Shiur #36: "When The Lord Brought Back The Return Of Zion" Psalm 126

  • Rav Elchanan Samet




Lecture 36:

"WHen the Lord brought back the return of Zion"

Psalm 126

Rav Elchanan Samet



1 A Song of Ascents



When the Lord brought back

The return of Zion,

We were like dreamers.



Bring back, O Lord,


our return,

like the streams in the south.



Then our mouth

Was filled with laughter

And our tongue with joy.




Those that sow in tears

will reap in joy.



Then they said among the nations:

"The Lord did great things

for these."



May he who goes out weeping,

bearing the sack of seed.



The Lord did great things

For us.

We were glad.




come home in joy,

bearing his sheaves.


            Many people relate to psalm 126 as the reverse of psalm 137. Although these two psalms reflect the same historical period - that of the Babylonian exile and the return of the exiles to Zion - psalm 137 describes the experience of exile and is filled with weeping, longing, and bitter memories, while psalm 126 describes the experience of returning to Zion and is filled with laughter, gladness, and joy.[1]


            The truth is that these two psalms are very different in nature, and owing to this difference we must consider the relationship between them with respect to the central issue discussed in each of them and with respect to the historical period that each reflects.


            At the beginning of our study of psalm 137, we noted that no other psalm in the book of Tehillim describes the concrete circumstances of the time and place in which it was written and the historical background to its composition as does psalm 137. As for psalm 126, not only can we say nothing of the sort, but the situation is just the opposite. Its historical background is obscure; the point in time in which the first half of the psalm (stanzas 1-4) was said is subject to disagreement among the commentators; the relationship between its two halves raises a difficulty; and the connection between stanzas 6-8 and the previous stanzas is not at all clear.




The first question to be raised regards the meaning of the words "when the Lord brought back shivat Tzion" and "bring back sheviteinu, O Lord."


The early commentators gave a clear answer to this question. Rashi formulates this answer in a clear and concise fashion:


When the Lord brought back shivat Tzion – from the Babylonian exile.


            Other commentators understand these words (and the entire psalm) as referring to the final exile and the hope of returning from it to Zion (see, for example, the commentary of Ibn Yachya).


            The expression, "la-shuv shevut" or "le-hashiv shevut" (and the same expression where the second word is "shevit," which seems to be identical to "shevut" and often interchanges with it as a keri and ketiv) appears about thirty times in Scripture. In our psalm, the expression is found with certainty in stanza 5, "Bring back sheviteinu (ketiv: shevuteinu)," and seems to appear also at the beginning of the psalm, "when the Lord brought back shivat Tzion" – the very same expression in a slightly different form.


            What, then, is the meaning of lashuv shevut/shevit/shivat?


            The Aramaic translations translate these three interchangeable terms almost everywhere that they appear in Scripture with the word "galut," "exile." They seem to understand the word "shevut"-"shevit" as stemming from the root "shin-vet-heh," "take captive."[2] The early commentators also adopted this approach. And indeed, most places where this expression appears deal with the return of exiles to their land.


            According to this understanding, it is clear that the topic of our psalm is the return to their land of those who had been exiled from Zion, and so indeed has our psalm been understood throughout the generations.


            In recent times, however, modern commentators have argued that the root of the words "shevut"-"shevit" is "shin-vav-vet," rather than "shin-vet-heh." Here are the words of an important and relatively early representative of this new exegesis – S.D. Luzzatto in his commentary to Yirmiyahu 29:14 ("ve-shavti et shevutkhem [ketiv: shevitkhem]"):


The word "shevut" or "shevit" in this phrase, which is common in Scripture, does not stem from captivity ("sheviya") and exile, as understood by Yonatan and the Radak,[3] but rather from the root "shin-vav-vet," just as "lezut"[4] stems from the root "lamed-vav-zayin"… The meaning of the phrase is: returning a person or a nation to its original state. Proof to this: "And the Lord restored ('shav et shevut' [keri: 'shevit']) Iyov" (Iyov 42:10), where there was no captivity or exile.[5] And similarly: "When I shall restore them ('ve-shavti et shevuthen'), the restoration ('shevut') of Sedom and her daughters" (Yechezkel 16:53), for Sedom never went out into exile. And similarly we find one instance, "When the Lord brought back the return ("shivat") of Zion," which without a doubt stems from the root "shin-vav-vet."[6]


