To Prey or to Pray? The Lessons of Famine on Tisha B’Av

Rabbi David Seidenberg

Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av - an annual fast day in the Jewish tradition) can be a meditation on hunger, and even more so on thirst, coming as it does in the heat of summer. Though fasting is not famine, it brings me one small step closer in my body and imagination to what it might have been like during the siege of Jerusalem, or even to what it is like now, when famine strikes the victims and refugees of war.

The book we read on Tisha B’Av, Lamentations or Eikhah, is filled with images of hunger and famine, along with all other kinds of tragedy. I first got into Eikhah in a special way. It was shortly after a break-up, and I was aching so much I could hardly stand it. I was doing anything I could to distract myself (even jogging, which is not exactly my thing), but on Tisha B’Av you’re not allowed to be distracted by music or movies, or even by regular Torah study, and exercise on a no-water summer fast isn’t a smart idea. So I decided I would try to translate Lamentations. That led me to many years of engagement with the text, and to composing a powerful translation that I now distribute through my website.

One of the truly difficult passages in Eikhah (4:10) describes cannibalism as a response to famine:

Women’s compassionate hands
cooked their own children
to become their food supply,
during the breaking of my daughter people.

The Tanakh (as we call the Bible), contains other horrifying images of cannibalism during famine. One story (2 Kings 6:26-30) sticks out:

It happened that the king of Israel was crossing over the wall, and a woman cried unto him, saying, “Save me, my lord king!”
And he said, “YHVH [God] won’t save you! From where could I save you—from the threshing floor or the wine vat?”
And the king said unto her, “What happened to you?”
and she said, “This woman said unto me, ‘Give your child and we will eat him today, and my son we will eat tomorrow.’ And we cooked my child and ate him.
And I said unto her on the day after, ‘Give your child and we will eat him,’ and she hid her child.”
And it happened as the king heard the words of the woman, and he tore his clothes and he was crossing over the wall, and the people saw: and here, there was sackcloth on his flesh inside.

You can almost see the king doing a double-take when he hears the woman’s cry. He first taunts her with the emptiness of the threshing floor and wine vat, but then he invites her to tell her story. (Note how the king speaks “to her” the second time.) There’s a tragi-comic dimension to this story, which makes it seem like a fable. The image of God in this vignette, at least in the king’s eyes, is of a god who can’t save the people. (This image is dispelled when Elisha’s prophecy that food will be abundant by tomorrow comes true.) The bottom line in this story is that God’s role in the famine is ambiguous.

In Eikhah (1:15), however, God is neither bystander nor redeemer, but rather the direct instigator of the tragedy:

[God] called out over me a feast
for breaking my boys;
a winepress—Adonai stomped—
for daughter Judah’s girl.

The winepress which is empty becomes full and fills the vat, the feast is supplied, by the flesh and blood of the children. Is the point to gross us out? Make the exiles feel horrible, guilty, unredeemed?

A quick review of some images of famine and abundance in the Torah suggests to me an answer. In the following passage from Leviticus (26:3-38, abridged), there are four kinds of eating relationships that unfold in order, from good to bad to worse.

If you will walk in my statutes,
then I will give your rains in their season and the land will give her produce and the tree his fruit, and I will set peace in the land.
And I myself will walk in the midst of you.

And if you will not listen, to undo my covenant,
I will set my face against you, and your land will not give her produce and the tree of the land will not give his fruit.
I will send out against you the animal of the field and she will make you childless.

And if with all this you will not listen to me and still walk with me in opposition,
I will walk with you in a fury of opposition.
And you will eat the flesh of your sons and your daughter’s flesh you will eat.

And I will leave your cities destroyed, and throw you into the nations,
and the land will enjoy her Sabbaths.
All the days of her being deserted she will rest what she didn’t rest in your Sabbaths when you dwelled on her.
And you will be lost in the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you.

The first paragraph describes what happens when we treat the land well: we are sustained abundantly, eating from her produce. In the second paragraph, which describes the first level of consequence for hurting the land, the eating relationship between human beings and animals is reversed, and our children become prey for the predators. In the third, the relationship between parents and children is undone, and we become our own prey. This is the image of cannibalism. Finally, in the fourth paragraph, the land eats us, instead of us eating from the land, an ultimate reversal of the way things should be.

Theologically, the horror of cannibalism is almost not the point. The people’s downfall came because they mistreated the land, the source of their food. By doing so, they undid the normal way of eating and living, what the rabbis call derekh eretz, which means literally the way of the land. Leviticus continues (26:39-44 abridged):

And the ones left will confess their sin,
then their thick-skinned heart will be bent-into-shape,
and I will remember my covenant, and the land I will remember.

In one sense, the point is that no matter how horribly things have gone wrong, they can be reversed. But the foundation of this hope is that God’s covenant with the land has not ended. When we restore ourselves to God and to doing justice, we also restore ourselves to the land, righting the relationships of eating and taking that have become disordered.

This gets to a deeply emotional point about Eikhah: even though it sounds like it’s about God punishing us, it’s really about us hoping that God still cares enough to punish us. It’s not a theology of evil, but a prayer, a belief that awful occurrences prove that God still does care, instead of proving God’s indifference. I realized this when I first started doing that translation years ago—because it mirrored what I was going through personally, in my effort to believe that the person I loved would come back if only I changed this or that.

She didn’t come back. But we Jews haven’t given up on God. The other side of the reflection on punishment in Eikhah is to hold a mirror up to God in order to show that the punishment went too far, beyond any measure of justice. That’s how the image of cannibalism functions later in the book (2:20):

See YHVH and look: Whom did you treat like this?
If women would eat their fruit, coddled babies – !

So, is cannibalism just a theological point? Did it really happen? There are two testimonies I found on the web about the cannibalizing children during other famines, but it’s hard to tell. What we know for sure is this: when we use up the land and the planet without concern for future generations of people, or of other animals, plants and ecosystems, we are in effect eating our children.

Let’s hope we can turn ourselves around before things get too literal.

** Rabbi Seidenberg teaches, writes, and leads services. Go to to download and print out Eikhah for Tisha B’Av, listen to nigunim and songs, learn eco-Torah, and more.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: