A Galus Tehilah: Time to Cancel a Minhag
Contrasting Shir HaMaalot (Ps 126) with Al Naharot Bavel (Ps 137)
On Shabbat we sing Shir HaMa’alot beShuv Hashem et Shivat Tziyon (Psalm 126) melodiously before Birkat HaMazon/Grace After the Meal. The Psalm is a hyper-intensive dream-like experience – Hayinu Kecholmim of envisioning Zion’s return. It is trance music to a life of simplicity and perfection. This minhag however, is probably a secondary outgrowth of the minhag to say Al Naharot Bavel (Psalm 137) on weekdays since it would not be appropriate to have this sad psalm recited on festive days.
In contradistinction to Psalm 126, Psalm 137 is a heartbreaking poem that opens with, “On the rivers of Babel, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” The authors of the psalm envision the Jews sitting depressed, unable to move, and impossible to act except to wail. Any song mocks lost happiness; all the world are enemies. In the psalm, we beseech God for our enemies to receive a tit for our tat. In the psalm, we describe the razing of our Temple and reflect on how our lives are a continuing source of direness, with the guarantee for a redeemed life for our children impossible even speak to. And thus, on this note, we end the nightmare with the terrifying verse 9 “Ashrei – happy is he who shall seize and dash thy little ones against the Rock.”
Tracing the Development of the Minhag to Say Psalm 137 before Bentching
How did the custom of saying this psalm before weekday bentching come about? The Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berachot 3a discusses God’s nightly anguish in destroying the Temple, upon which Rosh (1250-1328) comments (Ber. 1:2),
וראוי לכל ירא שמים שיהא מצר ודואג באותה שעה ולשפוך תחנונים על חורבן בית המקדש כמו שנא’ קומי רוני בלילה לראש אשמורות (איכה ב:ט):
And it is fitting for all God fearers to be pained and worry at that hour (i.e., at night), and to pour out supplications on the Destruction of the Temple, as it says “Rise up and scream at night at the beginning of the watches” (Lamentations 2:19).
This is a source for the midnight Tikun Chatzot – Temple Lamentation ritual. R. Yosef Caro (1488-1575, Toledo, Safed) codifies this need in the very beginning of his work the Shulkhan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 1:3).
The Zohar (edited by R. Moshe deLeon, 1250-1305) in Parashat Terumah (157b) states that the Destruction/Churban is fittingly remembered after eating and that one who prays regarding the Destruction is considered as if he had (re)built the Temple.
מאן דאתעדן על פתוריה ומתענג באינון מיכלין אית ליה לאדכרא ולדאגא על קדושה דארעא קדישא ועל היכלא דמלכא דקא אתחריב, ובגין ההוא עציבו דאיהו קא מתעצב על פתוריה בההוא חדוה ומשתיא דתמן קודשא בריך הוא חשיב עליה כאלו בנה ביתיה ובנה כל אינון חרבי דבי מקדשא זכאה חולקיה,
Whoever is enjoying his table and enjoying these foods should be sure to mention and express concern for the holiness of the Holy Land, and for the Temple of the King which was destroyed. For this sadness that he expresses over his table, during the happy and festive meal he is having there, the Holy One, blessed be He, considers it to be as if he (the person) built His (=God’s) house, and rebuilt all of the destroyed parts of the Temple. [The person’s] portion receives merit.
The Origin of the Minhag in the ShLa”H (17th Cent.)
Evidently, the first one to connect Al Naharot Bavel and Shir HaMaalotwith the Birkat HaMazon – is R. Isaiah Horowitz (1565-March 24, 1630, Prague, Frankfort, Jerusalem, Safed) in his monumental and influential work Shenei Luchot HaBrit (known as ShLa”H) that combines halakhicpractice and mysticism. He begins by quoting the passage from the Zohar above and then writes (Sha’ar Ha-Otiyot, qof, 170):
על כן נוהגין לומר מזמור ‘על נהרות בבל’ כו’ קודם ברכת המזון, ובפרט כי השלחן במקום המזבח, אבל בעונותינו הרבים לא יש המזבח בעצמו, יזכור, אוי לבנים שגלו מעל שלחן אביהם… ובשבת ובימים טובים אומרים מזמור ‘בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון’ וגו’.
For this reason, we are accustomed to recite, “On the Rivers of Babylon, etc.” before the Grace after Meals, especially since the table is in place of the altar. But in our many sins, the altar itself is no longer in existence, so he should recall [it]: Woe to the children who have been exiled from the table of their father… But on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we say the psalm, “When God returned the returnees to Zion, etc.”
This is cited by the commentaries (nosei keilim) on the Shulchan Arukh, such as the Magen Avraham of Avraham Gombiner (Kalish, 1635-1682)and the Mishnah Berurah (1:11) of Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan (Radum, 1838-1933).
Canceling A Galus (Exile) Minhag
Psalm 137 is definitionally a Golus tehilah, set in the bad times of Israel’s history, in a tone that is despondent and bitter. It may have served us well when we were as the Psalm evokes, in a long, long period of utter helplessness, and powerlessness. It was a dramatic throw-away line. But that is not our contemporary experience. We are neither helpless nor powerless, and despondency and bitterness in such a situation as ours will lead to abuse of our power and eventual disaster. Thus, I suggest cancelling the minhag.
A minhag depends on its acceptance (use) and generally Psalm 137 has already been dropped – the bentching is long enough as it is. Many poskim today, like Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, do not consider it to be a definitive minhag. In general, poskim (as per personal discussion with two senior significant authorities in the past 20 years) understand that the minhag of remembering Jerusalem is already fulfilled in the birkat hamazon itself in Uvnai Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh (the third blessing, which asks for the rebuilding of Jerusalem).
We should continue to study Psalm 137 for its presentations of the nightmare scenario that we experienced and re-experienced in our long and often sad history. Nonetheless, it and its concluding verse is not necessary halakhically and is, in fact, pedagogically dangerous at this volatile stage of life for the Jewish people. It will remain for students of TaNach to learn and for Psalm readers to Zugh (recite). We just need the Bentcher Industry to drop it from its side position to Shir HaMaalot for Shabbat.
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February 28, 2015
December 22, 2019
Rabbi Daniel Landes, formerly head of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Education, is founder and director of YASHRUT, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. YASHRUT includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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