Reciting Psalm 30 on Chanukah: A Biblical Custom?
The Psalm of Chanukah
Jewish custom mandates that a psalm be recited for each weekday, and a special psalm for each festival. This custom goes back at least to late rabbinic times, as recorded in the post-Talmudic Tractate Soferim (ch. 18), where Psalm 30 is associated with Chanukah. Ostensibly, the psalm was chosen because the superscription, מזמור שיר חנכת הבית לדוד, refers to the dedication (chanukah) of the temple.
Traditionally, the superscription refers to the dedication of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, though some scholars connect it to the dedication of the Second Temple (some psalms are clearly Second Temple in origin). Thus, the connection between Psalm 30 and Chanukah would be a loose one, but the best the rabbis could find—after all, Chanukah occurred in 164 B.C.E., hundreds of years after the dedication of the Second Temple in 515 BCE. Thus, the psalm cannot be referring to Chanukah … or can it?
In fact, I, along with many other biblical scholars, believe that the superscription to Psalm 30 does not refer to the dedication of the Temple (first or second) but literally refers to Chanukah.
A Problematic Superscription
To make the case that the superscription מזמור שיר חנכת הבית לדוד actually refers to Chanukah, I will point out a number of problems with the superscription.
The Syntactical Problem
The superscription makes little sense. Translated literally it means: “A psalm a song of the dedication of the Temple of David” – but what would this mean? The double language of “a psalm” “a song” motivated one medieval midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 713) to suggest that each word refers to one of the Temples, thus the “psalm” is for the First Temple and the “song” is for the Second.
The David Problem
What does the word לדוד mean in this context? Usually, when this term appears, translators assume that it either means “by David”, i.e., a claim that David is the author of the psalm, or “for David”, i.e., that it is dedicated to David. The former is impossible; the psalm cannot be ascribed to David—even by ancient scribes—since the Temple was built after his death. The latter is possible but odd, why dedicate a psalm about Temple dedication to David, who never built the Temple?
The One in Thirty-Six Exception Problem
Exacerbating this problem, this superscription is anomalous. The words מזמור, “a psalm” and לדוד “of David” are used together in Psalm superscriptions a total of thirty-six times. In all but this one—Psalm 30—they are adjacent.
The David problem bothered medieval commentators tremendously, and they offered a number of possible solutions.
- One answer found in several midrashim is that David receives credit for the Temple in this psalm, even though he did not build the Temple, in exchange for his strong desire to build the Temple.
- Moshe HaDarshan (11th cent., Bereshit Rabbati Gen 4:20) suggests that David wrote this psalm in honor of the Temple dedication when he was miraculously shown the building of the Temple.
- In a more prosaic fashion, the author of Pitron Torah(Geonic period, Nasso, p. 138, Haazinu, p. 322) claims that David wrote it after he built the foundations of the Temple.
These three suggestions highlight how out of place לדוד is in this context. Moreover, traditional interpreters do not explain why only here the two words “a psalm” and “of David” are not adjacent.
Text Critical Solution
All of these problems can be solved by positing that the psalm’s superscription was originally מזמור לדוד, “a psalm of David,” just like the preceding Psalm 29 and the following Psalm 31. The intervening words, שיר חנכת הבית, “A song for the dedication of the House,” are secondary. Probably, they were added into the margins of an ancient scroll containing the psalm, and were then inserted by a copyist into the middle of the previous superscription, thereby creating our current hybrid and inexplicable version.
The Theme of the Psalm: Personal Salvation or Public Dedication?
Is the psalm really about a temple dedication? Take a close look at the theme of Psalm 30:
ב אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְהוָה כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי וְלֹא שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי. ג יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי שִׁוַּעְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ וַתִּרְפָּאֵנִי. ד יְהוָה הֶעֱלִיתָ מִן שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי חִיִּיתַנִי מיורדי [מִיָּרְדִי] בוֹר.
2 I extol You, O LORD, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. 3 O LORD, my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me. 4O LORD, You brought me up from Sheol, preserved me from going down into the Pit (NJPS).
