The Psalm of the Shofar: Its Use in Liturgy and its Meaning in the Bible
The Connection between Psalm 47 and Rosh Hashana
The standard machzorim of today, following the reading of the haftara, introduce the ceremonial sounding of the shofar with Psalm 47. The psalm is recited seven times in many congregations, a late custom probably related to the seven-fold repetition of the divine name Elohim in the psalm.
Given the mention of the shofar in verse 6, a connection of Psalm 47 with Rosh Hashana seems obvious, at least after the fact:
תהילים מז:ו עָלָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָ֑ה יְ֝־הֹוָ֗ה בְּק֣וֹל שׁוֹפָֽר:
Ps 47:6 God ascends midst acclamation; YHWH, to the blasts of the shofar. (NJPS with modifications)
The association is affirmed for liturgical purposes in the post-Talmudic (ca. eighth-century CE) tractate Soferim 19:2 (18:11 in Higger ed.): “On Rosh Hashana we say the psalm, ‘all you peoples clap your hands.’” Nevertheless, this was not the only tradition in rabbinic literature. According to b. Rosh Hashana 30b, the Temple sacrifices on Rosh Hashana were accompanied by Psalms 81 (musaf) and 29 (minha) in addition to the regular psalm for the day of the week (shacharit); there is no mention of Psalm 47.
Leviticus Rabba 29:3 (ca. fifth-century CE) takes advantage of the use of the two divine names Elohim and YHWH in poetic parallelism in v. 6, understanding Elohim to refer to justice, and YHWH to mercy, and thus connects the psalm to the holiday:
כשהקב”ה עולה לישב על כסא הדין בראש השנה לדין הוא עולה, הה”ד עלה אלהים בתרועה.
When the Holy One ascends to sit on the throne of judgment, it is in order to render strict justice, as it says, “Elohim ascends amidst shouting.”
וכיון שישראל נוטלין שופרותיהן ותוקעין מיד י”י בקול שופר, מה הקדוש ברוך הוא עושה עומד מכסא הדין ויושב על כסא רחמים ומתמלא עליהם רחמים והופך להם מדת הדין למדת רחמים. אימתי בראש השנה, בחדש השביעי באחד לחדש (מרגליות).
When the Jews take up their shofars and sound them, immediately “YHWH to the blast of the shofar.” What does the Holy One do? Arises from the throne of judgment, sits on the throne of mercy, is filled with mercy towards them and transforms the attribute of strict justice into the attribute of mercy for their sake. When? On Rosh Hashana, “on the first day of the seventh month” (Numbers 29:1).
The Problem with the Connection
As appropriate to the holiday as this midrash might be, the psalm does not refer explicitly to Rosh Hashana or to any other particular occasion. Its most blatant subject matter is not divine judgment of the Jewish people—a Leitmotif of the penitential season—but the universal acclaim that is God’s due for being/becoming “king over all the earth” (verse 8).
Categorizing Psalm 47 in the Context of Other Psalms
The Book of Psalms grew over a considerable period of time as a compilation of smaller collections of diverse origin. Psalm 47 belongs to three different groupings of psalms, each of which might have ramifications for its interpretation. Two of the groupings are associated with sub-collections of psalms that were incorporated into the Book of Psalms as it assumed its present shape:
- Korahite Psalm: Based on its superscription (verse 1), it is one of the psalms ascribed to “the sons of Korah” (Psalms 42-49, 84-85, 87-88). The sons of Korah were members of one of the levitical guilds (see 2 Chronicles 20:19) responsible for liturgical performance in the Second Temple. If it could be demonstrated convincingly that whole group of psalms associated with them exhibits some coherence, Psalm 47 might be interpretable as a component part.
- Elohistic Psalm: It belongs to the collection known as the “Elohistic Psalter” (Psalms 42-83). These psalms show a strong preference for the use of the divine name Elohim in contrast to the rest of the Psalter, which favors YHWH. Aside from this feature, it is hard to discern any substantive unity in the assemblage. Most likely it constituted a “distinct collection that was then combined with a ‘Yahwistic’ collection of roughly equal extent to form a two-part psalm collection filling out … what became Books I–III [=Psalms 1-89] of the Psalter.”
