Kinnot

Many devastating events took place on the 9th of Av. This is why the Jewish people consider it the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. Here is a brief description of some of the major events that transpired over the centuries that we mourn on this day.

Events and Tragedies Mourned on Tisha B’Av

Many devastating events took place on the 9th of Av. This is why the Jewish people consider it the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. Here is a brief description of some of the major events that transpired over the centuries that we mourn on this day.

When ten of the twelve scouts who were dispatched by Moses to survey the Promised Land returned with a negative report, God’s anger was kindled. The Almighty decreed that the adults of that generation would die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. God told the believers of that evil report that their tears on that day, as described in the Torah (Numbers 14:1), would be manifest in history in multiple tragedies. “Rabbi Yohanan said: That night was the night of the ninth of Av. God said to them: ‘You wept needlessly that night, and I will therefore establish for you a true tragedy over which there will be weeping in future generations’” (Talmud Ta’anit 29a).

Indeed, as our sages have taught, on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, the First and Second Temples were destroyed, the city of Betar was conquered, quashing the Bar Kochba revolt, and the Roman General Turnus Rufus plowed the City of Jerusalem. These were the events that the rabbis of the Talmud, who lived prior to the year 500 CE, could identify, that occurred on Tisha B’Av.

But, God’s promise did not end a millennia-and-a-half ago. Prior to the Spanish expulsion of its Jews, King Edward I expelled the Jews from England on July 18, 1290, an edict that stood, un-repealed, until 1656. July 18, 1290, the pre-cursor of all European expulsions, corresponded to the 9th of Av, 5050. Two centuries later, the Golden Age of Spain came to an end. On March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain officially banished the Jews from Spain, giving them exactly four months to leave. The deadline, four months later, July 31, 1492, also corresponded to the 9th of Av.

More than four hundred years later, on August 1, 1914, the 9th of Av on the Jewish calendar, World War I began, which really set in motion a thirty-year European tailspin, culminating with the allied invasion of Europe and the end of World War II. The start of those 30 years, which destroyed much of what Europe had been, led ultimately to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, according to most, by far, the worst tragedy the Jews have ever experienced.

Even closer to home, on July 18th 1994, corresponding to the tenth of Av, a bomb destroyed the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, killing 87 and injuring 100.

Jews worldwide are more cautious during the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, given the promised “crying” ascribed to that specific time period. It behooves us to learn our history, and to take great strides to improve, and repair our relationship with God.

This is but a brief summary of tragic events that befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’Av throughout the generations.  To learn more about these and other historical events, please click on the links below.

An Explanation of Tisha B’Av Kinnot

One of the ways that we help ourselves mourn on Tisha B’Av is by learning about, and reading the kinnot (elegies, mourning the destruction of the Temples and other great Jewish tragedies). There is great benefit to studying the Tisha B’Av kinnot, so they can be absorbed and experienced more meaningfully on Tisha B’Av day.  Here is a brief explanation of what the kinnot are and thereafter, offer an in-depth look at several of the particularly significant mournful poems

Elegies (Kinnot)

An elegy is defined as a mournful poem or a lament. In Hebrew, an elegy is known as a kinnah. On Tisha B’Av, when the Jewish people mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, it is customary for kinnot to be read at both the evening and morning services. Kinnot traditions may vary according to one’s community, specifically as to which kinnot are recited, by whom and using which type of chant or tune.

The majority of the kinnot are lamentations over the loss of the Temple – odes to that which was lost and to the horrors that occurred in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction. Some kinnot are poetic reiterations of chapters from the Book of Lamentations and the Book of Ezekiel, and others express a longing to return from exile to the Promised Land. Although the majority of the kinnot focus on the loss of the Temple, later authors added elegies for other tragic events such as the First Crusade (1096), the burning of the Talmud in Paris (1242) and the expulsion from Spain (1492). More recently, several kinnot lamenting the tragedy of the Holocaust have been included in the Tisha B’Av service.

The kinnot are divided into three basic categories:

  1. The destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and the impact it had on the Jewish people.
  2. The destruction of individuals and communities.
  3. The beauty of Jerusalem before it was destroyed.Of the kinnot whose authorship is known, many were written by Rabbi Elazar Hakalir (c. 600 C.E.), whose poems often include complex patterns of acrostics, rhyme and repetition. His elegies mostly address the destruction of the Temples (category #1). Other well-known authors of kinnotare Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), (who composed many elegies regarding the beauty of Jerusalem that was lost, i.e.. category #3),  Rabbi Meir ben Baruch (Maharam of Rothenberg 1220-1293) and Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam (Bobover Rebbe 1908-2000), who wrote a gut-wrenching kinnah based upon his first-hand experiences with loss during the Holocaust (category #2).

Tisha B’Av Night
Here is a selection of Kinnot that we recite on Tisha B’Av.

