A time to weep

July 27, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Kohelet 3:4 says there is a time for everything. One of his examples is that there is a time to weep. Rashi says, “On Tishah B’Av”.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Does Rashi mean that Tishah B’Av is a time for individuals to weep, or does he mean national Jewish weeping?

To both questions the answer is “yes”, but there is a further possibility – a time for humanity to weep.

You might reply, “But most people have never heard of Tishah B’Av. How can they weep on a day of which they have no knowledge at all?”

You do not need to know Tishah B’Av to observe it. Treat it as a symbol of the universal human experience of tragedy.

We are puzzled at the tragedies for which we think God has responsibility, but what about tragedies which human beings cause to other human beings?

Where people ought to be able to spread love they often show hate. Where they ought to kindle light they often plunge other people’s lives into darkness.

We don’t necessarily advocate putting Tishah B’Av on the non-Jewish calendar, but we pray that the world will adopt the alternative notion of Kohelet that there should be a time (hopefully every day) to celebrate love and light.


The Book of Lamentations, read on the evening of Tishah B’Av, is called in Hebrew “Echah” after its opening word.

Its five short chapters contain graphic, poignant, eye-witness descriptions of the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.

In the words of S Goldman: “The theme is repeated in each of the five distinct elegies which make up the Book; for each of the chapters is to be considered a poem complete in itself and it is fruitless to attempt to find logical coherence or development between one chapter and the next.

“Even within each of the separate poems there is an absence of plan or structure; instead the thought moves this way and that, as indeed might be expected in poems which are the spontaneous outpourings of a grief-stricken heart.”

Echah is chanted to a haunting mournful melody. No blessing is recited over it when it is not read from a scroll.

Chapter 1 contains 22 verses, each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It describes the distress of the city and of its people contrasted with the arrogance of the enemy:
“For these things I weep;
My eye, my eye runs down with water;
Because the comforter is far from me,
He that will refresh my soul;
My children are desolate,
Because the enemy has prevailed” (verse 16).

The chapter concludes with a plea that the enemy, the willing instrument of evil, should not escape its own punishment.

Chapter 2 also has 22 verses and is alphabetical. It elaborates on the theme of the desolation:
“The youth and the old man lie
On the ground in the streets;
My young women and young men
Have fallen by the sword;
You slew them in the day of Your anger;
You slaughtered unsparingly” (verse 21).

Chapter 3, with 66 verses constructed according to a triple alphabet, gives expression to the deep sorrow in the author’s heart. Yet:
“This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
Surely the Lord’s mercies are not consumed:
Surely His compassions fail not” (verses 21-22)

Chapter 4, with 22 verses, is again alphabetical. It stresses that the city has suffered not only by reason of external but internal factors. The rabbis declared that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, and the second because of groundless hatred amongst the people. National weakness and internal social disintegration were the unseen allies of the enemy.

Chapter 5 is not alphabetical but contains 22 verses. It concludes with an appeal to God to become reconciled with Israel and to “renew our days as of old”. In order not to end a Biblical book on an unfavourable note, verse 21 is repeated after verse 22. There is a similar custom in the case of Isaiah, Malachi and Kohelet.

Echah contains no indication as to its author. Tradition ascribes it to Jeremiah, who lived when the First Temple was destroyed and saw the fulfilment of his own prophecies.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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