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The strange religious holiday when study is “prohibited”

July 25, 2012

I think a universal feature across many religions (certainly the Abrahamic religions) is study – the idea that we grow closer to God through study.  So, it is quite strange to find a religion where study is nominally “prohibited” – and on which, as it turns out, probably more study takes place than any other day.

That would be the Jewish holiday of the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), which is the annual day of mourning.  (This year, as it turns out, the 9th of Av falls on the Sabbath, so it will be celebrated on Sunday.)  It is the anniversary of the destruction of first and second Temples, but is also celebrated as the day of commemoration for many events ranging from sin of spies in the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14), the razing of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and for some Jews, the Holocaust.

As a day of mourning, study of religion is strictly prohibited – because it is said that study of Torah brings joy.  But, in fact, there is a beautiful liturgy that day – the Kinnos (lamentations) – incredibly beautiful and tragic poems of lamentation.  In many communities, this is supplemented by the book of Lamentations (one of the most beautiful, albeit tragic, books in the Hebrew Bible) and among some Sephardic Jewish groups, the book of Job (widely considered to be the most literary book in the Hebrew Bible.)  Some groups have extensive study groups on the Kinnos – and since the holiday is considered to be “post-biblical” (e.g., not taught in the five books of Moses), one can find many of these lectures streamed online.

This year, there is an especially fine resource for study on this day where study is “prohibited” – a new translation into English with extensive annotation of the “Midrash Rabbah” on Lamentations published by Artscroll.  I’ve spent some time with this new translation, and find it to be exceptional – it has the full Hebrew text (along with the standard Hebrew commentaries) on the left hand side of each double-page spread, and an interlinear translation on the right hand side – with the Hebrew interspersed with English translation and explanatory material.  There is also extensive annotation on each page and many helps.  Among other features, this volume has extensive connection with the individual Kinnos poems recited on that day.  The effect is a bit like an extended study session with a highly talented study partner on the work. 

More generally for the Tisha B’Av holiday, there are several excellent translations of the Kinnos into English.  Here are three that are worthy of note:

  • The Koren edition, which features extensive annotation based on lectures by celebrated rabbi and teacher Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
  • The Artscroll edition, which also features considerable annotation, although somewhat different in tone that the Soloveitchik edition.  This volume is also available in Sephardic versions and a variety of bindings and sizes.
  • The Artscroll interlinear edition, which is excellent in helping to find some of the literary features in the Hebrew poems that comprise the Kinnos.  This volume is also available in Sephardic versions and a variety of bindings and sizes.

There is a vast, vast literature on Tisha B’Av (again, reinforcing it as a day where study is nominally “prohibited” but widely engaged in) – some of my personal favorite volumes include:

  • Erica Brown’s In the Narrow Places, with meditations for each of the days comprising the the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av along with suggested activities for each of those days.
  • Aryeh Kaplan’s The Story of Tisha B’Av, an excerpt from Kaplan’s multi-volume translation of the great Ladino commentary by Yaakov Culi called the Me’az Lo’ez.  This volume presents a retelling with extensive material from aggadic Talmudic accounts of the destruction of the Second Temple.
  • Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways, which presents materials from Soloveitchik’s original lectures on the Kinnos.   (There is some overlap between the material presented here and the material  in the Koren edition of the Kinnos with commentary based on Soloveitchik mentioned above – arguably, this book presents the material in a manner closer to Soloveitchik’s original presentation, while the material in the Koren Kinnos is more accessible and organized.)
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