On Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av), the day on which we mourn the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (the ancient Temple), Jews customarily gather in synagogues to recite kinot – liturgical poems that reflect upon themes of tragedy and loss.
First off, if you have trouble finding meaning in the kinot elegies on Tisha B'Av, you're not alone. Of course it's hard to connect to the kinot! Kinot are notoriously difficult to understand. They’re old – with most of them having been written nearly a thousand years ago – and they’re written in a poetic style that is hard for even native Hebrew speakers to crack, littered with references to Tanakh, Talmud, and Midrash that basically require a PhD to understand. And while many synagogues have mercifully introduced “explanatory kinot services” in recent years, with the rabbi offering insights into the kinot as they are read, it’s just a lot of text to get through.
The numerous kinot comprise hundreds of pages in most printed books, all to be recited in the space of a few hours. Try as we might to make it meaningful, it can end up feeling like we’re just trying to “get through it,” to race through the words as quickly as possible. But a little bit of study — either in advance of Tisha B’Av or on the day itself (even during the kinot service!) can help you to connect more deeply to the ritual of reciting kinot, and to connect to Tisha B’Av in general.
The resources on this page will help you to do just that. We recommend scrolling down to the section that begins "An In-Depth Study of Kinah #26," where we look closely at one particular kinah (אָז בַּהֲלוֹךְ יִרְמְיָהוּ, “Then Jeremiah Approached”), and bring it to life. We show you the ancient sources that the author of the kinah is alluding to, and reconstruct the powerful hidden story that the author was trying to convey. We also explain the basics of the kinot in the next section: when we read them, who wrote them, what they are about, and more.
To learn more about Tisha B'Av customs and history, dive into our Tisha B'Av 101 Guide.
Kinot for Tisha B’Av
What Are Kinot?
Kinot (the plural is kinot, but just one is called a kinah) is the Hebrew word for mournful liturgical poems. You might think of poetry as something that you read on your porch on a Sunday afternoon while sipping a cup of tea – but this is a little different. Kinot are poems that we recite aloud in synagogue, as part of a community, as a spiritual practice: as a way of somehow communicating with or beseeching God, and of getting into the spirit of mourning.
There are nearly 50 kinot for Tisha B’Av that are customarily recited, and customs differ by tradition, e.g. Ashkenazi v. Sephardi. (This page focuses on traditional texts from the Ashkenazi liturgy.) The kinot are referred to either by their number (e.g. Kinah #10) or by their first few words (e.g. אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה, “How Is It That It Sits Alone?”)
When Do We Read Kinot on Tisha B’Av?
We recite a few kinot in the evening of Tisha B’Av, after the communal reading of Megillat Eicha (Lamentations), a short scroll from the Tanakh written by the prophet Jeremiah which bewails the destruction of the First Temple. The rest of the kinot are recited on Tisha B’Av morning, after the Shacharit prayer service and Torah reading.
Who Wrote the Kinot of Tisha B’Av?
Many of the kinot were written by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir, a talented poet about whom little is known. Other notable contributors include the medieval poets and philosophers Yehuda HaLevi (whose kinot about yearning for the land of Israel are particularly stirring) and Shlomo Ibn Gabriol, and the medieval talmudist Maharam of Rottenberg. Most of the kinot were written during the medieval period.
What are Kinot all about? All of the kinot of Tisha B’Av are attempts to fulfill the requirement to mourn on Tisha B’Av. The most common topic that they address is the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Many of the kinot are a riff on Eicha (Jeremiah's Lamentations) borrowing key phrases from the book and expanding upon them – with a handful of them actually beginning with this loaded word, אֵיכָה, Eicha. These kinot imagine, in greater and more grotesque detail, the misery that befell the Jewish people in the wake of the destruction of the Holy Temple. For example, Kinah #17 (אִם תֹּאכַלְנָה נָשִׁים פִּרְיָם, “How Could It Be That Women Ate?”) muses on some of the most disturbing lines in all of Megillat Eicha (“How could it be that women ate their own offspring, the ones they cared for?” “How could it be that the tongue of the nursing infant would cleave to his palate in thirst?”) and then, troublingly, offers its own questions, like: “How could it be that the flesh of the fathers were prepared for their sons to eat?” (All English translations of kinot come from the Artscroll edition.)
But it’s not all about the destruction of the Temple. You will find kinot that relate to other tragedies as well. In fact, the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) explains that we fast on Tisha B’Av in commemoration of no fewer than five tragic events that took place on that day (with the destruction of the First and Second Temples occupying two slots on the list).