- YHWH-Kingship Psalm: While those two classifications of Psalm 47 (Korahite and Elohistic, respectively) may be significant, by far the most influential categorization is an academic construct that situates the psalm among the “YHWH-Kingship Psalms” (47, 93, 96-99). That title is the form-critical designation for a set of psalms that glorify YHWH’s assumption of or continuation in the role of sovereign. The unifying element of this sub-genre is the declaration, “YHWH is/has become king” (YHWH malak), and while Psalm 47 does not include those exact words, the various forms of m-l-k (especially malak elohim in verse 9) seem to justify its inclusion in the group.
Why was Psalm 47 Written?
The royal imagery that pervades biblical literature is rich and potent (as well as problematic for modern readers living in post-monarchic times). Part of its power abides in its openness to a variety of interpretations, both literal and metaphoric. With respect to the YHWH-Kingship Psalms in general and Psalm 47 in particular, there have been three main lines of interpretation (not mutually exclusive):
- In historical interpretations, scholars link a specific king and event to the composition of the psalm. No single event has gained acceptance, and thus E. Lipiński comments that Psalm 47 “has the privilege of the greatest number of hypotheses” with proposed events ranging from the reign of David (comparison with 2 Samuel 6:12, 15, 17, for example, is suggestive) to the Maccabean era.
- In cultic interpretations, the YHWH-Kingship psalms (and others) comprise liturgies for fixed occasions of communal worship. The most famous and influential proposal was Sigmund Mowinckel’s “discovery” of an annual “enthronement festival of Yahweh” corresponding to the fall New Year/Harvest Festival. This festival, reconstructed with the aid of alleged Babylonian parallels, included cultic affirmation of YHWH’s rulership and possibly (re)investiture of the earthly king as YHWH’s surrogate.
- Eschatological interpretations are future-oriented, presupposing divine intervention in history to bring about a new world order. This new order entails what Lipiński calls “an entirely new and definitive” relationship between God and the world. Traditional Jewish commentary favors this line of interpretation. Ibn Ezra and Redak, for example, relate the psalm to the “messianic era” (yemot ha-mashiaḥ). Ibn Ezra declares historical interpretations to be “incorrect,” and Redak pinpoints the time of the psalm as “after the war of Gog and Magog, when the entire earth is put to rest.” Malbim comments more generally: “[The psalm is] based on the future time when one expects all nations to recognize God’s kingship and seek God’s Presence in Zion.”
From a literary point of view, the psalm’s structure and language are open to all three kinds of interpretation. It seems futile to seek the “original” occasion for its composition, as opposed to noting how malleable and adaptable it is.
The Structure of the Psalm
Two comparable hymnic utterances comprise the formal core of the psalm. Each includes three elements: (1) plural imperatives summoning the worshippers to praise God with clapping, shouting, and singing; (2) an explanatory clause introduced by the particle ki; (3) declarative statements extolling god, introduced by a suffix-tense verb. Thus (using NJPS with slight modifications for convenience):
תהילים מז:ב כָּֽל־הָ֭עַמִּים תִּקְעוּ־כָ֑ף הָרִ֥יעוּ לֵ֝אלֹהִ֗ים בְּק֣וֹל רִנָּֽה:
Ps 47:2 All you peoples, clap your hands, raise a joyous shout for God.
מז:ג כִּֽי־יְ־הֹוָ֣ה עֶלְי֣וֹן נוֹרָ֑א מֶ֥לֶךְ גָּ֝דוֹל עַל־כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ:
47:3 For (>ki) YHWH Most High is awesome, great king over all the earth;
מז:ו עָלָ֣ה אֱ֭-לֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָ֑ה יְ֝־הֹוָ֗ה בְּק֣וֹל שׁוֹפָֽר
47:6 God ascends (alah) midst acclamation; YHWH, to the blasts of the horn (shofar).
תהילים מז:ז זַמְּר֣וּ אֱ-לֹהִ֣ים זַמֵּ֑רוּ זַמְּר֖וּ לְמַלְכֵּ֣נוּ זַמֵּֽרוּ:
Ps 47:7 Sing, O sing to God; sing, O sing to our king;
מז:ח כִּ֤י מֶ֖לֶךְ כָּל־הָאָ֥רֶץ אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים זַמְּר֥וּ מַשְׂכִּֽיל:
47:8 for (ki) God is king over all the earth; sing a hymn.
