Certain key occasions in the Jewish calendar invoke strong memories of my seven years in Gateshead Yeshivah. One of my teachers assured me that by spending Yomim Tovim and other special moments in the Yeshivah, I would have a store of powerful experiences on which to draw in later years: I am truly grateful for that advice. I constantly try to recreate those powerful moments in my community, something from which I know my congregants have benefited, perhaps without realising. And even when that isn’t possible, I can retreat into the realm of inspirational memory and lift almost any occasion for myself and my family.
Tisha B’Av is one such day: each year, from Rosh Chodesh Av, two memories are especially vivid, each associated with Kinnos (dirges read on Tisha B’Av lamenting the destruction of the Temples and other Jewish calamities). The Kinnos are perhaps the most demanding texts of our entire liturgy: many of them are written in difficult Hebrew, and are replete with obscure scholarly references that require considerable Talmudic and Midrashic background to appreciate fully. Indeed, rather than plough through all of them, many Shuls (including my own) elect to read only a selection of the Kinnos, accompanied by explanation and elucidation (a job that the ArtScroll edition of the Kinnos has made much easier). The Kinnos are potent, elegant, yet very challenging.
My first recollection is of sitting on the floor as a sign of mourning beneath the desk at which I normally davened (prayed) in Gateshead Yeshivah at about 11am on Tisha B’Av. The Kinnos were well underway, and I admit that I was struggling to maintain my interest in the reading. By this time the sun had risen sufficiently to shine in my eyes through the very large front-windows of the Yeshivah. Remarkably, this coincided with the recital of the famous Kinnah, ‘Tsion’, by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (author of the Kuzari), a few translated excerpts of which follow. For a full text, see here.
Zion, will you not enquire about the welfare of your captives? Those who seek your welfare – they are the remnants of your flock….
You are the royal house; you are the throne of the glory of God, so how could slaves have sat upon the thrones of your nobles?
I yearn to be given the chance to wander in the places where God appeared to your visionaries and emissaries….
This lament, apart from being outstandingly beautiful, marks a radical change in the tone of the Kinnos: up until this point they are about destruction, misery and exile, but beginning with ‘Tzion’, they express hope and yearning for a better world. It is hard to describe the impact that the concurrence of the sun shining and the majestic poetry of Yehudah HaLevi had on me. It created a sense of optimism, divine love and context to the hopeless gloom of Tisha B’Av that has stayed with me: I hope that I have managed to convey something of that feeling in words.
The second memorable moment arrived at the very end of the Kinnos, with the reading of ‘Eli Tsion’, a poem detailing all the tragedies of the Temple for which we should weep. It offers a glimmer of hope, in that it compares the tribulations of our history with the pains of child-birth: the torment is not futile, but heralds the rebirth of Am Yisroel: some excerpts follow. For a full text, see here.
Wail, Tsion and her cities, like a woman in child-birth; and like a damsel girded in sackcloth (crying) for the husband of her youth….
(Wail) for Your name, which was desecrated in the speech of those who arose to torture her; and the supplications of those who scream out to You: turn Your ear and listen to her words.
Although the text is powerful and, at least for me, summarises the themes of the entire corpus of the Kinnos, the most well-known aspect of ‘Eli Tsion’ is its tune. This poignant melody somehow synthesises the calamity of Jewish history with our unshakeable confidence in a magnificent future. Regrettably, it has been turned by some into a kind of pop song, sung at an inappropriate tempo, robbing it of its depth and power. During my years in Gateshead, ‘Eli Tsion’ was led by Rabbi Zeev Cohen, who sung it movingly in a high-pitched and haunting fashion, in the Lithuanian style: in one short rendition, he had captured the essence of Tisha B’Av. For a similar (albeit lower-pitched and slightly faster) version of ‘Eli Tsion’, listen to this, a recording of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, zt”l leading a responsive reading of the Kinnah in Boston in 1978. I cannot lead the poem as beautifully as Rabbi Cohen, but his interpretation has inspired my own reading.
Most importantly for me (and I hope for my congregants and students too), the memories of Tisha B’Av in Gateshead Yeshivah encapsulate the very spirit of the day: redemptive mourning.
May this, truly, be the last Tisha B’Av.