“I Would Soar to the Sphere of Heaven”: Aleph and “I” in a Tishah be-Av Lament

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Tzvi Novick


The book of Lamentations is devoted to the events surrounding the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians. From a structural perspective, the most distinctive feature of Lamentations is that four of its five chapters (all but the last) are acrostics. In chapters 1, 2, and 4, the initial words of each verse begin with each successive letter of the alphabet, from aleph to tav. Chapter 3 is a triple acrostic: The first three verses each begin with aleph, the next three with bet, and so forth. The fifth chapter contains the ghost of an acrostic. It does not run from aleph to tav, but it consists of 22 verses, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

Piyyut—the liturgical poetry that Jews began to compose in earnest around roughly the fifth century of the common era—is much enamored of acrostics, and one can only imagine the excitement (tempered by the grimness of the subject matter) with which liturgical poets (paytanim) approached the task of writing poems for the Ninth of Av, the day on which Lamentations takes center stage. Here the paytanic style met its biblical ancestor, and the paytan could take advantage of this coincidence to produce acrostic poetry of dizzying complexity.

There is another feature of Lamentations that yielded notable results in the paytan’s workshop: the presence of multiple individual speakers, each with a rich inner life.[1] The characters are mainly anonymous, though sometimes, as in the case of Zion, they are identified. Paytanim writing poems for Tishah be-Av could take on these personae, and voice them anew. The standard voice of prayer in rabbinic Judaism is the collective first-person plural of Israel: “our God, and the God of our fathers”; “heal us”; and so on. But Lamentations offered paytanim the opportunity to introduce the emotionally laden perspectives of various characters speaking in the first-person singular.[2] Piyyut invites this rhetorical choice because it is designed to be performed by a prayer leader, distinct from the congregation.

The acrostic aesthetic of Lamentations further encourages the first-person singular for a simple but impactful grammatical reason: first-person singular imperfect verbs in Hebrew are marked at the beginning by an aleph. When acrostics multiply, and everything seems like it begins with aleph, one is nudged toward composition in the first-person singular.

I offer here a contextual analysis of a piyyut that embraces these interlocking potentialities of acrostic and the first-person singular, a kinnah (lament) by the great paytan Eleazar bi-rabbi Qillir (or Kalir; the Kaliri, etc.), אאדה עד חוג שמים (a’adeh ad hug shamayim) (“I would soar to the sphere of heaven”). (The kinnah is presented in full, with translation and notes, in the appendix.) Some background about the performance of kinnot at the time of Qillir is necessary to appreciate how the poem works. Today we recite kinnot as standalone prayers in the evening and in the morning, but originally—in Qillir’s day—kinnot were performed within the framework of the morning Amidah. The paytan would substitute for the main body of each of the blessings of the Amidah one or more strophes on the theme of Tishah be-Av; he would retain from the standard Amidah only the concluding blessing formulae (e.g., “Blessed are you, Lord, shield of Abraham,” etc.). When the paytan reached the fourteenth blessing, on the rebuilding of Jerusalem, he expanded the composition by introducing a series of kinnot. The composition as a whole—the blessing strophes, followed by the kinnot series—is called a kerovah.[3]

Qillir wrote multiple kerovot for Tishah be-Av; all or parts of five have survived to today. He composed, too, a remarkably large number of kinnot, at least many tens of them. There is every reason to suppose that these kinnot were composed in distinct series, each designated for a particular kerovah. But over the centuries, these kinnot were dislodged from their original liturgical contexts and were mixed and matched in the prayer practices of different communities. It is far from easy to unscramble the egg: to identify the kinnot that belonged together, and the kerovah for which they were composed. Ezra Fleischer, among the towering figures in the history of piyyut scholarship, plausibly linked a series of five kinnot with a particular kerovah entitled אהלי איכה (aholi ekhah) (“My tent, how”), based on certain structural similarities between the blessing strophes of the kerovah and the kinnot themselves. The five qinot are each structured, successively, by the five chapters of Lamentations, from chapter 1 to chapter 5.[4]

