Tisha B’Av with Queen Esther
A Kinah from a Surprising Source
גלינא וטורידנא / מן ארענא
ובדיל חובנא / מסרתא יתנא
We are exiled and expelled / from our land
Because of our sin / You cast us away
This rhymed couplet speaks in the collective voice of a nation expressing contrition to God. It sounds like a conventional kinah – that is, a poem of communal lament traditionally recited on the fast of Tisha B’av. But in fact it is attributed to Queen Esther, the heroine of the joyous festival, Purim, and possibly associated with the recitation of the Scroll of Esther. This bewildering state of affairs provides a window into the world of liturgical poetry, which plays an oft overlooked role in the transformative dynamics of biblical books and characters in classical Jewish communal life.
The later books of the Bible and related Hellenistic Jewish writings are quite enthusiastic about prayer. In the Book of Chronicles (likely composed in the fourth century BCE), kings are presented as praying more frequently and at greater length than in its main sources, the Books of Samuel and Kings; Ezra and Nehemiah petition God at length and become models for later liturgical writers; Daniel is a recognized ideal of prayerful piety; and the apocryphal work, “The Prayer of Manasseh” supplies the words suggested by 2 Chronicles 33:12-13, themselves a “pious” addition to the depiction of utter unrepentance we find ascribed to Manasseh in 2 Kings 21.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the Second Temple period proclivity for this sort of religiosity better than the transformation of Esther into a pious, supplicating Jewish queen. Indeed, while the Hebrew Scroll of Esther as presented in the Masoretic text famously lacks any overt mention of God and seems devoid of conventional modes of piety, later Greek versions place in her mouth lengthy prayers at key moments in the story. One notable set of embellishments explores the idea that Esther deeply mourned for the loss of Jerusalem.
Connections Between Megillat Esther and the Destruction of the Temple
It is difficult to imagine two holidays with more disparate moods: the giddy joy of Purim juxtaposed with the bleak solemnity of Tisha b’Av. There are, however, points of connection between the two holy days. For one, while the book of Esther does not name God, it does refer to the exile and the loss of Jerusalem, particularly when introducing Mordechai (Est. 2:6). A brief teaching in Bavli Megilah 15b also underscores this:
ויאמר לה המלך לאסתר המלכה מה בקשתך עד חצי המלכות ותעש, חצי המלכות ולא כל המלכות, ולא דבר שחוצץ למלכות, ומאי ניהו – בנין בית המקדש.
Then the king said to her, “What can be done for you, Queen Esther? For whatever your request, even unto the half of the kingdom, it shall be given to you.” (Est. 5:3) “Half the kingdom,” but not the whole kingdom, and not something which would split the kingdom. What could do that? The building of the Temple.
According to this passage, the one thing the King worried Esther would ask for—the one thing he would deny her—was rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. As a result, this midrash suggests that his seemingly generous offer was really an attempt at thwarting the Jewish queen’s deep hope for the reconstruction of the Temple.
Beyond the exegetical embellishments, affinities between the Ninth of Av and Purim found their way into the recitation of the book of Esther on Purim with the development of the custom of chanting those verses that recall the exile of the Judeans from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (most commonly 2:6, but also 3:15, 4:1, 4:3, 4:16, 5:7, and 8:6) to the melody of Lamentations, the scroll read on the Ninth of Av. Thus, the very performance of the Megillah on Purim mourns the loss of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple.
A potent affinity between the Scroll of Esther and the Ninth of Av can be found in the composition of kinot placed, as it were, in the mouth of Esther. These works expand upon the moment in the biblical story (Est. 4:16) when the Jewish queen embarks on a fast and calls upon fellow Jews to engage in penitential rituals with her, as she is to risk her life by visiting the king uninvited. Her community, already vulnerable in exile, faces another existential threat.
Esther’s laments—two are published by Joseph Yahalom and Michael Sokoloff in their magisterial anthology, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic Poetry from Late Antiquity—lack any of the carnivalesque irony or frission of the subversive humor that we expect in Purim poetry. Instead, Esther’s two laments sound authentically penitent. The rhetoric and aesthetics of the Ninth of Av kinot provide the author of these “literary” Purim poems—embedded in a story rather than directly in a prayer ritual, which adds a layer of remove to them—with a set of norms to which Esther’s prayers should conform.
Contrasting the Two Laments
Esther’s two prayers can be understood as alternatives and not companion pieces, since it is unlikely that both would have been presented to the community at the same time. Likewise, we cannot know the precise life-setting of these works, namely if they were recited in the synagogue or in a more “social,” communal setting. We also do not know how these poems functioned in the context of the megillah reading. We can, however, easily find our footing within the poems, which were written in clear and lucid Aramaic.
Each of the two poems embeds an acrostic, the first word of which is “Esther.” And each poem begins energetically in a narrative voice, quickly and efficiently setting the stage, and then proceeds quickly to direct speech in the Queen’s voice.
The First Purim Kinah
The first text (Yahalom-Sokoloff #27) opens as follows:
אסתר בבעו / אמרת מילהא
ובתחנונים / סדרת צלותא
בבעו מינך / שמע צליין
שמע צלותי / בעידנא הדין
Esther, when she was entreating / spoke her words;
When she was petitioning / she arranged her prayers,
Entreating You, / the hearer of prayers:
“Hear my prayer / right now!” (ll. 1-4)
The poet sketches out the scene, informing his listeners that they are about to hear Esther’s prayer to God, but he also speaks to God directly in the second person, addressing the poem explicitly to “the hearer of prayers” (l. 3).
