The Book of Lamentations

A special reading for Tisha B'Av that sets the tone for this tragic and mournful day

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Over the course of the Jewish year, there are five books that are associated with specific holidays. These megillot (scrolls) relate the event that took place on the particular holiday or reflect the message of the occasion. The most of familiar is the scroll of Esther, which is read on Purim. The book of Eicha (Lamentations) is reading on the Ninth of Av. The book begins with the word "eicha," meaning "how"--the first word of the opening verse, "How lonely sits the city once full of people." This refers to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Lamentations is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the first Temple. Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

The Book of Lamentations is an intricate set of dirges and descriptions of Jerusalem under siege and of the destruction of the First Temple. The elegy bewails Jerusalem, once teeming with life and now sitting abandoned and alone like a solitary widow. It captures the horror of the siege: children pleading for water and bread in vain; cannibalism on the part of hunger-maddened mothers ("those who died by the sword were better off than those who perished by hunger"); nobles hanged; women raped; priests defiled.

The prophet basically blames Jewish immorality and idolatry for the tragedy. Yet there is a fascinating outburst in Chapter 3 in which the believer, as it were, accuses God of being the enemy--like a lion lying in ambush to destroy his victim. The prophet comes close to losing his faith ("I thought my strength and hope in the Lord had perished") before the memory of God's past kindnesses restores it--barely.

The Book of Lamentations is read softly at first. The volume of the reader's voice builds to the climax, which is sung aloud by the entire congregation: "Turn us to you, O Lord, and we will return. Renew our days as of old."

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).