Let us turn now to “I would soar.” I contend, first, that this kinnah was composed for a different kerovah composed by Qillir, אאביך ביום מבך (a’avikh be-yom mevekh) (“I would mourn on a day of confusion”). (One of the blessing strophes from this kerovah can be found in the appendix.)[5] This hypothesis rests on the following similarities between the principal blessing strophes of the kerovah and the kinnah.[6] In both the blessing strophes of the kerovah and in “I would soar,” every line begins with an aleph, usually an aleph that serves as the prefix for a first-person singular imperfect verb (“I would etc.”). The acrostic is populated by the second letter, i.e., the letter that follows the aleph. Likewise, both the blessing strophes and “I would soar” feature a verse quotation in the final line of the strophe.[7] There are also numerous verbal overlaps between the blessing strophes and the kinnah.[8]

In the blessing strophes of the kerovah, each strophe begins with four lines in which the initial word begins with aleph followed by the acrostic letter. The fifth line divides (by rhyme) into two short units, each of which opens with a word beginning with aleph followed by the acrostic letter. The acrostic is therefore sixfold, though it only runs across five lines. In “I would soar,” the acrostic is threefold: each strophe begins with three lines in which the initial word begins with aleph followed by the acrostic letter. The acrostic stretching across five lines in the blessing strophes of the kerovah may correspond to the five chapters of Lamentations. The fact that the acrostic is sixfold may likewise be connected to the fact that there are six acrostics in Lamentations (one each in chapters 1, 2, and 4, and three in chapter 3).[9] I believe that the threefold acrostic of “I will soar” corresponds to the threefold acrostic in chapter 3. Here we begin to appreciate the underlying logic of “I would soar”: it is in fact a rewriting of Lamentations 3.

In the blessing strophes, the speaking voice—the “I”—is desultory, sometimes seeming to indicate the prayer leader and sometimes the personification of the congregation. By contrast, the “I” of “I will soar” seems carefully crafted to correspond to the speaker of Lamentations 3. The first-person singular in chapter 3 is very prominent: the opening word of the chapter is ani (“I”), and the chapter consists throughout of the theological ruminations of a gever (“man”) who has seen much suffering:[10] “I (ani) am the man (gever) who has known affliction under the rod of His wrath.” (Lamentations 1:1 [NJPS])

Who is this man? Who is the speaker in Lamentations 3? According to a pervasive tradition attested across rabbinic literature and beyond it—as, for example, in the introduction to the Greek translation in the Septuagint—the author of Lamentations is Jeremiah.[11] Despite this tradition, the rabbis do not generally take the “I” of Lamentations 3 to be Jeremiah; they take Jeremiah to be giving voice not to his own thoughts and experiences, but to those of “the assembly of Israel.”[12] The speaker in Qillir’s piyyut, by contrast, is an individual, separate from the people of Israel. It is for this reason that he can refer to Israel in the third person, as in l. 7 (“I would join to me in weeping the one who ascended the wilderness,” i.e., I would invite Israel, who entered the wilderness in leaving Egypt, to weep with me).

In fact, the speaker of “I will soar” patterns himself, in the first instance, after Jeremiah. Almost all of the final lines of the strophes quote a verse beginning with mi yiten (“would that”), and it is surely not a coincidence that the first two “would that” verses, in the first and second strophes, come from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 8:23 “Would that my head were water” and 9:1 “Would that I were in the wilderness”). The prophetic persona of the speaker emerges also in the fifth strophe, where he expresses the desire to speak to God “face to face,” like Moses (Deuteronomy 5:4). The speaker identifies his suffering throughout the poem with that of Israel, but he nevertheless remains a distinct individual, embodied in the prayer leader who would have recited the kinnah.

