Shiur #35: "In Remembrance Lies The Secret of the Redemption" Psalm 137 (Part III)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet



Lecture 35:

"In remembrance lies THe secret of the redemption"

Psalm 137 (Part III)

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.




The transition that we have been describing from the shock of the initial encounter with exile to the normalization of life is an inevitable and even positive transition. Exile is a temporary state, but long enough so as not to allow paralysis and the cessation of normal life. The people of Israel must continue to live and reproduce even in exile so that when the redemption comes, there will be masses of people returning to their homeland.


Concealed in this positive process, however, is the danger of adjusting to exile, reconciling with its existence, and forgetting the connection to Zion. The middle stanza in our psalm, stanza 3, struggles with this danger, while bestowing legitimacy on rejoicing even in exile.


The prophet Yirmiyahu dealt with similar problems in connection with the exile of Yehoyakhin. Eleven years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, Nevuchadnetzar, king of Babylon, exiled king Yehoyakhin, and with him the entire leadership in Jerusalem. It seems that these exiles "were sitting on their suitcases," unwilling to make peace with the new reality. What brought them to behave in this manner was the fact that Jerusalem was still standing, a king from the house of David was still in power, and the Temple was still functioning. False prophets promised a speedy return to Jerusalem, and the exiles were inclined to believe them.


To counter this attitude, Yirmiyahu sent a "book" (a letter) to the exiles, the content of which is recorded in Yirmiyahu 29:


1          Now these are the words of the letter that Yirmiya the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the remainder of the elders who were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people whom Nevuchadnetzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon…

4          Thus says the Lord… to all that are carried away captives whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon.

5          Build houses and dwell in them, and plant gardens and the fruit of them.

6          Take wives and beget sons and daughters, that they may bear sons and daughters; that you may be increased there, and not diminished.


Yirmiyahu calls for a normalization of life and for continued existence and increase in numbers in exile. The reason is as follows:


10       For thus says the Lord: That after seventy years are accomplished at Babylon, I will take heed of you and perform My good word towards you, in causing you to return to this place.


Does Yirmiyahu also instruct the exiles about how to shape their attitudes regarding Jerusalem while living normal lives in exile, as is done in our psalm?


One verse in Yirmiyahu's prophecy addresses the issue of consciousness during the period of exile, but it is exceedingly surprising. After Yirmiyahu instructs the exiles in verses 4-6 to live normal lives in exile, he continues:


7          And seek the peace of the city into which I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace shall you have peace.


Is Yirmiyahu referring to Babylon? If so, his words sharply contradict our psalm. The exiles in our psalm vigorously curse Babylon and pray for its destruction, knowing that as long as Babylon sits in peace, their exile will continue, and that when it is destroyed, they may be able to return to their homeland. Yirmiyahu himself prophesies a prophecy of doom about Babylon in chapter 51, and hinges Israel's redemption on its downfall. What, then, does the prophet mean in verse 7?


R. Reuven Margaliot deals with this issue in his book, "Ha-Mikra Ve-Ha-Mesora" (chapter 19):[1]


"And seek the peace of the city into which I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace shall you have peace" (Yirmiyahu 29:7).

Even before I knew how to properly read a biblical verse, I was familiar with these words of the prophets from the thousands of placards during the elections for the Austrian parliament, the Galician state council, and the like. Those who supported the ruling regime based their outlook on them. This way of understanding these words of the prophet was firmly accepted even by those who tried to penetrate to the substance of the prophet's intention, which, according to this understanding, involves reconciliation with the exile.[2]

It is interesting, however, that our Rabbis, the talmudic sages, had a different understanding of these words of the prophets. According to them, the prophet commands in this order that even when Israel is in exile, they must seek the peace of Zion.

