Jewish history lacks little in the Tears Department. Witness the biblical
book called (in English) Lamentations and the fact that, for insiders, the
expression bearing the date of national mourning,
(tish'a be-av), the ninth of Av, stands for just about any sorrowful
occasion. In fact, tears are so commonplace that there are several Hebrew
words related to the act of weeping. These range from
(bekhi), crying, to
(dema'ot), tears, with several interposed onomatopoetic words that
imitate the sound of crying: for example,
(yelala), and, accompanied by a sigh,
Jews weep nationally for their condition of exile. As the Psalmist says: "by
the waters of Babylon,"
(sham yashavnu gam bakhinu), "there we sat and wept."
Mainly, however, Jews follow King Solomon's dictum
(et livkot ve-et lis-hok), "There is a time for tears and a time
Jewish culture frowns on a tragic outlook on life, crying will often lead
to laughter. The Book of Psalms tells us repeatedly and metaphorically that
crying is merely a first step toward redemption. Thus we have:
(ba-erev yalin bekhi ve-la-boker rinah), "In the evening, one
may lie down weeping; but at dawn there are shouts of joy."
Then there is another famous verse from Psalms:
(ha-zor'im be-dim'a be-rina yiktzoru), "They who sow in tears
will reap in joy."
The vision of the crying matriarch Rachel (rahel mevaka al baneha)
uses our words in a prophetic consolation:
(min'i kolekh mi-bekhi ve-einayikh mi-dim'ah), "Restrain your
voice from weeping, you eyes from shedding tears." It also promises a
happy Zionist conclusion: "The children shall return to their country."
The Hebrew root
(vet, khaf, heh) is found in many a biblical narrative and is associated
with several biblical figures. First, there are the "other" sons
of the patriarchs. Both Ishmael and Esau shed real tears, the former because
he is dying of thirst, the latter because he is deprived of his blessing;
both are promised future prosperity. Curiously, there is a neat linguistic
parallelism in both episodes. In the Ishmael story, though God hears the son's
voice, it is his mother Hagar who cries:
(va-tissa et kolah ve-tevk), "She lifted her voice and wept."
In the Esau episode:
(va-yissa esav kolo va-yevk), "Esau lifted his voice and wept."
There is the story of Joseph for whom kissing and crying out of happiness
go together. Joseph, even though he is viceroy to the Pharaoh, cannot restrain
his sentimental side when his brothers come to Egypt for food. He finally
breaks down and, after weeping with Benjamin,
(va-yenashek le-khol ehav va-yevk aleihem), "he kissed all his
brothers and wept upon them."
In some instances, crying has the same function as prayer, as a tool to ask
God for more life. When Hannah cries because she is childless, her husband
Elkanah reminds her that his love for her transcends her fertility and that
she therefore has no need to cry:
(hana lameh tivki), "Hannah, why should you cry?"
David stops crying when the infant he has fathered with Bathsheba dies. As
David explains to his advisors,
(be-od ha-yeled hai tzamti va-evkeh) "I fasted and cried as long
as the child was alive" 
now that he is dead we must go on with living.
In modern Hebrew, in less serious situations, one would say resignedly,
(haval al ha-dema'ot), literally, "It's a shame to waste the tears,"
and figuratively, " There's nothing to be done."
The biblical expression
has a different connotation in modern Israeli Hebrew. It is used in cases
where things just do not "go well." Thus, a woman discussing her
friend's ill-fitting item of clothing might say,
(ha-simla bakhta aleha), "The dress did not suit her at all."
From weeping matriarchs to weeping dresses it
shows how far we've come.
articles related to the topic of TEARS
HEBREW Table of Contents