            The position of the modern commentators is convincing, not only because of the proofs adduced by Luzzatto, but for another reason as well. In all thirty instances of the word in Scripture, it appears together with the verbs "la-shuv" or "le-hashiv," which all agree derive from the root "shin-vav-vet."[7] This strong connection between the two words brought Prof. Tur-Sinai to the conjecture that:


In effect, the expression "shuv-shevut" is merely a doubling of the root "shin-vav-vet" for the sake of reinforcement, and in the sense of the hif'il conjugation, similar to the doubling of the verbs rivrev, gilgel, dikdek, and the like… According to this, the noun "shevut" has no independent life, but serves merely to complete the verb "shin-vav-vet," like the infinitive, such as "eshmor-shemor," and the like, which has no independent meaning, but only as part of the doubled verb, which is thereby emphasized.[8]


            In one place, Yechezkel 16:53-55, the prophet clearly explains the meaning of the expression "la-shuv shevut":


Verse 53

Verse 55

Ve-shavti et shevuthen:

the shevut of Sedom and her daughters,


and the shevut of Shomron and her daughters,


and shevut shevitayikh[9] in the midst of them.


When your sisters, Sedom and her daughters, shall return to their former state,

and Shomron and her daughters shall return to their former state,

then you and your daughters shall return to your former state.


            We see, then, that "la-shuv shevut" of these three cities means to return them to their former state – to rehabilitate them.[10]


            What is the significance of this explanation of the expression "la-shuv shevut" for the understanding of our psalm?


            Some of the modern commentators offer a surprising explanation. This is what Prof. Yechezkel Kaufmann says about our psalm:[11]


Psalm 126 is usually understood as the song of those who returned from exile in the days of Koresh. But already Dohem, Bertholdt, and Gunkel recognized that this is not true… [Here he brings various arguments against the accepted understanding].

It seems that this is a psalm that includes a prayer for produce during times of drought. The plague of drought is the land's humiliation in the eyes of the nations… Remembering the land with a blessing of produce constitutes its restoration. The gift of produce proclaims God's salvation "among the nations"… Now they sow in tears, but they pray that they will reap in joy. Then their tongues will be filled with joy, and among the nations they will say: "The Lord did great things for these."


            Amos Chakham offers a similar explanation in the conclusion to his commentary to our psalm in the Da'at Mikra series:[12]


It is also possible… that the psalm makes no reference at all to the return of the exiles, and that "bringing back the return of Zion" means “Bring back the original good situation.” According to this interpretation, it can be argued that the entire psalm is talking about the blessing of the land, and that it is one of the prayers that were said in times of drought and one of the expressions of thanksgiving that were said when rain fell.[13]


            In my opinion, this interpretation is far from the plain sense of Scripture. It is true that the expression "la-shuv shevut" means to rehabilitate, to restore to the original state. But an examination of the tens of instances of this expression in Scripture yields two important findings: First of all, apart from the single appearance in the book of Iyov cited by all the modern commentators, in all other places the expression appears only in national contexts – God "brings back the return" of nations and lands. Second, apart from the single appearance in Eikha 2:14,[14] in all the other places we are dealing with rehabilitation of the land following its destruction, or rehabilitation of a people following their exile by way of their return to the ruined land. Salvation from regular calamities, such as drought or war, is not called "hashavat shevut."[15] In other words, substantively, the Aramaic translations and the commentators who followed in their tracks were right when they said that "le-hashiv shevut" means to return exiles to their land, as is the case in most of the verses, even though linguistically they were mistaken.


            It seems then that the words "be-shuv Hashem et shivat Zion" should be understood as: “When the Lord redeemed and rehabilitated Zion,”[16] and "shuva Hashem et sheviteinu" should be rendered: “Redeem us from the exile and return us to our land.”[17]




Does the first half of the psalm (stanzas 1-4) describe "the return of Zion" as an event that already took place or as a hope for the future? To put the question differently, are the speakers in stanzas 1-4 in the Babylonian exile prior to the redemption, vividly imagining how God will redeem them in the future, or are the speakers among those who already returned from exile following Koresh's proclamation, describing their past experiences?