5th Kinnah

In addition to the lengthier recitation of kinnot recited on Tisha B’Av morning, five kinnot are recited at the evening service, upon the conclusion of reading Megillat Eichah, the Book of Lamentations. The 5th of those kinnot is structured upon the signs of the Zodiac, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. Although some may be surprised that astrology commands oxygen in Judaism, the sages saw the astrological signs as part of the tradition, and images of the zodiac can be found in synagogues dating back thousands of years. (Attempting to predict one’s future via a zodiacal reading, however, would not fall within the parameters of the Jewish tradition.)

The author of the kinnah (according to some is Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra) presents that Aries wept for her lambs who were led to the slaughter; Taurus bellowed; Gemini seemed torn in half; Cancer climbed to the shore due to thirst; the heavens shook when Leo roared, as the Jews’ prayers were unsuccessful in reaching heaven; Virgo mourned the murder of the chaste; Libra tipped her scales in prayer; Scorpio became scared as God condemned the Jews to death by sword; our eyes overflowed with tears, as the rainbow (Sagittarius) was denied; Aquarius provided water to the heavens, but not to the parched mouths of the Jews; The Capricorn sin offering was offered but was not accepted; Pisces, which represents fertility, averted her eyes as mothers saw their children’s demise.

The kinnah begins “How long must Zion cry and Jerusalem mourn? Pity Zion, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” The elegy ends with words of consolation taken from the book of Isaiah (51:3): “For the Lord shall comfort Zion: He will comfort all her waste places; and He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness shall be found in it, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.”

Tisha B’Av Morning Kinnot

Kinnah #11

Aside from the opening and closing scenes in Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 Academy Award winning “Schindler’s List,” the entire movie was presented in black and white, except for one girl’s red coat depicted in a scene taking place in the Krakow ghetto. The camera followed this young girl as the haunting tune of the famed Yiddish tune, “Oyfn Pripetshik” played in the background.

One of the ways to comprehend mass tragedy is to focus on individuals. By understanding one personal tragic story we can better comprehend mass tragedy. On Tisha B’Av, the sages wrote kinnot (elegies) about the loss of individuals, in order to foster better comprehension of the magnitude of the mass tragedies that we mourn on Tisha B’Av.

Kinnah number 11 describes the tragedy of King Josiah. The opening line of the kinnah is taken from Chronicles II 35:25, and the text is considered by some to be Jeremiah’s eulogy upon King Josiah’s death. Rashi proclaims that the sad story of Josiah needs to be invoked during every tragedy for the Jewish people.

Menashe, born to the righteous King Hezekiah and his queen, the daughter of the prophet Isaiah, became one of the most vile and immoral kings in Jewish history. As but one example, Menashe replaced the name of God with his own name in all Torah scrolls. Menashe’s son Josiah, was purposely prevented from learning Jewish theology and practice. On one fortuitous occasion, he found a single uncorrupted Torah scroll and opened it to the portion containing the rebukes that set forth the consequences for shunning God’s word. With his new-found knowledge, he caused a great renaissance in Jewish observance. He died tragically, and so did his outreach movement. As he lay dying, Jeremiah hears the king declare that God is righteous.

Kinnah #17

The Prophet Jeremiah, lived during the destruction by the Babylonians of Solomon’s Temple, and served as the Jews’ chief consoler as they were being exiled out of Jerusalem. Jeremiah’s narrative describing the devastation to the Jews and the barbarism of the Babylonians is recorded in the Biblical book of Lamentations. One of the most unspeakable and jarring images provided by Jeremiah can be found in the second chapter: “Behold, O Lord, and consider to whom you have done this. Shall the women eat their fruit, their cherished babies? Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord?” (Lamentations 2:20).

The 17th of the kinnot (elegies), read on Tisha B’Av morning, addresses this disturbing image. Each stanza ends with the Hebrew “a’le’lay li,” woe is me, a quote from the tragic epistle of Job (10:15). The phrase describes the ravishing hunger and degradation of the Jewish people, which was a consequence of the Babylonian siege and seizure of Jerusalem. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who popularized explaining the kinnot on Tisha B’Av day, rather than just reciting them by rote, strongly suggested reading this elegy in English. Rabbi Soloveitchik would usually share a Holocaust story at this time as well.

Rabbi Yisrael Zev Gustman (1908-1991), a towering Lithuanian scholar in pre-war Europe, survived the Nazi onslaught and rebuilt his shattered life in Israel. Rabbi Gustman once commented, “I witnessed in the Vilna Ghetto all of the atrocities mentioned in the Tisha B’Av kinnot.” The Gustman’s only son, Meir’el, six at the time, was murdered before their eyes. Rabbi Gustman recalls seeing in the ghetto, a starving elderly woman lying in the filthy street. As he approached, he was shocked to learn that the woman was none other than the widow of the famed Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading Torah scholar of pre-Holocaust Europe, who had died earlier in 1940. This woman was royalty in the enormous Vilna Jewish community. She was so sick, that she was unable to consume the carrot that Rabbi Gustman gave her, until he first chewed it for her.

Woe is me. Woe is us!

