Lamentations in Seasonal Context
A Day for Memorializing Catastrophes
The book of Lamentations is the scriptural centerpiece for Tisha b’Av (9th of Av), the holiday that commemorates a collection of catastrophes in the Jewish historical and mythical past. A tradition recorded in the Mishnah (3rd c. rabbinic legal collection) states,
בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ וחרב הבית בראשונה ובשניה ונלכדה ביתר ונחרשה העיר
On the 9th of Av it was decreed that our ancestors would not enter the land; the first and second Temples were burned; Betar (the center of Bar Kochba’s revolt) was captured and the city was plowed over (m. Ta’an. 4:6).
In the medieval and modern periods, Tisha b’Av was designated as the day of commemoration for additional tragedies in Jewish history.
Lamentations as Lectionary
Lamentations is the lectionary text, i.e., the official public reading, for the service on the eve of the holiday. The book is chanted to a haunting and plaintive melody and is accompanied by dramatic signs of mourning. In many traditional synagogues, the curtain is removed from the Torah ark before the service and congregants remove their leather shoes, which represent well-being. During the performance of Lamentations itself, congregants sit on the ground or on low stools, in accordance with traditional Jewish mourning practice. Some congregations read in a darkened or candle-lit room, to set the mood. The recitation of Lamentations is followed by medieval poems of lament (kinnot). Many congregations also recite contemporary readings that relate to the theme of the day.
The choice of Lamentations as the liturgical centerpiece for this day makes topical sense. While Tisha b’Av theoretically commemorates a host of tragedies, the destructions of the first and second temples serve as epitomes for the larger litany of catastrophes. Since Lamentations is the Bible’s most direct and sustained response to the destruction of the First Temple, it seems an obvious lectionary choice for the holiday.
An Unusually Aggressive Image of God
At the same time however, the choice of Lamentations shapes the tone of the holiday in ways that are unusual within the larger Jewish liturgical context. Within the broader corpus of Jewish statutory liturgy, God is portrayed primarily as a fair and merciful sovereign who merits praise and supplication. The liturgy repeatedly states that God loves and favors the people of Israel and yearns for the repentance of both individuals and the community, focusing on past and potential deployments of God’s power that are beneficial to Israel and the members of the worshipping community.
Even in the more negatively charged tachanun prayer, which begs God to address the community’s misfortunes and even requests that God restrain God’s legitimate anger, a theme that can already be found in Moses’ prayer after the sin of the Golden Calf (Exod 32:12):
שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ וְהִנָּחֵם עַל הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ.
Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people.
The assumption is that God’s doing so will allow God to mobilize the more fundamental divine mercy and compassion on Israel’s behalf.
Parts of Lamentations presents a stark contrast to this liturgical theme. Though Lamentations contains scattered expressions of a Deuteronomic theology of sin and punishment (e.g. Lam 1:5, 8), its dominant tone is one of devastating (permanent?) rupture with God. Within the poem, the suffering of Zion and the raging violence of God are most powerful and prominent themes:
בִּלַּע אֲדֹנָי לא [וְלֹא] חָמַל אֵת כָּל נְאוֹת יַעֲקֹב הָרַס בְּעֶבְרָתוֹ מִבְצְרֵי בַת יְהוּדָה הִגִּיעַ לָאָרֶץ חִלֵּל מַמְלָכָה וְשָׂרֶיהָ. גָּדַע בָּחֳרִי אַף כֹּל קֶרֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵשִׁיב אָחוֹר יְמִינוֹ מִפְּנֵי אוֹיֵב וַיִּבְעַר בְּיַעֲקֹב כְּאֵשׁ לֶהָבָה אָכְלָה סָבִיב.
YHWH has destroyed without mercy all the dwellings of Jacob. He has torn down in his wrath the strongholds of the daughter of Judah. He has cut down in fierce anger the horn of Israel. He has drawn back his right hand from before the enemy. He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire, consuming all around (Lam 2:2-3).
This portrait of a furiously destructive God is certainly at odds with the just and loving God of the larger Jewish liturgy, the God who “loves His people Israel (אוהב עמו ישראל),” a line we say before reciting the Shema.
Although Lamentations 3 articulates a more familiar covenantal optimism, the book as a whole ends with a cry of anguished rupture and despair:
כִּי אִם מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד מְאֹד.
Rather, you have utterly rejected us; raged against us exceedingly (Lam 5:22).
Indeed, the book’s conclusion is so problematic that according to Jewish tradition, when read liturgically, it is followed by the next-to-last verse, which is more upbeat (a common solution to a bad ending which the rabbis use in other readings as well, such as the Sukkot reading of Kohelet).
The Liturgical and Theological Problem of Emphasizing Despair
The logic of Jewish prayer depends on the ongoing relationship of God and Israel. While the worshipper might acknowledge divine judgment or temporary feelings of estrangement, the threat of permanent rupture undermines the liturgical worldview. If God were to reject Israel utterly, prayer would be futile.
Was the Punishment Deserved?
If one imagines the possible range of liturgical stances toward catastrophe, Lamentations’ perspective becomes even more striking. A community might commemorate past catastrophes with assertions of a Deuteronomic worldview, with penitential vows, statements of defiance or commitments toward activism and change. Rather, Lamentations’ central mode is one that testifies to Israel’s pain and suffering and gives full expression to the experience of God as fierce, irrational and destructive enemy. Despite its nods to the Deuteronomic theology, its primary message isn’t, “We have sinned and have been punished,” but rather is, “Pay heed to my suffering which is too extreme to ever have been deserved.”
