Friday, 19 January 2018

Meaning of "Al-Mut" in Psalm 48:15 (Psalm for Monday)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                                  Psalm 48: God Will Lead Us “Al Mut

       At the end of davening every Monday, we recite Psalm 48 as the “shir shel yom.” This Psalm ends:  “This is God, our God forever and ever; He will lead us al mut” (48:15).   
      In the Tanach and in our siddurim, the five letters are printed as two separate words: “al mut,” because this is the Masoretic tradition. But many of the interpretations are willing to interpret the five letters as if they were one word: “almut.”
       First, I will mention a few interpretations that interpret the five letters as two separate words:
                 -He will lead us until we die. (Radak suggests that the import is that God will lead us in this honorable manner until we die.)
                 -He will inspire us to overcome our fear of death. (Something like this is one of the suggestions in the Daat Mikra.)
                  -He will lead us beyond mortality.  I.e., He will make us immortal as a nation. (Rav S.R.Hirsch)
       Of course, the first of the two words is “al,” not “el.” This makes the first of these interpretations difficult, since “al” has a connotation of “above,” not “until” or “towards.”  The second of these interpretations is difficult because it does not fit the context. The third of these interpretations is creative but it does not seem like a plain sense interpretation.                                                                         
        A different approach interprets the five letters as if they were all one word. Those who adopt this approach observe that a-l-m-u-t can be seen as related to the word “a-l-m,” which means “youth.” (Everyone should know this root from Isaiah 7:14:  “Behold ha-almah [=young woman] shall conceive…”)
       Accordingly the following interpretations are offered:
                 -He will lead us slowly, like we are children. (Rashi) 
                 -He will lead us so our nation will have eternal youth (=immortality). (Rav S. R. Hirsch)
                  -He will lead us as He lead us when our nation was young. (Targum, Radak, one view cited in Ibn Ezra)
                  -He will lead us with strength. I.e., “youth” symbolizes “strength.” (This is one of the suggestions made in the Daat Mikra.)
                  -He will lead us in a way that maintains our youthful strength all of our days. (Meiri)
           Alternatively, Ibn Ezra mentions the possibility that a-l-m-u-t is related to a-l-m with the meaning “hidden.” The meaning of the verse would be: “God leads us [in a good way] in a manner that is hidden [from humans].”
             The main problem with all of these “youth” and “hidden” interpretations is that the text does not read “be-almut” or “ke-almut,” but merely “al mut.”
               An entirely different approach sees “almut” as related to “olam.” Then the verse could be translated: “He will lead us eternally.”  This would fit nicely as a continuation of the earlier part of the verse: “This is God, our God forever and ever.”  Rashi mentions that this approach was advocated by Menachem b. Saruk. Long before this, this approach was taken by the Septuagint. Many of our commentators adopt this approach.
                Of course, our verse does not read “olam” or “le-olam,” but a different word: “almut.”
               I could make the following argument. Perhaps that word A-L-M-U-T was originally A-L-M-Y-T. In other words, perhaps the fourth letter was originally a yod, not a vav.  Then it could be read as “olamit.” This means “eternally.” However, there is no word “olamit” in Tanach. This word first appears in the Mishnah and Tosefta. This makes it unlikely that there was such a word at the time of Psalm 48.  
               (It is true that typically “olam” and words derived from it are spelled with a vav as the second letter. But there are many occasions in Tanach where that vav is omitted. See, e.g., “olamim” in the malchutcha verse in Ashrei.)                                                                                     
              Another approach to our “al mut” can be to interpret the “al” as “el.” The Even-Shoshan concordance lists over 3000 instances of the word “al,” and for more than 20 of them, he suggests it has the meaning “el.” (Our traditional commentators also sometimes interpret “al” as “el.”) Then the statement could be interpreted as “He will lead us to death [=until our deaths].” (Perhaps we could read the second word as “mavet.”) The implication would be that he will lead us for our entire lives. But such a statement sounds too negative. There were surely more pleasant ways that this point could have been made.
              Now I will mention a completely different approach that is suggested by many scholars, and also included as a possibility in the Daat Mikra. They notice that Psalm 9 has the words “al mut” in its first verse, and Psalm 46 has a similar word “alamot” in its first verse. Both of these verses are introductory verses that begin with “la-menatzeach.” This suggests that these unusual words reflect a musical instruction. (This is also evident from the use of the word “alamot” at I Ch. 15:20.) So perhaps our “al mut” - “alamot” is also a term of musical instruction. The musical instructions in the book of Psalms are usually found in the first verse, but sometimes they are found mid-chapter (see, e.g., 9:17 and 47:8), and other times they are found at the end (see, e.g., “selah” at the end of chapters 3, 24 and 46; “selah” may have been a musical instruction; see also the end of the third chapter of the book of Habakkuk.) So  perhaps the substance of our verse at Ps. 48:15 ends with ”hu yenahageinu,” and our cryptic term is a musical instruction as the concluding word.  (Even more creatively, some scholars suggest that our musical instruction word belongs in the first verse of chapter 49!)
                With regard to the meaning of the musical instruction, most scholars notice the resemblance to the word “alamot”=young women and suggest that “alamot” is a musical instrument with a high-pitched tone.
                  To sum up, interpreting “al-mut” as originally reading “alamot” and as reflecting a musical instruction placed at the end of the Psalm is a very simple approach. But admittedly this approach disagrees with the Masoretic view that “al” and “mut” are two separate words.
                With regard to the other interpretations, interpreting the phrase as two words: “He will lead us beyond mortality” (=make us immortal as a nation), or “He will lead us until death,” with “al” functioning as “el,” are also simple interpretations consistent with the text. But I find the first too creative and the second too simplistic.
                Our verse is interpreted in the Talmud Yerushalmi, at Meg. 2:4, and in a parallel passage at Lev. Rabbah 11:9. (The latter passage is the clearer one.) The passage is a homiletical one, and four interpretations are offered. I am not going to mention the two most homiletical ones. But one of the interpretations offered is that “al mut” means “be-almut, be-zerizut” (with youth/vigor, and alacrity). Another interpretation offered is: “bi-shnei olamot”: this world and the world to come.
                 So after all this, how does ArtScroll translate “al mut” in The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (p. 164)? In their main translation they ignore the Masoretic tradition that these are two separate words and translate: “He will guide us like children.” In their commentary, they mention the views of the Targum, Rashi and Meiri, all of whom translate the two words as if they were one. But then they conclude: “According to the Masoretic tradition that these are two words, they mean that God will continue to guide us beyond death, i.e., in the World to Come.”  Interestingly, the Talmudic interpretation that they seem to be alluding to (see the previous paragraph) arrived at the “World to Come” interpretation by interpreting the two words as one word!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. In the merit of continuing to write this column, he hopes that he will eventually be vigorously led, with the accompaniment of the music of alamot, to Olam Haba. In the interim, he can be reached at

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