The commentators who struggled with this question mention three factors that may help us in our examination of this issue:


·        The historical factor: Does the account of the return from Babylonia in the wake of Koresh's proclamation, as is it is found in the book of Ezra, accord with what is stated in our psalm? If there is no such correlation, stanzas 1-4 should be understood as a wish, rather than as a description of reality.


·        The literary context in our psalm: The second half of our psalm (stanza 5) opens with words similar to those found at the beginning of the psalm. "When the Lord brought back the return of Zion" – "Bring back our return, O Lord." The difference is that at the beginning of the second half these words appear as a prayer and petition to God. But if we interpret stanza 1 as a description of what has already occurred, what room is there for prayer for a return to Zion?


·        The linguistic factor: Does an analysis of the tense of the verbs appearing in the first half of the psalm teach us anything about the time in which the events described in that half actually took place?


As in many other places in Scripture, here too there is no necessary correspondence between the conclusions arising from each of these considerations; anyone wishing to understand the psalm must decide which is the critical factor for him and how he can account for the opposite conclusion rising from some other factor.


Methodologically, it seems most appropriate to consider first the linguistic factor. What do the words of the first half of our psalm tell us?


At first glance, there seems to be a contradiction between the tenses of the verbs in the first half of the psalm, and so it is difficult to adduce support from this factor. The verb in stanza 1 is "we were glad" – in the past. Accordingly, we seem to be dealing with an event that already took place, and the speakers are those who already returned from the Babylonian exile.


On the other hand, the verbs in stanzas 2-3 are in the future: "Then our mouth will be filled…," "then they will say…." According to this, we are dealing with the hopes of the exiles, who imagine in their minds the future return to Zion.[18]


How are we to reconcile this contradiction?


Grammatical tenses in biblical poetry are very flexible, and many times a verb appearing in the book of Tehillim must be understood not according to its grammatical form, but according to the context or according to exegetical logic. Accordingly, the words "hayinu ke-cholmim" can be understood in the future sense – "we will be like dreamers."[19] But the future forms in stanzas 2-3, "az yimale" and "az yomru," can also be understood in the past tense – "then our mouth was filled," "then they said."


Hence, it seems that the linguistic factor sheds no light on our question.


It may be argued, however, that the two linguistic possibilities raised above are not equal.


The assumption that "hayinu ke-cholmim" should be understood in the future sense, "we will be like dreamers," is not impossible in the language of biblical poetry. But despite the flexibility mentioned above, it seems that unless we are forced otherwise, the tense in biblical poetry should be understood in accordance with its grammatical form.


In contrast, the assumption that "az yimale" and "az yomeru" should be understood in a past sense does not depend on that same flexibility regarding tenses in biblical poetry.  It rather follows from a linguistic phenomenon found in all of Scripture, even in its prose sections.


When the word "az" appears before a verb in past tense, it means "then" (in the past). When it appears before a verb in future tense, it generally indicates future tense: "Az yedaleg ka-ayal pise'ach" (Yeshayahu 35:6) means that in the future, when the redemption arrives, the lame man shall leap as a hart. The word "az" appears 36 times in Scripture in this sense, as an indication of the future.


There are, however, 16 places in Scripture where the word "az" appears before a verb in future tense, but it is clear from the context that it denotes the past, and that the future verb must be understood as if it were a past verb.[20]


We must now ask to which category we should assign "az yimale" and "az yomeru" - to the majority of cases, where the future verb indeed indicates the future, or to the significant minority (about half as large as the majority), where the future verb indicates the past. There is no difficulty assuming that the second possibility is correct, and this spares us from being forced to interpret "hayinu semekhim" as referring to the future, "we will be glad."


