Lamentations and Tisha b’Av

This past weekend was spent doing various work around that house that required lots of hours and very little thought. Good for the soul, perhaps, but I feel like I lost two days in a wormhole. I missed offering my best wishes for a good observance on Tisha b’Av, so today I will offer instead my presentation from last week’s Catholic Biblical Association. This paper was part of the working group for the Bible in Its Traditions project. It is a very rough introduction to who the midrash and targum of Lamentations deal with this challenging text. I am keenly aware that there is much more material on and relating to Lamentations spread throughout the rabbinic corpus. So, as meagre as it is, here is something in honor of Tisha b’Av.

Rabbinic Reception of Lamentations

I am very grateful for this opportunity to contribute in some small way to the work of this seminar. My work on Lamentations began 14 years ago as I cast about for a subject for my doctoral thesis. My primary interest is in exegesis and so I was directed to consider the rabbis and how they interpreted (and transformed) the biblical text. Specifically, I worked on the Targum of Lamentations. I intend for this to be a discussion of some sample texts but feel I should start by placing us within the context of both Lamentations itself and then within the corpus of rabbinic commentaries.


The Book of Lamentations is one of the smallest works in the Bible and yet it is one of the most powerful and enigmatic. Written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 bce by the Babylonians, Lamentations expresses the grief and disbelief of those who lived through the horror and yet still looked to their God for their hope and deliverance.

Canon Date and Authorship

The Book of Lamentations is found in the Jewish canon as one of the Megillot, the Five Scrolls. The LXX placed Lamentations after Jeremiah and Baruch, assuming the prophet to be the author and thus its current location in the Christian canon. Wherever its location its canonicity has never been challenged (so far as we can tell), within either Jewish or Christian tradition.

Almost all scholars agree that the Book of Lamentations was written in the years immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem. Certainly these five poems express the kind of shock and despair that we might expect from an eyewitness, yet their form and style demonstrate that they were created as an act of reflection on and as a memorial of their tragedy.

Form and Genre

The form and genre of Lamentations is unique within the biblical canon and as such deserves some comment. Lamentations is a collection of five poems, each intimately related by both structure and content. The first four are acrostics: the first letter of each stanza is a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus the first stanza begins with aleph, the second with beth, and so on. There is variation within this form as ch. 4 has only two couplets per stanza and ch. 3 has one couplet per stanza and repeats each letter three times (so the first three lines each begin with aleph, etc.). The final chapter does not have an alphabetic acrostic, but echoes the acrostic form since it has 22 lines paralleling the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The acrostic form is found in other ancient near eastern texts and may be merely intended as an aid to memory, however it is more likely intended to demonstrate the completeness of Judah’s grief, it is “from A to Z” (Gottwald).

Liturgical Use

The earliest recorded use of these poems is within the Tisha b’Av liturgy commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem (see Zech. 7:3-5). They were used and perhaps written as monuments of memorial and continue in such use within Jewish tradition. The early church saw reference to Jesus in passages such as 4:20 (“The Lord’s anointed”) and his suffering on the cross in 1:12. Portions of the text continue to be used in Christian liturgy such as in the Tenebrae service during Holy Week (Lam. 1:15).

Targum & Midrash

Most of you are, of course, familiar with the targumim, the Aramaic rendering of the biblical text. It is import, however, that we not forget that the targumim are at once both translation and commentary. As translation a targum is engaged in the task of faithfully representing God’s word by rendering into Aramaic every word of the biblical text in its proper order. This is contrast with midrash which is rabbinic exegetical commentary that often comments only upon select verses. I was reminded recently that midrash “cannot be defined but merely described.” 1Strack-Stemberger, p. 235 “Midrash” can refer to the exegetical method or the actual text/genre of rabbinic commentary.

These distinctions are not always so distinct and this is particularly true in the targumim to the Megillot. Within the targumim commentary is also frequently woven into the translation and thus moves targum beyond what we might define in modern terms as a “simple translation.” This is most often found as simple glosses or additional words and phrases added to the text for clarity or explanation, but occasionally larger sections of material will be spliced into the text. Such is the case in the targumim to the Megillot.
With regards to Lamentations, even as we find a fair amount of midrashic interpretation within the targum, this distinction between targumic and midrashic approach is evidenced in their concerns in reading the text. The targumist has the two-fold concern of presenting the biblical text “faithfully” (or at least as he understands that notion) while at the same time offering some amount of direction so that the audience does not misunderstand the word of God. In Lamentations the primary concern of the targumist was not so much the circumstances of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but rather the text itself. The darshan, on the other hand, viewed the biblical text often as nothing more than a jumping off point, from which another text might be interpreted with often merely a single word from the base text being the trigger for the exegetical train that ensues.