See Midrash Tanchuma, Vayigash, s.v., ve-et Yehuda shalach le-fanav, where they say: "Whatever happened to Yosef happened to Zion, etc. Regarding Yosef it is written: 'Go, see the peace of your brothers,' and regarding Zion it is written: 'And seek the peace of the city.'" And similarly also in tractate Derekh Eretz, end of the chapter regarding peace, in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: "The Holy One, blessed be He said to Israel: You have caused My house to be destroyed and My children to be exiled. Seek its peace and I will forgive you. What is the reason? 'Seek the peace of Jerusalem,' and it says, 'Seek the peace of the city.'" And similarly in Yalkut Malakhi, no. 589, brought in Reshit Chokhma, Or Olam, ch. 20, and in Midrash Agur, p. 77: "We are obligated to seek the peace of our city and our Temple, as it is stated: 'And seek the peace of the city.'"

It is evident from the style of their words that they did not come to expound this verse as referring to Zion, but rather that they understood that this was the plain sense of Scripture. And, indeed, this understanding accords with the spirit of the entire passage in which they are promised about the return to Zion, as in v. 15: "And I will bring you back to the place from which I caused you to be driven away." And see Rosh Ha-Shana 30a: "'This is Zion, whom no one seeks' – implying that it requires seeking."

The profundity of the literal sense rests on a feature that was operative when Hebrew was a spoken language, namely, "letters going backwards and forwards." When a word begins with a letter with which the previous word had ended, the letter is attached to the previous word and to the word that follows. As if it was written: "And seek the peace of the city from which I have caused you to be carried away captives" ["asher higleti etkhem misham," and not as it is written: "asher higleti etkhem shama"].[3]

The words of the prophet do not refer to Babylon, saying that in its peace shall you have peace, to the land soaked with the blood of the exiled nation, the land about which it is stated: "Happy is he who will seize and dash your infants against the rock," but rather to Zion, the house of our lives, as understood by our Sages.


            It turns out, then, that Yirmiyahu's words perfectly accord with what is stated in our psalm. Reestablishing one's life in exile is permitted, and even desirable, but it must be accompanied by constant seeking of Jerusalem. There is only one difference between what Yirmiyahu said and our psalm: Yirmiyahu prophesied while Jerusalem was still standing, and therefore the seeking of the city on the part of the exiles of Yehoyakhin would express itself in praying for the peace and welfare of Jerusalem. Our psalm, on the other hand, deals with the exile of Tzidkiyahu, following the destruction of Jerusalem, and therefore seeking it out must involve remembering it at all times and raising it to the head of our joy.




The destruction of the Second Temple was not accompanied by complete exile, as was the destruction of the first Temple. Nevertheless, the members of the generations following the destruction of the Second Temple, along with the Sages who led them, struggled with an issue similar to the one alluded to in our psalm and stated explicitly in the prophecy of Yirmiyahu: what is the proper balance between mourning the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and returning to normal life?


Certain circles in the nation were overcome by profound grief, serious enough to disrupt normal life on both the individual and the community level. There were Sages who opposed this approach and ordered a return to normal life, together with ceaseless remembering of Jerusalem on all occasions of building and celebration in a person's life. Guidance for this balance between the two needs was found in our psalm.


Thus, we read in a baraita appearing in the Talmud at the end of the third chapter of Bava Batra (60b):


Our Rabbis taught: When the Temple was destroyed for the second time, large numbers in Israel became ascetics, binding themselves neither to eat meat nor to drink wine. R. Yehoshua[4] entered into conversation with them and said to them: My sons, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine? They replied: Shall we eat flesh which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, now that this altar is in abeyance? Shall we drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, but now no longer? He said to them: If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased. They said: [That is so, and] we can manage with fruit. We should not eat fruit either, [he said,] because there is no longer an offering of first-fruits. Then we can manage with other fruits [they said]. But, [he said,] we should not drink water, because there is no longer any ceremony of the pouring of water. To this they could find no answer.


            R. Yehoshua disagreed with the approach adopted by the ascetics, who, owing to the destruction of the Temple, began to conduct their lives in an austere manner, abstaining from meat and wine. He entered into a conversation with them that took their approach to the absurd extreme until they were unable to answer him.


            What alternative did R. Yehoshua offer them? How could they continue mourning the destruction of the Temple while leading normal lives, eating meat, drinking wine, and carrying on as usual?


