The Book of Eichah, a poetic lament about the destruction of Israel, employs many different descriptive techniques. One overarching category of depictions is that of different groupings of people (by age, class, social status, etc.). The five chapters of Eichah invoke these groupings, with some overarching similarities for a pan-Eichah effect of these groups, but also some diverging effects between the different chapters. Throughout, it is worthwhile to highlight patterns in terms of which victims are repeatedly described together in groups.
The first chapter of Eichah is about Yerushalayim, in part spoken by the city herself. Major themes of this chapter include wandering, and despair after destruction. The people are pursued and are running away (1:3). The city roads themselves mourn that no one is traversing them (1:4). This theme is accentuated in the chapter by vivid imagery of various groups of people in despair. Perhaps the most prominent group featured is young children. The city’s “Olalehah,” children, are described as captives (1:5); the “Machamadeha,” literally precious objects but possibly referring to precious children, are victims of the enemy (1:10) and are tragically traded in for food (1:11); in 1:16, the city herself cries for “Vanai,” her children, who are desolate. The city mourns the pain and captivity of her young men and women (1:15, 1:18). Also, several classes of previously esteemed people are called to attention. The author describes priests who sigh (1:4) and princes who wander (1:6), and the city mourns her warriors whom God crushed (1:15) and priests and elders who are seeking food to save their lives (1:19). These images help develop the emotion of the chapter. In a chapter that is a plea to God (1:9, 1:11, 1:20), these vivid portrayals of young people have the effect of adding emotion and character. The image of who is suffering is made clear.
There are probably more specific groups of people called to attention in the second chapter of Eichah than in any of the other chapters. The author uses very harsh language to connote a sense of severe anger about the destruction. The author emphasizes the suffering of the weak and the elite. God is accused of killing those pleasant to the eye (2:4, possibly referring to children). Young children are described as starving in the streets (2:11-12, 2:19), and God is blamed for causing this as well (2:20). The elders too are included in the suffering (2:10). In 2:21, all ages are conjured at once – “Na’ar VeZakein Betulotai UVachurai,” “the youth and the old man, my virgins and my young men” – and God is charged for slaughtering them all. In addition to its focus on the suffering of the weak, this chapter equally emphasizes the specific loss of the Temple and the city’s splendor (2:7, 2:20). Many different groups of elite people are mentioned, including the king (2:6, 2:9), the priests (2:6, 2:20), the prophets (2:9, 2:14), and the officers (2:2, 2:9). In almost all of these verses, God is described as causing the various woes of these elite people. By continuing the imagery of children from the first chapter while also using heavier emphasis on the city’s elites, the author succeeds in shifting the focus of lament to include the city as well. The author’s starkness and fury toward God is effectively conveyed, in large part, due to his vivid and specific imagery of different groups of people.
In stark contrast to any of the other chapters of Eichah, the third chapter has nearly no descriptions of groups of victims. Voiced in the first person, the chapter is very personal in nature. While emotional and even penitent at times, the author mostly avoids utilizing other people as images. In 3:25, the “Kovav,” meaning those who hope for God, perhaps in some way refers to a group of people. Also the “Benot Iri” in 3:51 is possibly a reference to some group of women in the city. But on the whole, the third chapter of Eichah avoids conjuring any groupings of the victims of destruction.
The fourth chapter of Eichah is similar to the second chapter in terms of its high quantity of groups of victims. Unlike the second chapter, though, which has an intense focus on the young and on the old as well as Temple-related people, the fourth chapter focuses much more on specifically these groups of Temple-related people. There is some reference to babies who are mistreated by their starving mothers (4:3-4, 4:10), and there is also mention of the blind (4:14) and the elderly (4:16) suffering. In large, though, this chapter is about the Temple and therefore references relevant groups of people. The author describes princes (4:7), prophets (4:13), and priests (4:13, 4:16), who have deteriorated from positions of social prominence, becoming subject to the suffering of any other Israelite. The “unclean one” described in 4:15 is likely referring to priests who are soiled with blood. There is an explicit connection drawn between God’s punishment and the sin of the leaders (4:13), so it makes sense that this chapter relies heavily on images of these very leaders in their demoted states of distress. While most of these groups of victims have appeared before in Eichah, their concentration in this chapter is developed beyond what has already been seen for these specific people.
Eichah concludes with a short chapter voiced by the collective sufferers. Very penitent and pitiful overall, the groups of victims that are mentioned are merely a few mentions of weak people who have already been seen before. Some classic groups, such as little children, are hardly even noticeable. The author describes the people as having become orphans and widows (5:3). In fact, they are so hopeless that even slaves, a generally lowly class of people, are ruling over them (5:8). Young women and middle-aged women were raped (5:11), and young men and children denigrated to difficult and embarrassing work (5:13). Princes and the elders suffer as well (5:12, 5:14). The sense of this chapter is one of despair, not only thematically, but also structurally as a poem. The verses are short by comparison and the acrostic is no longer attempted. The fact that the groups of victims in this chapter have all been described before in a similar way conveys a sense of the author no longer having any energy to even complain creatively. Moreover, the groups of victims that are used are mostly the people who are especially weak, such as orphans, women, and the elderly.
In its pervasive poetical strategy of using groups of victims as images, Eichah has some patterns in terms of group distributions. Many times the “Bachurim” (young men) and “Betulot” (virgins) are described together, as are the “Na’ar” (youth) and “Zakein” (old man). Several times the “Kohein” (priest) is mentioned with another group of people, whether the “Melech” (king) or the “Navi” (prophet) or the “Zakein” (old man). Women are described in conjunction with their suffering infants several times in Eichah with slightly different wordings and aspects of suffering emphasized. As poetry, it makes sense that certain words or groups are naturally associated with each other (independent of this specific work), and it is therefore not surprising that some of these groupings appear together several times. For the reader, this phenomenon creates an element of predictableness, in the sense that the reader can easily anticipate which sufferers will be portrayed in the upcoming parts of Eichah. Those groups which are revisited the most ultimately receive the most vivid portrayals and remain in the mind of the reader as part of the tragic visual of Jerusalem in its destruction.
This essay was originally written for Professor Moshe Bernstein’s “Five Megillot” course in Yeshiva College.