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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_of_Ascents#cite_note-5).

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 (http://www.chazzanut.com/rosenblatt/rosenblatt-notes.html). Rosenblatt was recorded singing this while on a boat on the Jordan River in 1933 (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2148100315441984).

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