The Five Tragedies
- The sin of the spies. Before the Israelites entered the land of Israel, 12 spies ventured out to explore the land. The spies returned with a negative report, full of false warnings about the danger that awaited in the land of Israel, like: “It’s a land that devours its inhabitants!” and “We can’t go up against the people who live there; they are stronger than us.” After hearing and believing these reports, the Israelites cried, demonstrating a lack of faith in God. This generation was therefore punished and not allowed to enter the land. This story is described in Numbers 13–14; our video explains what was the real sin of the spies.
- The destruction of the First Temple. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar. According to the Talmud, the Temple began to burn on the ninth of Av and continued to do so through the tenth. (Several mourning practices, including refraining from listening to music, are observed through midday on the tenth of Av for this reason.)
- The destruction of the Second Temple. The Second Temple, built by Ezra and Nehemiah, was destroyed by the Romans. This resulted in the scattering of Judea and began the Jewish exile from the Holy Land.
- The destruction of Beitar. The Romans suppressed the Bar Kokhba revolt and killed over 500,000 Jews, destroying the city of Beitar, on July 8th, 135 CE, or the ninth of Av, 3892.
- The Temple Mount was demolished. Turnus Rufus, the Roman commander who crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, razed the site of the Temple and its surrounding area (135 CE).
Kinah #3 (בְּלֵיל זֶה, “On This Night”), for example, mentions all five of these tragedies, paying particular attention to the first of them: the sin of the spies. The author of this kinah is discretely referencing a Midrash (Ta’anit 29a) that suggests that the sin of the spies took place on the 9th of Av — and that on that occasion, God decided that that day would be a day of tragedy and mourning forever after. The Midrash recalls that when the people heard the spies’ report, they lost their will to conquer the Promised Land, and they cried all night long. Says the Midrash:
אמר להם הקב"ה אתם בכיתם בכיה של חנם ואני קובע לכם בכיה לדורות
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to [the people]:
“You cried needlessly that night, and I will therefore establish for you a true tragedy over which there will be weeping in future generations.”
And so we read in Kinah #3: “[God] decreed against our ancestors when they rebelled and attached many terrible troubles to this day, a day designated to be struck by misfortunes.”
By the way, if you’re curious to understand just what was so bad about the sin of the spies — such that it basically launched this national day of mourning as we know it — we have a lot of videos that grapple with that question. We recommend checking out “How Can We Relate To Such A Vengeful God?”, “How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?”, and “The Promised Land: Good or Bad?”
Many Tragedies, One Source
This idea that the greatest tragedies of our people have all occurred on the same day of the calendar, and that we are meant to mourn them as one, what are we supposed to make of that? One possible religious “takeaway” might be this: that our national tragedies do not happen by chance.
When the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, when the Bar Kokhba revolt was quashed, when the Temple Mount was razed — yes, on the surface, these acts were perpetrated by human actors, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that they were mere accidents of history. They were implementations of God’s plan. The cause for all of these tragedies is the same: God’s displeasure with the behavior of the Jewish people. And thus the only way to repair the damage, to rebuild the Temple and to prevent future suffering, is with proper behavior.
The Themes Behind the "New" Kinot
However, the kinot don’t stop with the five “traditional” tragedies that are detailed in the Mishnah. A whole new wave of kinot were written to commemorate another set of tragedies, the Crusades, describing the violence that medieval Jews suffered at the hands of the zealous Crusaders who were making their way to the Holy Land. The events of the Crusades occurred roughly 1,000 years after the destruction of the ancient Temple.
For example, Kinah #25 (מִי יִתֵּן רֹאשִׁי, “Who Can Grant That My Head”) describes the massacring of the Jewish communities of Speyer, Mainz, and Worms (located near the present-day French-German border) in 1096. Its portrayal of Jewish suffering is graphic and difficult to read:
“Corpses are strewn about, naked men and naked women,
their bodies like carrion for the wild beasts of the land and for the animals,
a nursing infant with a man of old age, young men and young maidens.”
Another kinah from this period, Kinah #41 (שַׁאֲלִי שְׂרוּפָה בָּאֵשׁ, “Seek, O Torah, Consumed By Fire”), describes the horrific burning of the Talmud and other Jewish books in the public square in Paris in 1242. The author of that kinah speaks directly to the Torah itself, asking:
“How is it that you, who were given by God, can be consumed by fires made by flesh and blood?
And yet the transgressors who burned you didn’t even get singed?”
It brings to life the desperation that must have plagued the Jews who lived during this time, when Christian leaders insisted that God had “given up” on His chosen people — and history seemed to bear that out, with Jews struggling under poverty and persecution to maintain adherence to their Torah.
