June 15, 2024
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Insights Into Psalms 121 and 130

Since many of us are reciting these chapters daily, I thought I would offer some insights.

121:1 הרים: Why is the author of this psalm lifting his eyes to the mountains?

Rashbam: This is just another way of saying that he is lifting his eyes “la-marom” (=to a high place, to the sky).

Ibn Ezra: It is the practice of everyone who is in distress to raise his eyes to look for someone who will help him fight off an enemy.—Seforno: “Harim” is another way of referring to the kings of the nations. The author is saying: “this is where I used to look for help when I was in exile; but these kings would fail me.” (See also Shiurei Seforno on alhatorah.org.)—Malbim: In the past, the author’s assistance would suddenly come from the tops of the mountains. But when he looked closely (verse 2) he realized it was really coming from God.

Ho’il Moshe: The mountains are where one looks to see if there is dust. The dust evidences the movement of soldiers who are coming to help.

Daat Mikra: The author is starting out on a journey. He looks to the mountains that he will be passing and wonders whether anyone there will come to assist him if he incurs troubles on his journey.

Soncino: The reference is to the hills of Jerusalem. See Psalms 125:2: “Yerushalayim harim saviv lah.” See also Psalms 87:1 and 133:3.—Radak: The author is not lifting his eyes to the mountains. Rather he is looking down from the top of the mountains to see if anyone is coming to help him. We should interpret the “el” as “al.” He cites Ezek. 18:6 as an example of an “el” that needs to be interpreted as “al.” (But it seems from 18:15 that 18:6 may have been originally written with “al.”)

(All the above sources are found on alhatorah.org, except for Daat Mikra and Soncino.)

In my view, Rashbam’s approach is the simplest. (I am not willing to read in “Yerushalayim” to the verse. Nor is there a compelling enough reason to interpret “el” as “al.”)

121:3: ינום. The root of this word is נום. Words from this root never occur in the Torah.

What is the difference between the verbs נום and ישן? A widespread view is that נום refers to a less intense type of sleep. See, e.g., Radak and Mandelkern. An alternative view is that of Malbim. He suggests that נום is a verb for sleeping due to weariness, while ישן is a verb for sleeping naturally. In this view, verse 4 is pointing out that God does not get weary nor does He need natural sleep. Therefore, He never needs to be replaced by another guard.

Regarding the root ישן, over the centuries many had speculated possible connections between this meaning of the root and the other meaning of the root: “old.” (E.g., the basic meaning of the root was “be quiet.”) We now know based on the evidence from Ugaritic (discovered in the early 20th century), that the two ישן meanings are not related. See, e.g., Edward Horowitz, How the Hebrew Language Grew, p. 107.

121:5: “God is my shade (צלך) on my right hand.” צל Is an image of protection. As to the right hand, the Soncino comments that the right hand is “the position taken by one’s champion…” See, e.g., Psalms 16:8, 73:23, 109:31 and 110:5.

(Regarding the word צל, I saw the following idea in one of the ArtScroll Tehillim volumes, based on a midrash. A man’s shadow copies his movements. So too God’s actions toward each man will reflect that individual’s actions toward God and his fellow man. To the man who acts with cruelty, God will be cruel. To a man who acts with compassion, God will be compassionate.)

121:6: ירח: Most nouns in Hebrew derive from a verb. Let us try to figure out the underlying verb here. Unfortunately, ירח never functions as a verb in Tanach. But with a slight alteration, we can see the verb ארח. This verb means: “travel, wander.” It turns out that the widespread scholarly view of the Hebrew word ירח is that it is related to this root ארח. Most likely, in the ancient world, the moon was viewed as the “wandering/traveling object in the sky.”

What about that place name “Yericho”? I have seen it suggested that it derives from ירח as well. The ancient Canaanites used to worship the moon. Perhaps this is what was going on at that site originally. Yericho is a very old city. It existed for thousands of years prior to Yehoshua.

A later development of the root ירח is the “month” meaning.

121:7: נפשך. “God will guard nafshecha” (=your life, your person).

The noun נפש appears over 700 times in Tanach. Although traditionally translated as “soul,” scholars today realize that נפש probably has this meaning only a few of these times. (The scholar Robert Alter was not willing to translate it as “soul” any time in his translation!) Common meanings of the noun are “life,” and “person.” In its rare few times as a verb (e.g., וינפש, as in our Shabbat morning kiddush), it means something like “breathe easy.” It also has a meaning of “throat.” See Isa. 5:14 and elsewhere. It has been suggested that “throat” was the original meaning of the noun before it expanded to “breather, person, etc.”

130:4: “ki imecha ha-selichah” (=with You is forgiveness).

Regarding the words “mechilah” and “selichah”:

-The root מחל never appears in Tanach with a meaning like “forgive.” (There are names of people and places which superficially seem to be based on this root. But more likely they derive from a “musical instrument” or “dancing” meaning, from the root חלל or חול.)—When the root סלח appears in Tanach it is always in the context of forgiveness by God. No individual ever grants “selichah” or is asked for it! Malbim writes that this idea is implied in our verse: “ki imecha ha-selichah.” See his Biur Ha-Milot.

For more on the roots מחל and סלח, see my article in Hakirah vol. 18 and in my Esther Unmasked (2015). (Query: If there was no verb מחל=forgive in Biblical times, and the root סלח only applied to forgiveness by God, what did someone say to another in a crowded ancient marketplace when he accidentally bumped into him?)

130:4: “le-ma’an tivare”= in order that you be in awe of Him. The root of תורא is ירא. The “yod” often turns into a “vav” when a root is conjugated. As to the root ירא, it is sometimes translated as “fear.’ But “awe” is a much better translation. As to למען, its root is ענה in one of its many meanings.

130:5 קויתי

The root of this word is קוה. One meaning of this root is “to wait for.” A widespread view is that this verb derives from the noun קו, “measuring line,” and has the implication of “to be taut, tense.” I.e., it originally meant “to wait tensely.”

Another branch of the root קוה has the meaning “gather.” See, e.g., Gen. 1:9: “yikavu ha-mayim.” From this branch, we derive the noun מקוה (where water is gathered). Most likely, the “wait” and “gather” branches of the root are not related.

P.S. I pointedly avoided discussing the unusual second word of 121:1. But I have just discovered that Rashbam has the reading המעלות. This commentary of Rashbam only came to light in recent decades. It is included on alhatorah.org. A note there mentions that there are biblical manuscripts with this reading as well.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He looks forward to the day when tzarot for all the Jewish people will have disappeared.

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