In the fourth through the sixth strophes, the “would that” verse is drawn from the book of Job, and other allusions to this book are sprinkled throughout the poem. In implicitly taking up the persona of Job after that of Jeremiah, Qillir manifests awareness of the similarities between the depictions of these two suffering individuals in their respective books.[13] Indeed, there is an allusion near the very beginning of “I would soar” to perhaps the most distinctive point of contact between Jeremiah and Job, the motif of cursing the day on which one was born. At the background of Qillir’s merging of Jeremiah and Job is also, likely, a rabbinic interpretation of Lamentations 3:1 that identifies the speaking “man” with Job:

Another interpretation: “I am the man.” R. Joshua of Sikhnin in the name of R. Levi says: The assembly of Israel said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the World, I am the man, i.e., I am Job, as you say, “What man is like Job, who drinks mockery like water” (Job 34:7 [NJPS]). What came upon Job You wish to bring upon me.

The passage proceeds to identify similarities between Job’s trials and the trials of Israel in connection with the Babylonian conquest.

The lament “I will soar” thus comes into existence within the framework of a complex set of interlocking factors. Lamentations amplifies both the acrostic impulse that is native to piyyut, as well as the inclination of piyyut toward composition in the first-person singular. The third chapter of Lamentations, the most immediate subtext, furnishes a triple acrostic, and, through the prism of rabbinic and extra-rabbinic tradition, offers two interrelated personae for the paytan to inhabit: Jeremiah and Job. The paytan, speaking in their voices, gives expression, in a vigorous and animated way, to the suffering occasioned by the destructions commemorated on Tishah be-Av.


1. I first present the fourth blessing strophe of the kerovah אאביך ביום מבך, which I believe to be the kerovah for which “I will soar” was composed.

I have chosen the fourth blessing strophe—the blessing strophe that concludes with the blessing of honen ha-da’at, “gracing with knowledge”—somewhat arbitrarily to illustrate the key structural features of the blessing strophes for our purposes: the initial aleph and the five-line/sixfold acrostic. The first word in each of the first four lines begins with the letter aleph, while the second letter of each word is a dalet, the fourth letter of the alphabet. The fifth line divides into two units, each of which opens with a word beginning with aleph then dalet. The sixth line in every blessing strophe begins with the word eikhah “how,” and continues with a verse quotation. The translation is provisional and unannotated, as the chief purpose is to illustrate the blessing strophes’ structural features.




I will be silent, not exit the door, sit heavily.
I will silence all mouths because the mourning is heavy.
I would know words, and speak a heavy word.
To my disaster how many years he discomfited me with a broom.
He destroyed my land / and demolished my mighty ones.
How “I am put out of mind like the dead, I am like an object given up for lost” (Psalms 31:13 [NJPS])!


2. Here is the full text of the kinnah אאדה עד חוג השמים



I would soar to the sphere of heaven.[14]
I would in wailing join to me the heavens.
I would curse the day that destroyed me twice.[15]
I would murmur[16]: “Would that my head were water!”[17]



I would discern with weeping the howl of the wilderness.
I would distinguish night from night and wilderness from wilderness.[18]
I would in weeping join to me the one who ascended the wilderness.[19]
I would roar: “Would that I were in the wilderness!”[20]



I would expire and drop like a beaten olive tree.
I would provoke against me all the members of the house.
I would move to speech the master of the house.
I would be permitted: “Would that I had thorns and thistles.”[21]



I would be ill in all my heart to make him present.[22]
I would know words with which to beseech him.[23]
I would worry out the shepherd but not find him.[24]
I would lament: “Would that I knew how to find him.”[25]




I am turned and overturned like a wheel with my words.[26]
I would speak face to face to tell my burden.
The sun and moon alas-ed, not shining across from me.
I would yell: “Would then that my words were written down.”[27]




The ways of the deeds of the pestle-thieves
I would tell in my wronging and my trespass.[28]
The constellations languished when I tore my cloak.
I would say: “Would that I had someone to hear me.”[29]



It passed, when the fatherbird was annulled.[30]
I would recall when I was wedded.[31].
I would have channels flow down like the upper pool.
I would lust[32]: “Would that I had the wings of a dove.”[33]



Aha! was the trespass from the strong city to Tyre,
Rushes without water, to stop up in anger.[34]
He took standing grain, to cut, and smallest grapes, to pluck.
I would pronounce: “Who would lead me to the fortified city?”[35]


