Sunday, 2 June 2019

If I forget you, Jerusalem... (Ps. 137)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

If I Forget You Jerusalem…”: Psalms 137:5
Psalms 137:5 reads: “If I forget you Jerusalem, tishkach yemini.” But what do the last two words mean? Note that that second to last word is “tishkach,” not “eshkach” (=I will forget).
On the simplest level, “tishkach yemini” means “my right [hand] will forget.” But forget what? It seems like the “ikar chaser min ha-sefer” here!
Many take the approach that the meaning is: “My right hand shall forget its musical skills.” One who adopts this approach is the Radak. Note that for most people it would be the right hand that strums the strings of the harp.
To understand the rationale for this approach, let us look at the preceding verses. This psalm begins “Al naharot Bavel….” Verse 2 continues: “On the willows there, we hung up our harps.” In verse 3, those that led them captive ask them to “sing us one of the songs of Zion.” In verse 4, the Israelite (or Levite) response is: “How can we sing a song of God on foreign lands?” Then comes our verse 5.
But let us look at verse 6 that begins “tidbak leshoni”: “Let my tongue adhere to my palate if I fail to recall you.” This implies that verse 5 may not be limiting itself to loss of musical skills. A loss of speaking ability may be implied here as well. (A response might be that verse 6 is only alluding, in an exaggerated manner, to a singing problem.)
A different approach to our verse is: “My right hand shall forget its skills in general.” Many understand the verse this way. (E.g., the Daat Mikra commentary: “tishkach et pe’uoloteha,” and Rav S.R. Hirsch: “all the skills which my hand had known heretofore.”)
(A common English translation of our verse is “let my right hand forget its cunning.” Those who translate in this way are merely copying from the King James version of the early 17th century. At that time, “cunning” just meant “ability.” So this common English translation is agreeing with the approach just suggested.)
What other ways are there to understand our verse?
- Some understand “tishkach” as “become paralyzed,” or “cease to function.” In this way, there is nothing missing from the end of the verse. But these are not the simplest understandings of “tishkach.”
- There is a Hebrew root Caf-Ḥet-Shin that has the meaning “become lean, wither.” Some have suggested that this is the meaning of our word here, as perhaps C-Ḥ-Sh developed the variant Sh-C-Ḥ. But this seems very farfetched. (This is not just a “keves” vs. “kesev” variant, but a more unusual one.) This approach is mentioned as a possibility in the Daat MIkra. It is adopted by Robert Alter in his The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.
(Regarding C-Ḥ-Sh, this is an unusual root on its own. It has two different meanings “become lean” and “deceive, deny.” I have seen it suggested that the latter is a sense enlargement of the former, but the connection seems farfetched.)
- “Let my right hand be forgotten.” (See, e.g., Pseudo-Rashbam on the AlHaTorah site.) “Tishakhach” would be the passive (nifal) form. Our verse has “tishkach”? Well, that is pretty close. We can understand how the former might have evolved into the latter by the time of the Masoretes. If one goes through the entire Tanach, there are often times when the Masoretes use a grammatical form that does not seem to be correct. In these instances, they were perhaps trying to vocalize the word to reflect common speech.
But contextually does the passive stem make sense here? “If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.” Forgotten by me? Perhaps forgotten by God is better, the implication being that God will not help my hand do its normal activities. (For the latter, see the view of Chakhmei Tzefat on the AlHatorah site.) But the fact that “tidbak” is not in the passive militates against “tishkach” being an evolution from “tishakhach. “Tishkach…” and “tidbak…” are parallel phrases here.
To conclude, Rav Hirsch points out that our verse has the style of an oath. Oaths are very often elliptical in style, i.e., they don’t finish their sentences and they leave out key elements. (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 3:35.) With this in mind, we should be able to accept the “forget its musical skills” and “forget its skills” approaches expressed above. We should simply imagine that the text has three dots after the word “tishkach.”
A separate issue is who is speaking in verse 5. Normally we would understand the speaker as the Israelites or Levites. But the Targum understands God as speaking here, and responding to the Israelite/Levite affirmation of verse 4 that they could not sing a song of God on foreign soil. As ArtScroll explains the Targum: “God’s Holy Spirit responded to Israel’s proclamation of faith and declared: ‘If I forget Jerusalem, I will forget my right hand.’ (But as I mentioned at the outset, the verse does not use the word “eshkach.”)
With regard to Rashi, he writes only briefly on our verse: “knesset Yisrael omeret ken.” He is writing this to disagree with the Targum. But he does not explain how he himself understood the verse.
In Aramaic, the root Shin-Kaf-Chet means “common,” “everyday.” This is almost the opposite of the Hebrew meaning. This is probably just coincidence. But over the centuries the Aramaic meaning has worked its way into Hebrew. For example, in modern Hebrew “shakhiach” means “common” and “shekhichut” means “frequency.”
In his book Power and Principle, Z. Brzezinski writes that Menachem Begin said the following to him while they were talking a walk together at Camp David: “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off before I ever agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement.” From Brzezinski’s account, it does not appear that he understood what Begin was alluding to! (See similarly D. Gordis, Menachem Begin, p. 173.)
P.S. My son Shaya told me that his recollection is that Senator Cory Booker paraphrased the verse as follows at his speech at the AIPAC convention in March: “If I forget thee O Israel, may I cut off my right hand.”
Mitchell First can be reached at He would like to thank Rabbi Ezra Frazer for his assistance with this article.

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