Nachamu, Nachamu: Songs of Comfort After Destruction

How do we respond to the destruction of holiness? Standing amid the ruins of the Temple Mount, the sage Rabbi Akiva shocked his companions by laughing (see Talmud Makkot 24b). The normative stance was one of mourning, and Jewish practice has traditionally taken this very seriously. According to this striking statement from the Rambam, all instrumental music is forever banned from Jewish life following the calamity of Tisha b'Av:

וְכֵן גָּזְרוּ שֶׁלֹּא לְנַגֵּן בִּכְלֵי שִׁיר. וְכָל מִינֵי זֶמֶר וְכָל מַשְׁמִיעֵי קוֹל שֶׁל שִׁיר אָסוּר לִשְׂמֹחַ בָּהֶן וְאָסוּר לְשָׁמְעָן מִפְּנֵי הַחֻרְבָּן.

It was decreed not to play musical instruments. It is forbidden to participate in [the playing of] any kinds of musical instruments or in the making of music as well as to listen to them, due to the destruction [of the Temple].

Maimonides goes on to explain, based on the Talmud in Sotah 48a (which itself is based on a verse from the Book of Lamentations: “The Elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their music” [Eicha 5:14]), that vocal music was also forbidden in some contexts but that all of the Jewish people have become accustomed to singing nonetheless.

Though the Rambam's decree about instrumental sounds seems cut and dry, clearly Jewish people from every background listen to and play all kinds of instrumental music in modern times. The custom, however, is still to refrain from instrumental music during the Three Weeks of increasing mourning that lead up to Tisha b'Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. And this practice recalls the experience of those exiled from Jerusalem...

(א) עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זׇכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן׃ (ב) עַֽל־עֲרָבִ֥ים בְּתוֹכָ֑הּ תָּ֝לִ֗ינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵֽינוּ׃ (ג) כִּ֤י שָׁ֨ם שְֽׁאֵל֢וּנוּ שׁוֹבֵ֡ינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁ֭יר וְתוֹלָלֵ֣ינוּ שִׂמְחָ֑ה שִׁ֥ירוּ לָ֝֗נוּ מִשִּׁ֥יר צִיּֽוֹן׃

(ד) אֵ֗יךְ נָשִׁ֥יר אֶת־שִׁיר־יְהֹוָ֑ה עַ֝֗ל אַדְמַ֥ת נֵכָֽר׃ (ה) אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלָ֗͏ִם תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי׃ (ו) תִּדְבַּֽק־לְשׁוֹנִ֨י ׀ לְחִכִּי֮ אִם־לֹ֢א אֶ֫זְכְּרֵ֥כִי אִם־לֹ֣א אַ֭עֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלַ֑͏ִם עַ֝֗ל רֹ֣אשׁ שִׂמְחָתִֽי׃

(1) By Babylon’s rivers, there we sat and wept, and remembered Zion. (2) On the willows, there we hung up our harps. (3) For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, joy, saying, “Sing us one of those songs of Zion!”

(4) How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land? (5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! (6) Fix my tongue to the top of my mouth if I don’t remember, if I don’t raise up Jerusalem at the beginning of my happiness.

Translation is by Joshua Schwartz, as found in The Torah of Music. Listen to Joey Weisenberg's adaptation of these verses, "By the Waters of Babylon" (warning: it contains instrumental elements).

The video above is a song without instrumental accompaniment, a searing and soaring d'veikus nigun wholly appropriate for a day of such despair. Its name, "Nachamu Nigun," alludes to Tisha b'Av and the collective cry for comfort.

After breaking the fast following the 9th of Av, this period of mourning ends, and the Shabbat that immediately follows is known as Shabbat Nachamu, taken from the Haftorah reading for that day, which says...

(א) נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ב) דַּבְּר֞וּ עַל־לֵ֤ב יְרוּשָׁלַ֙͏ִם֙ וְקִרְא֣וּ אֵלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֤י מָֽלְאָה֙ צְבָאָ֔הּ כִּ֥י נִרְצָ֖ה עֲוֺנָ֑הּ...

(1) Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God. (2) Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, And declare to her That her term of service is over, That her iniquity is expiated...

This Haftorah is the first of seven readings of consolation the build toward the Rosh HaShanah and the High Holidays, a period of personal introspection and ultimately collective celebration for the chance to begin anew.

With such light dawning on the horizon, here is another melody of comfort, a song of uplift, this time featuring instruments.

"Nechama" is from Batya Levine's album Karov, released in 2020 by Rising Song Records.

Come and see Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Trio record L'eila live from the studio!

Join us July 28 at 7 p.m. Eastern, exclusively on Bandcamp, to hear the next album from Rising Song Records as it's created.