The Scroll of Pain and Sorrow

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Two days in the Jewish year stop for the reading of a scroll that is not the Torah. On Purim, we listen to the Scroll of Esther. On Tisha B’Av, we listen to the Scroll of Eicha, also known as the Book of Lamentations.*

Eicha does not mean “lamentation.” As with all the names of the books in the Hebrew Bible, it is the first significant word of the text, in this case, the very first word. It is both a word and a howl of pain: “HOW?”

Eicha was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonian army. It is written in a literary form that we don’t hear much in the 21st century: it is a lament, a passionate expression of grief. It is both highly structured (an acrostic) and full-throated in its expression of heartbreak.

We don’t hear much lament in the 21st century. We tend to cut it off very quickly. When I am listening to someone who is in the midst of grief, they will often apologize to me for “taking my time” or for “going on and on.” And yet it is appropriate for the person in acute grief to talk it out in the days immediately following a loss. That’s why we observe seven days of shivaand why a single evening of “shiva minyan” is not really shiva. The immediate agony of individual loss is relieved by the opportunity to give it full expression; it then softens to an ache that is, alas, part of the human condition.

Eicha is the testimony of one who witnessed the destruction of a holy city and many of its inhabitants. It is tough reading, because it is blunt about the horrors of the siege. It is a cry from a heart filled with agony and horror.

As with other formal laments, such as Psalms 44, 60, and 90, Eicha moves from agony, to a plea for help, to praise. It is, ultimately, a statement of faith that the Holy One of Israel does not leave us wounded forever. It affirms the possibility of change, in fact, it has the chutzpah to affirm that while there is real hurt, the future holds real healing and a restoration to wholeness. The judgment of God is painful, but in that judgment are the seeds of new life.

Traditionally, we sit on the floor in a darkened room to listen to the chanting of Megillat Eicha. The trope (musical setting) is as bitter as the words. The listeners have been fasting for hours by the time they hear it (from sundown the night before.) They listen over growling stomachs and aching heads. If they are in a hot climate, they may be feeling thirst as well. Eicha is a miserable business, but it is an act of solidarity with our ancestors, and in this day and age, perhaps an act of solidarity with dispossessed people everywhere.

Whether or not you choose to fast this Tisha B’Av, I strongly recommend you seek out a synagogue where Eicha will be chanted. It is an unforgettable experience.

*Yes, there are three other megillot (scrolls.) However, the other megillot are not nearly so central to the observance of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. Megillat Esther is the central event of Purim, and Megillat Eicha is the central event of Tisha B’Av.

Much of the material on lament I learned from a wonderful article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” by Walter Bruggemann. I recommend it highly.

Why Three Weeks of Communal Mourning?

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The three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av are traditionally a time of mourning in the Jewish world. They are called “The Three Weeks” and traditionally Jews avoid public entertainments, buying new clothing, and getting haircuts during that time. The period begins with Tzom Tammuz, and include three Shabbats which have special readings from the Prophets (Haftarot.) 

The Prophets in Jewish tradition reproach Israel for the rupture of relationship with God. (For more about Jewish readings of the Prophets, read “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.) In the world of the Prophets, Israel has become selective in her reading of Torah, and too often observes the letter of ritual law while flouting both the spirit of that law and the ethical commandments. The Haftarah readings during the Three Weeks are:

  1. Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
  2. Jeremiah 2:4–28 plus 4:1–2 or 3:4
  3. Isaiah 1:1–27

Now one may well ask, what is the point of observing this period of time, especially for liberal Jews who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple?

This can be a time for reminding ourselves of the consequences of communal sins. If we are to grow and learn as a people, then we must not forget the times in the past when we have gone wrong. The sages teach us that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, and the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinom, usually translated “baseless hatred.”  So this is the time to ask if Torah is truly the “operating manual” for our institutions and families, or are there things that we prioritize above Torah? And as for sinat chinom, this excellent article by Rabbi Shmuel Weiss asks some interesting questions.

This can be a time to remind ourselves that we are truly Am Echad, one people. Whatever our differences about practice, our history is unfortunately full of occasions when outsiders made no distinction between secular and observant Jew. What point is there in treating one another badly, when the world is so cruel?

This can be a time to learn about mourning. Grief is part of the human condition; only those who die as very young children manage to live their entire lives without experiencing it. Over the centuries, generations of our ancestors crafted this period in which we may or may not experience grief for the Temple itself, but in which we can read the words of lament, and observe the fact that the entire season is shaped as a process. There is the approach of disaster (the Three Weeks), the acute phase of loss (Tisha B’Av) and then the much longer period of Consolation, which stretches for seven full weeks. One way to get the most out of this period is to approach the various readings as a student, learning from our forebears how to mourn.

These are only three possibilities for growth during the Three Weeks. What experiences have you had of this period in the Jewish year? Does the thought of mourning for the Temple make sense to you? Why – or why not?

What is Tzom Tammuz?

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I am watching the sun sink towards the horizon ending the day of Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, so this post will reach most of my readers too late for the actual day this year.

The 17th of Tammuz is a “minor” fast day in the Jewish year. It commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. It begins a three week period of increasingly deep mourning in Jewish life, running from Tzom Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, the day on which we remember the destruction.

A minor fast is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

Tzom Tammuz is the beginning of a three week period of mourning that leads up to Tisha B’Av, when we remember the Destruction of the Temple. I’m going to write a good bit more about that in coming days, but for now, just now that we have entered a time of mourning in Jewish life.

