We recently had the privilege of speaking with Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb about the deeper meaning of Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Weinreb, a clinical psychotherapist and internationally-renowned Torah scholar, hosts the OU’s annual Tisha B’Av webcast. He is also the translator of the kinot in The Lookstein Edition of the Mesorat HaRav Kinot (co-published with the OU).
Note: Page numbers mentioned in this article refer to The Mesorat HaRav Kinot.
1. On Tisha B’Av we recite Kinot, mournful poems that intensify the sad ambiance of the day. Which themes would you say are central to Kinot? What are they there to teach us?
RW: I’m convinced that the writers of kinot throughout the generations wrote them as a cathartic experience to express their grief, as a personal and national catharsis. They’re a vehicle to express our grief, and that’s ideally the feeling that we should have when we read them. Obviously we don’t have the same feelings that panged the original authors, but that’s the task of the teachers today: to convey to the reader the expression of pain, which can be therapeutic.
Personally, I use the kinot as a teaching tool. They weren’t composed to teach Torah per se since we’re forbidden to learn Torah on Tisha B’Av, though there is a lot of teaching material that comes from kinot.
One thing that strikes me is the absence of the quest for revenge, for nekama. In the kinot, we mainly find descriptions of catastrophes throughout history, of the destruction of the two Temples, the Crusades, of the enemies, and then there’s the conclusion in the last verse to bring the geulah. But the expression of nekama – which we do find in Tanakh – doesn’t appear in the kinot. The authors weren’t concentrating on nekama when they wrote their kinot; instead they express the powerlessness of the Jews in Galut. When you’re really powerless, you don’t have the room for revenge.
This starts to change with the Holocaust. This is why the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is such a strong emblem of nekama. It’s not that they thought they’d defeat the Nazis; but the drive to resist, to fight against the Nazis, it was a catharsis for them. One particular expression of this is the Bobover Rebbe’s kina about the Holocaust. There, he does mention nekama, but it’s not a rageful search for vengeance.
2. The name Elazar HaKalir is seen time after time as the author of the Kinot. How did it come to be that his poems were those selected as the “authoritative” kinot? Do we have any historical information about who he was, and why he penned such dirges?
RW: Most of the Ashkenazi kinot are written by Elazar HaKalir. No one is really sure about who he was. We explain this in The Mesorat HaRav Kinot (p. 198): according to the Baalei Tosafot (on Tractate Hagiga 13a), HaKalir was the tanna (Mishnaic scholar) Rabbi Elazar the Great, who lived in the 2nd century in the common era. It seems clear from an analysis of his poems that he lived in Israel and followed Minhag Eretz Yisrael. I believe he lived during the Gaonic period.
There are certain things about Elazar HaKalir that we do know: he’s very obscure. He was an expert in Tanakh, Hazal and Midrashim, and alludes to the whole spectrum of sources in his piyutim. He wrote many of the piyutim that we see in the Mahzorim for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. He also plays a lot with the Hebrew alphabet. Like the first four chapters of Eikha which follow the Aleph-Bet, HaKalir, too, uses the Aleph-Bet in different permutations. Sometimes his incorporation of the Aleph-Bet is obvious, but often it’s not clear. For example, in some piyutim, the Aleph-Bet is backwards, sometimes it alternates lines, sometimes there are alphabetical rhyme schemes. You have to look hard to find them.
Elazar HaKalir was prolific. He had written many piyutim so they were gradually incorporated as the kinot were being assembled. There are other authors besides Elazar HaKalir, which we identify. They range from obscure Tosafot to the Maharam of Rutenberg, who was legendary. He was a German Rishon who wrote “Sha’ali, srufa b’eish” about the burning of the Talmud in Paris (p. 591). His kina is very interesting structurally: he was completely Ashkenazi, but he structures his poem on the model of the piyut by Yehuda HaLevi [who was from Spain], “Tziyon, HaLo Tishali” (p. 555).
In general, Sephardic piyutim are clearer than Ashkenazi piyutim. The have a certain structure and rhythm. There, we see the influence of the “Golden Age of Spain”. The Ashkenazim, on the other hand, lived under Christian rule, but they didn’t absorb the Christian culture.