Kinnah #21

The 21st kinnah describes the martyred death of eight of ten leading rabbis during the Hadrianic persecutions of the first century CE. The death of the ten, according to the kinnah, was to atone for the sin committed by ten of Joseph’s brothers centuries earlier, who sold Joseph as a slave. Among those killed by the Romans for illicitly teaching Torah are Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabbi Akiva, and the other greatest rabbis of that period. The legends surrounding their deaths also stress their piety in accepting this difficult Divine decree.

Kinnah #23

The theme of “unconditional love” can be found in the Tisha B’Av kinnot, as the ideal that was absent during our history’s lowest moments.

Kinnah number 23 cites a tragic story recounted in the Talmud (Gittin 58a). At the time of the Temple’s destruction, seven Jewish slaves could be purchased for the price of one horse. The son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, who were both of attractive countenance, were sold to two separate Roman patrons, who, seeing their beauty, suggested breeding them. They were placed in a dark room together, each in his own corner, crying over their predicament. As the sun rose and they recognized one another, they died of heartbreak in each other’s arms. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (1910-2012, Jerusalem) suggested that too often we remain in our own corners and label others slaves and maidservants. Only when the light appears do we see these slaves and maidservants as our own brothers and sisters.

It is clear that one of the most important takeaways from Tisha B’Av is that we destroy ourselves when we hate each other. Conversely, when we love one another, we rise and succeed.

Kinnah #26

In Kinnah number 26, the author, Elazar HaKalir, invokes a Midrash (Eicha Rabbati, peticha 24) where the prophet Jeremiah, arouses the matriarchs and patriarchs from their eternal rest, begging them to intercede with God to prevent the utter destruction of the Jewish people. He approached Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom pleaded with the Almighty to spare their beloved Jewish children for the sake of their holy actions. “Is it in vain that I suffered ten trials?” cried Abraham. “Was it in vain that I was inscribed to be slaughtered?” offered Isaac. Jacob, Moses, and Leah too were unsuccessful in their entreaties. It was only Mother Rachel who aroused God’s mercy, for Rachel famously showed great unconditional love for her sister Leah. The Bible recounts that Jacob was slated to marry Rachel, but Laban, Rachel’s wily father, believed that Leah needed to be married first, as she was older than Rachel, and intended to deliver Leah to Jacob, during his wedding with Rachel. Knowing her father’s predilection for subterfuge, Rachel concocted a code with her beloved Jacob, to assure that Laban would not try to marry Leah to Jacob. When Rachel learned that Laban was indeed engaging in that deception, she had mercy upon her older sister, and revealed to her the secret code that she had set with Jacob, so Jacob would indeed marry Leah first.

Kinnah #34

The 34th kinnah recounts the untimely death of Zechariah the prophet/High Priest, on Shabbat Yom Kippur in the Holy Temple, as described in the Talmud (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b). Zechariah reprimanded the Jewish people for bringing an idol to the Temple. In response, a mob summarily murdered, arguably, the holiest man, on the holiest day, in the holiest place on earth. There could not have been a more irreverent crime. After the murder, Zechariah’s blood continued to spew forth; nothing would clot the fountain of flowing blood. Upon seeing this, Nebuzaradan, the chief Babylonian executioner, attempted to kill enough priests and sages to atone for the sin and cause the blood fountain to stop, but nothing would quiet the spewing blood. At one point Nebuzaradan turned to God, calling out, “Is it not sufficient? Shall I continue to kill everyone?” Finally, the blood stopped flowing. The Talmud claims that Nebuzaradan converted to Judaism as a result of this episode.

In order to grasp the enormity of mass tragedy, we must try to perceive the loss of individuals, and only then, when magnifying the tragedy, begin to absorb the scope of this immense calamity.

Kinnah #45

The Jewish sages taught that there can be no mourning process without a consolation process. For centuries, Jews have spent Tisha B’Av morning surrounded by sadness, tragedy and hopelessness. But, immediately following this “morning of mourning,” begins a process of consolation.

Kinnah #45, Eli Tzion, is traditionally sung as the final elegy of the morning, to help console the distraught Jew and serve as encouragement to begin contemplating the future. “Wail for Zion and her cities like a woman giving birth, and like a bride dressed in mourning for her husband on her wedding night.” The author (some claim it to be Rabbi Judah Halevi) employs two examples of people who cannot be consoled: a women in the midst of the pains of childbirth and a widowed bride. The idea with which we end the “morning of mourning” is to tell ourselves that even though Tisha B’Av will end and we will ultimately rise up from our bereaved state, we will bring this awareness of sin, exile and national tragedy with us to our post-Tisha B’Av lives of normalcy.

The Jewish people are able to move on only because we hope and pray for an end to the bitter exile. Jacob was never consoled over the death of Joseph. So long as he believed Joseph was dead he was unable to prophesy. Why not? Some commentators argue that he could not be consoled because, in reality, Joseph was not dead. A pillar of Jewish faith is to pine for redemption, even though we may not be consoled, but we must be comforted knowing that our current status is only temporary.