Shiur #55: Psalm 107 - "Give Thanks To The Lord, For He Is Good, For His Loving-Kindness Is Forever" (Part II)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

SEFER TEHILLIM

by Rav Elchanan Samet

 

 

 

Lecture 55: Psalm 107 - "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is Good, for His loving-kindness is forever" (PART II)

 

 

II. THE QUESTION REGARDING "THE MEANING OF THE PSALM AS A WHOLE"

 

"The commentators were bewildered about the meaning of the psalm as a whole" – this is the way R. Yosef Ya'avetz opens his own commentary to our psalm.[1] The major question that needs to be addressed when we try to understand the meaning of our psalm relates to the basic character of the psalm. Is this a universal psalm that comes to teach religious truth to all men? Or is it perhaps an Israelite psalm – one that is connected to the history of the people of Israel and to events that they experienced in the past or will experience in the future, coming to teach a lesson to them specifically?

 

This question can be reformulated: Who are the people, the individuals and the collectives, described in the psalm? Are they anonymous characters who merely exemplify the idea expressed in our psalm, and every individual and every nation in each and every generation can identify with these people? Or are we dealing with the people of Israel and specific personages among its members, and the events that are described in the psalm are concrete events that took place (or will take place) in a specific national-historical reality?

 

The strongest proof supporting a universalistic interpretation of our psalm is the fact that the term "Israel" does not appear anywhere within it. The psalm also fails to mention any other name connected to the people of Israel or its history, and it does not allude to any specific historical period.

 

On the other hand, those parts of the psalm dealing with the fate of a nation and the fate of its land (the opening verses and stanzas 5-6) more than allude to the fact that they refer to the people of Israel and its Land. For what other nation was exiled from its land owing to its sins and later merited that God gathered (or will gather) its dispersed from the lands of its exile in the four corners of the earth?

 

Let us follow in the steps of Chazal and in the steps of the early commentators and see how they understood "the meaning of the psalm as a whole."

 

III. A UNIVERSAL PSALM

 

In Berakhot 54b, it says:

 

R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving:

Those who have crossed the sea, those who have traversed the wilderness, one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free.[2]

Whence do we know this of those who cross the sea? Because it is written: "Those who go down to the sea in ships… Let them thank the Lord for His loving-kindness, and for His wondrous works to the children of man."

Whence for those who traverse the desert? Because it is written: "They lost themselves in the wilderness, their way in the desert… Let them thank the Lord for His loving-kindness, and for His wondrous works to the children of man."

Whence for one who recovers from an illness? Because it is written: "The foolish who can be recognized by their way of sin… Let them thank the Lord for His loving-kindness…."

Whence for a prisoner who was set free? Because it is written: "Those who in darkness and the shadow of death… Let them thank the Lord for His loving-kindness…."

What blessing should he say? R. Yehuda said: "Blessed is He who bestows loving-kindnesses."[3]

Abaye said: And he must utter his thanksgiving in the presence of ten, as it is written: "Let them exalt Him in the assembly of the people."[4]

Mar Zutra said: And two of them must be Sages, as it says: "And praise Him in the seat of the elders."[5]

 

            There are very few places in the book of Tehillim from which Chazal derived detailed laws, as they did in our psalm. Both early and recent halakhic authorities discuss the particulars of the laws of the "ha-gomel" blessing and disagree on various points. It is interesting that they, too, support their positions with their understanding of the plain meaning of our psalm.[6]

 

How do these Sages understand the "meaning of the psalm as a whole"? The detailed halakhic "translation" of the psalm relates, of course, exclusively to those who are bound by Halakha – the people of Israel. But let this not mislead us – what arises from the words of these Sages is a universalistic understanding of the psalm. The psalm does not deal with the people of Israel or its history, but rather with four human situations in which a person who is saved from danger is obligated to thank God for having saved him. This is a universal religious truth that obligates every person qua human being, including a non-Jew, even if the non-Jew is not obligated to fulfill this duty in the halakhic framework that Chazal fashioned for the fulfillment of this obligation.

