Thoughts on Eli Tziyon
Updated: Jul 24
The month of Av begins this week on Wednesday. That means that in the coming week we will mark the major fast day of Tisha B'Av beginning on Wednesday evening, July 29, and continuing all day on Thursday, July 30. According to the Mishnah, five calamities occurred to our people on the seventeenth of Tammuz (which was on July 9) and five more tragic events happened on the ninth of Av, Tisha B'Av. The seventeenth of Tammuz is designated as a minor fast day, from sunrise to sunset and it commemorates the breaking of the tablets of the Ten Commandments at the time of the sin of the Golden Calf; the end of the daily tamid sacrifices during the siege of Jerusalem as the Temple ran out of animals to sacrifice; the breaking through of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians; and two other otherwise unknown events, the erecting of an idol in the Temple and the burning of a Torah scroll. On the ninth of Av, we observe a full 24-hour fast with the same restrictions as on Yom Kippur, eating and drinking, bathing and anointing, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in sexual activity. On this day the decree was issued that our ancestors would not enter the land of Canaan after the report of the spies, but would wander for forty years in the wilderness until a new generation arose to replace them. This was also the date that the first Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE as was the second Temple in 70 CE. Betar was captured ending the Bar Kochba revolt in 135; and the city of Jerusalem was ploughed over on this date the following year. Modern scholars question whether these events all happened precisely on these two dates. Actually, we know they didn't. However, the rabbis decided to cluster them around these two dates to avoid a proliferation of fast days. The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av are known as the days “bein hametzarim” between the straits, and are observed as a quasi-mourning period. Some increase the sense of mourning during the last nine days from Rosh Chodesh to Tisha B'Av by prohibiting meat and wine on these days except for Shabbat.
On the evening of Tisha B'Av, we read the book of Lamentations, Eicha. These five chapters describing the destruction of the first Temple and the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, are chanted to a mournful version of the biblical tropes. There is another plaintive melody that many are accustomed to use for the distinctive middle chapter, chapter 3, which is a lament in first person, traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. Following the reading of Eicha, there are a handful of poetic expressions, elegies, in Hebrew Kinot, that conclude the service.
In the morning, we do not wear tallit and tefillin as usual on weekdays, but defer their use to the minchah, afternoon service. We chant the morning prayers to a mournful tune. A selection is read from the Torah from Deuteronomy followed by a haftarah from Jeremiah, chanted to the melody of Lamentations. Some congreagations repeat Eicha in the morning, while many synagogues do not. There are some 50 or more Kinot printed in the special volumes for this day beginning with poems recalling the destruction of the Temple. Other poems have been added to these marking later disasters throughout history that have befallen our people, blood libels, Crusades, expulsions, and other calamities, including poems commemorating the victims of the Shoah. If one has the time to read them all, one could spend the entire morning bewailing the calamities that have befallen the people Israel through the centuries. Most congregations that I have been in, however, have found it sufficient to take a small selection of Kinot to chant, perhaps 8 to 10 of them from different eras.
It is customary to read Eicha and the Kinot in the traditional posture of mourning, sitting on the floor or on low benches. However, for the final Kinah, Eli Tziyon, it is the practice to arise, stand on our feet, and sing out. This is the only Kinah which is sung to a distinctive melody. The opening two lines are often repeated as a chorus following each couplet, though others chant them at the beginning and the end only: “Wail, O Zion and her cities, like a woman in travail,/ like a maiden girt in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” The verses that follow are in an alphabetical acrostic and cover much of the same ground as the earlier kinot in the prayer book. If one read them all with great fervor and feeling, by the time one got to Eli Tziyon one might think that we are completely wrung out and have cried and mourned as much as humanly possible. However, Eli Tziyon tells us that we must continue to mourn.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “At the end of the Kinot, when we are ready to depart and close the book, we say , 'No'. Kinot can never be finished, not until the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple) is rebuilt....there is no such thing as overdoing the mourning for Jerusalem.” He goes on to say, “You claim that you have exhausted all the Kinot? So weep without reciting Kinot!...You are like a woman in labor pain. You cannot tell a woman who is in labor pain, 'Do not cry. Do not make noise. Do not raise your voice.'...A person in such terrible pain must react by emitting a sound, by crying and weeping and shouting...It is part of human nature! And the same applies to the destruction of Jerusalem.”
