Commentary

Shomron Kol Titein: Let the Silent Sisters Speak and be Consoled

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Yosef Lindell

 

Eli Tziyon, with its haunting dirge-like melody, signals the end of kinnot on Tishah Be-Av morning in the Ashkenazic tradition. The kinnah seems a fitting conclusion. It sums up the misery of the day, chronicling why Zion laments—the exile of its people, the cessation of the sacrifices, the loss of life, the mocking of its enemies. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains, Eli Tziyon “is the closing kina” because its message is that “no matter how much we have cried and grieved with the recitation of the kinot, it is not sufficient[.] … [T]he kinot for Jerusalem have no end.”[1]

Except that Eli Tziyon isn’t quite the last kinnah. One or two others typically follow. In many contemporary editions of the kinnot which follow the Eastern European arrangement, such as the ArtScroll, Shomron Kol Titein, written by the famed eleventh century Andalusian poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol, takes the final spot. This kinnah, which is also recited Tishah Be-Av evening, has a message that is quite different from that of Eli Tziyon. By suggesting that even the most irredeemable can be redeemed, it kindles hope. And for the kinnot, this is perhaps a more fitting conclusion.

Shomron Kol Titein is a dialogue between two metaphorical adulterous sisters who are discussed in Ezekiel 23. In this chapter, Oholah represents the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Her name means “her tent,” and as the classical commentators on the chapter explain, this references the fact that the northern tribes sometimes used their own tent—unsanctioned and often idolatrous altars. The other sister Oholibah represents Judah and Benjamin in the south. Her name, “my tent is in her/it,” refers to the Temple in the portion of those two tribes, which God desired.

Ezekiel 23 may be among the bleakest chapters in the Bible. According to the prophet, Oholah and Oholibah’s dalliances began in Egypt where the Jewish nation was born (23:3). Matters did not improve in the Land of Israel. Oholah lusted after her Assyrian captors. Oholibah lusted after the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The language describing their improprieties and lusts is vivid, crude, and at times shocking (see, e.g., 23:19-21). To make matters worse, the sisters worshipped idols, slaughtered their own children, and desecrated the Temple (23:37-39). As adulteresses with blood on their hands (23:45), their punishment is swift. “Let the assembly pelt them with stones,” God says, “let them kill their sons and daughters, and burn down their homes” (23:47). So ends the tale of Oholah and Oholibah, unrepentant sisters of ill repute. It is not long before the Temple is destroyed and the exile begins.

This parable, with its unremitting narrative of sinfulness, is consistent with Ezekiel’s theology elsewhere. The Israelites, declaims the prophet, were rotten from the get-go. They clung to their idols even when leaving Egypt (20:8). They rebelled against God in the wilderness time and again (20:13). God thought to nip the problem in the bud and destroy the people while they were still enslaved, but relented only “for the sake of [His] name” (20:9). God had sworn to take the Jews out of Egypt, and to do any less would be a hillul Ha-Shem. But the Israelites never really deserved God’s favor.

Oholah and Oholibah similarly represent a nation that had always been mired in sin. Thoroughly wicked, they deserve the destruction that overtakes them. Moreover, the sisters are silent, objects of prophetic metaphor. They have no voice. Tried as adulterers and stoned, their chapter closes without consolation.

Shomron Kol Titein is quite different from the biblical narrative that inspired it. Ibn Gabirol provides the sisters’ perspective, allowing them to speak. In fact, most of the kinnah is their words and complaints. The first words of the kinnah are “Shomron kol titein”—it begins with Shomron’s (Oholah’s) voice. “My sins have caught up with me!” she says. “My children have left me for another land!”[2] Three times Oholibah screams in response, “My palaces are in flame!” And to each refrain, Zion adds, “The Lord has forsaken me.” Each sister gets a stanza to argue why her punishment and exile was harsher. Oholah says that her fate was worse because she was exiled too soon and spent less time in Israel than Judah. (The Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser exiled the ten tribes almost 150 years before the destruction of the Temple.) Oholibah retorts that her punishment was worse because the ten tribes were exiled only once, but Judah was exiled several times: twice by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (first the nobles and artisans were exiled with King Jehoiachin and eleven years later the Temple was destroyed), and again by the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple, after which the Jews were dispersed throughout the lands. The kinnah is suffused with sound and the words of Oholah and Oholibah. The silent sisters are silent no more.