From a linguistic perspective, then, it is preferable to understand the first half of the psalm as a description of what has already taken place, and that the speakers in our psalm are those whose who have already returned from the exile. The words "az yimale" and "az yomeru" should be understood as referring to the past, as is the case in many other places in Scripture where the word "az" is followed by a future tense verb.


The commentators raised two objections against this assumption based on the other two factors mentioned above. The historical factor brought the modern commentators to ask: "Their return in the days of the Persian kings would not have left such an impression to the point that they would say among the nations, 'The Lord did great things for these'… Surely it was not through their might and courageous spirit that they achieved their desires, but by way of the grace of their kings." This objection was raised by Tz.P. Chajes in his commentary to Tehillim.[21] And Kaufmann asks:[22] "We know from the accounts in the book of Ezra and Nechemya that the return in the days of Koresh was rather measly, and was not experienced as an enterprise of redemption in the eyes of the nations. It was not with trumpet calls and astonishment, but rather with hate and scorn that the nations greeted the returnees. How are we to reconcile with this the words, 'Then they said among the nations, The Lord did great things for these'?"


The literary context brought Kaufmann (in the same place) to ask the following question: "According to this explanation [that this is the song of those who already returned from the exile in the days of Koresh], there is an irresoluble contradiction between verses 1-3 [the first half] and verses 4-6 [the second half]: According to verse 1, the return already took place, whereas according to verse 4, the return will only take place in the future. It cannot be assumed that the same expression denotes two different things in adjacent[23] verses! (Gunkel)."


We will try to respond to these objections in the course of an orderly discussion of each half of our psalm. But already at first glance it is evident that there is a connection between these two questions, and it is possible that the one answers the other.


(To be continued.)


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] This perception of the connection between the two psalms seems to explain why they were selected, according to the Ashkenazi rite, to be recited before Birkat Ha-mazon: psalm 137 on ordinary days and at optional meals, and psalm 126 on Shabbat and Yom Tov and at mitzva meals. (For the rationale underlying this custom, see our study of psalm 137, note 1). In practice, however, the two parts of this single custom have had different fates. Psalm 126 is indeed enthusiastically recited, and generally sung, at its assigned times, but there are few who actually recite psalm 137 before Birkat Ha-mazon. The reason seems to be that on weekdays and at ordinary meals, people are in a rush and therefore not meticulous regarding the custom of reciting the psalm. In contrast, on Shabbat and Yom Tov and at mitzva meals, people have time to recite Birkat Ha-mazon at a leisurely pace, and therefore prior to its recitation they add psalm 126.

In any event, this custom has reinforced the perception of an oppositional connection between psalm 137 and psalm 126.

[2] This interpretation is supported by the fact that the form "shevit" appears in many places as the keri or as the ketiv or as both the keri and the ketiv. In one place it appears with certainty in the sense of captivity: "He has given his sons as fugitives and his daughters as captives (ba-shevit)" (Bamidbar 21:29), but there the term does not appear in its fixed expression, "shav shevit." What is more, there it is found in an ancient passage of poetry, in which words appear in unusual forms, and it is therefore possible that it is not the same word. In any event, the Septuagint also understands shevut/shevit in the same way that it was understood by the Aramaic translations.

[3] As stated above, this is the view of other Aramaic translations, besides that of Yonatan – the translations of the Torah and various books of the Hagiographa, and this is also the prevalent view among the medieval commentators.

[4] "And perverse (lezut) lips put far from you" (Mishlei 4:24).

[5] Nevertheless, the Aramaic translation of Iyov renders "shevut Iyov" as "the exile of Iyov," perhaps based on the perception that whatever was taken from Iyov remained in "exile" until it was restored to him.

[6] The assumption is that "shuv shivat" and "shuv shevut" are one and the same thing.

[7] a. The word "shevit" in Bamidbar 21:29 does not appear to be the same as the word under discussion here; see note 2.

b. The Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Devarim 30:4 brings the explanation of R. Yehuda Chiyyug that the meaning of the word "ve-shav" (in the expression, "ve-shav Ha-Shemet shevutekha") is "find rest," i.e., He will find rest for the captives and show them mercy, and afterwards He will gather them up." According to this, the root of the word is shin-vav-vet, but not in the sense of "return," but rather in the sense of "rest and peace." It is difficult, however, to accept this explanation with regard to all instances of the expression, "la-shuv shevut."