I would pitch my pavilion tent in the shadow of death.
I would fly and settle unto the court of death.
I would be joined to them who await death.
I would wail: “What man should live and not see death?”[36]


My strength to my aid I sought to see.
My fearsome one every year says: This is the year.[37]
I would make known to all, for this is known:
Is it not “that the hand of the Lord has done this?”[38]



I would bow my head to you, my Strength.
I would bend a knee to you to bind my wound.
I would crown you with a song from songs of my dance.
I would pose: “Would that you were as a brother to me.”[39]



Do not forget the cry of Ariel,[40]
To gather to it Judah and Israel;
The thousands of ministers whom God has committed,[41]
Saying: “Would that from Zion was the salvation of Israel.”[42]



Israel, from the time they in my path did not go,[43]
They left me and I left them, and my face turned from them.
I murmured and wailed and my innards and heart were poured out:
How from my head did they cast off my glory?

[1] See on this topic especially Alan Mintz, Ḥurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 17-48.

[2] On dimensions of the first-person singular in piyyut, and, relatedly, the personality of the paytan, see Yehoshua Granat, “The ‘Emissary of the Congregation’ as an Individual in the Early Reshut,” in Jewish Prayer: New Perspectives, ed. Uri Ehrlich (Jerusalem: Bialik, 2016), 79-99 (Hebrew); Tzvi Novick, “An Epithalamium for Abraham,” in Genesis in Late Antique Poetry, eds. Andrew Faulkner et al. (Washington, DC: CUA Press), 177-98; Tzvi Novick, “‘Let Me Flee for Help’: Israel as ‘I’ and the Teqi‘ot of Yose ben Yose,” EJJS 8 (2014): 147-74.

[3] It might be either a kerovah 14, if the composition ended with the kinnot in the fourteenth blessing, or a kerovah 18, if the composition continued to the end of the Amidah. For examples of kerovot for Tishah be-Av by Qillir see Daniel Goldschmidt, The Order of Kinnot for Tishah be-Av (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1972), 147-60; Ezra Fleischer, “The Qillirian Compositions for Tisha b’Av,” HUCA 45 (1974): 1-40 (Hebrew section).

[4] See ibid., 11-30.

[5] In Goldschmidt, Kinnot, 40, 42, “I will soar” is preceded by a bridge strophe—a salsalah—that links it backward to the kinnah איכה אצת (“How you hurried”), which is in turn linked backward by a salsalah to the kinnah שבת סורו מני (“It is ended; turn from me”). If these salsalot are original, we would be forced to conclude that “I would soar” was written for the kerovah זכור איכה (“Remember how”), of which the last kinnah is a direct continuation. But I think it unlikely that these salsalot are original.

[6] I call them “principal” blessing strophes because each is followed by a second, shorter strophe that leads into the concluding blessing formula. From this point on I refer to these first strophes simply as the blessing strophes.

[7] In the blessing strophes, the final lines—the sixth line of each strophe—always begins with איכה (“how”), and the verse quotation occurs in the continuation. These lines do not participate in the acrostic. In “I will soar,” the final lines complete the acrostic. The threefold acrostic across the first three lines of each strophe runs from aleph in the first strophe to lamed in the twelfth. The final lines of each strophe feature a reverse acrostic from tav in the first strophe to lamed in the twelfth. Qillir reverses the order of the lamed and kaf lines in the last lines of the eleventh and twelfth strophes so that the four lines of the eleventh strophe all begin with kaf, and the four lines of the twelfth strophe all begin with lamed.

[8] E.g., פנים בפנים (l. 7 of the kerovah in Goldschmidt’s lineation, l. 18 of the qinah in my lineation); מחריבי (l. 14; l. 3); אדעה מלין (l. 20; l. 14); אההו (l. 27; l. 19). See also my note to the word אאדה in the appendix.

[9] It is also possible, more mundanely, that the sixfold acrostic simply reflects a convention for the kerovah. See likewise, e.g., Hadutahu’s kerovah (shiv‘ata) for the Sabbath, … גבוה ונכון (“… high and fixed”), which is structurally very similar to Qillir’s kerovah.