Nor, in this telling, are they entirely evil. Each sister acknowledges her sins and seems to regret the consequences. “I, Oholah, acted with spite and treachery; my betrayal opposed me, and my rebellion accused me.” Oholibah admits, “I, too, was perverse and betrayed the Companion of my Youth just as you did.” In Ezekiel, the sisters expressed no regret. But in the kinnah, Oholah and Oholibah are here at last to lament their misdeeds.

After their anguished display, the paytan responds, beseeching God in the final stanza:

He who pities the poor, take pity on their plight!
See their desolation and lengthy exile.
Do not be implacably angry, but remember their lowliness.
Remember not their foolish iniquities forever.
Mend their fissures, soothe their grief, for You are their Hope and their Hero.
Renew our days like the days long gone,
as You have spoken, “the Lord rebuilds Jerusalem.”[3]

After one thousand years of exile, Oholah and Oholibah are chastened, and seem more wretched than wicked. Their sins were but foolish. They are desolate. They are lost. “Have mercy, God!” the paytan demands. Has not their punishment already been meted out in full measure? What’s more, the petition is in the plural, so it seems like we are praying for Oholah too, asking God to bring back the ten lost tribes. This gives voice to one of the most persistent legends in Jewish history: that the ten tribes dispersed by the Assyrians did not assimilate and are somewhere awaiting the redemption.[4]

Shomron Kol Titein transforms the story of Oholah and Oholibah from its prophetic source. They are no longer the worthless adulterers of their youth, but the long-suffering maidens of an exile that has stretched on too long. Ibn Gabirol’s kinnah provides a hopeful coda to one of the grimmest parables in Tanakh. If even Oholah and Oholibah deserve redemption, don’t we?

The paytan’s bold prayer might help explain Shomron Kol Titein’s location at the end of the kinnot. Although prayers to console Zion can be found throughout the kinnot, and many kinnot end with moments of reconciliation,[5] hopeful messages are particularly appropriate when concluding sections of the Tishah Be-Av service. We repeat the penultimate line of Eikhah: “Take us back God! … Renew our days as of old,” (5:21) so as not to finish on a dismal note.[6] So too, at the close of both the nighttime and daytime kinnot, we transition to the rest of the tefillah with the prayer: “Pity Zion as You have spoken … Hasten salvation, hurry redemption. And return to Jerusalem with great compassion.” We then add verses of consolation from Zechariah (1:16-17) and Isaiah (51:3). Eli Tziyon, which ends like it begins, with the wail of Zion like a “woman in her labor pains” and “a maiden girt in sackcloth,” would be a poor choice to lead into a section of consolation. Shomron Kol Titein, with its full-throated prayer for restoration, is a more suitable bridge to the conciliatory petition and verses that follow.[7]

Shomron Kol Titein is certainly not the only kinnah that could serve as an appropriate link to the verses of consolation, and indeed, it isn’t always found at the very end of the kinnot. At night, Ad Ana Bekhiyah be-Tziyon, an ancient kinnah of unknown authorship detailing the lament of the constellations of the zodiac, closes out the kinnot. It begins, “How long must Zion cry and Jerusalem mourn? Pity Zion, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem!” which suggests that it’s time to stop expressing our mourning and begin the process of rebuilding. The end of the kinnah also voices consolation.[8] In fact, Shomron Kol Titein comes last during the daytime only in the most recent arrangements of the Eastern European service. Previously, Ad Ana Bekhiyah was the final kinnah both at night and in the morning.[9]

Nonetheless, the way in which Shomron Kol Titein turns around Ezekiel’s terrifying prophecy makes it a fitting choice. At the close of kinnot, when we feel our loss most intensely, our need for consolation is greatest.[10] In a moment of intimacy as we prepare to rise from the floor, we give voice to our most desperate dreams. Oholah and Oholibah, among the most wretched of figures, can still be consoled, and can still be redeemed. There is even a glimmer of life to that most fanciful of legends, the return and reunification of all 12 tribes.

It may be, as Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests, that Eli Tziyon, which ends just as it begins, teaches that there is no end to the kinnot and the misery caused by the Temple’s destruction. But Ibn Gabirol’s kinnah provides a complementary message no less relevant: even in the depths of despair, hope springs eternal.


[1] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot ed. Simon Ponser (Jerusalem and New York: Koren Publishers and OU Press, 2011), 614-15.

[2] All translations of the kinnot are by Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot.

