Tishah b’Av and Its Poetry

Tishah b’Av and Its Poetry

Tishah b’Av–A Jewish day of mourning. Surely it cannot be called a holiday or festival. In 2015 the fast begins the evening of July 25. A lot of Jews do not observe either the occasion or the fast. Certainly I did not until recently, when I discovered that Tishah b’Av is an occasion to recite poems. Although they are sad poems, they are poems nonetheless, and for me poetry has been my way to enter more deeply into Jewish prayers and prayer services. So for me this unhappy day of remembrance has led me into a biblical book I formerly had skipped, from there into a special form of poetry created for this day, and then into my own poetic exploration of some of the more solemn nooks and crannies of my own life.

My aim here is to introduce you to Tishah b’Av, to Eikhah–the Book of Lamentations–and to a genre of liturgical poetry called kinot written especially for Tishah b’Av, and then to encourage you to write your own poems for this solemn occasion and to take your poems to your rabbi or spiritual leader and ask if you can read them at a service. Or, you could read them in your havurah, in your writing class, or at home with your friends or family.

Tishah b’Av–the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av–commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in ancient Jerusalem. It also commemorate other calamities that have afflicted the Jewish people, for example, the decree in Spain in 1492 that forced Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. Traditionally, it also is believed that the Messiah will appear on this day.

On Tishah b’Av we mourn and follow customs similar to those on Yom Kippur, for example, by fasting, not wearing leather shoes, not bathing, and not working. We also read Megillat Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations. And, we also read special piyyutim–poems–called kinot (kinah, in the singular) (also spelled qinot and qina/qinah), which are dirges expressing mourning, pain, sorrow, suffering, and severe loss. Ismar Elbogen, in his book Jewish Liturgy, says that these are “a special genre of elegaic poems with descriptions of persecutions and martyrdom” and that “the name qina is biblical, denoting the lament for the dead.” According to Idelsohn (p. 348; see below for full source information), “the Sephardic ritual has sixty-five Kinoth (kinot): thirteen for the evening and fifty-two for the morning service” (!). Idelsohn also says the Ashkenazi ritual has sixty-one kinot (p. 350).

Many such poems have been written over the years. Some express sorrow, while others express longing for Zion–the Land of Israel–for example, the Zionides (poems about the longing for the Land of Israel) by Yehudah Halevi, the famous Spanish-Jewish medieval poet and philosopher. There are whole collections of kinot, and kinot also can be found in the Bible, the Talmud, and some anthologies of Jewish poetry.

Experiencing a Tishah b’Av service is quite moving. In Boulder a few years ago at Congregation Bonai Shalom, people sat in a circle and read Lamentations and then read poems from existing collections or that they had written themselves. Rabbi Marc Soloway, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, and a number of other people participated, taking turns reading aloud. We did this outside that year, but we also have done this inside while sitting on the floor and by candlelight only. According to Idelsohn (p. 349; see below for full source information), “In the Sephardic, Italian, and Yemenite rituals . . . in the evening, after the Kinoth are recited, all lights in the synagogue are extinguished, and the precentor sitting on the floor cries out: “‘O brethren, house of Israel, hearken. Today is one thousand, eight hundred and . . . years since our Sanctuary was destroyed and the crown of our head fell. Woe unto us, for we have sinned!'”

Before you write your own kinah or kinot, I recommend that you:

Read up on Tishah b’Av on the Web or in any book on basic Judaism. Some resources can be found at the end of this introductory material.

Then read or at least dip into the Book of Lamentations to see what this solemn day is about and how the Hebrew Bible expresses itself.

Finally, read some kinot to get a feel for these types of poems. Sources are listed below.

If you are really serious about this type of poetry or about learning more about Tishah b’Av, you will want to buy one or both of the kinot collections/siddurim listed below.

Now that you have some idea of the significance of Tishah b’Av and of the poems that have been written to enhance the observance of this solemn occasion, you should be ready to try your hand at writing your own kinah or kinot.

Here are a few guidelines and suggestions:
Typically a kinah references Lamentations, either directly or metaphorically. You can try writing a kinah or kinot about the same subject as Lamentations, namely, the destruction of the Temples. Or, you can write your kinah using the Book of Lamentations and its subject as a springboard to lament something else. For example, the kinah I wrote in 2013 lamented the recent death of my beloved mother, but working off a sense of tragedy expressed in the Book of Lamentations.