But if the Mishnah only details five events that Tisha B’Av commemorates, then why were these new kinot about the Crusades incorporated into the liturgy for Tisha B’Av? Because, in the words of Rabbi Kalonymus ben Yehuda, the author of Kinah #25:
“Since one may not add a new day of mourning… On Tisha B’Av, my mourning I will arouse, and I will eulogize and I will wail and I will weep with a soul that is bitter.”
In other words, although Tisha B’Av was originally construed as a day of mourning for only these five tragic events, Rabbi Kalonymus ben Yehuda sees it as the “source,” in some sense, of all of the grand tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. And so on Tisha B’Av, we mourn it all: the sin of the spies, the destruction of the Temple, the destruction of Beitar and demolition of the Temple Mount, but also later national tragedies like the Crusades.
The Holocaust – and Controversy
In fact, some collections of kinot contain even “newer” kinot – 20th-century compositions that focus explicitly on the horrors of the Holocaust – although there remains some debate as to whether these contemporary kinot should occupy a place in the service alongside the classic, time-honored kinot of old.
Some rabbinic leaders oppose their inclusion, raising the question of how much time must pass before you can adequately process and attempt to describe a tragedy, especially one on the scale of the Holocaust. Others contest the idea cited above: that Tisha B’Av should be seen as a “catch-all” for all of the national tragedies of the Jewish people.
The conversation is a rich and complex one and continues to this day. The recitation of these Holocaust kinot has nonetheless become common practice in many communities. Common inclusions are זִכְרוּ נָא, “Remember, Please!” written by Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam (the Bobover Rebbe) and הַזּוֹכֵר, “He Who Remembers,” written by Rabbi Shimon Schwab.
How Are We Meant to Read the Tisha B'Av Kinot?
What are we meant to think and feel when reading the kinot on Tisha B'Av?
The main purpose of the kinot is to help us to fulfill the obligation to mourn on Tisha B’Av, and you can see how their graphic depictions of Jewish misery could help us to do just that. As for whether mourning on Tisha B’Av is meant to lead to some kind of action – to galvanize us in some way — that is a rich and important discussion, and we have many videos that attempt to offer an answer.
- “Shir HaMa’alot: What Does It Mean To Plant With Tears?”, a study of Psalm 126, offers a new way of thinking about where our tears come from and what they might accomplish.
- “The Power of Rachel’s Tears,” a study of the story of the matriarchs Rachel and Leah, suggests that while crying on Tisha B’Av might be a starting point, it’s far from the end goal; there’s something else that God desires from us on this day.
- “Sinat Chinam: The Great Tisha B'Av Crime” explores an idea from the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that what God desires from us on Tisha B’Av is to stop hating one another baselessly — and it gives us a recipe for exactly how to do that.
But even if the goal of Tisha B’Av is to galvanize some change in our behavior, in how we relate to God and to others, there’s no doubt that it all starts with mourning: with spending the day trying to tap into feelings of sadness, grief, and loss.
It follows that there are really two ways to read the kinot, as we explain below.
Feeling the Kinot of Tisha B’Av
The first is simply to experience them. Start by getting yourself a good English translation. Unfortunately, unlike with the Tanakh and Talmud, there is no comprehensive English translation of the kinot available in the public domain. (The Koren, Artscroll, and Rosenfeld translations of kinot are copyrighted and can be purchased online or at bookstores.) You can find the Hebrew text of the kinot here.
In the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, set aside 5–10 minutes a day to read through one kinah — so you will have some familiarity with them when the time for the service comes. We recommend the following schedule and sampling, which will give you a sense of the breadth of the kinot, and we’ve provided notes of what to look for in each below.
Kinot Study Schedule for the Nine Days of Av
|Day||Kinah||Hebrew Title||English Title||What To Look For|
|1||3||בְּלֵיל זֶה||On This Night||The five tragedies that occurred on Tisha B’Av|
|2||11||וַיְקוֹנֵן יִרְמְיָהוּ||And Jeremiah Lamented||The tragic death of King Yoshiyahu|
|3||17||אִם תֹּאכַלְנָה||How Could It Be That Women Ate?||Frightening descriptions of cannibalism in the wake of the Temple’s destruction|
|4||21||אַרְזֵי הַלְּבָנוֹן||Cedars of Lebanon||The 10 Martyrs, revered Jewish sages of the Mishnaic period who were publicly murdered by the Romans|
|5||31||אֵשׁ תּוּקַד||A Fire Burns||A contrast of the Exodus from Egypt to the exile from Jerusalem, a study of the highs and lows of Jewish history|
|6||32||אֶצְבְּעוֹתַי שָׁפְלוּ||My Fingers Were Humbled||A portrait of the beauty and grandeur of the Temple when it still stood|
|7||36||צִיּוֹן הֲלֹא תִשְׁאֲלִי||O Zion, Will You Not Inquire?||An impassioned longing to escape exile and return to the Land of Israel|
|8||41||שַׁאֲלִי שְׂרוּפָה בָּאֵשׁ||Seek, O Torah, Consumed By Fire||The burning of the Talmud in 13th century France|
On Tisha B'Av (Day 9) it is customary to attend a public reading of the kinot. Don’t worry about keeping pace with the congregation, and don’t worry if much of what you are reading seems obscure or esoteric. Look for what speaks to you. Read the kinot carefully and allow their words – their power and meaning, and their horror – to strike you.
Remember that the kinot are arranged roughly in order of when they were composed, and the effect is that as you read, you are taking a mournful journey through the most painful moments in Jewish history, through the eyes of those who lived through them. Through these kinot, the authors attempted to capture their experience and share it with us.
As the kinot progress, you can see the building of sorrow throughout the generations. Today’s Jewish community must contend not only with the five tragedies of the Mishnah but with so much suffering since. Even if we can’t personally relate to the suffering that is described, if we are blessed to have enjoyed a life of relative security and prosperity, we are likely no more than one or two links removed from someone who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust.
Thinking About Tisha B'Av Kinot
Above is one way to read the kinot. But it is not the only way. If you have some knowledge of Tanakh, Talmud, and Midrash, then you will immediately notice that the kinot are filled with references and allusions to Biblical and Rabbinic sources, one layered upon the next.
The authors of the kinot are quite consciously continuing conversations that were begun by our ancient Sages, and there is much richness in the kinot that can really only be accessed by someone who has been shown the relevant sources and understands how the author of the kinah is commenting upon them.
To learn all of the kinot in this kind of depth is an ambitious undertaking, probably too much to take on in a single year. Instead, we invite you to focus on one of the kinot in particular and to learn it deeply, to view it as a case study of how kinot work and how multi-dimensional they are. Below we provide an in-depth study of Kinah #26, אָז בַּהֲלוֹךְ יִרְמְיָהוּ, “Then Jeremiah Approached.”
An In-Depth Study of Kinah #26
Kinah #26, אָז בַּהֲלוֹךְ יִרְמְיָהוּ, “Then Jeremiah Approached,” tells a mysterious story. It imagines the prophet Jeremiah – the one who prophesied the destruction of the First Temple, who tried, without success, to persuade the Jewish people to turn back to God – as he paid a visit to the graves of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses). The implication of the kinah seems to be that Jeremiah wanted to inform the patriarchs that God was about to destroy the Temple and exile the Jewish people from their land, hoping to spur the patriarchs to prayer. Maybe they could petition God or otherwise save their descendants.
According to the author of the kinah, how do the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses – react when Jeremiah tells them the news? First, they cry. But then, each speaks to God, taking his turn to try to persuade God not to follow through with His decree. (In doing so, by the way, they are following in an audacious tradition of arguing directly with God to save the Jewish people. For a stunning example of this from earlier in biblical history, see our video, “Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah.”)
In powerful succession, each patriarch references some story or verse from Tanakh – either an assurance from God that the people would always be taken care of, or some merit of their own that they hope might protect the people. It’s as if they are saying to God: “God, what about this promise? Won’t You keep this promise?” and “And what about when I did ___? Did that mean nothing to You? Isn’t that enough to protect my people?” And to each, God responds with a quote or retort of His own, countering that the people have been sinful and are deserving of punishment, because they have somehow managed – through their behavior – to annul the original promise or deplete the original merit.
For example, Abraham stands up and says: “What about the 10 tests that I passed? Did that mean nothing to You? Isn’t that enough to protect my people?” (The Bible does not speak explicitly about the “10 tests” of Abraham; this is a reference to a Rabbinic idea that is first introduced in Pirkei Avot 5:3.) God responds: “It’s not enough. Your people committed idolatry.”
Isaac stands up and says: “What about my lying still when my father bound me as a sacrifice atop a mountain and nearly burned me on the altar?” (This is a reference to the Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac, described in Genesis 22, and analyzed in the video, “Why Did Abraham Bind Isaac?”) But God responds: “The people defiled that same mountaintop, Mount Moriah.” (Mount Moriah ultimately become the site of the Holy Temple.)
Jacob and Moses also stand up to plead their case, but neither of them are able to persuade God to change His mind.
