It’s Summer Solstice. It just sounds good to say! The longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice officially represents the point at which the Earth’s axis tilts the closest to the Sun (the peak point was actually 11:07 BST.) In an added benefit, the weather also cooperated to ensure our maximally-sunny day was properly sunny today!
In many religious traditions however, the Summer Solstice (AKA Midsummer) is not a time of celebration per se. Typically, the solstice falls around the beginning of the month of Tammuz (this year, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz was June 13 and 14 for example)– and this is no coincidence. The month of Tammuz, like almost all the months in the Hebrew calendar, was named for a Babylonian deity.
Tammuz was a Babylonian demi-god who attracted the attention of the primary goddess of the Babylonian pantheon, Ishtar. She fell in love with him – her, the Queen of Heaven, an immortal with limitless power – fell in love with a shepherd. Because she loved him, and because the Gods loved to fight with each other, Tammuz became a weakness. Eventually he was killed, presumably by her enemies, in an effort to hurt her. Ishtar, not being one to shy away from a fight, literally descended to hell, smashed down the gates of the underworld, and dragged Tammuz back to the realm of the living, aiming to make him an immortal as well.
However, as these stories tend to go – one can’t simply descend to the underworld and take someone out. There has to be some compensation – something that preserves the balance of life and death. The myths tell us that Tammuz’s sister volunteered to take his place for half the year, leaving him with only six months out of each year that he would have to return and live in the land of the dead.
This cycle, of the newly-promoted Tammuz – now a God himself, of agriculture and fertility – living half the year in the underworld and half the earth on Earth, came to explain the cycle of the seasons. From the Spring through the Summer and into the Fall, Tammuz descended to the underworld, damned in the land of the dead. Resurrected every winter, he then spent six months above with his beloved Ishtar, granting fertility to the Earth.
We named the month after this once-mortal fertility God, and more than just the name, we started to assimilate our own history to this ancient cycle. Tammuz and Av, the Summer months, are the times that we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. On the 17th of this month we have a fast, commemorating the days the walls of the Temple were breached by the Romans. Three weeks later we commemorate the day the Temple was destroyed on Tisha beAv (9th of Av / 22 July this year).
For our people, who were never quite as agricultural, but loved their ritual, these events are, in their own way, a record of the death of Tammuz. Death and destruction reigns in the Jewish calendar every Summer. In Sivan, Tammuz and Av we read the parts of the Torah where the Israelites are in the wasteland, dying from hunger and thirst, rebelling against their leaders, complaining endlessly. In our cycle of holidays– after Shavu’ot, until Sukkot, we experience a wasteland of celebration– few happy occasions occur. For the most part the Summer is the time we mourn, we commemorate the death of our history, of our land, and of our connection to God.