Lam 1:1

‏אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם
הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה רַבָּתִי בַגּוֹיִם
שָׂרָתִי בַּמְּדִינוֹת הָיְתָה לָמַס׃

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.

TgLam 1:1

1 Jeremiah the Prophet and High Priest told how it was decreed that Jerusalem and her people should be punished with banishment and that they should be mourned with ʾekah. Just as when Adam and Eve were punished and expelled from the Garden of Eden and the Master of the Universe mourned them with ʾekah.

The Attribute of Justice spoke and said, “Because of the greatness of her rebellious sin that was within her, thus she will dwell alone as a man plagued with leprosy upon his skin who sits alone.”

And the city which was full of crowds and many peoples has been emptied of them and she has become like a widow. She who was great among the nations and a ruler over provinces which had brought her tribute has become lowly again and gives head tax to them from thereafter.

אמר ירמיהו נביא וכהנא רבא איכדין אתגזר על ירושלם ועל עמהא לאתדנא בתירוכין ולמספד עליהון איכה היכמה דאתדנן אדם וחוה דאתרכו מגנתא דעדן ואספד עלויהון מרי עלמא איכה ענת מדת דינא וכן אמרת על סגיאות חובהא אשתדר ומה דבגוהא בגין תהא יתבא בלחודהא כגבר דמכתש סגירו על בסריה דבלחודוהי יתיב וקרתא דהוה מליא אוכלוסין ועממין סגיאין אתרוקנת מנהון והות דמיא כארמלא ודמתרברבא בעמיא ושליטא באפרכיא והוון מסקין לה מסין הדרת למהוי מכיכא ולמתן לה כרגא בתר דנא

Lamentations Rabbah to Lam. 1:1, Petihta 1 (Soncino Edition)

R. Abba b. Kahana opened his discourse with the text, Cry thou with a shrill voice, O daughter of Gallim (Isa. X, 30). Isaiah said to Israel, Rather than you should utter songs and praises before idols, cry with a shrill voice in words of Torah, 2The meaning is: use your voice for study and prayer. cry with a shrill voice in the Synagogues. ‘O daughter of Gallim’: as the waves (gallim) are conspicuous in the sea, so are the patriarchs in the world. Another interpretation of ‘O daughter of Gallim’ is to read the text as bath Golim, i.e. ‘O daughter of wanderers’–daughter of 3Descendant of, the feminine being used of the nation. Abraham, of whom it is written, And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt (Gen. XII, 10); daughter of Isaac, of whom it is written, And Isaac went unto Abimelech, king of the Philistines unto Gerar (ib. XXVI, 1); daughter of Jacob, of whom it is written, And he went to Paddan-aram (ib. XXVIII, 5).
‘Hearken’ (Isa. X, 30): hearken to My commandments, hearken to words of Torah, hearken to words of prophecy, hearken to the dictates of righteousness and benevolence. ‘O Laish’: otherwise layeshah, i.e. a lion, will come up against you, alluding to the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, of whom it is written, A lion is gone up from his thicket (Jer. IV, 7). ‘O thou poor’: poor in righteous men, poor in words of prophecy, poor in performance of the Divine precepts and in good deeds. ‘Anathoth’: otherwise, Anathoth, i.e. the man of Anathoth, will come and prophesy against you; as it is written, The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth (ib. I, 1). Since retribution came upon Israel, he [Jeremiah] lamented over them, Ekaha. 4‘How’–How doth the city sit solitary (Lam. I, 1).–Ekah is the usual way of commencing a dirge or lamentation.

Let’s consider a few examples. If we begin at the beginning of the Book of Lamentations we find that both the targum and the midrash have added a considerable amount of commentary. TgLam actually dramatically expands the first four verses of Lamentations and in so doing provides a theological prologue by which the entire book is to be interpreted by his audience. I have provided here only the first verse. You can see that there are a number of things going on in this single verse that are atypical of a targum, but relatively common in the targumim of the Megillot. Traits that make using these targumim for text critical purposes difficult if not impossible, but in the Bible in =Its Traditions project would make them useful for the Jewish interpretative tradition section of the apparatus.