[3] An alternative text of the final line reads: “And Zion shall not say ‘God has forsaken me.’” See Daniel Goldschmidt, Seder Ha-Kinnot Le-Tishah Be-Av (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1952), 29.

[4] In the mishnah in Sanhedrin (110b), the Sages dispute whether the ten tribes will return in Messianic times. The Talmud then quotes a baraita: if they repent, they will return. Otherwise, they will not. Despite the Sages’ equivocation, legends about the ten tribes’ return have persisted. Genesis Rabbah (73:6) speaks of them as living beyond the Sambatyon river, an idea which spawned many striking legends throughout Jewish history and even inspired Messianic pretenders.

[5] See Shulamit Elizur, “From Mourning to Comfort: On an Ancient Custom in the Afternoon Prayer of Tishah B’av (Heb.),” Tarbiz 73:1 (2003): 126 & n6. In a striking example, at the close of Az Be-halokh Yirmiyahu al Kivrei Avot, Rabbi Elazar HaKalir tells that although God had refused the entreaties of Moses and the patriarchs, God is moved when the matriarchs wail and lament, and promises to return their children from exile. Kinnot composed in Sephardic lands, such as Ibn Gabirol’s, more commonly end in consolation than others. Elizur, 126 n6.

[6] The same occurs with certain other parts of Tanakh and Haftarot. See Yerushalmi Berakhot 5:1; Rashi Lamentations 5:22, s.v. hashiveinu hashem.

[7] One might even argue that the arc of the daytime kinnot as a whole bends toward consolation. We begin thrust into a jumble of densely alliterative and dizzyingly referential kinnot composed by HaKalir. They are dark and go on without pause, the last phrase of each one telegraphing the first line of the next, thus leaving the reader no space to process the fleeting prayers for compassion sometimes contained in their final lines. But the intensity of mourning slowly and subtly gives way to kinnot that close with more full-throated demands for justice, compassion, and a return to Zion. At the end we recite a series of kinnot each beginning with the word tziyon. Some of these Zionides end with remarkably hopeful paeans. An anonymous sixteenth century one proclaims, “Zion, you will once again be a sign of strength and a banner to all nations, and prominent will be the footsteps of your heralds. … He will redeem with might from captivity, to rescue the deer from the hand of the boar, to become a crown of glory for the remnant of your flock!”

[8] The kinnah concludes: “You will one day again take up Zion’s cause with zeal, and once more illuminate the populous city with the light of Your splendor.”

[9] This is the case in older editions of the kinnot, such as the ones prepared by Dr. Seligman Baer in the nineteenth century (Rodelheim, 1875) and Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld in the mid-twentieth (The Authorised Kinot for the Ninth of Av (1965), 177-79). In those editions, Eli Tziyon is followed by Shomron Kol Titein and then Ad Ana Bekhiyah. In the Koren edition of the kinnot (but not in the ArtScroll), the first line of Ad Ana Bekhiyah follows Shomron Kol Titein and leads into the verses of consolation, although the remainder of Ad Ana Bekhiyah is only recited at night. There is certainly variation outside the Eastern European tradition as well, although Ad Ana Bekhiyah closes out the daytime service in some Edut ha-Mizrah traditions, and its first line appears at the end of the Spanish & Portuguese and Yemenite recitations of kinnot. In one arrangement of the Western Ashkenazic tradition, however, Shomron Kol Titein is in the middle of the kinnot and not at the end at all. See S. Baer, ed., Seder ha-Kinnot le-Tishah Be-Av (Frankfurt A.M. (Rodelheim): 1914), 113. It is interesting to note that in the Italian rite, the last kinnah before turning to special piyyutim that dwell on consolation is the well-known kinnah Esh Tukad be-Kirbi, which contrasts the euphoric Exodus from Egypt with the exile from Jerusalem. It seems again that this kinnah was chosen because it concludes in consolation, “Happiness and joy; gone are sorrow and sighing/When I return to Jerusalem.” See Elizur, 128 & n14.

[10] See Elizur, 126.

Yosef Lindell is one of the editors of the Lehrhaus and is a lawyer, writer, and lecturer living in Silver Spring, MD. He has an MA in Jewish history from Yeshiva University and a JD from NYU Law, where he was a Tikvah Scholar in 2011. His writing spans several genres, from science fiction to Jewish scholarship, and he’s been published in venues such as the Atlantic, the Forward, Modern Judaism, and Jewish Action. Check out more of his writing at yoseflindell.wordpress.com.