Jewish Community / Judaism

“…we should note the tension between these kinnot seminars and the classical image of Tisha be-Av”

The second change relates to the in-synagogue services on Tisha be-Av morning. Traditionally, people sat on the synagogue floor until midday reciting complex liturgical elegies known as kinnot in a low, dirge-like tune with little embellishment or explanation. Few had any idea what these poems meant, such that sitting uncomfortably on the floor in a darkened room did most of the work. Boredom and lack of interest were no doubt common, and as far back as the seventeenth century, rabbis already expressed their displeasure at the practice of impromptu games of “bottle-cap soccer” that took place on the synagogue floor during kinnot recitation. Around the mid-2000s, technology enabled day-long lectures/shiurim/seminars on kinnot and related themes to be webcast into homes and synagogues across the county.

One of the most successful exemplars is sponsored by Yeshiva University and led by R. Dr. Jacob J. Schacter. Following R. Soloveitchik’s model, R. Schacter begins the presentation at 9.15 am with a sophisticated, two-hour source-based exploration of central Tisha be-Av themes. The program then continues with kinnot until its conclusion at 5 pm. While people sit on the floor and the kinnot are recited in the traditional tune, the overall feel is a far cry (or lack thereof) from the classic kinnot service. The program has a clear intellectual focus (in 2016, the source pack ran over 70 pages), and R. Schacter emphasizes the historical, conceptual, and theological ideas that emerge from these obscure liturgical texts. (Full disclosure: I tune into this webcast every year.)

In addition to YU’s program, the Orthodox Union runs its own events in both the US and Israel. Further, even communities that do not subscribe to any of the simulcasts have local rabbis prepare detailed explanatory programs for kinnot recitation which are then advertised to the community in advance. Here, too, we should note the tension between these kinnot seminars and the classical image of Tisha be-Av. While Torah study related to Tisha be-Av themes is permitted, previous authorities stressed that learning should be limited to topics that one is not familiar with and that the study should not delve too deeply into the substantive ideas. These programs, by contrast, are led by scholars who have studied the topics for years and invested considerable energy in preparing the Tisha be-Av lectures. They aim to illuminate Jewish law, theology, and history for their audiences. They are hardly superficial.

Chaim Saiman, “How Halakhah Changes: From Nahem to the ‘Tisha be-Av Kumzitz'”, Lehrhaus (31 July 2017) [http://www.thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/2017/7/30/how-halakhah-changes-from-nahem-to-the-tisha-be-av-kumzitz]