Shiur #33: "In Remembrance Lies The Secret of the Redemption" Psalm 137 (Part I)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet





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"In remembrance lies THe secret of the redemption"

Psalm 137 (Part I)

Rav Elchanan Samet



1            (1)     By the rivers of Babylon,

                        there we sat and wept,

                        as we remembered Zion.

              (2)     On the willows in its midst

                        we hung our lyres.

2            (3)     For there our captors required of us words of song,

                        and our despoilers gladness.

                        "Sing to us the songs of Zion."

              (4)     How shall we sing the Lord's song

                        on foreign soil?

3            (5)     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

                        may my right hand forget.

              (6)     May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,

                        if I do not remember you,

                        if I do not raise Jerusalem

                        to the head of my joy.

4            (7)     Remember, O Lord, against the children of Edom

                        the day of Jerusalem,

                        those who said, "Raze it, raze it

                        to its very foundations."

5            (8)     O daughter of Babylon, filled with plunder,

                        happy is he who will repay you

                        your recompense for what you have done to us.

              (9)     Happy is he who will seize

                        and dash your infants against the rock.




Although echoes of the destruction of Jerusalem and of Israel's exile can also be heard elsewhere in the book of Tehilim, no other psalm describes these events in such concrete fashion, with explicit references to the circumstances of time and place, and even to the names of the nations involved in these events.[1]


We have divided the psalm into five stanzas, each with its own distinctive character, substantively and stylistically. Let us begin by outlining the psalm's stanzas, noting the uniqueness of each stanza from these two perspectives.




            This stanza describes the concrete situation in which the exiles in Babylon found themselves when they first encountered the land of their exile. The Babylonian landscape and the new place of the exiles are emphasized in this stanza: "By the rivers of Babylon;"[2] "there;" "on the willows in its midst."


            We have already stated that this stanza describes the exiles' initial encounter with Babylon. This conclusion follows primarily from the description of the exiles' state of mind: they sit and weep, longing for Zion. The use of the first person plural attests to the fact that the speakers still constitute a group, and have not yet gone off in their separate ways. They had brought their lyres along with them from their homeland. This suggests that we are dealing with Levites who had occupied themselves with music and song in the Temple (as will be clarified in stanza 2), and that owing to the lyres' disuse, they had been hung from the willow branches as if no one wanted them anymore. This, too, gives tangible expression to the exiles' mourning.




            This stanza is characterized by the citation of a dialogue – perhaps real, perhaps literary – between the Babylonian captors and their captives, containing a request and its rejection. This dialogue revolves around the word "shir" as a noun or a verb (song, sing) that appears five times in various different forms.


            Like the previous stanza, this stanza also emphasizes the new place – Babylon, the land of exile: "For there (the rivers of Babylon) we sat;" "on foreign soil." The difference is that in stanza 2, mention is also made of the human factor connected to the exile: "our captors," "our despoilers,"[3] the Babylonians.


            The identification of the speakers in this and in the previous stanzas as Levites who had sung and played in the Temple is now reinforced: "The song of Zion," which they are now being asked to sing, is the "Lord's song" – that is, the song that they had sung in the Temple.


            How are we to understand the request/demand made by the captors of their captives, "Sing to us"? If it was made while the exiles were weeping ("there we sat and wept"), it can only be understood as an act of emotional torture, for a person who is crying is incapable of singing. It is, however, possible that stanza 2 describes a later chronological stage, after the exiles had stopped weeping, and that their captors' request was an innocent one. The songs of Zion – the songs sung by the Levites in the Temple – may very well have been popular among the nations. Since we are dealing here with a group of Levites who had brought their lyres along with them, their captors may have asked them to entertain them with their well-known songs.


            If we accept the second approach, the exiles' response, "How shall we sing…" can be understood as a real answer, explaining to the captors why their request cannot be fulfilled. It is also possible to understand that this is their internal response to their captors' request, a response that was never actually expressed openly. The formulation of their response as a rhetorical question, "How (eikh) shall we sing…" expresses the depth of their distress in a manner reminiscent of Sefer Eikha.