מז:ט מָלַ֣ךְ אֱ֭לֹהִים עַל־גּוֹיִ֑ם אֱ֝-לֹהִ֗ים יָשַׁ֤ב׀ עַל־כִּסֵּ֬א קָדְשֽׁוֹ
47:9 God reigns (malak) over the nations; God is seated (yashav) on His holy throne.
In each case, a summons to worship is complemented by a statement of the theme of the psalm (God is king). The declarative verbs comprise a logical sequence of actions that reifies the theme: God ascends (alah), is/becomes king (malak), and is enthroned (yashav). It is hard to decide whether the sequence reflects a cultic activity or a literary trope; these options need not be mutually exclusive.
Politicizing Mythic Imagery: God in Control of the Nations
The counterpoint to God’s assumption of sovereignty is the subjugation of the nations to Israel (verses 4-5) and the gathering of the nobles (pointedly not “kings”—there is only one King) at the end of the psalm, in the problematic verse 10.
This sub-theme differentiates Psalm 47 from the other YHWH-Kingship Psalms, which tend to express divine power in terms of control over nature. As I. L. Seeligmann comments, “In general a cosmic ambience pervades Psalms 96-99, which is completely alien to Psalm 47.” For example, he compares Psalm 98:8 with Psalm 47:2:
תהילים צח:ח נְהָר֥וֹת יִמְחֲאוּ־כָ֑ף יַ֗חַד הָרִ֥ים יְרַנֵּֽנוּ
Ps 98:8 Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together
תהילים מז:ב כָּֽל־הָ֭עַמִּים תִּקְעוּ־כָ֑ף הָרִ֥יעוּ לֵ֝אלֹהִ֗ים בְּק֣וֹל רִנָּֽה
Ps 47:2 All you peoples, clap your hands, raise a joyous shout for God
While it would be simplistic to argue for a chronological development from the more mythic to the more political form of expression, the total absence from Psalm 47 of the cosmic imagery that pervades the other Yahweh-Kingship psalms is extraordinary. In addition, the political element (verses 4, 5, and 10) disrupts the hymnic core of the psalm. This disruption, in my view, is not redactional, but compositional: the author of the psalm has adapted the divine kingship motif—possibly drawing on an earlier source for verses 2-3 and 6-9—to the theme of God’s subordination of the nations to Israel (“to us…at our feet,” verse 4). The problematic ending of the psalm in verse 10—however it is understood—is utterly different from the hymnic praise with which Psalms 96-99 conclude.
This combination of factors probably marks the relative lateness of Psalm 47 in its present form and also may offer a clue to its social setting. I am inclined to follow the eschatological line of interpretation favored by traditional Jewish commentators, and to read the psalm as an expression of the downtrodden post-exilic community, yearning for liberation from foreign domination.
The issue at hand, then, is not God’s rulership, which is a given, nor is it divine judgment of the Jews according to their deserts (the High Holiday theme). It is, rather, the longing for God’s vindication of “the pride of Jacob whom He loved” (verse 5) through the subjugation of Israel’s enemies.
Meir Weiss on Psalm 47 in the Post-Holocaust Era
As the late biblical scholar Meir Weiss observed in a powerful essay on Psalm 47, the custom of reciting the psalm on Rosh Hashana “did not flow from the idea of the psalm, but out of linguistic affinity.” For Weiss, a Holocaust survivor, it was incumbent upon those who had witnessed “blood poured out like water by the nations of the world” to recite the psalm “in its deepest literal meaning.”
In saying that, he was referring particularly to verses 4, 5, and 10: “our generation must recite these verses not merely as something attainable only in the messianic era (hilkheta li-meshiha), but also in the recognition that Scripture is addressing our actual situation (dibber ha-katuv ba-hove).” The very realism that Weiss discerns, in my view, accurately reflects the spirit of the dejected post-exilic community that expressed its longing through Psalm 47.
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September 14, 2014
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Prof. Alan Cooper is the Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies and provost of The Jewish Theological Seminary. He holds an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in Religion from Yale University and a B.A. in religion from Columbia University. His recent publications include “Some Aspects of Traditional Jewish Psalms Interpretation,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms and “Introduction to the Book of Leviticus,” to appear (in German) in Die Tora in der Übersetzung Ludwig Philippsons.
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