June 2, 2024
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‘If I Forget You Jerusalem’: Psalms 137:5

Psalms 137:5 reads: “If I forget you Jerusalem, tishkach yemini.” But what do the last two words mean? On the simplest level, “tishkach yemini” means “my right (hand) will forget.” But forget what? Also, hands are not a mind that forgets things!

I have written about this topic before but I am now adding some new material and a better explanation. (Anyone who has my “Links to Our Legacy” book should make a notation on p. 229.) Many take the approach that the meaning is: “My right hand shall forget its musical skills.” One who adopts this approach is Radak. If one reads verses 2-5 carefully, this interpretation fits the context. Note also that for most people it would be the right hand that strums the strings of the harp.

But let us look at verse 6 that begins “tidbak leshoni—Let my tongue adhere to my palate, if I fail to recall you.” This implies that verse 5 may not be limiting itself to loss of musical skills. A loss of speaking ability may be implied by verses 5-6 as well.

A different approach to our verse is: “My right hand shall forget its skills in general.” Many understand the verse this way. (E.g., Daat Mikra: “Tishkach et peuoloteha,” and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch: “All the skills which my hand had known heretofore.” See also Ibn Ezra.) (A common English translation of our verse is “let my right hand forget its cunning.” Those who translate in this way are merely copying from the King James version of the early 17th century. At that time, “cunning” just meant “ability.” So this common English translation agrees with the approach just suggested.)

But there are other ways to understand our phrase: There is a Hebrew root כחש that has the meaning “become lean, wither.” Some have suggested that this is the meaning of our word here, as perhaps כחש developed the variant שכח. But such a switching of the letters would be farfetched—“Let my right hand be forgotten.” This would be a proper translation if our word was in the passive (nifal) and vocalized: “tishachach.” Perhaps we should just interpret it as if it were in the nifal anyway (e.g., perhaps the Masoretes did not vocalize the word properly).

One who is willing to interpret the word as a passive is Rashbam (see the AlHaTorah site). He suggests that the meaning of the idiom “be forgotten” is: “will fall from me.” One can also interpret the passive as “become paralyzed.” Also adopting the passive, “be forgotten,” is Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, volume 14, page 675. Its essay on our root interprets our phrase, together with the double use of the root שכח, as an “extreme commitment to remain mindful of Jerusalem.” But the fact that the nearby “tidbak” is not in the passive somewhat militates against תשכח having originally being in the passive.

  • Another approach relies on the fact that our verse has the style of an oath, as it begins with אם (see, e.g., Rav Hirsch and Daat Mikra). Oaths are often elliptical in style, i.e., they do not finish their sentences and leave out key elements (see, e.g., Samuel 2, 3:35, and Daat Mikra in our verse, note 8A). With this in mind, we can accept the “forget its musical skills” and “forget its skills” approaches mentioned above and imagine that our verse has three dots at the end of the verse, signifying an omission. (This is the approach that I preferred when I wrote my column long ago and in my Links book.)
  • Some scholars believe that our תשכח means “wither” and suggest other times in Tanach where the root שכח has a meaning like this. See, e.g., The Anchor Bible commentaries to Psalms 31:13 and 135:7 (1965, 1966). Here the author suggests that this meaning is found at Psalms 31:13, 59:12, 77:10, 102:5 and our verse. I did not find any of his citations to other verses convincing. I also note that the Even-Shoshan concordance did not list any verse with a “wither” meaning for our root.
  • Ibn Ezra mentions that some interpret תשכח at 137:5 to mean תיבש (will dry out). He points out that if this is correct, it would be the only time the root had this meaning in Tanach.
  • The reason I decided to redo this column is that I learned of another approach to our word, based on Ugaritic. Ugaritic, discovered in 1928, has a root תכח (in Ugaritic cuneiform letters). Many scholars believe that this root in Ugaritic has a meaning “wither.” When Ugaritic has a ת, this is often the equivalent of a Hebrew ש. (I have written about this before and cannot re-explain here.) So, perhaps, we should understand תשכח at the end of 137:5 in light of this “wither” meaning in Ugaritic. This is the approach taken in the Anchor Bible Psalms commentaries (1965-66) and by many scholars. See, e.g., Journal of Semitic Studies 11 (1960), page 240. (This short verse would then have a great wordplay. The root שכח at the beginning meaning “forget” and at the end meaning “wither!”)

A weakness with this approach is that it is not absolutely clear that תכח has a “wither” meaning in Ugaritic. A good summary of this issue is found in “The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament” (1995), entry for “שכח II.” It seems that there are three texts with this root in Ugaritic. In one of them, the “wither” meaning fits well (even though some give it a different meaning). To explain the other two texts, it has been suggested that perhaps the Ugaritic root originally had a different meaning and that “wither” is a later meaning that evolved from the original meaning. A recent scholarly work on Psalms is “JPS Bible Commentary: Psalms 120-150,” (2023). It adopts the “wither” approach based on Ugaritic. Robert Alter had adopted “wither” in his edition of Psalms in 2007. I now lean towards adopting this approach.

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Some further comments:

  • An article in “Vetus Testamentum 25,” (1975) suggests that the root in Ugaritic means “bend down, droop” in all three Ugaritic texts, rather than “wither.” It then reads the “droop” meaning into Psalms 137:5.
  • Rashi writes only briefly in our verse: “ … knesset Yisrael omeret ken.” He is writing this to disagree with the Targum which has God speaking. Rashi does not explain how he himself understood our phrase. (Note that the Targum translated the phrase as if the last word was אשכח.)
  • In Aramaic, the root שכח means “common.” This is almost the opposite of the Hebrew meaning “forget.” This is, probably, just a coincidence. (But over the centuries the Aramaic meaning has worked its way into Hebrew. For example, in modern Hebrew שכיח means “common.”)
  • In his book, “Power and Principle,” Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that Menachem Begin said the following to him while they were talking a walk together at Camp David: “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off before I ever agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement.” From Brzezinski’s account, it does not appear that he understood what Begin was alluding to! (See similarly Daniel Gordis, Menachem Begin, page 173.)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. I thank Rabbi Yoni Mozeson for alerting me to the interpretation based on Ugaritic. (Daat Mikra had mentioned the “wither” interpretation, but only stated that it might have arisen from metathesis of כחש. Daat Mikra sometimes mentions interpretations based on Ugaritic but did not do so here.)

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