 

These words of Chazal influenced many Rishonim and Acharonim, who also explained our psalm as teaching all men when they must offer thanks to God. Unlike Chazal, it falls upon these commentators to explain the entire psalm (and not only stanzas 1-4). Accordingly, they must suit their "universalistic" interpretation to the opening verses of the psalm (vv. 1-3) and to stanzas 5-6 at the end.

 

1.     Rashi

 

Rashi does not explain the intent of verses 1-3, but he clearly does not see them as a general principle, the details regarding which are found in stanzas 1-4. He writes as follows:

 

"Give thanks to the Lord…" – "let the redeemed of the Lord say this" when He redeems them "from the hand of distress."

"They lost themselves in the wilderness…" – and those who walk in the wilderness – they too must give thanks.

 

Similarly, he writes later:

 

Also prisoners in jail must give thanks when they are released… And those who are afflicted with illness on account of their iniquities – they too must give thanks.

 

            Rashi's words imply that "the redeemed of the Lord whom He has redeemed from the hand of distress" are not the four classes of people who are obligated to give thanks. Who, then, are they? It seems that the answer to this question may be learned from the words of Rashi on verses 33-35, for we have already noted in section I the connection between the opening verses (1-3) and stanzas 5-6. Rashi writes there as follows:

 

"He turned rivers into wilderness" – that is to say, He destroys the settlements of the nations.

"He turned wilderness into pools of water" – he rebuilds a settlement that had been destroyed and restores it to its former state.

 

            We see, then, that even stanzas 5-6 (and thus also the introductory verses 1-3 at the beginning of the psalm) do not deal with the people of Israel and its land, but rather with "the settlements of the nations." Our psalm contains no references whatsoever to the people of Israel or its history.

 

2.     Ibn Ezra

 

The Ibn Ezra opens his commentary to our psalm with a citation from the words of Chazal:

 

Our Sages said: "There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving," and they are those mentioned in our psalm.

 

The Ibn Ezra understands that even the introductory verses 1-3 refer to the four classes of people who must give thanks:

 

The words "Give thanks to the Lord" - will be said by these redeemed [the four classes explained below].

"From the hand of distress (tzar)" – like "trouble (tzar) and anguish" (Tehillim 119:143) and "in my distress (ba-tzar)" (Shmuel II 22:7).

 

That is to say, the word "tzar" should not be understood in its usual sense of "enemy," for none of the four who are obligated to offer thanksgiving are rescued from an enemy,[7] and therefore the Ibn Ezra understands "tzar" as the masculine form of "tzara."

 

R. Yosef Alkabetz rejects the Ibn Ezra's explanation: "This avails me nothing, for it says "from the hand" (mi-yad), and this is only correct regarding an enemy."[8]

 

            The Ibn Ezra interprets verse 3, "And whom He has gathered from the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the sea," as follows:

 

He mentions "east and west," for this is the settled world from one end to the other. And he mentions "from the north," because the entire settled world is there. But he does not mention the south, because owing to the heat of the sun, there is no settlement there, as has been conclusively proven.[9]

And "u-mi-yam" ("and from the sea") refers to those who go down to sea, for the one who does down [to sea] is written among the aforementioned four.

 

He seems to be saying that the gathering of the redeemed of the Lord is not the gathering of a particular community to a single place, but rather the gathering of each of the four who must give thanks to his own place.[10] Among the four, explicit mention is made of "and from the sea" – the gathering of those who sailed out to sea to their place, "and He guided them to their desired harbor" (v. 30).

 

It turns out that it is precisely the mention of the various directions and of the sea, "from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the sea," that testifies to the universalism of the psalm, according to the Ibn Ezra. In all the far reaches of human settlement and in the expanse of man's activity, people fall into trouble, and when they are saved from these troubles and they return to their places, they must offer thanks to God who saved them.

