Introduction to Yirmiya
Compared to Sefer Yeshaya, Yirmiya is considerably more grim and tragic. The Talmud Yerushalmi notes that of all the books of prophecy, Yirmiya is the only one which does not conclude on a positive note. Who was Yirmiya and what is the sefer of his nevuos about?
Yirmiya the Prophet
Yirmiya was the son of Chilkiyah the prophet, who was a descendant of Rachav. Yirmiya was born on Tisha B’Av, and was named Yirmiya because in his days ‘Hashem’s strict judgment increased’ (nitromemah middas ha’din). Moreover, the Zohar connects the name Yirmiya with the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Yirmiya lived for 91 years during the period of the first Beis Hamikdash including its destruction, and he prophesied from the days of King Yoshiyahu until the first year in the reign of Koresh. He was a student of Tzefaniah the prophet and Baruch ben Neriah (the Rebbe of Ezra) was his student. Yirmiya’s contemporaries were Chuldah the prophetess (who was actually a relative of his) and Tzefaniah. Chazal tell us that Chuldah used to prophesy for the women, Tzefaniah would prophesy in the Beis Midrash, and Yirmiya in the marketplaces. The Radak (Yechezkel 1:3) cites the Talmud Yerushalmi which notes that Yirmiya’s son was Yechezkel, and his grandson was Ben Sira.
Interestingly, Chazal reveal that Yirmiya used to be on friendly terms with Nevuchadnetzar before the latter became the evil all-conquering king. In fact, Yirmiya (prophetically seeing that Nevuchadnetzar was destined to conquer Yerushalayim) made a deal whereby he would be given half a day to save anything he wanted from Yerushalayim should Nevuchadnetzar conquer the city. This happened and Nevuchadnetzar kept his word. After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Yirmiya refused the orders of Nevuzradan (the Babylonian chief officer) to join his people in Bavel. Instead, Yirmiya opted to remain in Yerushalayim with the small number of Bnei Yisrael who remained there. After the assassination of Gedaliah, the remaining Jews in Yerushalayim ignored Yirmiya’s advice and made their way down to Egypt. Yirmyah followed them there and rebuked them, with the tragic result that they murdered Yirmiya. It was the Egyptians (who had much respect for Yirmiya) who buried Yirmiya. He was eventually reburied by King Alexandra in Alexandria.
Yirmiya seemed to have a rather difficult life. He was chased out of his hometown due to his harsh prophesies, and did not prove much more popular in Yerushalayim. He was plagued by false prophets who constantly contradicted his prophetic messages. Indeed, he was twice put in very harsh prison cells after false rumors were circulated by his enemies that he was collaborating with the Kasdim to overthrow Yerushalayim. Yet, he was a man of giant spiritual stature and commitment to truth: he continued following Hashem’s word and publicizing His messages to the people despite the great personal risk. As a show of his great spiritual stature, Yerushalayim was only conquered once Yirmiya left the city. In his introduction to Yirmiya, the Abarbanel proves Yirmiya’s shleimus and writes that Yirmiya got close to attaining the prophetic level of Moshe Rabbeinu. For a brief foray into the clarity of a prophet as well as a fascinating critique of the Abrabanel’s appraisals of Yirmiya regarding his eloquence, see the Malbim’s introduction to Yirmiya.
Yirmiya the Sefer
The Gemara tells us that Yirmiya wrote his own sefer, as well as Megillas Eichah and Sefer Melachim. In fact, the title ‘Eichah’ is an acronym for ani Yirmiya kohen ha’anatot (I, Yirmiya the Kohen from Anotot – his hometown). Sefer Yirmiya is famous for its prophecies about the destruction of the (first) Beis Hamikdash, and Eichah for the lamentations after its destruction. The Abarbanel splits up Sefer Yirmiya’s 52 chapters into 17 prophecies. The Malbim states that several of the prophecies of Yirmiya seem thematically repetitive to emphasize the fact that these prophecies were destined to soon be actualized (as was the case).