[8] Editor’s note to Ben Yehuda's dictionary, s.v. shevut, note 1, p. 6828.

[9] "Shevut shevitayikh" refers back to "ve-shavti et shevithen" at the beginning of the verse. Accordingly, the word "shevut" is used here in the sense of "return," and thus constitutes additional proof for the view of the modern commentators.

[10] See also Yirmiyahu 33:7: "And I will cause shevut Yehuda and shevut Israel to return, and I will build them, as at the first."

[11] Toledot Ha-Emuna Ha-Yisraelit, vol. II, p. 666, note 36. This note refers to the resolute words that Kaufmann writes on that page: "The latest historical event that has a clear trace in the book of Tehilim (137) is the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Yehuda in the days of Nevuchadnetzar. Accordingly, the latest time that has a trace in our book is the time of the destruction and the exile before the fall of Babylonia… In vain would we search the book of Tehilim for psalms from the period of the Babylonian exile [the later period of that exile] and the return to Zion… No psalm gives expression to the captives' frame of mind, their distress or their hopes…"

These words were stated in the context of a sharp debate that Kaufmann conducted with the prevailing opinion among biblical critics until the middle of the twentieth century, according to which the majority of the book of Tehilim was written during the Second Temple period, primarily during the days of the Chashmonaim. Most of Kaufmann's arguments are correct, but in his polemical zeal, he seems to have taken them to the extreme for no apparent need. It is true that the book of Tehillim is, for the most part, a very early book, and Kaufmann's arguments are convincing. But just as psalm 137 entered into the book of Tehillim, even though it describes a later period in relation to the vast majority of the book's psalms, it is theoretically possible that a single psalm, or several psalms, which describe the period of the return to Zion could have entered into the book. As for Kaufmann's unequivocal determination, "No psalm gives expression to the captives' frame of mind, their distress or their hopes," we argue that indeed there is such a psalm – psalm 126, and perhaps also another psalm as well – psalm 85.

In order to reinforce his argument, Kaufmann explains psalm 126 in a note as "a prayer for produce in a time of drought." We shall relate to this position in the body of the study below.

[12] P.466. Earlier, he explains our psalm in the accepted manner.

[13] In his usual manner, he does not mention who preceded him with this explanation.

[14] In Eikha 2:14, we read: "Your prophets have seen for you vain and foolish visions, and they have not exposed your iniquity, le-hashiv shevutekh (ketiv: shevitekh); but have prophesied for you burdens of falsehood and deceit." This is the sole place where the Aramaic translation renders the words "le-hashiv shevutekh" as "le-ahadrutakh bi-teyuvta" – "to cause you to repent" - and not as it explains the expression throughout Scripture – "to return your captivity." Rashi and other commentators also explained the words "le-hashiv shevutekh" here differently than in the rest of Scripture: "'To straighten out your naughty,' in the sense of 'shoveva.'" Even though Rashi derives the word "shevutekh" from the root "shin-vet-vet," substantively his explanation is similar to that of the Aramaic translation.

This explanation is difficult, for it ignores the meaning of the expression "le-hashiv shevut" in the rest of Scripture. It is exceedingly unreasonable that in one place alone this expression is used in an entirely different sense than "restore, rehabilitate," as it is used in all other places!

R. Moshe Alshikh seems to have been sensitive to this difficulty, for he explains this verse in Eikha as referring to the false prophets that rose up in Babylonia and in the land of Yehuda after the exile of Yehoyakhin, who prophesied about the speedy return of the exiles and the Temple vessels to Jerusalem (see Yirmiyahu, chapters 27-29), rather than expose in their prophecies the sins of the daughter of Zion and call for a mending of her ways. He writes as follows: "'Your prophets have seen for you vain and foolish visions' – that which your prophets consoled you, saying that God will return your captivity which Nevukhadnetzar sent into exile during the days of Yehoyakim and in the days of Yekhonya, for He, may He be blessed, will return the vessels to Jerusalem and He will not destroy the Temple – 'they have seen for you vain and foolish visions.'" The Alshikh seems to have understood the verse as if the words were rearranged: "Your prophets have seen for you vain and foolish visions to restore your captivity, and they have not exposed your iniquity." This explanation returns the expression "le-hashiv shevutekh" to its usual sense in the rest of Scripture.