[10] Is it a coincidence that among the verse quotations that conclude the strophes of “I will soar,” one of them makes reference to a “man” (l. 36), and that this quotation is one of two that violates the convention governing the choice of verses insofar as it does not include the word yiten (“would that”)?

[11] On this tradition see, e.g., Jacob Klein, Lamentations: Introduction and Commentary (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2017), 6-7.

[12] See the series of interpretations of Lamentations 3 in Lamentations Rabbah (Vilna) 3.

[13] See, e.g., Katharine Dell, “‘Cursed be the Day I was Born!’: Job and Jeremiah Revisited,” in Reading Job

Intertextually, eds. Katharine Dell and Will Kynes (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 106–117. See also the striking verbal link between Job 9:18 and Lamentations 3:15.

[14] חוג השמים (“the sphere of heaven”) is from Job 23:14. אאדה reflects the otherwise unattested root אד”י. My rendering accords with Goldschmidt’s view that אד”י is from דא”י (“to soar”), metathesized for the sake of the acrostic. Another possibility, suggested to me by Dr. Avi Shmidman, is that the verb is a denominative from אד “vapor,” in which case אאדה would be rendered: “I would rise like vapor.” On this reading, l. 1 anticipates the reference to water in l. 4. A third possibility, which I am inclined to think most likely, is that the אאדה derives from אד (“disaster”). The fact that this word occurs in the fourth blessing strophe of the kerovah for which, on my hypothesis, the kinnah was originally composed—see the fourth line of the excerpt in the first part of the appendix—is evidence for this possibility. On this approach, the line should be rendered: “I would mark disaster up to the sphere of heaven.”

[15] See Jeremiah 20:14 ארור היום אשר ילדתי בו (“Cursed be the day on which I was born”). Job also curses the day of his birth, albeit without the use of אר”ר, in Job 3:3.

[16] Reading אתאונן (“I would murmur”), against אתרונן (“I would sing”) in other manuscripts. If this version is indeed original, the poet evidently draws the word from Lamentations 3:39 יתאונן; the form is otherwise attested only in Numbers 11:1.

[17] Jeremiah 8:23.

[18] Qillir refers to the story of the spies in Numbers 13-14. In Numbers 14:1, the people cry at night, and voice their desire to return to Egypt. According to Yerushalmi Ta‘anit 4:8 (65d), God tells them that they will cry for good reason in the future, hence Lamentations 1:2 בכה תבכה בלילה, perhaps understood non-contextually to mean: “You shall indeed cry at night.” The two wildernesses that the poet distinguishes are presumably the Sinai wilderness and the “wilderness” of the Babylonian exile.

[19] “The one who ascended the wilderness” is a standard epithet for Israel, after Song of Songs 3:6.

[20] Jeremiah 9:1.

[21] Isaiah 27:4. I believe Qillir depends on the interpretation of this verse attributed to R. Levi in Exodus Rabbah (Vilna) 30:1. R. Levi takes the verse to represent God’s speech to the nations. God insists that he is the possessor or master (בעל) of wrath, and likewise that Israel belongs to him, and yet the nations “are filled with what is mine (i.e., anger) against what is mine (i.e., Israel).” God will respond by calling for thorns and thistles, i.e., war against the nations. Shmidman suggests that the notion of permission in l. 12 (“I would be permitted”) could reflect awareness of the interpretation of Isaiah 27:4 in Avodah Zarah 4a, according to which God had constrained himself by means of an oath.

[22] Reading להמציאהו, with some manuscripts, against להמצהו in Goldschmidt’s edition. Following a suggestion by Shmidman, I take God rather than the heart to be the object of the two verbs in ll. 13-14.

[23] The words אדעה מלין (“I would know words”) come from Job 23:5.

[24] אדאג (“I would worry”) carries here the sense of: to stake out, to flush out. Cf. in Qillir’s Tishah be-Av kerovah זכור איכה (“Remember how”), in the fourth blessing: דוב דואג (“the bear worries”) (Goldschmidt, Kinnot, 148), rewriting Lamentations 3:10 דב ארב (“a bear lying in wait”).

