An Introduction to Lamentations
The Custom of Reading Lamentations
Lamentations, or Echah, in Hebrew, is read liturgically, to a special “trope” or chanting melody, on Tish‛ah Be’av, the Ninth of Av, the day of public mourning and fasting that commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and around which the commemoration of other Jewish destructions and catastrophes has coalesced. As part of the rites of mourning on this day, the reader and congregation sit on the floor or on low benches when Lamentations is recited by candlelight or dim light, during the evening service (and in some places also during the morning service).
In the Talmud
The Talmud refers to Lamentations as “Qinot,” meaning “Elegies” or “Laments.” Ancient tradition (b. Baba Batra 15a) ascribes the book’s authorship to Jeremiah, who lived at the time of the Babylonian destruction and predicted it. Jeremiah is credited with composing laments already in 2 Chr 35.25, and the book of Jeremiah and Echah share some phrases.
Modern scholars, however, believe that most ancient works were written anonymously and only later attributed to well-known figures; in this case, Chronicles’ ascription of laments to Jeremiah, the shared phraseology in Echah and Jeremiah, and the fact that Jeremiah lived in the appropriate time-period likely led to the book’s ascription to him. According to modern scholars, the book was written after 586 bce and before the end of the sixth century bce, when the Temple was rebuilt, but the exact time, place, and reason for its composition are unknown.
Some see it as an outpouring of raw emotion, while others believe it had a liturgical role from its very beginning. Scholars also debate whether the book was originally a unified composition, or whether five independent poems were brought together to create the current book.
The Purpose of Recitation
The book is comprised of five poems about the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem that occurred in 586 bce. This was an unprecedented event that changed the course of Jewish history, both politically—for Judah lost its independence—and religiously—for the Temple, the locus of sacrificial worship, was destroyed. Three major institutions: the priesthood, Davidic kingship, and prophecy were reshaped by the Temple’s destruction. Lamentations is an outpouring of mourning and grief over this catastrophe, but even more, it is a commemoration, a memorialization, of that event. It eternalizes the experience—the siege, the destruction, the exile—probing it from different perspectives and preserving it with astonishing vividness and immediacy. Lamentations helps to make the destruction a central event in the Jewish memory.
Ancient empires, especially Assyria and Babylonia, engaged in wars of conquest to expand their territory and to increase their resources, and so it was that Babylonia attacked and defeated Judah. A common tactic was siege warfare. Since cities were walled for protection, they could not be easily defeated initially by a direct attack and were therefore besieged or blockaded until the population that had taken refuge inside was decimated by starvation and disease. At the same time, the attackers employed various technologies (ramps, battering rams, projectiles) to weaken the city walls. Eventually, when resistance from within diminished, the walls could be scaled or breached by the enemy. The people who survived the siege and the attack became captives of war, and many were deported to the conquering empire. This is the historical reality underlying the poetic expression of Lamentations.
Themes by Chapter
Each of the five poems has its distinctive tone and theme, and offers a different perspective on the catastrophic defeat. In Chapter 1 Jerusalem, the lonely and shamed city, grieves for her lost inhabitants. Feminine imagery is especially prominent in this chapter, conveying the shameful and the shamed woman, abandoned by her lovers (her supposed allies), emptied of all she holds dear, mocked by passers-by, mourning and deprived of comfort.
Chapter 2 depicts the siege of the city and all the horror of starvation and disease that accompanied it. Chapter 3 speaks in the voice of a lone man who experiences the deportation into exile.
Chapter 4 portrays the degradation that has befallen the population in the last days before destruction. Chapter 5, sounds like a prayer by those who remained in Judah after the destruction, when it had become a Babylonian possession.
Chapters 1-4 are alphabetic acrostics, a literary device found elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Pss. 111; 112; 145; Prov. 31.10-31), in which each verse begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (Chapters 2, 3 and 4, however, have reversed the ‘ayin and peh, an order known from ancient inscriptions ) Chapter 3 is a triple acrostic. Chapter 5, although not an acrostic, contains twenty-two verses,replicating the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
In Lamentations this formal device encapsulates the enormity or totality of the destruction (extending “from A to Z”). It also structures the incomprehensible events and the amorphous pain that engulfed Judah and its inhabitants. The alphabet helps to render order out of the chaos of destruction, to let the inexpressible be expressed.
An Appeal to God and the Jewish People
The book’s language is highly poetic and extraordinarily moving. Even though often stereotypical, it effectively portrays the violence and suffering of the events. The experiences of warfare, siege, famine, and death are individualized, in a way that turns the natural into the unnatural or anti-natural—brave men are reduced to begging, mothers are unable to nourish their children and resort to cannibalism. The book’s outpouring is addressed to God, so that God may feel the suffering of his people, rescue them, and restore them to their country and to their former relationship with him. The entire book may be thought of as an appeal for God’s mercy. Yet God remains silent.
If the book fails to move God, it fulfills another function, that of public mourning which both relives, commemorates, and attempts to understand a catastrophe of incomprehensible proportion. Lamentations does not create a new theology. Like Jeremiah, it accepts the theological view that the sin of disloyalty to God, that is, idolatry, leads to divine punishment and exile. God has brought about the disaster; the Babylonians (never mentioned by name in the book) are merely divine agents, although not altogether blameless. God, whose power is not diminished despite the Temple’s destruction, is called upon to bring about the return from exile.
Repentance, the antidote to sin, is mentioned but is not central; rather, the idea in Lamentations is that the punishment, though deserved, outweighs the sin (see similarly Isa. 40.2). The immediacy of the disproportionate punishment drowns out everything else.
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July 13, 2013
October 22, 2023
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Prof. Adele Berlin is the Robert H. Smith Professor (Emerita) of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department.
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