On Tisha B’Av, the day of the destruction of our Holy Temples in Jerusalem, we recite kinot, poetic dirges and elegies mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and lamenting the long and bitter exile that followed.
These kinot are the product of many paytanim (authors of classical liturgical poems, known as piyutim). Some of these paytanim are well known, some are known by name only, and others are anonymous. Here are some of the most famous ones (the list follows the order they would appear in the classic book of Kinot, bearing in mind that many authors composed multiple kinot):
Rabbi Elazar Hakalir
One of the most prolific and earliest paytanim was Rabbi Elazar Hakalir. In addition to authoring many piyutim that are recited during the year, he authored the oldest kinot that we have (after the actual Book of Lamentations). His kinot make up almost half of the elegies traditionally recited on the 9th of Av.
There is considerable debate as to Rabbi Elazar Hakalir’s identity and when he lived. While not entirely clear, it seems that he lived in the Land of Israel. Some, like Tosafot,1 identify him as being the great 2nd century sage of the Mishnah Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, whom the Midrash describes as a great paytan.2
Others, like Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (known as the Rashba), explain that the Midrash was referring to a different sage, Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach, and thus identify him as Rabbi Elazar Hakalir.3
Others place him in the 6th-7th century. While some claim that he lived as late as the 11th or 12th century, this is unlikely, as he was referred to by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882/892-942) as one of the “ancient” paytanim.4
Regardless of when he lived, it is clear from his elegies that he had access to many ancient Midrashic teachings regarding the Temple and its destruction that are no longer extant.
The kinot of Rabbi Elazar Hakalirhave structure and content based very clearly on the Book of Lamentations itself. The stanzas are often in an alphabetical acrostic, similar to the first four chapters of Lamentations.
Rabbi Meir ben Yechiel (13th century)
While not much is known about Rabbi Meir ben Yechiel, he is the author of the soul-stirring kinah Arzei Halevanon Adirei Torah, “Cedars of Lebanon, Giants of Torah.” This elegy (kinah no. 21) is about the 10 Martyrs, describing how the Romans brutally executed 10 of the leading sages during the times of the Mishnah.
With the destruction of the Temple, the Romans had assumed that the Jews would assimilate. However, after the destruction they realized that it was the Torah and mitzvahs that kept the Jewish nation going. As such, they started a brutal campaign against learning Torah in public and keeping the mitzvahs. Additionally, they executed many of the leading rabbis of the generation.
Read: The 10 Martyrs
While nothing about the composer of kinah no. 23 is known with certainty, some say that this is none other than Rabbi Yechiel of Paris (d. 1289), head of the yeshivah of Paris, which at the time had 300 students, many of whom later became known as authors of the Tosafot (commentaries on the Talmud).
This haunting elegy retells the Talmudic story5 of how the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest were taken captive by separate slave owners. The two masters met and decided that due to the extraordinary beauty of the two captives, they would have them mate, and the offspring would then fetch a very high price at the market. They secluded both of them at night in a dark room. Disgusted by what was expected of them, they both wept all through the night, and when dawn arrived, they recognized each other. They then fell on each other and burst into tears until their souls departed.
Read: Rabbi Yechiel of Paris
Rabbi Kalonymus ben Yehuda (11th century)
A scion of the famed Kalonymus family, Rabbi Kalonymus ben Yehuda lived in Mainz, Germany. Having witnessed many of the unspeakable horrors perpetrated during the First Crusade in the year 1096, and especially the destruction of the large, thriving Jewish communities of Worms, Speyer and Mainz in the Rhineland, he composed kinah no. 25, lamenting the tragedy.
Read: The Bloody Crusades
Rabbi Baruch Ben Shmuel (d. 1221)
One of the authors of the Tosafot commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Baruch ben Shmuel was also a composer of many piyutim, the most famous of which may be Baruch El Elyon, sung at Shabbat tables around the world. In his elegy (kinah no. 32), he relates many of the wonders of Jerusalem and mourns “what has befallen us”—that we no longer have Jerusalem with all of its glory and the opportunity it provided to come closer to G‑d.
Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe (early 13th century)
A resident of Würzburg, Bavaria, Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe authored a commentary on the Torah. While his kinah (no. 38) laments the destruction, it also has a somewhat positive tone, as it focuses on the prayer and hope that the Temple will be rebuilt. It also describes how the heavenly angels still stand watch over Zion, and together with the souls of the departed they fervently pray for peace and salvation.
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (13th century)
Known as the Maharam of Rothenburg (c. 1220–1293), he became one of the foremost Torah scholars of his time, with a tragic and tortuous life story of his own. As a young man, he learned in the yeshivah of the famed Rabbi Yechiel of Paris and was witness to the events he described in the elegy Shaali Serufah B’aish, “O Torah by Fire Consumed . . .” (no. 41).
Around the year 1240, a Jew named Nicholas Donin, who had converted to Christianity, convinced King Louis IX of France that he would be able to prove the truth of Christianity through the Talmud.
King Louis ordered the rabbi of Paris, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, as well as a number of other leading rabbis to debate the apostate. Of course, like all the debates of that era, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, especially since one was forbidden to say anything that could be construed as being critical of the Church or Christianity, effectively making it not a debate at all.
Despite the great limitations, Rabbi Yechiel and his colleagues were nevertheless able to defend the Talmud to the point that the king had to begrudgingly agree that one could not prove Christianity from the Talmud. Nevertheless, he claimed that the Talmud was an insult to Christianity.
Thus, in the year 1242 (or 1244),6 the king ordered all copies of the Talmud, together with other Jewish works, to be gathered and burned. In all, 24 cartloads of priceless handwritten manuscripts were burned on the 6th of Tammuz, which was Friday, Parshat Chukat. In light of the fact that this was before the invention of the printing press and every book needed to be painstakingly written by hand, the burning of these works was a great catastrophe for the Jews. Shockingly (but not surprisingly), King Louis was canonized by the Church for his actions. Ultimately, this event marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish community in France, as they were ultimately expelled from France in the year 1305. In previous generations, many had the custom to fast on Friday, Parshat Chukat, commemorating this tragic event.7
Read: Maharam of Rothenburg
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (b. Circa 1080 – 1141)
A resident of Spain, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi is considered one of the greatest Jewish poets and philosophers. He is best known for his work The Kuzari. The most famous of his elegies (no. 36) is Tzion Halo Tishali, “O Zion, Will You Not Inquire.” This piyut describes the great yearning to flee from exile and tread upon the soil of the Holy Land of Israel.
Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi took his own words to heart and set out for Jerusalem. While there is debate as to whether he ever reached the Land of Israel, Rabbi Gedalyah ibn Yahya (16th century) records in his work Shalshelet Hakabbalah that “I heard from an old man that when he reached the gates of Jerusalem, he tore his garment [as a symbol of mourning the destruction of Jerusalem] and knelt on the earth to fulfill the verse ‘For Thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust,’ [Psalm 102.15] and he recited the elegy that he had written, ‘O Zion, Will You Not Inquire.’ An Arab rider grew jealous of his ecstatic state and trampled upon him with his horse and he died.”
According to some, he is also the author of elegy no. 45, Elei Tzion, “Lament Zion,” which is customarily recited toward the conclusion of the kinot. Many communities have the custom to stand up and recite this elegy responsively. Along with its message that no matter how much we mourn the destruction of the Temple and this bitter exile, we have not sufficiently mourned, this elegy also conveys a deeper message of hope and the ultimate redemption.
The refrain recited throughout the elegy is “Lament Zion and her cities, like a woman in her labor pains.” This conveys the message that our suffering is for a purpose. Just as the woman in labor suffers great pain, but in the end, it is all in order to give life to a beautiful child, so too, our suffering during this long and bitter exile is but a preparation for the ultimate redemption and the building of the Holy Temple.
Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021–1058)
Born in Malaga, Spain, Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol was one of the great Jewish poets and philosophers. One of his elegies (no. 46), Shomron Kol Titen, “Samaria Gives Forth Her Voice,” is the very last elegy to be recited. This elegy is written as a debate between two unfaithful women married to the same man, one representing the exiles of Judea and the other the Ten Lost Tribes, each one claiming that they suffered more during this exile. This elegy concludes with the prayer “Renew our days like the days long gone, as you have spoken8 ‘The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem.’ ”
May it be speedily in our days!
Read: Solomon Ibn Gabirol