April 12, 2024
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A Fascinating Reinterpretation of Psalm 126 and ‘Shivat Tziyon’

We have all recited these six verses numerous times before Birkat Hamazon. About two years ago, I came across a new interpretation of two of its verses. I learned of this interpretation in Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s book, “Psalms: A Companion Volume (2022)” and would like to share it. (My longer article on our topic was just published in Hakirah, volume 34.)

Let us look carefully at the first phrase: “beshuv Hashem et שיבת Tziyon.” Some view the phrase as referring to those who were captured and exiled. According to this view, the root of the word is שבה—“to take captive.” Others view “shivat” as referring to “returnees,” deriving from the root שוב—“to return.” But there is a completely different way to look at the phrase, which I think is correct. The interpretation I am going to advocate for now is the one adopted in Daat Mikra.

There is a common expression in Tanach that has the form שוב plus שבות. The first word will be a word from the root שוב. The second word will be either שבות or שבית in some form. There is often a “ketiv/kri” as the second word on the issue of whether it should read שבות or שבית. The distinction does not appear to have any significance. Some examples include:

Psalms 14:7 “beshuv Hashem shevut amo … ”

Psalms 85:2: “shavta shevut Yaakov.” (The “kri” on “shevut” is “shevit.”)

Job 42:10: “Hashem shav et shevit Iyyov …” (The “kri” on “shevit” is “shevut.” The context here is the end of the story: Job was being restored to prosperity, where God gave him twice as much as he had before.)

Expressions in this form appear 31 times in Tanach (see the concordance of Even-Shoshan, pages 1104 and 1106.) An expression of this form only appears once in the Torah, at Deuteronomy 30:3. Originally, it was thought by many that the root of the two words was שבה and that the expression refers to bringing people back from captivity. But since Job was never in captivity, the widespread understanding of the phrase has become that it refers to a decisive turn in a person or people’s fortune for the better and is from the root שוב. A modern translation of the expression would be “restored the fortunes of” (or its rough equivalent: “restored the prosperity of”). It seems that most scholars today agree with this understanding of the expression.

Daat Mikra suggests that we should translate “בשוב Hashem et שיבת Tziyon” as if it intended this expression. i.e., “when God restored the fortunes of Tziyon.” Daat Mikra points out that the word שיבת appears nowhere else and suggests that it should be understood as if it had the meaning שבות or שבית. Samuel David Luzzatto is one who suggested this long ago (see his commentaries to Deuteronomy 30:3 and Jeremiah 29:14.) So did Rashbam, as we learn from his recently discovered commentary on our verse, on the alhatorah.org site.

I investigated this topic further and also discovered that one of the two Dead Sea texts of this verse—the one from cave four (4Q87—has the reading שבות. The other Dead Sea text of this verse—from cave 11—is ripped and lacks our word.) Because our expression appears 31 times in Tanach, including—as we will see—verse 126:4, almost certainly our expression is what is reflected in verse one.

Whether verse one is describing the past—as Daat Mikra claims in its main interpretation—or is a request for the future, is an issue. The next word in the verse, “hayyinu,” is ambiguous as to whether it is referring to the past or the future. The “oz yimalei” and “oz yomru” phrases in verse two—which to us sound like future—can be viewed as talking about matters that already occurred (see, e.g., Exodus 15:1 and Deuteronomy 4:41).

Now let us look at verse four: “shuvah Hashem et shevuteinu (kri: sheviteinu) kaafikim banegev.” Prior to reading this article, you surely thought that “shevuteinu” in this verse was referring to “captives” or “returnees.” But in light of our expression, let us translate verse four as: “God, restore our fortunes, like those riverbeds in the dry land (get restored with water).” Here, for example, are the comments of the scholar, Robert Alter: “The reference is to wadis, or dry water gulches, that—with the onset of the rainy season—are filled with streams of water. It is an apt image for restoring the previous condition of a desolate Zion … ” Since verse 4 is a prayer for the future, perhaps we should interpret verse one as a prayer for the future as well. So, the proper translation of verse one would be: “when God will restore the fortunes of Tziyon, we will be like dreamers.”

By interpreting verse one as a prayer for the future, I am not trying to turn it into a prayer by King David. This chapter is one of the 15 “Shir Hamaalot” (chapters 120-134). Nearby is chapter 137, which begins: “al naharot Bavel sham yashavnu gam bachinu bezachreinu et Tziyon.” Chapter 137 seems to have been composed after the Jews were exiled to Babylonia. Probably the nearby chapters 120-134 were as well.

Ezra 2:64 tells us that in response to Cyrus’ initial permission in 539 BCE, approximately 42,000 Jews returned. The widespread understanding today is that the majority of Jews remained in exile. At Ezra 3:12, we are told that many who had seen the First Temple wept when the foundation for the new Temple was laid in the following year. The reason for the weeping is not stated, but—almost certainly—it was due to sadness because of the foundation’s small size.

Let us also look at the words of Haggai at 2:3—which date to the second year of Darius, 520 BCE—before Haggai encouraged the people to start the work again, after it had stopped. Here, the prophet declared that the people viewed the foundation that had been built so far as practically a “nothing.”

Our preferred translation of verse one is: “When God will restore the fortunes of Tziyon, we will be like dreamers.” If our psalm is entirely a prayer for a future restoration of fortunes, the psalm was authored in a period where there was hope for a restoration of Israel/Judea to its former glory, but its author believed that the process had not yet begun or had only barely begun.

It seems that Haggai—in the second year of Darius—is describing precisely the type of period that we are looking for: a period where there was hope for a restoration of Israel/Judea to its former glory, but the people viewed that the process had not yet begun or had only barely begun. But I do not want to speculate further.

In conclusion, although we cannot pinpoint the precise time of authorship of psalm 126, we have made a major leap in understanding it. We now have the proper interpretation of verses one and four and can at least ask the right questions—in our ultimate goal of understanding the background to this psalm. More importantly, we now understand verses one and four in our numerous recitals of them!


PS Daat Mikra and many others view the first three verses as referring to positive events that have already occurred (e.g., initial return responding to Cyrus). They base this on verse one having היינו—without an initial vav. Accordingly, they view verse four as a request for the continuation of the restoration of our fortunes. It is possible they are correct. (For more on all of this, see Rabbi Elhanan Samet, “Iyyunim beMizmorei Tehillim,” pages 360-389, and the newly-published “JPS Bible Commentary: Psalms 120-150.”)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. If we advocate for the readings שבות or שבית, the tunes that we sing to our psalm may have to change, as these are both one-syllable words, in contrast to שיבת!

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