Psalm 126

Psalm 126 in the 13th-century Parma Psalter of Northern Italy

In poetry more than one interpretation may be valid due to the ambiguity of the words, the grammar, or the very structure. Psalm 126 is particularly well known to traditional Jews, because it is sung before the Grace after Meals on festive occasions, including Shabbat, holidays, and weddings. And yet, the content of the Psalm is uncertain. For example, does the phrase “like dreamers” anticipate the future of a dream fulfilled or look back at hardships suffered as unreal as a dream? In either case, this is a Psalm of celebration describing the dispersed regathered to Israel as  gushing waters in a Negev wadi.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) mentions this psalm in the context of the famous story of Honi ha-Ma’agal and the carob tree: Rabbi Yohanan said, This righteous man [Honi] was troubled throughout his life about the meaning of the verse from Psalms 126, “A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we will be like dreamers.” He wondered: Is it possible for a person to live long enough to dream continuously for seventy years? -As it is written, “For the Lord said: When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of and I will fulfill you to my promise of favor to bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10)- Honi then ate a meal and fell asleep for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw the planter’s grandson gathering the fruits of the carob tree. On an allegorical level, just as a carob tree had taken years to bear fruit, so too Israel’s longing for an ingathering will be fulfilled- and indeed that it is the case.

Join me on Tuesday at 9:30 for the study of Psalm 126.
Our study is dedicated to Rabbi Adir Glick, a native of Israel, now a rabbi in Chicago, and our former CBI intern.