            Despite its unique literary quality, which justifies seeing it as a stanza that stands on its own, stanza 2 continues stanza 1 both substantively and stylistically. The first person plural speakers in this stanza are the same speakers as in the previous stanza; the place is the same place ("for[4] there" – "on the rivers of Babylon"); and the same issue is discussed in both stanzas – refraining from playing and singing on Babylonian soil. Stanza 2 ends in a manner similar to the beginning of stanza 1, thus creating a framework for the two stanzas: "By the rivers of Babylon" – "on foreign soil." Both stanzas mention the word "Zion," although in opposite senses: in stanza 1, remembering Zion causes the exiles to weep, whereas in stanza 2, the captors ask the exiles for words of song and gladness – to hear the song of Zion. This highlights the contrast between the weeping and the gladness in these two stanzas. These contrasts are, of course, meant to intensify the description of the exiles' grief.


            Several pairs of words connected to these two stanzas are plays on words:


· "Talinu" – we hung our lyres as a sign of mourning (stanza 1), "ve-tolelenu" – and our despoilers asked us to sing (stanza 2).

· "Yashavnu" – we sat - and "shovenu" – our captors - are two words that characterize the exile, regarding respectively the place and the people.

· In the first stanza, it says that we hung "kinorotenu," our lyres, and at the end of the second stanza it says "al admat nekhar," on foreign soil. The words "kinor" and "nekhar" are comprised of the same letters arranged in different order.


The conclusion to be drawn from these varied connections is that stanzas 1-2 are a pair of stanzas that constitute a single unit in the psalm. This conclusion will be reinforced when we see the uniqueness of stanza 3 and the profound differences between it and the two previous stanzas.




            The striking feature of stanza 3 is that it contains three oaths:


"If I forget you, O Jerusalem" – an oath not to forget Jerusalem.

"If I do not remember you" – an oath to remember the city.

"If I do not raise Jerusalem” - an oath to raise it to the head of his joy.


            In the first two oaths, mention is made, in a manner that is not typical of Scripture, of the punishment that the person taking the oath accepts upon himself should he not fulfill his oath. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem – may my right hand forget," measure for measure. “If I do not remember you (perhaps in the sense of continual mention) – may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth," that is, may the faculty of speech be removed from me, once again, measure for measure.


            The two first oaths demonstrate chiastic parallelism:


If I forget you,                                            may my right hand forget

O Jerusalem


May my tongue cleave                            if I do not remember you

to the roof of my mouth


            In the second oath, there is a rise in the level of the oath-taker's commitment to Jerusalem and in the level of the punishment that he accepts upon himself. He moves from an oath not to forget to an oath of positive remembrance and from a physical punishment to a punishment of more serious significance – cessation of speech.


            As for the third oath, "if I do not raise Jerusalem to the head of my joy" – its violation might be punishable by the same punishment as the previous oath, as if it said: "May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, or if I do not raise…" It is possible, however, that this oath stands on its own, and that it should be followed by three dots alluding to a punishment that is not written, as is the case regarding most of the oaths found in Scripture.[5]


            In any event, in the third oath, the level of the oath-taker's obligation rises even further. He commits himself to remember Jerusalem even in times of joy, and thus to dilute his joy with sadness. What is more, he will raise the remembrance of Jerusalem "to the head of his joy," that is, it will not be incidental, merely to fulfill his obligation, but rather it will stand out with prominence.




            Stanza 3 does not seem to be a continuation of stanzas 1-2. It differs from them both substantively and stylistically, and it might even be argued that a certain tension exists between it and the previous stanzas.


            Let us first note the various stylistic characteristics that distinguish stanza 3 from the previous 2 stanzas:


· In stanza 3 there is a shift from first person plural to first person singular.

· In the previous stanzas, the term "Zion" is mentioned twice, whereas in this stanza, the term "Jerusalem" is mentioned twice.

· In stanza 3, Jerusalem is addressed in second person, a phenomenon not found in the previous stanzas.

· The verbs in the previous stanzas are in past tense: "we sat," "we wept," "we hung," "they required." In contrast, the verbs in stanza 3 are in the future tense: "I will forget," "may it forget," "may it cleave," "I will remember," "I will raise."