Soloveitchik explains that “ that is why at the end of Kinot we say “Eli Tziyon ve-areha.” Whatever we have said, no matter how much we cried, no matter how much we have expressed our grief and complete despair, that is not enough. We did not mourn the way we should have mourned.”
As we read through the verses of Eli Tziyon, arranged in an alphabetical acrostic, the litany is similar to what we had previously seen in the multitude of Kinot that preceded. We bemoan the loss of the Temple and the unique rituals, the holy officiants, the sacred objects, and all the assembly of Israel at that holy place. We confess that we have brought this destruction upon ourselves through our sins, “the sins of Zion's flocks,” “straying from the righteous path.” The closing verse is directed again to the Almighty, “Hear her [Zion's] plea and answer her.” I read the words and it is a sad recounting of death and destruction, of abasement and humiliation. Yet somehow, arising from the floor and singing forth wholeheartedly, this kinah is transformed into an anthem of hope and redemption. The key is in the original simile, comparing our wailing to a woman in travail. Yes, I'm told, childbirth is incredibly painful, but the outcome is the birth of new life. A child comes into the world, opening us up to new hope for the future.
Our sages teach us that on Tisha B'Av the Messiah was born. The seeds of redemption are fertilized by the ashes of destruction. As the Romans closed in on the city of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin and according to legend stood before the Roman general Vespasian and prophesied that he would soon become emperor. When word came that he had indeed been chosen, Vespasian, in gratitude for this message, granted to Rabbi Yochanan the city of Yavneh as a new site of the Sanhedrin, Judaism's High Court that had previously met in the Temple building.
Rabbi Yochanan and his colleagues began creating a new brand of Judaism without a Temple and its sacrificial system, rabbinic Judaism, ultimately codified in the Mishnah and Talmud. The message is clear. Yes, mourn the destructions of the past, weep for Jerusalem, observe fast days, but go forward and build a new Jerusalem wherever you go, wherever you live. Someday the Messiah will come and bring redemption to the world, that is our faith, our hope for the future, and “though he may tarry, we will wait for him.” But we won't wait idly. There is work to be done, life to be lived. We take a day out to remember Jerusalem and the ancient Temple. We continue to recall it in our daily prayers and in the grace after meals and even with the breaking of a glass at a wedding celebration. But then we go forward and create new Temples and holy places and sacred times, and lives of commitment to God and Torah and to all of God's creatures in this world.
As if to emphasize this sense of hope and our confidence in the future redemption of this world, we purposely take the melody of Eli Tziyon and sing L'cha Dodi to that same melody on the Shabbat before Tisha B'Av, Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of Vision. In that weekly welcome to the Sabbath day, we speak to Jerusalem personified: “Holy city, majestic, banish your fears./ Arise, emerge from your desolate years./ Too long have you dwelled in the valley of tears./ God will restore you with mercy and grace.” This hymn goes on to paint a picture of total redemption in Messianic times, sung this week to the melody of mourning and grief. As Rabbi Akiva taught when he saw the fulfillment of the prophesies of doom and the ruins of Jerusalem, it is a time for joy for we are assured that the prophesies of hope and redemption will certainly be fulfilled as well.
Our nation today is going through another kind of destruction and mourning. So many thousands have died and others continue to suffer on beds of illness. We separate ourselves from others to avoid infection and pray for cures and vaccines that will end the current plague. We cry out as did the authors of the Kinot and look forward to a better day. Perhaps we can learn from the elegy of Eli Tziyon that there is hope in our future and we have a new opportunity to build that better world when we come through this crisis. May that day arrive speedily and may we emerge from this trial renewed and ready to face new challenges in the years ahead.