic lentil and rice dish called mengedarrah/mujadara, at times also containing chickpeas or noodles, became one of the most widespread and beloved dishes in the Muslim world. The first record of mengedarrah, which literally means “having smallpox” in Arabic, referring to the dots of lentils in the white rice, appeared in the tenth century and was soon served for both celebrations as well as working-class meals. Variations are called mujadara/megadara in the Levant, mejedra in Greece, and enjadara in Yemen. It is unknown whether the Persians brought the concept for lentils and rice from India, although Indians prepare a similar dish called khichri/kitchree, Hindi for “mixture/hodgepodge,” and, by the British, kedgeree. The Egyptian version known as koshari/kushary, first mentioned in the writings of Moroccan-born traveler Ibn Battuta (c. 1354), most certainly received its name from the Indian dish. Iraqis make kichree with red lentils, cumin, and turmeric and top each serving with fried eggs. The Persian version called adas polo is prepared with a crispy rice bottom. Bukharans substitute split mung beans for the lentils in juroti, a practice common in India as well.
As symbols of fertility as well as mortality (life like a lentil is round like a wheel), mengedarrah is traditionally eaten during the week before the fast of Tisha b’Av and in a house of mourning. The dish is also popular on many happy occasions, such as Shavout, when it is topped with yogurt and served with huevos haminados (brown eggs). Middle Eastern Jewish housewives, preoccupied with preparations for the Sabbath, commonly served mengedarrah as an easy and filling Thursday night dinner, the leftovers enjoyed cold for Friday and Saturday breakfasts.
1 cup (about 7 ounces) brown or green lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 cup long-grain white rice
¼ cup vegetable oil or samneh (clarified butter)
2 large onions, halved and sliced
About 3 cups water
About 1 teaspoon table salt, or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
About ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
1. Soak the lentils in warm water to cover for at least 2 hours or overnight. Drain. Soaking for several hours helps to bring out the lentils’ flavor and maintain the shape during cooking.
2. Soak the rice in cold water to cover for 20 minutes, then drain.
3. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove half of the onions and let cool. Alternately, you can remove all of the onions and use them all for the topping or leave all of the fried onions in the saucepan to mix into the mengedarrah.
4. Add 2 cups water to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the lentils, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, until just tender but still firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the cooking liquid into a measuring cup and add additional water to equal 2 cups, while leaving the lentils in the saucepan.
5. Add the 2 cups liquid, salt, and pepper to the lentils in the saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in the rice, return to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to very low, and simmer until the water is absorbed and the rice tender, about 20 minutes. Do not remove the lid during cooking. Let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Transfer to a serving platter and, if using, dot with the butter. Top with the reserved fried onions. Serve warm or at room temperature, if desired, accompanied with yogurt and/or pita bread.
The ratio of lentils to rice can be changed according to personal preference. Increase the rice to 2 cups, the reserved cooking liquid to 4 cups, and the salt to about 1½ teaspoons. Or reduce the rice to ½ cup and reduce the reserved cooking liquid to 1 cup.
Syrian Lentils and Rice (Mujadara): Add ½ teaspoon ground allspice with the salt.
Egyptian Lentils, Rice, and Pasta (Koshari): After the rice is tender, stir in about 2 cups warm cooked elbow macaroni, fideos (coiled thin noodles), thin spaghetti broken into 2-inch pieces, or any combination. Transfer the lentil mixture to a serving platter, top with a little hot tomato sauce, and sprinkle the fried onions over top.
Indian Lentils and Rice (Khichri/Kitchree): In Step 3, add to the fried onions 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 1 tablespoon minced fresh small green chilies, and 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger and sauté for about 2 minutes, then stir in 1 teaspoon turmeric and 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick. Alternately, add 1½ teaspoons ground cumin and 1 teaspoon garam masala with the salt.
Marunchinos (Almond Macaroons)
(About 40 cookies)
Sephardim serve almond cookies and marzipan for the meal to break the fast of Tisha b’Av in honor of the Messiah, who traditional tells us is to be born on this day. A Midrash relates that the first tree to greet him will be an almond tree.
3 large (6 tablespoons/90 ml) egg whites
3 cups (720 ml/12 ounces/340 grams) finely ground blanched almonds
1 tablespoon (15 ml) rose or orange blossom water or 1 teaspoon (5 ml) almond extract
1 cup (240 ml/7 ounces/200 grams) granulated sugar
About 42 whole almonds (2.5 ounces/70 grams)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C). Grease 2 large baking sheets.
2. Beat the egg whites until foamy. Combine the ground almonds and sugar. Stir in the egg whites and almond extract or flavored water. Refrigerate until firm enough to shape (at least 30 minutes).
3. With moistened hands, form the nut mixture into 1-inch balls. Place on the prepared sheets, leaving 1½-inches between cookies. Press a whole almond into the center of each cookie.
4. Bake until lightly browned (about 15 minutes). Let cool on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then remove to racks and let cool completely. (Store in an airtight container.)