At this point in the kinah, the frame moves to the matriarchs – we are to imagine that Jeremiah has now awakened and informed Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilah – and in response, they too weep. But something about these matriarchs spurs God’s mercy, for God immediately responds: “O pure ones, return to your places of rest. I shall surely fulfill all of your requests… I shall bring back your children from exile!” So while none of these petitions succeed in actually getting God to withdraw His decree – the Jewish people will still be exiled from the land – it will only be a temporary exile. The kinah ends with this comforting reassurance that, in the long arc of history, the Jewish people will survive their exile and return to their land.
As you read through this kinah, the following question might occur to you: What is it that spurs God, in the end, to respond mercifully in the way that He does? At the start of the kinah, it seems that He is deaf to the pleas of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, so why does God suddenly change His tune to one of comfort and reassurance? This, indeed, is the $64,000 question of Kinah #26. And this isn’t merely a local question on the kinah itself. It’s a grand question with much larger implications: What is it, exactly, that works to invoke the mercy of God? If you are arguing with God, pleading that He show mercy, what kind of argument does God find pleasing?
The kinah itself gives no indication of why God changes His tune. In order to understand why, you have to realize that this kinah is a part of a much larger conversation, and it is subtly referencing other Jewish sources – both Biblical and Rabbinic – in order to make its point.
For starters, it takes its cues from a Midrash that was written by our ancient Sages (Eichah Rabbah intro. 24) which first envisions this mysterious visit of Jeremiah’s to the graves of the patriarchs… but it doesn’t end there. That the Midrash is itself commenting on another text: on a prophetic passage from the Biblical book of Jeremiah (31:14-16)... and the Book of Jeremiah is, in turn, commenting on another text: a story from the Book of Genesis. In other words, there are four texts in play here, four layers of meaning, each one building on the next – and it is only by excavating and understanding each one that a person can hope to understand what is going on with this kinah.
For one thing, if you open up the Book of Jeremiah, you’ll find that the story there is a little bit different. The Book of Jeremiah doesn’t describe all of the patriarchs and matriarchs weeping at the exile of the Jewish people. It only talks about Rachel. In the words of the biblical text:
קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע
There’s a voice that’s heard on high
נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים
It is crying bitter cries
רָחֵל, מְבַכָּה עַל-בָּנֶיהָ
מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל-בָּנֶיהָ, כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ
She refuses to be consoled, for they are being led away (Jeremiah 31:14)
The Book of Jeremiah also describes God’s response to Rachel, and that too is slightly different from what we read in the kinah. God hears Rachel’s lament and tells her:
כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ
There is a reward for your actions...
וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב
And they will come back from the land of the enemy. (Jeremiah 31:15)
So it seems that Rachel plays a key role in answering our question — it’s not the matriarchs as a whole, but rather Rachel who causes God to change His tune. The petitions of all of the other patriarchs, even the matriarchs, were somehow insufficient, but Rachel’s petition was successful in invoking God’s mercy. But why? What was it about Rachel’s petition?
In the kinah, Rachel’s “petition,” if you want to call it that, is in the form of her crying. She doesn’t say anything before God, not like the patriarchs. She merely weeps. And so it seems in the Book of Jeremiah, at least at first glance. But take a closer look at the words of the Book of Jeremiah, at God’s response to Rachel: “There is a reward for your actions.”
What is God rewarding? What is God responding favorably to? To Rachel’s actions. And which actions are those? Is it the act of her crying? Is there something uniquely powerful about the tears that this matriarch sheds for her descendants? Is the lesson of the kinah that tears have that kind of power, the power to move the Almighty to mercy? Or is it something else that Rachel did, some other action… perhaps something that she did earlier in her life, some righteous deed?
The kinah doesn’t mention any such deed, nor does the Book of Jeremiah seem to. But if you take a closer look, you’ll find that there’s a breathtaking story that is hidden just between the lines of the Biblical text, a story whose echoes suffuse Jeremiah’s words. It’s a story of something that Rachel once did, an incredible “something,” an act whose power actually did stir God to mercy, an act much more powerful than tears alone. What was that “something”? How can we pick up on the clues in Jeremiah’s words to uncover it? What light does it shed on this kinah? And how might it affect the way that we understand what God seeks from us on Tisha B’Av?
These might seem like grand questions — but grand answers await in our animated feature video on “The Power Of Rachel’s Tears.” The video doesn’t treat the kinah directly but rather focuses on the other three “layers” that it references, both Biblical and Midrashic, and offers a conclusion that just may change the way that you experience this day of fasting and mourning. Watch it now.
Spend Tisha B'Av with Aleph Beta
How are we meant to mourn for tragedies from thousands of years ago? How can we connect to Tisha B'Av in a meaningful way? Our Tisha B'Av videos take you on a journey to discover the deeper meaning behind our tears.