 

The Ibn Ezra also explains verses 31-43 (stanzas V-VI) in similar fashion. Regarding verses 33-38 (stanza V), he says: "Once again the psalmist mentions the mighty acts of God, how He does one thing and the opposite in accordance with His wisdom." And regarding verses 39-41 (stanza VI), he says: "Until now [in the previous stanza], he mentioned that He will destroy states and rebuild ruins; now he relates how He makes poor and makes rich." These mighty acts of God are not necessarily connected to Israel, but rather to humanity in general.

 

3. The Radak

 

The Radak generally follows in the footsteps of the Ibn Ezra in his understanding of our psalm; he too is partner to the view that our psalm is universal. Let us bring two citations.

 

Here is the Radak's introduction to his commentary to our psalm:

 

This psalm deals with four who went out from distress to relief and must offer thanks to God, because it was He who saved them, and it was not by chance as the misguided believe; but rather they must offer thanks, because they had been in distress as a punishment for their sins, and it was by the grace of God that they were saved from their distress when they called out to Him. And so too our Rabbis, of blessed memory, learned from this psalm… And it is also mentioned in this psalm that those who are in a good state in their own place, God may bring them to an absence of good; and those who are in a bad state in their own place, He may save them from their bad state and give them great goodness. All this to show that everything is from God, the bad and the good.

 

            The second citation is from the Radak's commentary to verse 11. This verse does not seem to fit with the "universal" interpretation of the psalm, for it explains the distress of the imprisoned, "because they had rebelled against the words of God," in other words, because they violated His commandments. Is it not possible to prove from here that we are dealing with Israel, they being the ones who are bound by "the words of God"? To this the Radak answers:

 

"The words of God" are the commandments that He commanded to mankind. For the commandments were given not only to the people of Israel, but to all the nations, only that He distinguished Israel from the nations with the extra commandments that He gave them and through which He sanctified them… But the rational commandments were given to Adam and his descendants after him, and these are "the words of God."[11]

 

            As stated above, the universalistic camp includes other traditional commentators among the Rishonim and Acharonim, and modern commentators have also followed in this path.[12]

 

IV. A PSALM DEALING WITH EVENTS IN ISRAEL'S PAST

 

            Parallel to the central stream among the commentators discussed in the previous section, there is also a smaller camp of commentators who understand our psalm as revolving around the people of Israel and their history. This camp is not uniform, but rather divides into two main groups: those who see our psalm as relating to various events in Israel's past and those who see it as a prophetic psalm describing the future redemption of Israel.[13] In this section, we will discuss the position of the first group.

 

1. The Aramaic Translation

 

            The Aramaic translation of the book of Tehillim translates verses 1-3 in a more or less literal fashion, and therefore it is difficult to know who, according to it, are the "redeemed of the Lord."[14] At the beginning of verse 4, however, the Targum adds a short introduction:

 

He prophesied about the people of the house of Israel and said: The house of Israel lost themselves in the wilderness.

 

            The words found at the end of verse 7, "to go to a city of habitation," are rendered as followed: "To go to Jerusalem the inhabited city." It is difficult to conclude from this whether the Targum understands the verse as referring to the future redemption of the people of Israel or to the exodus from Egypt, or perhaps to the return to Zion at the beginning of the second Temple period. In the following stanzas, however, we encounter no such difficulty.

 

            In the introduction to stanza 2 (verse 10), the Targum says:

 

He prophesied about Tzidkiyahu and the princes of Israel, saying: Tzidkiyahu and the princes of Israel who were exiled to Bavel and sat in darkness… [the Targum continues with a literal translation].

 

            In the introduction to stanza 3 (verse 17), the Targum says:

 

He prophesied about Chizkiyahu, king of the house of Yehuda, saying: Chizkiyahu, king of Yehuda, who refused to take a wife… [the Targum continues with a literal translation. According to the aggada cited in Berakhot 10a, "Chizkiyahu fell mortally sick" (Melakhim II 20:1; Yeshayahu 38:1) because he did take a wife and did not engage in procreation].