There are a few Sephardic kinot that are recited by Ashkenazi communities. In the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot, we included three in particular: one by Shlomo ibn Gabirol and two by Yehuda HaLevi.
There are hundreds of kinot written about the pogroms, Crusades, expulsion from Spain, etc, but aside from Elazar HaKalir and Yehuda HaLevi, I don’t think anyone has written more than one kinah in the Ashkenazi rite
3. How does your background as a clinical psychotherapist influence or help your understanding of Eikha and Kinot? Of tragedy in general?
RW: Much has been written in recent years about trauma, PTSD, and things of that nature. All of that literature is very relevant to the Jewish people as a whole and the way in which we experience Tisha B’Av.
Part of the way we experience trauma is the emphasis on memory. Our tendency as humans is to forget the trauma, but there is a therapeutic benefit to remembering trauma appropriately and properly. That’s what Tisha B’Av does – it’s structured around loss and mourning.
The whole psychology about grief and mourning and trauma, it’s interlaced, both in the halachik practices we do (dimming the lights, sitting low down, etc) and in a psychological sense, it’s therapeutic.
So Tisha B’Av is both a national and individual response to trauma, but it’s also about resilience – another big topic in psychology these days. Tisha B’Av helps us to be resilient. It’s followed by 7 weeks of nechama (consolation) – there are three weeks for suffering and seven for consolation, leading right up to Rosh HaShana.
Additionally, Tisha B’Av is immediately followed by Tu B’Av. It’s a very different mood than six days before (this year, it’s 5 days!) That in itself is a message about resilience. Instead of sitting on the floor, we’re dancing and singing. It’s a powerful message.
4. Should we continue to write our own Kinot in modern times?
RW: Rav Soloveitchik was against writing new kinot. He opposed new innovations to tefila. Many people disagree with this approach to kinot. When we produced The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot, we felt that we needed to include the Kinot for the Holocaust since so many congregations do say them.
Since I’ve been doing the Tisha B’Av webcast for the OU, many people have contacted me with examples of kinot they’ve discovered or written. I’ve seen kinot written for fallen Israeli soldiers and for the Disengagement from Gush Katif, for example.
I feel that we should be writing prayers – especially in the 21st century. It was done throughout the ages; we see this with the techines that women wrote throughout the generations. All the great Chassidic rebbeim wrote prayers. Personal expression of prayer is something we don’t do enough of.
5. The last phrase we read in Megillat Eikha is Hadesh Yemeinu K’Kedem (Renew our days as of old). What does that mean to you?
RW: I remember a young woman who asked me why we ask God to renew the days of old? “Those days of old weren’t so great – do we want to go exactly? The ghetto? The Expulsion?” she asked.
Some say we want to go back to Gan Eden, but I don’t think so.
What I told her was that in all periods of Jewish history, we had terrible experiences. There wasn’t a time when we didn’t have a hard time – even David HaMelekh had lots of trauma. Perhaps during the time of Shlomo HaMelekh, times were good.
In all those periods in history, at the same time when we were suffering, we also had wonderful things – we had Torah scholarship, close communities, mosdot tzedaka, families, welfare institutions, hospitals, and more.
We’re asking to bring back the times of Yemei Kedem that were good, that were positive.
Today, with what’s going on in Gaza, with the Jews who were evacuated from the community in Netiv Avot, with fires burning rampantly, these are still difficult times.
One of the things we did have in Yemei Kedem was a feeling of closeness to God that we feel is absent now. The phrase that at the end of Eikha is “Hashiveinu Hashem Alekha V’Nashuva Hadesh Yemeinu K’Kedem” (Turn us to You, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.) The key word here is “Alekha” (to You); we’re asking for that experience of “Alekha“, for closeness to God. And remember, that religious observance doesn’t necessarily correlate with an experience with God. David HaMelekh had a traumatized, difficult life, but he was close to God. That’s what Tehillim is all about! He was close to God even when he sinned.
Eikha ends on that note – to renew our days as of old – we incorporate it into our tefillot on Shabbat. That phrase Hadesh Yemeinu K’Kedem captures something so strong.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Editor-in-Chief of The Koren Talmud Bavli with translation and commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz and the author of The Person in the Parasha: Discovering the Human Element in the Weekly Torah Portion (Maggid Books/OU Press).