Our subject is a word that appears only six times in Tanach, only in the book of Psalms, and only in the first verse each time. Our word appears in Chapter 16, and in Chapters 56 through 60. Two times we have “michtam Le-David.” Four times we have “Le-David michtam.”
This word is part of our liturgy, as Psalm 16 can be recited at a funeral and in a house of mourning. Also, in the Sephardic ritual, it is recited before Maariv on Motzei Shabbat.
It is such a difficult word, that several etymological works (e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language) are not willing to make any suggestions. Also, the King James Bible (1611) did not translate it and merely wrote “Michtam,” as do many of our sources (e.g., Koren Tanach).
The root would seem to be Caf-Tav-Mem. This root appears nine times in Tanach with the meaning “gold.” It also appears at Jer. 2:22, which we will discuss below.
Does the “gold” meaning get us anywhere? Some suggest that the meaning is a psalm as honored or beloved as gold. See e.g., Ibn Ezra to 16:1, first suggestion, and Metzudat Tziyyon. At 56:1, Ibn Ezra goes even further: the initial “mem” teaches that the psalm is more honored than gold. Rashi (in one of his approaches at 16:1) suggests that the gold meaning implies that the psalm was worn as an “atarah” (=crown or wreath). The implication is that the psalm was one that David regularly recited. Rav S.R. Hirsch suggests that gold is an allusion to the everlasting nature of the Psalm: “David has recorded for himself an everlasting memorial, a tenet to which he would adhere forever.”
Several of our Rishonim give “michtam” a melodical or musical meaning. For example, Rashi (in one of his approaches) suggests that it denotes a type of melody or rhythm.
The introductory verses to the psalms often use liturgical and musical terms that are difficult for us moderns to understand. A survey of these terms is found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica at 13:1319-1321. Another such survey is found in the introduction to the Daat Mikra edition of Psalms. In this survey (pp. 5-6), the author distinguishes between two types of terms: 1) those that describe the different types of psalms, and 2) those that are melodical and musical instructions. (The survey in the EJ had lumped them all together.) The Daat Mikra commentary takes the position that “michtam” is of the first category. It puts it in the same category as mizmor (this appears 57 times in the book of Psalms), shir (30 times), maskil (13 times), tefillah (five times), shigayon (one time), shirah (one time), and tehillah (one time).
I am going to agree with Daat Mikra that “michtam” is not a melodical or musical instruction. For example, the melodical and musical instructions often have the word “al” preceding them (e.g., al ha-gitit, al ha-sheminit, al machalat, and many more). Moreover, one can see from 56:1 that “al yonat eilem rechokim” is the musical instruction there. (It is undoubtedly the title of a song to whose melody the psalm was song.) “Le-David michtam” there (and presumably in all six of its occurrences) must be something else, of a more general nature.
There is an Akkadian root “katamu” that means “to cover.” Based on this, some suggest that a “michtam” was a psalm of atonement. See, e.g., EJ 13:1320. But “katamu” does not have the connotation of atonement. (This is in contrast to the Hebrew root C-P-R, which has both connotations.) See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 211.
Based on this “cover” meaning, another view is that a “michtam” was a prayer that, when David originally composed it, was said silently (=secretly), i.e., David’s lips were covered. Four out of the six times where “michtam” is used it is used with a historical background, and some of these backgrounds imply that a silent prayer was necessary. See, e.g., 57:1, “when he fled from Saul in the cave,” and 59:1: “they watched the house to kill him.” See B.D. Eerdmans, The Hebrew Book of Psalms, pp. 75-76. (In this view, one can interpret the “nichtam” of Jer. 2:22, as “covered by a blot.”)
There is another direction that some take. The suggestion is that the root Caf-Tav-Mem meant “write” in Biblical Hebrew. Jeremiah 2:22 has the following language: “Even if you wash yourself with nitre and take much soap, your sin is ‘nichtam’ before Me.” Now let us look at 17:1, “The sin of Judah is written (=‘ketuvah’) with a pen of iron…” Although these verses are from different chapters (and the Hebrew word used for “sin” differs in each), one can suggest based on the parallel that the root C-T-M at Jer. 2:22 means “written.” (It is typically translated as “stained,” consistent with the later meaning of the root in rabbinic Hebrew.)
Accordingly, perhaps “michtam” means a psalm that is “written.” One who makes this suggestion is S. Mandelkern.
There is another basis for a claim that “michtam” means something that was written. At Tosefta Shab. 18:4 we are told not to read certain “michtavim.” There are at least two manuscripts that read “michtamim” here.
What could be the implication of a psalm being “written”? It seems unlikely that all the other psalms were oral. Could the implication be that it was to be recited silently? The fact that there is a musical instruction at 56:1 and 60:1 immediately preceding the “michtam” phrase refutes this. (The obscure phrase at 57:1, 58:1 and 59:1 also probably reflects a musical instruction.)
Perhaps the implication of “written” is that it was written on a stone as a way of publicizing it. See Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume, vol. 1, pp. 169-171. Support for this translation of “michtam” is found in the Greek translation of the Torah (third century BCE, Egypt). Here the translation for “michtam” is “stelographia”= an inscription upon a slab. See also the Targum to Psalms 16:1. (But we have to be cautious in relying on the Greek translation. My experience tells me that those translators living in Egypt only had a limited understanding of biblical Hebrew. The fact that their interpretation bears some resemblance to our suggestion may only be fortuitous.)
At Isa. 38:9, a prayer of Chizkiyahu is referred to as a “michtav.” Also, it would be very reasonable to interpret C-T-M as being related to C-T-B (=write). The letters “mem” and “bet” are both bilabial consonants, sharing a place of articulation.
In modern times, the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon adopts “inscription” as its main definition, but also mentions the “secret prayer” definition.
For another approach to “michtam,” interpreting it in light of “maskil,” “mizmor,” and “shigayon,” see Tawil, p. 211 (bottom). (In the approach suggested there, all these terms are musical terms, unlike my assumptions above).
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney. When he is not working, he likes to ponder those difficult terms in the introductions to the psalms. He can be reached at [email protected]
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.