He said to them: My sons, come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen.[5] To mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure…[6] The Sages therefore have ordained thus. A man may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare…[7] A man can prepare a full-course banquet, but he should leave out an item or two…[8] A woman can put on all her ornaments, but leave off one or two…[9] For so it says: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget, 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]."[10] …Whoever mourns for Zion will be privileged to behold her joy, as it says (Yeshayahu 66:10): "Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all you that love her[; rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn for her]."[11]


            Not all the Sages agreed with the approach underlying R. Yehoshua's words. In the continuation of the same passage, we read the words of a younger contemporary of R. Yehoshua, the Tanna R. Yishmael, who identifies with the inclinations of the ascetics but in practice does not disagree with R. Yehoshua:


R. Yishmael ben Elisha said: Since the day of the destruction of the Temple, we should by right bind ourselves not to eat meat nor drink wine, but we do not lay a hardship on the community unless the majority can endure it. And from the day that a government has come into power which issues cruel decrees against us and forbids to us the observance of the Torah and the precepts and does not allow us to enter into the "week of the son" [circumcision],… we ought by right to bind ourselves not to marry and beget children, and the seed of Abraham our father would come to an end of itself. However, let Israel go their way; it is better that they should err in ignorance than presumptuously.


            Note the extremes to which things were carried!


            The spirit of Yirmiyahu's prophecy and of Tehilim 137 is certainly much closer to the words of R. Yehoshua.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Mossad HaRav Kook, 5724, pp. 64-67.

[2] Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi, a student of S.D. Luzzatto, offers an interesting explanation of this verse. We find in the introduction to his commentary to the book of Yirmiyahu (Ho'il Moshe, Cracow, 5652):

Yirmiyahu is also unique in that he talks to the hearts of his people to seek out the peace of the city to which they have been exiled, for in its peace they shall have peace, in such a way that according to his words we can be Jews with all our heart and soul, and remember Jerusalem, our soul's longing, without ceasing to love our homeland as a child loves his mother…

[3] Here, R. Margaliot comments: "The additional heh in 'shamah' instead of 'sham' is [part of] Yirmiyahu's style. See also 27:22: 'They shall be carried to Babylon, and there (ve-shamah) they shall be;' 27:16: 'The vessels of the Lord's house shall now shortly be brought back from Babylon (mi-Bavelah).'"

R. Margaliyot discusses the rule of "letters going backwards and forwards" in notes 1-3 to chapter 19 and throughout chapter 20, and he brings tens of examples of the use of this rule in biblical exegesis. Some are exceedingly illuminating in their novelty and in the way that they resolve serious exegetical difficulties (as in the case of the prophecy of Yirmiyahu under discussion).

[4] R. Yehoshua ben Chananya was a Tanna of the second generation, a student of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, and he lived during the generation of the destruction.

[5] He apparently means that the obligation to mourn the destruction of the Temple was already decreed after the destruction of the First Temple (e.g., the fasts mentioned in Zekharya 7-8, and what is stated in our psalm).

[6] Most of the community cannot endure an ascetic life in which there is no eating of meat or drinking of wine or abstention from normal life which includes celebrations.

[7] Here, the Amora'im interrupt and explain the precise parameters of this law: a cubit by a cubit by the door.

[8] Here, too, R. Pappa interrupts and explains what is left out: a dish of fish.

[9] Here, Rav interrupts and explains what is left out: "bat tzeda'a." The reference seems to be to a bride, who must leave out one of the usual bridal ornaments. See also Sota 9:14, which records various decrees connected to brides and grooms that were instituted following the destruction of the Temple.

[10] a. Instead of the words in brackets, the gemara reads "etc.;" as usual, this means that the essence of the derivation is from the latter part of the verse which is not cited. Here it is clear that the derivation is from the words, "if I do not raise Jerusalem to the head of my joy" – that at every joyous occasion, such as those mentioned in the baraita, expression must be given to remembering Jerusalem and mourning over it.

b. Here once again, the gemara interrupts the presentation of the baraita and cites the words of the Amora R. Yitzchak: "What is meant by 'to the head of my joy'?  R. Yitzchak said: This is symbolized by the burnt ashes which we place on the head of a bridegroom." Placing burnt ashes on the head of the bridegroom is a realization of the metaphor in the verse, "to the head of my joy."

[11] See above, note 10a. The same applies to the words in brackets here.