[15] So, too, the "hashavat shevut" of Iyov (the use of this term in connection with the fate of an individual appears to be borrowed) does not refer to Iyov's deliverance from his troubles, but rather to the rehabilitation of his situation in the aftermath of the destruction of all that had been his.

[16] The word "Zion" can denote the land and it can denote the people, and it can also denote both at the same time.

[17] Apart from our psalm, the expression, "le-hashiv shevut" is found in three other psalms in Tehillim: 14:7: "O that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! Be-shuv Hashem shevut amo, Yaakov shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad." This verse repeats itself (with slight changes) in 53:7, which is psalm 14's double. 85:2: "Lord, You have been favorable to Your land, shavta shevut Yaakov." This psalm has several parallels to psalm 126.

It stands to reason that these psalms also deal with Israel's return to its land following the exile in Babylonia, either as an event that already took place (in psalm 85) or as a hope during the period of exile (in psalms 14 and 53).

[18] a. Regarding stanza 3, it cannot be argued that the past tense returns – "higdil Hashem" – and contradicts the future tense at the beginning of the stanza – "az yomeru." This is not true, for this past is the "future past" (or "future perfect"): When the nations say in the future what they will say, God will already have done great things beforehand, and therefore the past tense is used.

b. It is difficult to establish the tenses in stanza 4. This stanza is wholly in the past tense: "higdil" and "hayinu." However, if this stanza rests on what was stated at the beginning of the previous stanza, so that we should fill in: "We too shall say: God did great things…," this filling in determines its time in the future, and the verbs "higdil" and "hayinu" should be understood as future perfect, as was stated in the first part of this note. But if this stanza merely constitutes our inner response (so that at the beginning we should perhaps fill in the word, "indeed"), it indicates a real past tense (and so, too, would we have to explain stanza 3).

[19] The Malbim, although he explains the first stanza as a hope for the future, found a solution that allows leaving the words "hayinu ke-cholmim" in the past tense. He did this by rearranging the words: "'When the Lord brought back' – the words mean: We were like dreamers (in the past)!: When the Lord brought back the return of Zion, then our mouth was filled with laughter…" In other words, the dream took place in the past, but its content is a description of the return to Zion in the future. The Meiri's third explanation is similar. This explanation is difficult, for there is a clear parallel between "we were like dreamers" at the end of the first stanza and "we were glad" at the end of stanza 4. Just as in stanza 4 joy constitutes our emotional response to God's actions on our behalf, so too the dreamy feeling in stanza 1.

[20] a. All instances of this phenomenon may be found in Even Shoshan's concordance, s.v. az (3) and az (4).

b. Here are several examples of the latter sense: "Then sang Moshe and the children of Israel" (Shemot 15:a); "Then Moshe set apart three cities" (Devarim 4:41); "Then Menachem smote Tifsach" (II Melakhim 15:16). It should be noted that all instances of "az" in this sense are found in the prose sections of Scripture.

Is it possible to characterize these instances, in comparison to the instances in which the word "az" precedes a future verb denoting the past (brought in the concordance, s.v. "az [2]")? The answer is yes: In the vast majority of the cases in which the word "az" appears before a future tense verb that comes to denote the past, this word opens a new section with a festive opening. But the phenomenon itself of using a future verb in the past sense remains unexplained.

[21] In Tanakh im Perush Mada'i, ed. Avraham Kahana, Zhitomir, 5663.

[22] See the reference cited at the beginning of note 11.

[23] The verses are not exactly adjacent. Not only do two other verses separate between them, but each one opens a separate unit in the psalm: Verse 1 opens the first half, and verse 4 opens the second half. The similar wording of these two opening verses is certainly intentional, and comes to parallel the one to the other. We shall discuss this point later in this study.