I only quoted the beginning, but this is how the psalm reads throughout. Is this what you imagine a community that had dedicated a temple would have recited? The content of the psalm itself is far-removed from temples. The discordance between the superscription and the content of the psalm is so striking, that it led the modern traditional commentator, Rabbi Meir Weiser (Malbim, 1809-1879) to suggest that the “Temple” referenced in the superscription is actually David’s body (Malbim on Psalms, ad loc.)!
Ignoring the superscription, a reader would conclude that this is a psalm of thanksgiving by an individual for being saved from enemies and has nothing to do with the (First or Second) Temple or its dedication.
Superscriptions in Psalms
Biblical scholars have long-realized that the superscriptions to many psalms are late and secondary. This is reflected, in part, in the significant variation in psalm superscriptions between the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Septuagint. In other words, even after the text of the main part of the psalm had more or less crystalized, scribes felt comfortable adding historical references at the beginning of many psalms.
This process continued in a different way as the midrash on Psalms from the Geonic Period, called Midrash Tehillim or, after its opening words, Shocher Tov, which invented historical circumstances that evoked the recitation of each psalm.
The Hasmonean-Hasidic Connection: Why the Superscription was Added
Considering the dissonance between the psalm and the phrase “a song of the dedication of the Temple,” why was it added? I believe that the answer lies not in any connection between the psalm and the Temple, but in the connection between the psalm and Chanukah.
A number of points connect this psalm and the Maccabean uprising. First, the psalm describes overcoming, at great odds, enemies—an apt description of the Maccabean experience and the exact situation that led up to Chanukah. In addition, the psalm mentions chasidim (v. 5). The NJPS translates this phrase properly as the “faithful,” the typical meaning of this term in early psalms. Yet we know from both 1 and 2 Maccabees that in the second century B.C.E. a group or party developed, associated with the Maccabees, who called themselves Chasidim, as reflected in the Greek term asidaioi.
In other words, it is possible that someone (on the winning side) after the Hasmonean victory in 164 BCE could have read Psalm 30 and imagined: “David prophesized this about us!” The psalm, for that very reason, may even have been recited as part of the dedication ceremony on Chanukah in 164 BCE since it was seen as broadly appropriate—or even prophetic—to what had happened.
A Marginal Gloss
Psalms, like other biblical books, went through changes—the original text of Psalms is not preserved. This is true on both the macro and the micro level. Thus, Psalm 72:20, כָּלּ֥וּ תְפִלּ֑וֹת דָּ֝וִ֗ד בֶּן־יִשָֽׁי “End of the prayers of David son of Jesse,” suggests that an earlier form of the Psalter originally ended here. Comparison of the similar, but not identical Psalms 14 and 53, shows how words and phrases changed as psalms were transmitted. The most changes happened at the very beginning of individual psalms, as superscriptions were added and revised.
It is thus likely that Psalm 30 originally began with the superscription, מזמור לדוד, “a psalm of David,” and had no association with the Temple. Then, during the Maccabean revolt, the Maccabees and the “Chasidim” saw themselves in this psalm, seeing the description of the defeat of the enemies of the chasidim as a prediction or prophecy, by David, of their success. Possibly, during their successful rededication of the Temple, they recited this psalm.
During this period, someone wrote the words שיר חנכת הבית, “A song for the dedication of the House” in the margin of a copy of psalms, to point out that this was the song that they—the Hasmoneans—recited at the rededication and that, perhaps, Jews were supposed to recite each year during Chanukah, the commemoration of this event. Eventually, the words entered the Psalter, placed between the words מזמור, “A psalm” and לדוד “of David,” yielding the syntactically and contextually odd superscription in v. 1.
While this is conjecture, it needs to be balanced against other explanations for why the superscription is so anomalous, and does not fit the content of the psalm that follows. To my mind, it is the best explanation available, and if correct, suggests that the custom to say the Psalm 30 on Chanukah, still practiced today by many Jews, is exactly what this superscription—one of the latest traditions incorporated into the Hebrew Bible—is telling us to do.
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December 18, 2014
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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