As for the substance, there are two sources of tension between stanza 3 and the previous two stanzas. First, the need for such a strong three-fold oath attests to a difficulty that requires considerable emotional effort to overcome. But someone who weeps when he remembers Zion, like the speakers in the previous stanzas, should not have to take an oath in order to remember it. Second, what characterizes stanzas 1-2 is the emotional state of weeping and distress. The word "simcha" (joy) is indeed mentioned in stanza 2, but merely in order to be rejected; our despoilers asked us to give voice to words of song and gladness, but we told them that this is impossible. From where, then, does joy appear at the end of stanza 3? And here we are dealing with "my joy," joy coming from me. What is this joy?


We shall return to the relationship between stanza 3 and the previous two stanzas later in this study.




            What distinguishes stanza 4 from the rest of the stanzas is the address to God that is made at its very beginning: "Remember, O Lord…" Whatever is stated in this stanza is stated in the framework of this turning to God.[6]


            This stanza consists of a petition that revenge be taken from the children of Edom for their participation in the destruction of Jerusalem and their rejoicing over it; "the day of Jerusalem" refers to the day of its destruction. The psalmist describes their participation in the destruction of Jerusalem in a dramatic manner, citing the words of the children of Edom to the Babylonians destroying Jerusalem: "Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!" That is to say, utterly destroy Jerusalem, to the point that you expose the bedrock upon which it had been built.


            In stanza 4, the psalmist's consciousness detaches itself from the time and place in which he is now found, on Babylonian soil and facing the Babylonians. It goes back to an earlier time – the day of Jerusalem's destruction and to the people whom he had left far behind – the children of Edom.


            The treachery of the Edomites, a nation that neighbored and was related to Israel, against their brothers at the time of the destruction of the Temple is noted in several books of the Prophets and the Writings, and it brought the prophets and poets of Israel to express their hope for revenge against Edom.[7]




            Stanza 5's proximity to stanza 4 is clear: both contain a petition for revenge against the nations that brought destruction upon Jerusalem. Nevertheless, stanza 5 is different than the previous stanza. In stanza 5, there is no turning to God with a request that He remember (and mete out punishment); rather, the stanza is directed at the "daughter of Babylon,"[8] the Babylonian people themselves,[9] and this call (which, of course, was not really made to the Babylonians) contains an impassioned curse. This difference is reasonable owing to the distance of the Edomites from the location of the exiled psalmist, as opposed to the presence of the Babylonians "hosting" the exiles in Babylon.


            Nevertheless, in stanza 5 as well the psalmist detaches himself from the temporal circumstances in which he finds himself (as is the case in stanza 4). The dashing of infants against a rock is an image that arises in the psalmist's memory from the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, and the cruel perpetrators were, of course, the Babylonians. This is clear from the psalmist's previous words: "Happy is he who will repays you your recompense for what you have done to us." Moreover, the image of dashing infants against a rock does not fit in with the Babylonian landscape, where there are no rocks; it is rather influenced by the picture of the infants of Israel being dashed against the rocks of Judea.[10]


            The curse, "Happy is he who will repay you… Happy is he who will seize…," also carries us off in time from the present in which the psalmist lives, but this time to the unknown future, when some other nation will rise up and treat the Babylonians as they had treated Israel.[11]


            It turns out, then, that stanzas 4-5, like stanzas 1-2, constitute a separate unit in the psalm. This unit deals with a single subject, which is different than the subjects of the other stanzas in the psalm. Nevertheless, they are two separate stanzas, even more different from each other than stanzas 1 and 2.


            In this unit, there is a return to the first person plural, similar to the first unit in the psalm - "Your recompense for what you have done to us" - as opposed to stanza 3, which is formulated in the first person singular.[12]


            Here too there is no clear connection between stanzas 4-5 and stanza 3 which precedes them, despite the fact that it is possible to point to several connections between stanza 5 and stanzas 1-2 at the beginning of the psalm.[13]


(To be continued.)


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] In tractate Soferim (18:4), our psalm is mentioned as the psalm recited on Tisha Be-Av, and this is the custom in Sefardic communities to this very day.

In Ashkenazi communities, it is customary to recite this psalm prior to Birkat Ha-mazon at ordinary (non-mitzva) meals on days when tachanun is recited. At mitzva meals and on days when tachanun is not recited, Tehilim 126, "When the Lord brought back the return of Zion," is recited in its place. The reason for this custom seems to be that Birkat Ha-mazon is fundamentally a blessing over the good land that God gave us and whose bread we are eating. Therefore, when reciting Birkat Ha-mazon outside of Eretz Yisrael at ordinarily meals eaten on weekdays, we first mention that the people of Israel are now in exile; on Shabbat and festival days and at mitzvah meals, all of which involve rejoicing, we mention the hope to return to Zion.