You might want to include some of the words or images from Lamentations in your poem, as is done in many of the traditional kinot.

Four of the five sections of Lamentations are alphabetic acrostics. The first word of the first verse of the first three sections begins with an aleph, the second word with a bet, and so on, to the end of the alphabet. Section 4 is a double acrostic, with two lines per letter–aleph aleph, bet bet, etc. Section 5 is not an acrostic. One wonders whether the author, Jeremiah, after trying to channel and control his grief with a strict poetic structure, finally broke down and was unable to control the form of expression taken by his words.

Perhaps you will want to write your kinah as an acrostic. This could be A to Z in English or aleph to tav in Hebrew, or following any alphabet you are familiar with. You also could try an acrostic on your name, with the first letter of the first word in each line spelling your name. In the following poem, for example, the first letter of the lines spells my first name.

Here is a poem I wrote
Early in the day when I was
Near a stream that
Runs into the
Yangtze River

Before copyright and printing presses, using name acrostics was one way poets indicated authorship of their work.

Whether you want to use rhyme, meter, or sonic effects like alliteration (in which the first letters of successive words are the same vowels, as in “awful apples”) is up to you.

The main thing, I think, is 1) to reflect upon the sentiments in Lamentations and see what it stirs in your heart and 2) find the best way to express what is stirred up.

When you have a tried a poem of your own, be sure to share it with your congregation, havurah, family, or friends. You will be surprised and pleased at the reaction you receive and also at how much more you feel a part of the service or ritual you normally participate in. Also, you are welcome to submit your poems to the Boulder Jewish News (www.boulderjewishnews.org) or contact Henry Rasof at rotide@msn.com if you are interested in participating in an informal workshop on writing your own kinot.

General Sources

Donin, Hayim Halevy. To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books, 1972. See pages 263-266. A succinct overview of Tishah b’Av.

Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Trans. Raymond P. Scheindlin. Philadelphia and New York: The Jewish Publication Society and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1993. See pages 183-184. According to the translator, this book is “the most comprehensive scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today.” But, do not be put off by the word “scholarly”: The book is highly readable. A short section on kinot straddles pages 183 and 184. Information on the many forms of Jewish liturgical poetry is included in the book, and combined with the introduction in the Carmi book listed below, you will be on your way to writing both kinot and other types of liturgical poetry.

Idelsohn, A.Z. Jewish Liturgy and Its Development. New York: Holt, 1932. Reprint, Dover, 1995. See pages 348-352.

Here are just a few of the many Internet sources:







Kinot Collections/Siddurim

Siddur Tishah B’Av (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2008). This book, published by the Conservative Movement, has it all–introductory material, the Book of Lamentations, kinot, and services.

The Complete Tisha B’Av Service (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1992). This ArtScroll publication does what the previous book does but for an Orthodox reader and contains many more kinot. But, just as you needn’t be Conservative to use the previous book, you needn’t be Orthodox to use this book.

General Jewish Poetry Collections

Carmi, T., ed. and trans. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. New York: Penguin, 1981. This contains some kinot, but they are not so easy to identify. These are prose translations. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Jewish poetry–in addition to the vast selection of poems, there is excellent introductory material.

Cole, Peter. The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007. Also highly recommended. Similar caveat as above.

Collections of poems by the individual poets (especially Yehudah Halevi) may also contain some kinot. For example, there are good translations or bilingual editions of poems by the major medieval Spanish poets, such as Yehudah Halevi, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses Ibn Ezra, and Samuel Hanagid. My website, www.medievalhebrewpoetry.org, has a lot of poems by these authors, but few if any poems that could be considered kinot. The easiest way to find a whole lot of these is to look in the two dedicated kinot collections listed above.

© 2015 Henry Rasof

About Henry Rasof z"l

I have been writing poetry for over fifty years. During this time, I have worked as a musician, chef, book acquisitions editor, and creative-writing instructor.

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One comment

  1. Thank you so much, Henry, for your thought provoking, useful piece. Tzom Tov! Peter