Friday, September 07, 2007

The paragraph we say seven times

(Tehillim 47)

1 (For the conductor; a song by the descendants of Korach.)

2 Let all the peoples clap ["tiku"] their hands, and shout ["hariu"] to God with a voice of exultation.
3            For Hashem is supreme, awesome; a great king over all the earth.
4            He subdued peoples beneath us, and nations under our feet.
5            He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Yaakov whom He loves. (Selah)
6 God has ascended amidst [shofar] blowing, Hashem amidst the sound of the shofar.

7 Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
8            For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises in skillful song.
9 God reigns over the nations; God sits upon His holy throne.

10 The princes of the peoples are gathered, together [with] the people of the God of Avraham; for to God belong the shields of the earth; He is greatly exalted.

[This was hard to translate well; I had to check NIV online as well as JPS. Wish I had time to look this up in the beit midrash.]

Before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we say this paragraph of Tehilim seven times. I am surely not the first person to have mumbled it repeatedly without having any idea of what it means or why we are saying it. So this year, I decided to take a closer look at it ahead of time.

As I divided it above (there are other possibilities), it seems there is a "byline" (verse 1), as well as a conclusion (verse 10). In between there are two similar sections. Each section follows the same pattern: (1) a request that the nations praise God; (2) reasons why they should praise God; (3) what happens once they praise God. The conclusion verse (10) summarizes the entire scene.

The setting is apparently in the Temple, where Jews and non-Jews have gathered for some kind of worship. The historical background, according to verses 4 and 5, is military success. Due to our preeminence over the other nations, those nations come to recognize the (more meaningful) preeminence of our God. Thus they come to Jerusalem and join our worship service.

Assuming that (as part of Sefer Tehilim) this psalm was written in the time of David Hamelech, the military background makes perfect sense. In David's time the Israelites conquered most of modern Syria and Jordan as well as Israel. For the first and only time Israel became an international "superpower", with all the attention that status entails. One generation later, when Shlomo was king, the queen of Sheba famously came to check out his kingdom as well as his religion. This psalm seems to be talking about a similar visit, occurring a few years earlier, in David's lifetime.

The language in verse 2 is interesting. The non-Jews clap their hands and sing, but the verbs used to describe this normally refer to shofar blowing, not to voices. I think there is a deep thematic meaning to this choice of words. We Jews praise God through mitzvot such as shofar. Non-Jews do not have these mitzvot, so they praise God through simpler means - their voices and clapping. While their method of praise is different, the language used to describe it is the same. This implies that the praise of Jews and non-Jews is integrated together, is regarded as if from a common source, resulting in a single unit of praise arising from all mankind.

The psalm's connection to Rosh Hashana should be clear. Of course there is the obvious mention of the shofar, but the connection is much deeper than that. God is recognized as supreme, awesome, ruler not only of Jews, but of the entire world. This is the main theme of Rosh Hashana, and it is reflected perfectly in this psalm. Also, along with the sounds of the shofar come the voices of individuals who accept God's dominion through their song and speech. This combination introduces us to the shofar blowing and to Rosh Hashana mussaf, in which the shofar is paired with and complemented by our prayers.

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