Kina 23: The Children of the Kohen Gadol

Why is this story singled out?

Tags: Tisha B'Av
Rabbi Jesse Horn

Judaism Rabbi Jesse Horn
Rabbi Jesse Horn

Kina 23 recounts a fascinating story that takes place after the destruction of Bayit Sheni (second temple) and after Jerusalem fell into the hands of Romans.  The Kina refers to the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael Kohan Gadol (the high priest), who each independently were taken as slaves by two neighbors.  One day, the master of Rabbi Yishmael Kohan Gadol’s daughter, was bragging to the other slave owner about how beautiful his newly acquired female slave was.  The neighbor responded that he too had taken a slave who was unusually handsome. 

Together the slave masters decided to breed them in hopes of having beautiful children who could be sold at a high profit.  The two slaves were placed alone in a room for the night.  All night long, each of Rabbi Yishmael Kohan Gadol’s children cried, alone, in different corners of the room.  Early the next morning, when dawn broke, the children recognized each other, ran to each other, embraced each other, hugged each other, and died together in each other’s arms.

Although, truly a fascinating and intriguing narrative, several questions arise.  The most central question is what is the point of this story?  This event had no major impact on the course of our national history.  What is it about this account that gives it the importance to be told as an independent Kina?  What are we to take from this Kina?  What does it lament?

There are a number of other questions that can be asked as well.  At the end of the Kina, for example, Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), himself mourns this event.  What is he mourning for?  He lived approximately five hundred years before this story occurred, why was he lamenting?  Additionally, the Paytan (author) used several unique details to describe his feelings and actions.  He claims that, “their memory is like a fire in my heart.”  He also rends his garment, performing an act of Kreyah (tearing his garment).  Why specifically here is this response appropriate?  What about this story triggers tearing Kreyah more than anything else?

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that after Kina 21, Arzay H’Livanon and Kina 22, HaCharishu, two Kinot that deal with national issues, and the horrific things that happened to communities and Am Yisrael at large, comes our Kina.  Kina 23, by contrast, is a story of individuals.  Judaism recognizes and values the mourning for regular, normal and everyday people.  “We mourn for a boy and girl who were not leaders or scholars and who did not play any major public role (The Lookstein Edition Kinos p 443).” Telling a story of individuals accomplishes a twofold goal, continues Rabbi Soloveitchik.  Firstly, it demonstrates that our mourning is not just for large numbers, communities and other large scale events.  We care for and mourn for individuals as well.  Our sadness on 9 B’av is dually caused for events that heavily impacted us nationally, as well as for individual people. 

Beyond that, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that mourning for individuals has a secondary accomplishment as well.  It enables the mourner to better connect with the events that have transpired.  It’s much easier to identify and sympathize with the pain of one person in trouble rather than a story of a national crisis.  Human nature allows us to relate to stories of individual people better than large scale numbers or events.

To this second advantage of recalling a story of individuals, Rabbi Soloveitchik found support from a Medrash found in Bereshit Rabbah (33:5).  It describes how Rabbi Akiva, while visiting Ginzak (a city), told the people there both about the Mabul (flood) narrative, one that reports the destruction of the world, as well as the heartbreaking events of Iyov (Job).  The reaction from the people to Iyov's tribulations was significantly greater, for after hearing about him, they broke out into tears.  While after the Noah story, the people’s reaction was significantly less intense. 

Rabbi Solovetichik uses this hypothesis and expounds on several lines found in the Kina.  When the Paytan says, “Their memory is like a fire in my heart,” Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, it is true “even though they are individuals, not a community (ibid 443).” 

Furthermore, when the Paytan describes himself saying, “I rent my garments,” Rabbi Soloveitchik comments, that when it comes to death Al Pi Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying Hashem’s name), “We do not analyze whether the person was a scholar, a prince or Av Beit Din (head judge) (ibid 443).”  Instead, we mourn regardless of their stature or position.  Again, the theme of these two youths not being anyone special, but just plain and normal individuals resurfaces.

The Kina closes with Yermiyahu mourning Rabbi Yishmael Kohan Gadol.  Here too Rav Soloveitchik understands that Yermiyahu “lamented each individual who perished during the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple (ibid 444).”

There is, however, a small problem with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach to this Kina.  It is somewhat difficult to imagine that these two children were selected as paradigmatic examples of no-name individuals.  After all, they were the children of the Kohan Gadol.  Certainly, other people, maybe with a less well-know lineage, and family background, could have been selected.  And if no other story drives home the message as well as this one does, the Paytan should have left out that particular information.  If the Kina truly wanted to stress that these people were common people, it should have told the story anonymously.

However, it is true that this Kina is very unique in so far as that it tells such a long and detailed story of individuals.  Perhaps, beyond what Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested or maybe slightly differently from what he had suggested, there is another profound element to the message of this Kina.  This Kina intentionally uses individuals from aristocracy and superb pedigree.  Their tragic decline serves as a paradigm for a parallel phenomenon on a national level.  All Jews suffered, even the Jews from the most respected and significant families.

There are many allusions and supports to this slightly alternate approach.  The story of how people were to be bred like animals really illustrates our newly developed theory.  What could be more expressive of Klal Yisrael’s demise than its most respected citizens from its most respected family being enslaved and bred for sale?  

When crying all night long, Rabbi Yishmael Kohan Gadol’s son says, “How will a grandson of Aharon marry a slave-girl,” and his daughter wonders how “a daughter of Yokheved (can) marry a slave?”  The characters themselves are undoubtedly grieving this exact point. They aren’t selfishly concerned with their own fate.  They are mourning how Bnei Yisrael have so severely fallen.  This is even more clearly seen when taken into account the fact that, in this Kina, each the son and the daughter speak only once.  Presumably, the Paytan has them communicate something of great importance.  They are recognizing Am Yisrael’s collapse.

Two more proofs can be garnered from the text.  First, the Payton describes Rabbi Yishmael Kohan Gadol’s daughter to be “dressed in scarlet-wool.”  At first glance this may have been overlooked as an unnecessary detail.  Yet based on our theory, it’s an important description.  She may be a slave, but she still is wearing clothing that reflects her previous wealth.  She is not a regular pauper.  She has fallen from royalty.  Second, the phrase, “I shall moan (about this) each year on this day” is mentioned seven times.  This disproportionate emphasis can be understood if it supports the primary theme of the Kina.  Am Yisrael’s plummet fits that description. 

Some of Rav Soloveitchik’s proofs used mentioned above may support our slightly different theory as well.  Yirmiyahu, himself, mourns these children’s death, although he lived roughly five hundred years earlier.  He does not have to be seen as mourning individuals who have not yet died.  He could be mourning Am Yisrael’s downfall, something which may have already begun in his time period.

Finally, the Paytan rending Kreyah can be explained with our theory as well.  For nationalistic catastrophes, one tears Kreyah.  For example, the death of an Av Beit Din (head judge), Rosh Sanheadrin (hear of the high court), Nasi (leader), or Talmud Chochom (Torah scholar) requires one to tear Kreyah (Shulchan Aruch YD 40:7,8,17).  The Kreyah torn by the Paytan too may be one that mourns the loss of our Am Yisrael’s honor. 

This idea and its Hashkafic (ideological) implication are sometimes hard for modern thinkers to relate to.  We tend to have a tough time realizing that being Jewish is not just a religion one was born into.  Jews are designed to be similar to princes and princesses, being the children of Hashem. 

One of the less well-known aspect mourned on 9 B’av is that fallen status.  This Kina reminds us of our unique status as Hashem’s chosen nation, mourns us not living up to that responsibility, and the sunken statue as a result.