The Kosher Bookworm: What to read for the Three Weeks (part one)


A time of year that helps teach us why Jerusalem is so important

By Alan Jay Gerber

Issue of July 10, 2009 / 18 Tammuz 5769

Jerusalem. Just the sound of the word should set off tremors of deep passion in the heart of every observant and concerned Jew. For us, it is not just another city, or a geographic location; Jerusalem represents the very center of the Jewish faith since time immemorial.

No other earthly abode has as much resonance in the Jewish faith’s historical experience as does this sacred city. Be it the glory of a Temple, a royal palace, the regal presence of a priesthood, the solemn proceedings of a Sanhedrin or the sight and wound of mass destruction and desecration, Jerusalem was and still is at the center of our liturgy, our conversation with G-d, the expression of G-d’s rule in this world.

It is this time of year, beginning with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, on Thursday, and lasting for the next three weeks to the Fast of Tisha B’Av, that we experience the most somber observance on the Jewish calendar. Much has been written about the customs for these three weeks. I shall briefly detail below and in the next few weeks to come, several works that, in my opinion, best set the tone and purpose for our serious and somber demeanor at this time on the Jewish calendar.

Perhaps one of the most beloved of all Jewish writers of the previous generation was Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov zt”l. His writings and books have served as classics for Jewish law and lore in our yeshivas and Beis Yaakovs for the better part of the last century, continuing into our own time. Among his works is the classic, “The Book of Our Heritage” [Feldheim, 1968, 1999]. Within the third volume you will find all the salient basic information on what constitutes the proper observances as well as the relevant historical information to offer a better understanding of the importance of past events that affect our lives to this day, including the integrity of our concerns for Jerusalem as the center of our people’s faith. Indeed, even the learning and careful study of the behavior of our ancient adversaries should and do help explain the behavior of those contemporary adversaries, both foreign and domestic, who ominously resemble their ancient counterparts. Thus is the value of the study of Jewish history.

Each chapter of this book is organized by the Jewish month of the year and subdivided by the various topics that define the liturgical and halachic mandates for these solemn days. The language is easy to comprehend. No detail is explained in a complicated manner. This is the strength of this writer that helps explain the deserved longevity of his work.

Another, more intellectually challenging, volume is an anthology of writings by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, titled, “The Lord Is Righteous In All His Ways: Reflections on the Tisha B’Av Kinot”[Ktav, 2006].

There is much to be gleaned from this most informative sefer that will help enhance the average, and non-average worshiper to better understand the underlying meanings of the various elegies that make up the Kinot/Kinos.

It is organized into two basic units. They are, first,  “Themes of Tisha B’Av,” which includes a philosophical take on the day’s liturgical works and their religious importance.

The second unit deals with “Themes of the Kinot,” that goes into greater detail concerning the historical background of the Kinot compositions, biographical data of some of the major players down through the ages who, by example and experience, are emblematic of the persecutions that our people witnessed and died for.

In reviewing this sefer I would be remiss if I did not share with you one aspect of Tisha B’Av observance that had escaped my attention until now. This will demonstrate the regard that the Rav had for the minhagim (customs) of “amcha,” and how he links it to the chain of tradition and Halacha.

In the chapter dealing with the status of Tisha B’Av in messianic times, Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches us the following:

“There is an old Jewish custom not to collect and put away the Kinot book for next year. I remember this as a child. They did not save the Kinot books for next year but read through them and put them in the shaimos collection to be buried later in the cemetery.”

“Every Tisha B’Av they would buy new ones. (Of course, the Kinot books were not as expensive as they are now, particularly those with commentaries and translations.)

But the old custom was to buy new Kinot booklets every year. After all, after this year we will no longer need them.”

According to the Rav this stemmed from the Rambam’s ruling in Hilchos Ta’aniyos that Tisha B’Av would be obsolete after the Messiah’s arrival. Inasmuch as we believe that the Messiah will arrive at any time, such a custom has practical validity, and that is what defines the fate of our little Kinot booklets.

Toward the end of this sefer is a thirteen page chapter dealing with the Rav’s take on the Holocaust and its relevance to Tisha B’Av. I would suggest a careful reading of this chapter. You might not agree with the Rav’s conclusions but you will come away a better-informed Jew for the effort.

This time of year should inspire us to take greater stock of our appreciation for the continued status of Jerusalem under continued Jewish sovereignty, a status that is being challenged by the current regime in Washington and by their representatives here in our own community.

Hopefully our prayers, particularly inspired by the readings of Rabbi Kitov and Rabbi Soloveitchik, both of blessed memory, will help thwart the designs of those who hide behind false pretensions of friendship.

One last word: In a Kosher Bookworm column last year dealing with the Three Weeks, I made reference to Rabbi Pesach Schindler’s excellent treatment of Aym Habanim Same’cha, titled “Restoration of Zion As A Response During the Holocaust” (Ktav). Many readers took note of that essay and informed me at that time of the book’s unavailability in area bookstores.

This year I inform you that the book is available for purchase online. It makes for excellent and timely reading in sync with the theme of the Three Weeks. Further, I strongly urge Ktav to reprint and reissue this classic, in paperback, so as to enable schools and students to read and better understand a chapter of our people’s history that has been deliberately long-ignored by many who should know better.