[25] Job 23:3. In the appendix to Mandelbaum’s edition of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (455), in a homily for Sukkot, Job 23:3 and 23:5 are introduced together to illustrate Job’s challenge to God’s justice.

[26] Perhaps an allusion to Lamentations 3:3 “Against me again and again He turns his hand.” The preceding verse refers, like the continuation of this strophe, to utter darkness.

[27] Job 19:23.

[28] גונבי עלי (“pestle-thieves”) is a reference to Israel on the basis of a story from Tosefta Ta‘anit 3:7 and parallels. The “wronging” and the “trespass” probably refer to the ways in which Israel has been wronged, so that the sense of the first two lines is simply: I would tell how Israel has been wronged.

[29] Job 31:35.

[30] The reference is to Ecclesiastes 12:5, which is interpreted in Lamentations Rabbah (Buber) petihta 23 as a reference to the dissolution of the merits of the patriarchs in connection with the destruction of the Temple.

[31] I.e., in the midst of these dark times, I recall the passionate relationship between God and Israel in times past, specifically Israel’s betrothal to God in the Sinai wilderness; see note 32 to l. 28 below.

[32] Reading אעגוב, with many manuscripts, against Goldschmidt’s אענה. Could it be that Qillir has in mind Leviticus Rabbah 18:1 (Margulies ed., 395), where אביונה in Ecclesiastes 12:5 is rendered as desire (תאוה)? See also Shabbat 152a, where a similar exegesis associates the preceding phrase in Ecclesiastes 12:5 with עגבות (“lusting”).

[33] Psalms 55:7. In the next verse, the speaker indicates that he would wish to fly to the wilderness.

[34] I take the couplet to mean that the courier arrived from Jerusalem to Tyre bearing news of the destruction of Jerusalem, whose inhabitants were like rushes without water. The first line is based on a combination of Proverbs 18:19 and Ezekiel 26:2, as the latter is interpreted in Yerushalmi Ta‘anit 4:5 (68c).

[35] Psalms 60:11. Perhaps Qillir knows the interpretation of this verse attested in Deuteronomy Rabbah (Lieberman) Devarim 20, according to which the speaker seeks the punishment of the fortified city, Rome.

[36] Psalms 89:49.

[37] These two lines depend on the wordplay of אילותי (“my strength”), a reference to God drawn from Psalms 22:20, and אימתי (“my fearsome one”), a reference to Israel drawn (with the addition of a suffix) from Song of Songs 6:4. The poet says that he seeks divine aid, and likewise Israel looks forward to redemption.

[38] Goldschmidt suggests that the quotation is from Isaiah 41:20. The previous line alludes to Isaiah 12:5, and both verses (Isaiah 12:5, 41:20) refer in context to God’s redemption of Israel. On this reading, then, the poet evidently looks forward to a time when he can announce God’s redemption of Israel. It is possible, however, that the quotation in l. 20 is from the end of Job 12:9. The beginning of Job 12:9 refers to the notion of everyone knowing, and it could be that l. 19 rewrites the beginning of Job 12:9 through the words of Isaiah 12:5. In that case, the poet in these lines is not specifically envisioning redemption, but rather insisting on God’s responsibility for all that happens in the world. It is notable that l. 20 violates the poem’s structural rules governing the final stich in two ways: first, it does not begin with a quotation word, and second, the verse does not begin with mi yiten (“would that”), as in every other strophe but one, or even מי, as in the previous strophe. I am not sure why Qillir abandons these rules at this point and only at this point.

[39] Song of Songs 8:1.

[40] Ariel is the temple; see Isaiah 29:1; Mishnah Middot 4:7.

[41] I take the poet to be saying: gather likewise to the Temple the ministering angels whom God will entrust with the care of Zion.

[42] Psalms 53:7.

[43] The concluding salsalah incorporates a name acrostic (לעזר, i.e., Eleazar be-rabbi Qillir), and represents God’s response to the speaker. On my reconstruction, this salsalah is not original to the piyyut.

Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic Judaism and on Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) from late antiquity.