The targumist has represented each word of the Hebrew in Aramaic, in order, but those equivalents are floating in a sea of commentary. The targumist identifies Jeremiah as the author, something not explicit in Lamentations itself but long held in tradition, and roots the laments (ekhah) of Israel in the rebellion of Adam and Eve. The subsequent three verses will go on to sketch out a Heilsgeschichte of Israel’s rebellion against God and providing reasons for why God allowed Jerusalem and the Temple to be destroyed. The targumist also sets the tone right at the beginning that it grieves God to have to allow these acts. “The Master of the Universe mourned them with ‘ekah.”

Lamentations Rabbah, the midrash of the book of Lamentations, is a collection of various homilies, commentaries, and haggadic stories based upon the text of Lamentations and while it may contain earlier traditions, it is dated to the late 5th or early 6th century ce. Ekhah Rabbati begins with an exegetical exuberance, with no less than 35 patihtaot on the first verse alone! We will look quickly at only the first portion of the first patihta. It is quite typical of homiletic midrashim in that it begins with an opening verse from another biblical book, in this case Isaiah (possibly the haftorah for Tisha b’Av), and works its way through a string of biblical citations and allusions back to the base text of Lam. 1:1.

The opening text is Isa. 10:30. “Cry aloud, O daughter Gallim! Listen, O Laishah! Answer her, O Anathoth!” The midrash begins its commentary with the reference to crying with a loud voice, and places into the mouth of Isaiah the warning that Israel should spend its time studying Torah and saying prayers in the synagogue, an implicit explanation for the tragedy that befell Jerusalem. The midrash then plays with the term ‏גַּלִּים and offers various interpretations of its meaning. It finally returns to Isa. 10:30 and the exhortation to heed the Torah is again put forth. The town name Laishah puts the darshan in mind of a lion (‏לַיִשׁ) and Jeremiah 4:7, “A lion is gone up from his thicket.” Finally, the reference to Anathoth in Isa. 10:30 also reminds the darshan of the fact that Jeremiah is from Anathoth and that it was he who prophesied against Jerusalem and he lamented her downfall, thus Ekhah, the opening word of Lamentations.
You can see how the midrash seem, in some ways, to have only passing interest in the text of Lamentations itself and instead is engaged in a kind of exegetical game, swinging from word to word of the intersecting text, Isa. 10:30, until he returns at last to our base text.

I will offer quickly one other verse to demonstrate a particular peculiarity of TgLam and how it deals with the difficulties presented not by the language or grammar of the text, but of its meaning.

Lam 1:15

15‏ סִלָּה כָל־אַבִּירַי אֲדֹנָי בְּקִרְבִּי
קָרָא עָלַי מוֹעֵד לִשְׁבֹּר בַּחוּרָי
גַּת דָּרַךְ אֲדֹנָי לִבְתוּלַת בַּת־יְהוּדָה׃
The LORD has rejected
all my warriors in the midst of me;
he proclaimed a time against me
to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
the virgin daughter Judah.

TgLam 1:15

כבש כל תקיפיי יי ביני אראע עלי זמן לתברא חיל עולימיי ועלו עממי על גזירת מימרא דיי וסאיבו בתולתא דבית יהודה על די הוה דמהון דבתולתהן מתשד היך כחמר מן מעצרתא בעדן דגבר מבעט ית ענבין חמר ענבוהי שדיין‏:‬

The Lord has crushed all my mighty ones within me; he has established a time against me to shatter the strength of my young men. The nations entered by the decree of the Memra of the Lord and defiled the virgins of the House of Judah until their blood of their virginity was caused to flow like wine from a wine press when a man is treading grapes and grape-wine flows.

Lamentations Rabbah to Lam. 1:15 (Soncino)

LamR 44. THE LORD HATH SET AT NOUGHT (SILLAH) ALL MY MIGHTY MEN (I, 15). He hath made me like refuse before them. R. Abba b. Kahana said: In Bar Gamza 5S.E. of Lydda. they call refuse ‘sallutha’. 6The text reads סרקיו but a word is required sounding like sillah. R. Levi sai d: In Arabia they call a comb ‘mesalselah’. 7He would therefore translate: “The Lord hath combed the flesh of all my mighty men.” Combing the flesh was a common form of torture.
HE HATH CALLED A SOLEMN ASSEMBLY AGAINST ME TO CRUSH MY YOUNG MEN. We find that the death of youths is considered as grievous as the destruction of the Temple; for it is written, THE LORD HATH TRODDEN AS IN A WINEPRESS THE VIRGIN DAUGHTER OF JUDAH, 8Cf. Prologue XXXII where wine-press’ is explained as the Temple. and in the same way, HE HATH CALLED A SOLEMN ASSEMBLY AGAINST ME TO CRUSH MY YOUNG MEN. 9Since both are related in the same verse, they are equal tragedies.