 

In the introduction to stanza 4 (verse 23), the Targum says:

 

Regarding the seamen who were with Yona bar Amitai…

 

            And verse 22, "And let them exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and let them praise Him in the assembly of the elders," is rendered as follows:

 

And they exalt Him in the congregation of the people of Israel, and they praise Him in the Sanhedrin of Sages.[15]

 

In the introduction to stanza 5 (verse 33), the Targum says:

 

He prophesied about the generation of Yoel the son of Petuel, saying: When the house of Israel rebelled during the days of the prophet Yoel, He brought a drought into the world… [the Targum continues with a literal translation].

 

            The Targum understands our psalm as reflecting various events that took place during the biblical period among the people of Israel. The connections that the Targum makes to various chapters in Scripture are exceedingly impressive, but, of course, they do not accord with the plain sense of the text. In none of the stanzas of the psalm is there even a hint to the events mentioned in the Aramaic translation.

 

2. R. Yosef Ya'avetz

 

            In his commentary to our psalm, R. Yosef Ya'avetz reviews the positions of the various commentators regarding the "meaning of the psalm as a whole." One of the commentators that he mentions[16] maintains that our psalm "was said about the redemption from Egypt, when the wilderness shut them in."[17]

 

            R. Yosef Ya'avetz sharply criticizes this interpretation:

 

He too brought vanity, for they all lived in the land of Goshen, not in the four corners of the settled world. And furthermore, [those who left Egypt] did not seek a city of habitation, nor were they "hungry and thirsty," for "He opened the rock, and the water gushed out" and "He satisfied them with bread from heaven" (Tehillim 105:40-41). And furthermore, He did not lead them to a city of habitation, but only to the sea, and not on a "straight path," but on a contorted one.

 

            R. Ya'avetz's critique of this understanding relates solely to the first verses of our psalm (vv. 1-9). How this commentator would explain the rest of the psalm is even more difficult to understand.[18]

 

(To be continued.)

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] After being expelled from Spain at the time of the Spanish expulsion, R. Yosef Ya'avetz the "preacher" settled in Mantua. Several of his books have been published, including his commentary to the book of Tehillim, first published in Salonika 5331 (1571), and in our time in the edition of Shmuel Heilprin (no date or place). Later in this study, we will relate to additional points in his commentary to our psalm.

[2] R. Hai Gaon in a responsum brought in the Arukh, s.v. arba, and Tosafot (ad loc.), s.v. arba'a tzerikhin le-hodot, raise the question of why the Talmud brings the four in an order that is different than that found in Scripture; see R. Hai's words, found in abridged form, in the right margin of the Talmudic page in Mesoret Ha-Shas.

[3] The Rif and Rosh's reading of the wording of the blessing is: "Who bestows favors upon the undeserving, and has shown me every kindness." This wording has been codified as law (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 219), and this is the common practice.

[4] According to Chazal's understanding, the term "kahal" refers to a quorum of at least ten people.

[5] According to Chazal, the term "zaken" (elder) refers to a Torah sage. "Zekenim" in the plural implies at least two. Abaye and Mar Zutra refer to all four classes of people who must offer thanksgiving, even though the source of their law is stanza 4, which deals with the thanksgiving offered by those who went out to sea. Their understanding is similar to what we wrote lecture 54, note 6.

[6] See Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 219:7-9. We find there a discussion regarding the various customs as to when the "ha-gomel" blessing should be recited and when not; see Mishna Berura, ad loc., no. 31. One question dealt with by the Posekim is whether this blessing is only recited by one of the four people mentioned in our psalm who actually found himself in mortal danger, as is implied by the psalm, or also by one of the four people mentioned in the psalm even if he wasn't ever in any actual danger, for such situations can easily lead to life-threatening circumstances. Another question discussed there is whether it is only the four classes of people mentioned in the Talmud who must recite the blessing, or perhaps these are merely common examples, but in fact anybody who finds himself in danger of any kind and is saved from it is obligated to recite the blessing.

