Lamentations

Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, asks important questions that address the theological crisis following the Jewish exile.

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Lamentations is one of the Five "Scrolls" (megillot)  in the Hebrew Bible. (The others are Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes.) Each of these scrolls is read in synagogue on a different Jewish holiday. The Five Scrolls form part of the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim, (also known as Writings or Hagiographia.) In the Roman Catholic version of the Bible, Lamentations is appended to the book of Jeremiah, which is in the Prophets section of the Bible. sad woman

Lamentations begins with the Hebrew word Eicha (how?), and the book is known in Hebrew as Megillat Eicha (the scroll of Eicha.) The book is a theological and prophetic response to the destruction of the First Temple (Beit Hamikdash), in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. The Talmud (The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 15a) states that it was written by the prophet Jeremiah, who lived at the time of the destruction. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations are an alphabetical acrostic, with each line starting with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 is a three-fold acrostic, with three lines for each letter of the alphabet.

Asking Why

In 586 B.C.E., the army of the neo-Babylonian empire destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple because the kingdom of Judah, of which Jerusalem was the capital, refused to remain a loyal vassal of Babylonia. The king of Babylonia at the time, Nebuchadnezzar, sought to counter Egyptian military power and political influence in Syria-Palestine, and so control of Judah was particularly important to him. Jerusalem was destroyed, and large parts of the population were exiled to Babylon.

But Lamentations is not concerned with the technical historical details of the destruction, but rather with larger and meta-historical issues: Why did God, who had once been Israel's redeemer, acquiesce to the destruction of His holy city and temple? Why is God's love no longer evident? How can it be that "the city that was full of people" now "dwells alone" (Lamentations 1:1)?  Lamentations offers more questions than answers, but asking these questions is an important step in dealing with the theological crisis posed by the destruction of the Temple.

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.