The targum has represented each word of the Hebrew text in order, but has also added some additional material in response to the biblical text. The biblical text’s final stich, “the Lord has trodden as in a wine press the virgin daughter Judah,” is what has triggered this expansion. The image conjured by MT is a gruesome one; although it is clearly intended as a metaphor, MT describes the Lord trampling the “virgin daughter of Judah” (גת דרך אדני לבתולת בת-יהודה). The targumist of TgLam has little problem with speaking of God in anthropomorphic terms, but clearly this verse is too much for his sensibilities. Rather than the Lord treading upon the virgin, the Lord decrees by his Memra that the nations should enter Jerusalem.
So our targumist embellishes the text and turns an already graphic image into something truly horrific. Once within the city, the nations raped the virgins so viciously that “their blood of their virginity was caused to flow like wine from a wine press.” The image is vivid and shocking and although it removes God from the role of active abuser, the biblical image has been taken to an extreme. God issues the initial decree allowing the enemy to enter the Holy City (since no harm can assail Jerusalem without God’s approval), but it is the nations who actually defile the innocent.

The treatment of this verse and others like it in TgLam reveals the targumist’s pattern of dealing with passages that it finds truly troubling. The events of 586 bce or even 70 ce were not of great concern to the targumist. That God is the one who decreed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is understood. That Israel had sinned and therefore deserved her punishment is taken as a given and such a view is defended throughout the targum. The fact that the text states that “the Lord has trodden…the virgin daughter of Judah,” the possibility that God could directly do something so atrocious, offends our targumist’s sensibilities. The targumist deflects this by taking the odd approach of intensifying the text, something that I have termed “dramatic heightening,” so that while making the nations the active agent (while God remains the cause) he also makes the act far more grotesque and literal.

Again, Lamentations Rabbah takes a different approach. In this case there is no opening or intersecting verse that rather the darshan begins to work directly on the base text. The midrash has a few plays on the Hebrew סִלָּה and then comments briefly on the phrase that caught the targumist’s attention. The midrash simply states, “We find that the death of youths is considered as grievous as the destruction of the Temple.” It is a strong theological statement that one might suggest can only be made many years after the Temple has been destroyed. The darshan is able to make this connection because he has equated the “virgin daughter of Judah” of the third stich with the temple and finds it in parallel with the young men of the first stich.

This is just a very brief sampling the two primary exegetical witnesses to the rabbinic interpretation of Lamentations. Lamentations is invoked often in other midrashic texts and in halakhic texts as well, usually in subordination to a larger exegetical agenda. The midrash relates many tales of heroism and piety that occurred during the siege(s) of Jerusalem and following the capture and destruction. The targum wrestles with the biblical text to present it in such a way that the people of Israel will not mistake their exacting God for a capricious God. In general terms we can say that the rabbinic response to Lamentations and the destruction of Jerusalem was to use it as an opportunity to exhort the scattered nation of Israel to return to faithful worship of God and specifically through rabbinic understandings of what is right worship, the reading of Torah, the study of Mishnah, and meeting in the Synagogue.

  • 1
    Strack-Stemberger, p. 235
  • 2
    The meaning is: use your voice for study and prayer.
  • 3
    Descendant of, the feminine being used of the nation.
  • 4
    ‘How’–How doth the city sit solitary (Lam. I, 1).–Ekah is the usual way of commencing a dirge or lamentation.
  • 5
    S.E. of Lydda.
  • 6
    The text reads סרקיו but a word is required sounding like sillah.
  • 7
    He would therefore translate: “The Lord hath combed the flesh of all my mighty men.” Combing the flesh was a common form of torture.
  • 8
    Cf. Prologue XXXII where wine-press’ is explained as the Temple.
  • 9
    Since both are related in the same verse, they are equal tragedies.

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