Embedding Lamentations’ Despair in a Redemptive Cycle
Whilst the text and rituals of Tisha b’Av encourage the congregation to immerse itself in feelings of sadness, alienation, loss and despair, Tisha b’Av is embedded within a larger cycle that is ultimately redemptive and reconciliatory. The recitation of Lamentations on Tisha b’Av serves as the fulcrum for a lectionary sequence that extends from the 17th of Tammuz to Rosh Hashanah.
For most of the year, the Sabbath lectionary reading from the Prophets (haftarah, or plural, haftarot) is linked lexically or thematically to the week’s Torah portion. For example: the first Torah portion of the year (Gen. 1:1-6:8) is paired with Isa 42:5-43:10, which begins with a reference to God’s creation of the heavens and the earth.
The Three Haftarot of Rebuke and Seven of Consolation
For the three weeks preceding Tisha b’Av and the seven weeks following, however, the haftarot form a sequence that is independent of the Torah portions. The readings for the three Sabbaths before Tisha b’Av (Jer. 1:1-2:3; 2:4-28; Isa 1:1-27) are known as the haftarot of rebuke (שלשה דפורעניות) and the seven following the holiday (excerpts from Isa 40-63) are known as the haftarot of consolation (שבעה דנחמתא).
In the first three, Israel is harangued for its sinfulness and is warned of the terrible consequences it will trigger. The reading of Lamentations on Tisha b’Av functions as the fulfillment of those dire prophecies. Through the recitation of Lamentations, the worshipping community is given license to articulate the pain, suffering and most importantly, the alienation from God that the text expresses.
The haftarot for the seven weeks following the holiday chart a process of reconciliation and consolation in which God deploys a wide range of strategies to console Israel and bring her back into relationship.
Abudarham’s Midrash on the Haftarot of Consolation
This pattern was noticed by the 14th c. liturgical commentator, Abudarham, who interprets the first verses of each haftarah as the lines in a dialogue between God and Israel:
ואומר במדרש על דרך צחות כי תקנו לומר בתחלת הפטרות הנחמות נחמו נחמו עמי כלומר שהקב”ה אמר לנביאים נחמו נחמו עמי. על זה משיבה כנסת ישראל ותאמר ציון עזבני ה’. כלומר איני מתפייסת מנחמת הנביאים….
It says in the Midrash, as an elucidation, that they decided to begin the haftarot of consolation with Comfort, comfort my people (Isa 40:1) which is to say that the Holy one blessed be He says to the prophets: comfort comfort my people. The congregation of Israel responds to this: And Zion says YHWH has abandoned me (Isa 49:14). Which is to say, I am not appeased by the consolations of the prophets. . . .
ובמקומות שמפטירין במקום ההפטרה זו עניה סוערה לא רוחמה כלומר הנביאים חוזרין ואומרים לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא הנה כנסת ישראל לא נתפייסה בתנחומין שלנו על זה חוזר הקדוש ברוך הוא ואומר אנכי אנכי הוא מנחמכם. ואומר עוד רני עקרה לא ילדה ואומר קומי אורי כי בא אורך. על זה משיבה כנסת ישראל שוש אשיש בה’ כלומר עתה יש לי לשוש ולשמוח…
And in the places where they recite Unhappy storm tossed one, uncomforted (Isa 54:11), this is to say that the prophets respond and say before the Holy One Blessed be He: “Behold the congregation of Israel is not pacified by our consolations.” To this the Holy One Blessed be He replies: I, I, am he who comforts you (Isa 51:12). And he says further, Rejoice barren one who has not given birth (54:1) and he says: Arise, shine for your light comes (Isa 60:1). To this, the congregation of Israel responds, I will greatly rejoice in YHWH (61:10) which is to say, now I have reason to rejoice and be happy…
While Abudarham cites only the first lines of each haftarah, the full liturgical experience is even more intense. For six weeks, Israel is the recipient of repeated attempts at divine consolation that focus on God’s abiding love for Israel and God’s promises of imminent and permanent reconciliation. After six weeks of proffered (and implicitly rejected) consolation, Israel, speaking through the prophetic texts, finally accepts divine consolation (Isa 61:10). This acceptance of reconciliation occurs on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that focuses on God’s role as king and ushers in the season of repentance and atonement.
The High Holidays in the Seasonal Context
For many Jews, especially those who only attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the intensity of the hierarchical royal language and the judgment language on Rosh Hashanah can be quite alienating. However, if one understands Rosh Hashanah not only to be the beginning of the new year and the fall festival season, but also the culmination of the lectionary story that began on the 17th of Tammuz, the holiday’s language resonates very differently. In this context, God’s enthronement and judgment on Rosh Hashanah are predicated on, and prefaced by, Israel’s free re-entry into the divine-human relationship.
Paradoxical Role of Lamentations
Thus, within the Jewish liturgy as a whole, Lamentations’ role is a paradoxical one. It enables the worshipping community to articulate feelings of despair and alienation that are fiercer, more extreme and more unmitigated than those that are liturgically scripted at any other point of the year. At the same time, this experience serves as the starting point for a liturgical and lectionary process in which God seeks the consolation and reconciliation of Israel and it is ultimately up to the community to grant it.
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August 11, 2016
September 30, 2023
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Dr. Elsie R. Stern is Associate Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She received her B.A. from Yale University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Stern is the author of From Rebuke to Consolation: Exegesis and Theology in the Liturgical Anthology of the Ninth of Av Season. Her current research focuses on the performance and transmission of torah texts in the early rabbinic period.
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