Monday, 4 September 2017

Psalm 30, Part II

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                Psalm 30:  Mizmor Shir Chanukat Ha-Bayit Le-David (Part II)

             In a previous column I discussed the issue of how this psalm entered the daily shacharit. Just to review, it first appears for reasons unknown in the 13th century in the daily shacharit in some Sefardic communities. After being adopted by Sefardim, it later spread to the Kabbalists. But it was not until the late 18th century that it began to be recited in the daily shacharit of some, but not all, Askhenazic communities. 
             Now it is time to address some of the other issues raised by this psalm. First, if the title intends to refer to a psalm composed by David at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, David was not alive at the time of this dedication. Second, the body of the psalm refers mainly to God saving an individual from troubles. It seemingly has little to do with the dedication of any Temple. Admittedly, there is an initial aromimkha Hashem (=I will exalt you, God). But thereafter, the psalm includes phrases like: you raised me up, you did not let my enemies rejoice over me, I cried to you and you healed me, you brought up my soul from Sheol, you hid your face and I was frightened, what profit is there in my blood when I go down to the pit, and you turned my mourning into dancing.
            Rashi takes the simple approach that David composed the Psalm to be recited in the future when the Temple was dedicated by Shlomo.
            But some other commentators give very creative interpretations. Ibn Ezra records a view that it was composed by David and intended to be sung, not at the dedication of the First Temple, but at the dedication of the Second or Third Temples. The basis for this view are all the allusions to troubles in the psalm; the suggestion is that the troubles allude to the periods of exile before either the Second or the Third Temples.  More recently, the Ben Ish Chai suggested that David foresaw the troubles that Antiochus would give the Jews and that David composed the psalm to be sung by the Hashmonaim at their dedication of the Temple.
          Malbim is even more creative. He thinks the bayit mentioned in the title is only a symbol for the body. The psalm has nothing to do with the dedication of any Temple or building. Rather it is a psalm dedicated to the recovery of David’s soul, after an illness.
          Ibn Ezra looks at the caption closely and observes that it does not refer to a bayit for God. Rather it refers to ha-bayit le-David. In fact, at II Sam 5:11 and 7:1-2, the verses mention that a bayit was built for David. Moreover, verse 7:2 tells us that David being able to live in this luxurious bayit was what motivated him attempt to build a Temple for God (“I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within curtains”). Ibn Ezra concludes that Psalm 30 was authored by David at the dedication of his personal house. He also suggests that David must have just recovered from an illness at that time, which explains the language of the psalm.
          Finally, let us look at the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch. Rav Hirsch addresses our question about the relationship between the body of the psalm and the title, and concludes that the body of this psalm is most appropriate for the dedication of a Temple. The whole purpose of a Temple is to bring to mind to Man the nearness of God on earth, and the intimate relationship between God and Man. A psalm which talks about God’s detailed involvement and aid to a particular man (in this case David) is therefore most appropriate for a Temple dedication. Rav Hirsch also believes that the phrase: ha-bayit le-David was appropriate for a psalm to be recited at the dedication of a Temple in the time of Shlomo. Shlomo’s Temple can indeed be called David’s Temple because Shlomo was essentially the executor of the arrangements made by David. For example, we see from II Chr. 22 that it was David who left Shlomo the  means and material necessary for the work.
             Moving to the end of this psalm, we have all recited the phrase lema’an yezamerkha khavod hundreds of times. But what does khavod mean here?  Soncino translates awkwardly:  “So that my glory may sing praise to Thee.” Rav S.R. Hirsch adopts the difficult translation: “Therefore all that is glorious shall sing to Thee.” The Targum translates the verse as if it read:  “the honorable ones of the world shall…”
               Alternatively, many commentaries (Radak, Metzudat Zion, Malbim) point out that khavod is sometimes an idiom in Tanakh for “soul”. See, e.g., the parallelism at Gen. 49:6:  be-sodam al tavo nafshi, bi-kihalam al techad kevodi. If so, the proper translation here would be “So that my soul might make music to you” (ArtScroll Siddur) or “That my soul might sing praise to you” (The Living Nach). The soul is called khavod because it is the most important part of a human being. As R. Baruch Epstein (author of the Torah Temimah) explains, “without [the neshamah], the body is mere dust.” But surprisingly, the Daat Mikra commentary prefers a different interpretation of lema’an yezamerkha khavod:  “so that I will sing a song that gives you khavod.” What motivates their interpretation is a verse in the previous chapter: u-ve-heikhalo kulo omer kavod.  I leave it up to you whether to adopt the “soul” interpretation or the one offered by the Daat Mikra.
             On a more mundane level, in later Hebrew the root K, B, D sometimes has the meaning “to sweep” the floor. Most likely, it developed this meaning because you treat a place honorably by sweeping it.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. Please do not tell his wife that he understands the importance of sweeping the floor.

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