Poetry for a Day of Mourning

Presented by David P. Stern on 1 August 1998 in Greenbelt, Maryland


[* indicates where Hebrew text may be inserted]

      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 *     

          "It's Sabbath from crying" which I take to mean is short for
    "It's Sabbath, so we are expected to refrain from crying"

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:

    How doth the city sit solitary
    That was full of people!
    How is she become as a widow!
    She that was great among the nations
    And princess among the provinces
    How is she become tributary!

    She weeps sore at night
    And tears are on her cheeks
    She has none to console her
    Among all her lovers.
    All her friends have turned false to her
    They have become her enemies

    Judah is exiled, in poverty
    And in harsh servitude.
    She dwells among the nations
    She finds no rest
    All her pursuers overtook her within the straits

    The roads of Zion do mourn
    None come to celebrate
    All her gates are desolate
    Her priests sigh
    Her virgins are sad
    And she herself is bitterness

    Her adversaries are become the head
    Her enemies are at ease
    For the LORD has afflicted her
    For her many sins
    Her young children captives
    Before the enemy

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):


    By the rivers of Babylon
    There we sat down, yea, we wept
    When we remembered Zion
    Upon the willows in the midst thereof
    We hung our harps
    For there they that led us captive
    Asked of us words of song
    And our tormentors asked us mirth:
    "Sing us one of the songs of Zion"
    How shall we sing the LORD's song
    In a foreign land?

This psalm left two marks on Jewish tradition. First of all, continuing the text:


      If I forget thee, Jerusalem
      Let my right hand forget her cunning
      Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
      If I remember thee not
      If I set not Jerusalem
      Above my chiefest joy."

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.

    [By the way, glasses are cheap today, and so are lightbulbs which some people substitute to get a louder "pop." My younger son, a computer engineer, therefore used at his wedding a not-so-cheap vacuum tube, and made sure beforehand that it was indeed in working order.]

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.

    The mountain air is clear and heady
    And pine trees waft their smell
    The evening breeze comes cool and steady
    As far away tolls a bell

    And while the trees and rocks do slumber
    A captive sleeps, in thrall
    The city that is torn asunder
    Divided by a wall

      Yerushalayim of Gold
      And of copper agleam
      All your songs I remember
      As of you I dream

    The flow has dried up in her fountain
    Alone she bears her plight
    No one comes to her holy mountin
    The ancient temple site

    Her rocky cavern all do shiver
    As cold winds wail and blow
    No one walks down to Jordan River
    On the old road to Jericho           Yerushalayim of Gold...

    Now when I come to sing your story
    And to recount your praise
    I cannot but retell your glory
    Back in your greatest days
    For even now your name is burning
    When past days are retold
    Yerushalayim, to you I'm yearning
    The city that's all gold.           Yerushalayim 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:

    Bid Jerusalem take heart
    And proclaim unto her
    That her servitude is ended
    That her guilt is paid off
    That she has received of the Lord's hand
    Double for all her sins

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:

    Shabbat Shalom,
    May you be consoled this Tisha B'Av
    --And next year, in Jerusalem!


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   audavstern("at" symbol)erols.com .

Last updated 12 June 2002