[7] Although forced, it may be possible to relate the expression "who redeemed them from the hand of tzar" in the sense of "the hand of the enemy" to prisoners who were released from captivity.

[8] The word "yad" in the expression "mi-yad tzar" is a metaphor meaning "rule, control." This metaphor is inappropriate for "distress," for distress is not necessarily a human being who casts his rule and control over a person.

[9] Medieval (non-Jewish) astronomers believed that there was no significant human settlement in the southern part of the world, owing to the intense heat found there.

[10] This can be said about those who lost themselves in the wilderness and those who went down to the sea, but only by force with respect to prisoners who were set free, and not at all regarding sick people who recovered. Another difficulty with the Ibn Ezra's explanation is that the word "gather" is inappropriate for the return of individuals to the various places from which they set out.

[11] The Ibn Ezra was sensitive to the difficulty that this verse presents to the universalistic interpretation of the psalm, and answered: "'The words of God' are the commands of the heart, which God planted in the heart of every human being."

[12] Including R. Yeshaya, Ibn Yachya, and the Metzudot; and among the moderns, the author of the Bei'ur to Tehillim (Brill), Tz.P. Chajes, Amos Chakham, and others.

[13] When we say "prophetic psalm," we do not mean that the psalm was said by way of prophecy, for the book of Tehillim is not a book of prophecies, but rather a book comprised of the prayers of the psalmists of Israel which were said by way of the holy spirit. A "prophetic psalm" is a psalm in which the psalmist speaks of the distant future, but his words do not fall into the category of actual prophecy. The prophetic psalms in the book of Tehillim deal primarily with the period during which God will rule as king over the entire world and everyone will recognize His kingship (e.g., psalms 47, 67, 96-99). Rarer are the psalms like ours that deal with the future redemption of the people of Israel.

[14] In one place, the Aramaic translation explains a term in a way that is different than that of most of the medieval commentators: The word "u-mi-yam" at the end of verse 3 is rendered as "u-min yama setar deroma;" that is, the sea represents the southern side, the direction that is missing in this verse, and it would seem that the reference is to the Red Sea. It would seem from this explanation that the ingathering of the redeemed of the Lord is to Eretz Yisrael, and the redeemed of the Lord are the people of Israel who had been exiled to the four corners of the world and now return to their land.

[15] In the book of Yona, it is explicitly stated that the seamen are non-Jews. The Targum finds the solution to their inclusion in a psalm dealing exclusively with Israel in verse 32: The seamen offered their thanksgiving "in the congregation," the reference of course being to Israel, and "in the assembly of elders," the reference between to the Sanhedrin comprised of the sages of Israel.

A substantive parallel to the Aramaic translation of this verse is found in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, end of chapter 10. Regarding the verse in Yona 1:16, "Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and made vows," the midrash states: "The seamen saw all the signs and wonders that the Holy One, blessed be He, performed with Yona… They returned to Yafo and went up to Jerusalem… and they made vows and fulfilled them, that each man would bring his wife and all that was his to the fear of the God of Yona… And about them it is said: Converts, righteous converts."

[16] He uses the abbreviation, R. A., and I do not know to whom he is referring.

[17] It seems that this commentator, who was apparently from the Spanish school, inclined toward this interpretation of the psalm because it was customary among Sefaradim and eastern communities to recite this psalm on each of the days of Pesach. This practice appears to be based on the understanding that the psalm relates to Israel's redemption from Egypt. Allusions to such an understanding are also found in Midrash Tehillim on our psalm.

[18] Stanza 2, which deals with captives who were set free, can be understood as referring to those who left Egypt and who were taken out of the house of bondage, but what is the connection between sick people who recovered and those who went out to sea to the generation that left Egypt? See the next lecture, note 3, regarding how the Seforno explains stanzas 1-4.