The remainder of the text consists of Esther’s speech. The congregation assumes a bystander position relative to Esther and God, while Esther models for them effective petitionary prayer. The content of her prayer strongly recalls conventional Tisha b’Av laments: she outlines the justice behind the punishment already meted out (ll. 5-11) but focuses primarily on the unanswerable question of the suffering of the innocent and appeals explicitly to ancestral merit, singling out the tests of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac (ll. 25-29 and 37-38).
The difference? Where a conventional lament might seek justice against Rome or Esau or simply “the nations”—contemporary oppressors of the Jews—Esther prays for God to punish Haman (ll. 31-32 and 43-44).
The Second Purim Kinah
The second poem (Yahalom-Sokoloff #28) requires a bit more effort to establish its setting:
אסתר צווחת / צווחא רבא
וילילת / יללה מרורה
בבכייא ובדמעין / אמרת מילהא
ובתחנונים / סדרת צלותהא
Esther cried out / a great cry,
And lamented / a bitter lament;
With weeping and tears / she spoke her words,
And when she was petitioning / she arranged her prayers
גרונה איתחר / מן קדם פומה
ועיינהא איסתמיין / מן קדם דמעתהא
דמיית אסתר / ואמרת בלבה
דילמא איעול קדם מלכא / ולא יקבל מני
Her throat became hoarse / on account of her mouth
And her eyes were blinded / by her tears;
Esther imagined / and said to herself:
“What if I enter before the king / but he does not receive me?” (ll. 1-8)
As with the first poem, once Esther speaks, the rest of the poem is in her voice. But, just as in the first four chapters of Lamentations, our poet does not address God directly. Instead, the poet embellishes the biblical scene from within the narrative, and thus deepens for his community their sense of Esther’s piety and understanding of what transpired while Esther fasted and wept.
Whereas Esther’s tone in the first poem was almost aggressive—she expresses a range of rough emotions including guilt, bewilderment, and vengefulness in quick succession—in the second poem, she articulates more confidence in her prospects. She knows she can rely on her lineage, her piety, and her community’s support. Her anxiety concerns the mortal (Ahasuerus) and not divine King (God). The poem’s speech takes the listeners into Esther’s mind and lets them experience her thoughts along with her. They are not bystanders but engaged participants.
The conclusion to this second poem merits particular attention:
קריא אנא קדמך / עני יתי
דאנת עני לכל מאן דדחיק ליה
רחמנא וחננא / איתקריתא מרחיק רגז
ומסגי למעבד / טיבו וקשוט
I cry out before You: / Answer me!
For You answer / all who are oppressed;
Merciful and gracious One / You are called ‘Slow to anger’,
Doing so much / devotion and truth.
שמע בקלנא / ועני יתנא
ואפיק יתנא / מן עקא לרווחא
תלתא יומין / צמית קדמך
מיכן ואילך / מה איכול למעבד
Hear our voices / and answer us!
And take us out / from constraint to freedom!
For three days / have I fasted before You;
From now and henceforth, / what can I do?” (ll. 37-44)
We can imagine this final line as introducing the image of Esther, her courage gathered and resolve firm, going to beseech the king, despite the threats of royal protocol. The entire prayer could easily be nested into the biblical narrative, much as we find in the much older Greek version of Esther. But we can also imagine these words in the communal voice. Esther’s kinah contains words the congregation could say, as the individual listeners identify with Esther and her words become theirs.
The Fast of Esther and the Fast of Av
Certainly in the setting of the Ninth of Av (or, for that matter, during Elul or on Yom Kippur), her sentiments—the prayerful cry to a merciful and gracious God, with the evocation of the Thirteen Attributes and the plea for redemption that echoes the Exodus—would find an echo in the communal prayers. Indeed, for a community that itself is celebrating Purim and concluding the Fast of Esther (albeit not a three-day fast like the biblical Esther), these words could easily reflect contemporary sentiments rather than exclusively literary conceit.
It is possible to imagine the listeners not merely witnessing Esther’s prayer but participating in it. At the very least, her words resonate strongly with the conventional language of petitionary prayer. This very conventionality constitutes their effectiveness: Esther exemplifies piety; she knows what to do and how to pray. Her prayers—utterly familiar and traditional in their sentiment—work.
Nothing in these poems suggests irony or humor. While we could imagine melodramatic stagings of these poems, no element of their language suggests that interpretation. Instead, it seems, the language of kinot here enriches the embellishment of Esther’s inner life and, embedded in the context of the Purim story, is shown to be effective. These poems depict the full narrative—threat and redemption, mediated by penitential prayer—in which the later community remains immersed.
Esther’s Tisha Be’Av – A Glimmer of Hope
The two poems end, like Ninth of Av laments, in medias res, but the overall Purim story promises a happy ending. By extension, the poems underscore a hope that the present situation of exile and oppression, will also come to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion (see Eicha 5:21). The kinot will do their work, or enable the community to do their work, and redemption will come. This is Esther’s Tisha b’Av.
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July 19, 2015
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Prof. Rabbi Laura Lieber is professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, where she directs the Duke Center for Jewish Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in the History of Judaism from the University of Chicago and rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. Her research focuses on Jewish liturgical poetry.
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