Shiur #33: "In Remembrance Lies The Secret of the Redemption" Psalm 137 (Part I)
of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
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"In remembrance lies THe secret of the redemption"
Psalm 137 (Part I)
Rav Elchanan Samet
(1) By the
there we sat and wept,
as we remembered
(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
(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
to the head of my joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the children of
the day of
those who said, "Raze it, raze it
to its very foundations."
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.
I. THE FIVE STANZAS IN THE PSALM
Although echoes of
the destruction of
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.
STANZA 1 - "WE HUNG OUR LYRES"
This stanza describes the concrete situation in which the exiles in
We have already stated that this stanza describes the exiles' initial
STANZA 2 - "HOW SHALL WE SING"
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
The identification of the speakers in this and in the previous stanzas as
Levites who had sung and played in the
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
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.
THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN STANZA 2 AND STANZA 1
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
there" "on the rivers of
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.
STANZA 3 - THE THREEFOLD OATH
The striking feature of stanza 3 is that it contains three oaths:
"If I forget
you, O Jerusalem" an oath not to forget
"If I do not remember you" an oath to remember the city.
"If I do not
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
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
As for the third oath, "if I do not raise
In any event, in the third oath, the level of the oath-taker's obligation
rises even further. He commits himself to remember
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN STANZA 3 AND THE PREVIOUS STANZAS
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 "
In stanza 3,
· 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
We shall return to the relationship between stanza 3 and the previous two stanzas later in this study.
STANZA 4 - THE CHILDREN OF EDOM
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.
This stanza consists of a petition that revenge be taken from the
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
The treachery of the Edomites, a nation that neighbored and was related
STANZA 5 - "O DAUGHTER OF BABYLON"
Stanza 5's proximity to stanza 4 is clear: both contain a petition for
revenge against the nations that brought destruction upon
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
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.
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.
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.
(To be continued.)
(Translated by David Strauss)
 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.
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
 The "rivers of
 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)."
 This instance of "ki" should not be understood as "because," but rather as "indeed."
 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?
 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."
 It would seem that
the children of
 "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.
 A distinction should
be made between "the children of
 S.D. Goitein makes
an important and interesting comment regarding the curse of
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
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
 This future is
described in the prophecy regarding
 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
 "By the rivers of