These minor fasts mark significant events in our life as a people. When you thinking about milestones in your own personal history, are there days you remember because they led up to major events? Do you do anything to mark them?

Happy Rosh Chodesh Tammuz!

Tammuz 5775 began at sundown on June 17, 2015.

Welcome to Tammuz! We observe it in the summertime, just as did the ancient Babylonians, who named it after their god Tammuz.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. So the month of Tammuz still carries the name of a long-forgotten idol. In ancient Babylon, the month was dedicated to the god, and it began on the first new moon after the summer solstice. The shortening days and the blistering heat made a setting for a period of ritual mourning for the god, who was understood to die and be resurrected annually, similar to the Greek Persephone and Ra/Osiris of Egypt. He’s even mentioned in the Tanakh as one of the foreign gods sometimes worshipped in Jerusalem, much to the distress of the prophets:

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me, ‘Have you  seen this, O son of man? turn yet again, and you shall see greater abominations than these!” – Ezekiel 8:14-15

There are no holidays in Tammuz, only one fast: on the 17th of Tammuz there is a fast from sunrise to sundown in memory of breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the beginning of the end for Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. That day begins the “Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we recall the destruction of the temple and other disasters.

Tammuz isn’t a happy month. Traditionally, the sin of the Golden Calf is supposed to have taken place in Tammuz. There are also some notable yahrtzeits (anniversaries of deaths) in the calendar this month:

This is usually a quiet month in synagogues. Behind the scenes, preparations for the High Holy Days are underway. Many people take vacations now, and it is also the season for congregational trips to Israel. It is quiet, but a time of gathering energy, of things just over the horizon. Stay as cool as you can.

Happy Anniversary, Jewish People!

Shavuot is nearly here.

Sometimes I think that Shavuot is the Jewish festival of the future. We know that in ancient times Sukkot was the most-anticipated Jewish holiday, so much so that people called it HeChag, THE Holiday. And in our own era, the big Chag is Pesach, or Passover. More Jews worldwide celebrate Passover in some form than any other event in the Jewish year. But the third Chag, the third pilgrimage festival mentioned in the Torah has not yet been the “big” festival. I wonder if there is some future age in which Shavuot will be the day we all anticipate?

Unlike the others, Shavuot is just one day, sundown to sundown. There are no sukkot for partying, no seder table at which to sit. Instead we eat some cheesecake, say the appointed prayers, and Torah students stay up all night and study. We do these things to remember the fateful day when we, as a people, accepted the Covenant and received the Torah.

I fell in love with Torah study during a Shavuot all-nighter, and it always feels a bit to me like an anniversary. It’s become a time to ask myself, what Torah have I learned this year? What do I want to learn in the future?

That feeling is actually not so far from the reality. A Jewish wedding ceremony consists of two parts: Erusin [betrothal] and Nissuin [the actual wedding.] If Passover was a betrothal, with a formal commitment and the giving of an object of value (freedom) then the Giving of the Torah was the wedding between God and Israel, joined forever in a covenant. This truly is our anniversary celebration.

In Bava Metzia 59b, the sages remind each other Lo b’shemayim hee – “She [Torah] is not in Heaven.” On Shavuot, this year on the night of May 23, we will celebrate the moment when Heaven and Earth met, and Israel accepted the Torah into her arms.

Perhaps one day we will find a way to celebrate Shavuot that will express the gravity and joy of the occasion. Until then, I will simply say, Chag Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!

Welcome to Sivan!

Happy Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

If you are thinking “What’s Rosh Chodesh?” <– click the link

Sivan is the ninth month of the Jewish Year, counting from Rosh HaShanah in the fall. It’s pronounced “see – VAHN.” In the Bible, though, where the year is counted from the first of Nisan, it is referred to as “the third month” (Exodus 19:1.)

Sivan began at sundown on May 22. (2015)

Its name comes from the Akkadian simanu, meaning “season.”

Sivan is the month of Shavuot, the festival on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (6 Sivan).

What will you do with your month of Sivan?

Lag B’Omer for Beginners

Lag B’Omer falls on day 33 of  counting the Omer, the count of days from Passover to Shavuot. (Follow the link if you want to learn more about the Omer and how to count it.) It gets its name from the number 33, lamed-gimel, which can be pronounced as “Lahg.”

It is a festive minor holiday, a short respite from the semi-solemnity of the Omer. During the Omer season, traditionally we avoid celebrations such as weddings. We are so serious because we are remembering a plague that killed many of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the story, the plague stopped on the 19th of Iyyar, so we pause then for some minor festivities.

It is a very minor holiday, not mentioned in the Torah at all. Some of the customs of the day:

WEDDINGS – Lag B’Omer is the one day during the Omer when weddings are traditionally performed.

PARTIES – Parties are often held on Lag B’Omer, precisely because they are discouraged otherwise between Passover and Shavuot.

HAIRCUTS – Some Jews do not cut their hair during the Omer. On Lag B’Omer, they can get a haircut. It’s also the traditional day for children’s first haircuts.

BONFIRES – Bonfire parties are particularly popular on Lag B’Omer. In the northern hemisphere, spring weather is well-established by that day.

In 5775 (spring of 2015) Lag B’Omer begins at sundown on Wednesday, May 6. How will you celebrate?