Today is Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, the date marked for misfortune on the Jewish calendar. According to tradition, this was when the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed--also the second Temple, about 640 years later, and also the day on which the expulsion of the Jew from Spain became effective, in 1492.
It is traditionally a day of fasting, except on a Sabbath, when the fast is postponed until the end of the day, because Sabbath is not the proper time to dwell on misfortune.
I knew a rabbi who, whenever on Sabbath he recited "Mi Sheberach" for the recovery of a sick person, he included a quick phrase which sounded like "Shabbat-imilizook", the way some people stick a quick "kinenhora" into a conversation. It's an abbreviated Hebrew phrase *
Implying, presumably, a continuation"...but God, this is too important, please heal this person."
Anyway, the mourning begins with the reading of "Eychah," the scroll of Lamentations, which according to tradition was written by the prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. "Eychah" is its first word--"How" (actually, a drawn-out form of the word)--and it continues "How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people..." The congregation does not listen to it sitting on chairs, but people sit on the ground, sign of mourning.
Among the books of the bible, "Eychah" is rather unusual, for several reasons. First of all, this style of writing has all but disappeared--I am not aware of anyone writing lamentations today, no matter how great the calamity--bemoaning grievous loss, describing it from all aspects, deeply pessimistic grief--"woe is us, look at what has befallen us!" No one wants to hear such depressing words, and after Tisha B'Av you are not likely to hear them again, just as very few people go back and watch "Schindler's List" for a second time.
Let us read the first 5 verses:
In the bible, however, this is how losses were mourned. "How the mighty have fallen" says the lament of David, after the death of Saul and Jonathan--Saul, who had sought to destroy David, and Jonathan, his true friend, once they are gone, David laments them both equally, 'Saul and Jonathan, beloved and pleasant." It was even considered good form to hire professional mourners, women who would cry at the funeral! Indeed, styles have changed.
And second, "Eychah" is one of the most poetic books in the bible. One thing is immediately obvious--almost all of it is in the form of acrostics, verses arranged in alphabetical order: first one starts with an aleph, second with beth, and so on; in chapter 3, they even come in threes--three for aleph, then three for beth, and so forth.
But the language, too, is very different, a great economy of words, often unusual words. And interestingly, almost no adjectives. Try imagine a Holocaust memorial service not using adjectives--words like inhuman, heroic, tragic, remembered, unjust, cruel, immortal, unforgettable, etc. Yet the style of "Lamentations" avoids such words. Adjectives are euphemisms--they replace harsher words which we rather not say explicitely, to soften the blow. "Lamentations" spells them out, and the blunt impact is much stronger.
Rather than go through more of "Lamentations," I leave this to the Tisha B'Av service, and instead will discuss three other pieces of Jewish poetry which focus on that same grievous loss.
"Lamentations" was written after the destruction of the first temple, which was a deliberate act of the occupying Babylonians, some time after they captured Jerusalem and its king. But the book is not at all about the loss of the temple--it is about the loss of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the center of Jewish existence, and after it was destroyed, and the people were exiled, it was not at all certain whether the Jewish nation would survive. Other nations have gone under after such a calamity--most notably, the ten lost tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, which disappeared without a trace.
So the loss Jerusalem became the focus of all the nation's grief, and that loss marked the nation's soul from then until this day.
In Psalm 137, the unnamed poet wrote (verses 1-6):
This psalm left two marks on Jewish tradition. First of all, continuing the text:
What is "chiefest joy"? One of the most joyous occasions in life is one's wedding. And our sages, may their memory be blessed, cited the psalm to decree, that even then, we should remember Jerusalem--our joy should not be complete, because of the destruction of Jerusalem.
How to you bring sorrow to the heart at such a joyous moment? You break something precious: and so came the custom, at Jewish weddings, to break a glass. No matter what people read into this today, originally it was "Zecher L'Churban," in memory of the destruction.
And the second mark of this psalm is that--at least among the Orthodox--no instrumental music is used in the sanctuary. "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"
Of course, you can look at this line the way the Jewish poet Julian Drachman did--"how can we not sing it" because, if we cease our song, our Jewish spirit may soon shrivel and disappear. In fact, the destruction of Jerusalem was not the end--our spirit was reborn in exile, thanks to visionaries such as Ezechiel (remember the vision of the dry bones!) and Ezra. Even the temple was rebuilt.
But the second temple was destroyed, too, and the city of Jerusalem was desolate again. Against all odds, Jewish tradition survived once more, but the mark of that double destruction became an indelible part of our tradition.
Skip many centuries again. Just over 30 years ago, another Jewish poet, a woman named Naomi Shemer, again expressed this lament for lost Jerusalem. A new Jewish Jerusalem has come into being, but the historic old sites were still out of reach--you could see them, but you could not go there, a high wall stood in the way and on it were Arab soldiers who shot at you if you ventured too close.
This was the reality with which Naomi Shemer had grown up, and she had no way of knowing that within less than a year it would completely change. So she wrote "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" or Jerusalem of Gold.
By necessity, I read this in translation. Those who know the Hebrew will see there many more links, words from "Eychah" and from the psalm we read earlier. But we got to go on.
Next Shabbat, as you know, is Shabbat Nakhamu, the first of "7 shabbatot of consolation" that follow Tisha B'Av, whose haftaroth are all taken from the second part of the book of Isaiah, the prophet of consolation. The first one begins with * "be consoled, be consoled my people..." about the exiles returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding it:
About 400 years ago another Jewish poet collected verses from all these haftaroth and braided them into a poem, rekindling the hope that Jerusalem will be rebuilt once more to her former glory. Anyone knows what I am talking about?
It is Lecha Dodi by Shlomo Alkabetz! The hymn with which Sabbath is welcomed every Friday night, in congregations across the globe.
You may object: That is a song about welcoming the Sabbath-bride, not about the redemption of Jerusalem!
Well, yes. The stanzas we sing, the first two and the last one, are about the Sabbath. But the body of the song, the parts usually skipped, have a completely different message. They are about the author's hope, that the Messiah will soon come and Jerusalem will be rebuilt--these two things go together, and both are implied when, at the end of Yom Kippur or the Passover Seder, we proclaim "next year in Jerusalem"!
Let us read these parts again (Read Lecha Dodi from the Siddur)
So let us conclude here with these edifying words:
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: audavstern("at" symbol)erols.com .
Last updated 12 June 2002