[2] The "rivers of Babylon" are not necessarily the two great rivers of that country, the Tigris and the Euphrates, but rather a reference to the dense network of canals that characterize the valley lying between the two rivers.

[3] The word "toleleinu" is difficult. Fortunately, it appears here in a parallel construct (which is rare in our psalm): "Our captors (shoveinu) words of song/and our despoilers (ve-toleleinu) gladness." Thus, the word "toleleinu" parallels the word "shoveinu." The Aramaic translation renders the term "bezazana," "our despoilers." It seems that it understands "toleleinu" as "sholeleinu," "those who took us as spoil (shalal)."

[4] This instance of "ki" should not be understood as "because," but rather as "indeed."

[5] The first explanation seems to be more convincing, for the oath-taker in this verse does not refrain from mentioning the punishments connected to his first two oaths. Why then should he refrain from mentioning the punishment connected to his third oath?

[6] God's name is mentioned once again in the psalm, in stanza 2 in the expression, "the Lord's song." There, however, God is not being addressed, nor is He even being discussed. His name is merely part of the construct "the Lord's song."

[7] It would seem that the children of Edom encouraged the total destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, because they wished to inherit the land of Judea. See Yechezkel 35, especially verses 5 and 10 (although the whole chapter is relevant to our issue; see also ibid. 36:5). The book of Ovadia is a prophecy against Edom connected to their actions on the day of Jerusalem's destruction; see verses 10-15. Malakhi's prophecies in the first chapter of his book and the words at the end of the fourth chapter of Eikha (vv. 21-22) should also be understood in light of the Edomites' participation in the destruction of Jerusalem.

[8] "Ha-sheduda" – filled with plunder (shod), as we find in rabbinic Hebrew: "shatui" – filled with drink, i.e., drunk (S.D. Goitein, Iyyunim be-Mikra, p. 217). See above, at the beginning of stanza 2, regarding shoveinu and toleleinu, and note 3.

[9] A distinction should be made between "the children of Edom" in stanza 4 and "the daughter of Babylon" in stanza 5. The children of Edom are those specific people who said, "Raze it, raze it…," whereas the daughter of Babylon is a poetic designation of the entire people of Babylon (just as Israel is called in the poetic sections of Scripture "daughter of Zion"), both in that generation and in later generations. Indeed, the psalmist's curse of "the daughter of Babylon" refers to the infants, and not to those of the present generation who brought about the destruction of Jerusalem.

[10] S.D. Goitein makes an important and interesting comment regarding the curse of Babylon in stanza 5 in his commentary to the last section of the book of Tehilim (Iyyunim be-Mikra, pp. 216-217):

There were times when lovers of Scripture were exceedingly distressed that such cruel words of vengeance were included in the Holy Writ. There is the famous statement of Prof. Israel Friedlander, z"l, a prominent man of science and ardent lover of Zion, who sacrificed his life on behalf of his people: "I would allow my right arm to be cut off, were I first allowed to erase from Scripture the last verse in Tehilim 137." Today as well we lament the fact that the author of… Tehilim 137 was forced to utter such terrible words. But our historical sensitivity has changed in light of the horrendous things that we have witnessed, for… The words of Tehilim 137 are but a response to what the psalmist saw with his own eyes. We understand the psalmist's godly anger against the daughter of Babylon.

[11] This future is described in the prophecy regarding Babylon in Yeshayahu 13, which tells of Babylon's defeat at the hands of the Medes: "Every man that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is caught shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes… Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them… Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children" (vv. 15-18).

[12] This is not proven with respect to stanza 4, for there the speaker does not mention himself, neither in the first person singular nor in the first person plural. However, owing to the subject of this stanza, which is connected to the relationship between Israel and Edom, and because of its connection to stanza 5, it is reasonable to assume that the speaker in stanza 5 is that same collective, speaking in first person plural.

[13] "By the rivers of Babylon" – "daughter of Babylon;" addressing Babylon in second person parallels in reverse fashion the Babylonian captors' address to Israel in stanza 2. See also above, note 8.