Personally Connecting to Shir HaMa’alot (Psalm 126)

“Shir HaMa’alot” “on one foot”:

”Shir HaMa’alot” is Psalm 126. It is said before Birkat HaMazon on Shabbat and holidays.

(א) שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב יְ֭הוָה אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃

(1) A song of ascents. When the LORD restores the fortunes of Zion —we see it as in a dream— [Alternative translations: When the LORD restored the captives of Zion, we were like dreamers. OR When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.]

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Psalms. It seems to be written during the Babylonian Captivity (roughly 586-538 BCE). There are 15 "song of ascents", Psalms 120-134. There were also 15 steps leading up to the Temples. One theory is that these psalms were sung by the Levites, 1 per step, as they walked into the Second Temple (

When have you experienced something “as if you were a dreamer”?

Context: This is the front cover of Yossi Klein Halevi’s 2013 book Like Dreamers, which is about the lives of the paratroopers who restored the Western Wall to Jewish access.

Why might he have chosen this title for this book?

(ב) אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֪א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֮ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֪נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה אָ֭ז יֹאמְר֣וּ בַגּוֹיִ֑ם הִגְדִּ֥יל יְ֝הוָ֗ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִם־אֵֽלֶּה׃

(2) our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them!” [Alternative translations have this in past tense]

Back to Psalm 126.

When has your tongue been filled with songs of joy (or might it have been)?

(ג) הִגְדִּ֣יל יְ֭הוָה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּ֗נוּ הָיִ֥ינוּ שְׂמֵחִֽים׃

(3) The LORD will do / did great things for us and we shall rejoice.

When has the Lord done great things for you (or when have great things happened to you, which you might ascribe to G-d if you were to ascribe things to G-d)?

(ד) שׁוּבָ֣ה יְ֭הוָה אֶת־שבותנו [שְׁבִיתֵ֑נוּ] כַּאֲפִיקִ֥ים בַּנֶּֽגֶב׃

(4) Restore our fortunes (OR Bring us back from our captivity), O LORD, like watercourses in the Negev.

The image of water returning to dry streambeds in the Negev Desert is powerful. When has something like this happened in your life?

(ה) הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ׃
(5) They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.

Has there ever been a case where you have "sown in tears" but "reaped in joy"? If so, when was it?

(ו) הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֮ נֹשֵׂ֪א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע בֹּֽ֬א־יָב֥וֹא בְרִנָּ֑ה נֹ֝שֵׂ֗א אֲלֻמֹּתָֽיו׃
(6) Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.

When in your life have you "carried your sheaves" with "songs of joy"?

Musical Renditions

This psalm also kicks off Birkat HaMazon on Shabbat and holidays. Here are some tunes for it.

This tune to Shir Hama'alot was written by Cantor Pinchas Minkowsky, and recorded by Cantor Yossle Rosenblatt ( Rosenblatt was recorded singing this while on a boat on the Jordan River in 1933 (

How does this musical setting make you feel? Does it work with the words?

Context: This is another version of Shir HaMa’alot (see 1:05-2:46 in the video). It is part of a longer video about how to do Birkat HaMazon. While this video presents an abridged version of Birkat HaMazon, Shir HaMa’alot is not abridged in this video. There are some verses that people add to Psalm 126, but that is outside the scope of this sheet. Note that traditionally Shir HaMa’alot is added at the beginning of Birkat HaMazon not only on Friday evening, but also at other Shabbat and holiday meals.

How does this musical setting of Shir HaMa’alot make you feel? Does it work with the words?

Context: This rendition of one of the verses in Shir HaMa’alot was written by Debbie Friedman in 2007.

How does this musical setting affect your experience of the words?

Context: This version of Shir HaMa’alot was put together and sung in collaboration between the Maccabeats and Schlock Rock. It was recorded in honor of Yom Yerushalayim 2018. It is to the Billy Joel tune “The Longest Time”. Note that they sing “Hashem” because they are not actually saying “Birkat HaMazon”.

Does this seem like an appropriate tune for the meaning of the words?

Borrowing Tunes

When Reb Avrumche [Avrom Geiger] davened [in Vienna], he and his two sons would sing “Keil Adon” to a march. When the kaiser came to visit, Reb Avrumche told me, the local kapellmeister would play a little march to honor the changing of the guard. The local Rebbe would say to the chazan, “Khap es marshel” — catch the march, and teach it to the meshorerim, the choir boys. Come Shabbes morning, he went to the davening and said to the chazan, “Did you khap the march of the emperor?” Yes. “Mit die meshorerim?" Yes. "Nu," he says, "then for 'Keil Adon' sing the emperor's march." And that's how Avrom Geiger learned it. Because we want to bring the noble music to Hashem! When I was in school in Vienna, they would teach us how to sing Beethoven's setting of Psalm 19, "The heavens declare the glory of God" -- and that was in a Jewish school. The whole world of niggun [tunes] borrows in that way.

- Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi

Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, 2012, p. 39-40

With appreciation to Cantor Neil Schwartz

Appendix: A Story Related to Shir Hama'alot

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: כׇּל יָמָיו שֶׁל אוֹתוֹ צַדִּיק, הָיָה מִצְטַעֵר עַל מִקְרָא זֶה: ״שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת בְּשׁוּב ה׳ אֶת שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים״, אָמַר: מִי אִיכָּא דְּנָיֵים שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין בְּחֶלְמָא? יוֹמָא חַד הֲוָה אָזֵל בְּאוֹרְחָא, חַזְיֵיהּ לְהָהוּא גַּבְרָא דַּהֲוָה נָטַע חָרוּבָא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַאי, עַד כַּמָּה שְׁנִין טָעֵין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: עַד שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: פְּשִׁיטָא לָךְ דְּחָיֵית שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ הַאי גַּבְרָא: עָלְמָא בְּחָרוּבָא אַשְׁכַּחְתֵּיהּ. כִּי הֵיכִי דִּשְׁתַלוּ לִי אֲבָהָתִי — שְׁתַלִי נָמֵי לִבְרָאִי. יָתֵיב, קָא כָּרֵיךְ רִיפְתָּא, אֲתַאי לֵיהּ שִׁינְתָּא, נִים. אַהְדַּרָא לֵיהּ מְשּׁוּנִּיתָא, אִיכַּסִּי מֵעֵינָא, וְנִים שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין. כִּי קָם, חַזְיֵיהּ לְהָהוּא גַּבְרָא דְּהוּא קָא מְלַקֵּט מִינַּיְיהוּ, אָמַר לֵיהּ: אַתְּ הוּא דִּשְׁתַלְתֵּיהּ? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: בַּר בְּרֵיהּ אֲנָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ דִּנְיַימִי שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין. חֲזָא לַחֲמָרְ[תֵּ]יהּ דְּאִתְיְילִידָא לַיהּ רַמְכֵי רַמְכֵי. אֲזַל לְבֵיתֵיהּ אֲמַר לְהוּ: בְּרֵיהּ דְּחוֹנִי הַמְעַגֵּל מִי קַיָּים? אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: בְּרֵיהּ לֵיתֵאּ, בַּר בְּרֵיהּ אִיתֵאּ. אֲמַר לְהוּ: אֲנָא חוֹנִי הַמְעַגֵּל. לָא הֵימְנוּהוּ. אֲזַל לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, שַׁמְעִינְהוּ לְרַבָּנַן דְּקָאָמְרִי: נְהִירָן שְׁמַעְתָּתִין כְּבִשְׁנֵי חוֹנִי הַמְעַגֵּל, דְּכִי הָוֵי עָיֵיל לְבֵית מִדְרְשָׁא — כֹּל קוּשְׁיָא דַּהֲווֹ לְהוּ לְרַבָּנַן הֲוָה מְפָרֵק לְהוּ. אָמַר לְהוּ: אֲנָא נִיהוּ, וְלָא הֵימְנוּהוּ, וְלָא עָבְדִי לֵיהּ יְקָרָא כִּדְמִבְּעֵי לֵיהּ. חֲלַשׁ דַּעְתֵּיהּ, בְּעָא רַחֲמֵי, וּמִית. אָמַר רָבָא: הַיְינוּ דְּאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי: אוֹ חַבְרוּתָא אוֹ מִיתוּתָא.
§ The Gemara relates another story about Ḥoni HaMe’aggel. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: All the days of the life of that righteous man, Ḥoni, he was distressed over the meaning of this verse: “A song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream” (Psalms 126:1). He said to himself: Is there really a person who can sleep and dream for seventy years? How is it possible to compare the seventy-year exile in Babylonia to a dream? One day, he was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him: That man himself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants. Ḥoni sat and ate bread. Sleep overcame him and he slept. A cliff formed around him, and he disappeared from sight and slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw a certain man gathering carobs from that tree. Ḥoni said to him: Are you the one who planted this tree? The man said to him: I am his son’s son. Ḥoni said to him: I can learn from this that I have slept for seventy years, and indeed he saw that his donkey had sired several herds during those many years. Ḥoni went home and said to the members of the household: Is the son of Ḥoni HaMe’aggel alive? They said to him: His son is no longer with us, but his son’s son is alive. He said to them: I am Ḥoni HaMe’aggel. They did not believe him. He went to the study hall, where he heard the Sages say about one scholar: His halakhot are as enlightening and as clear as in the years of Ḥoni HaMe’aggel, for when Ḥoni HaMe’aggel would enter the study hall he would resolve for the Sages any difficulty they had. Ḥoni said to them: I am he, but they did not believe him and did not pay him proper respect. Ḥoni became very upset, prayed for mercy, and died. Rava said: This explains the folk saying that people say: Either friendship or death, as one who has no friends is better off dead.