May 29, 2024
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Interesting Words and Phrases in Le-David Hashem Ori

Last year, I wrote about the origin of the recital of this chapter during the High Holiday season (based largely on the research of Eliezer Brodt). To review, the earliest source is a work called “Shem Tov Katan,” from 1706. The author writes: “Whoever recites this psalm from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Simchat Torah, even if an evil decree has been inscribed from heaven against a person, he can annul it … One must be very, very careful to say this psalm evening and morning, every day, from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Simchat Torah….”

The author gives his reason for the recital. “Le-David” has the four-letter Divine Name 13 times (including Divine Names with prefixes) and this corresponds to the 13 middot. As we know, the 13 middot are recited throughout our prayers during the High Holiday period.

But “Le-David” also includes the words סכה and תרועה, and the chapter’s theme of asking for salvation is fitting for the High Holiday season. Thus, even though the author mentioned only the reason for correspondence to the 13 middot, the psalm’s content was surely a factor as well. (Psalm 33 also has 13 mentions of the Divine Name and the author did not suggest its recital).

It is of course interesting that the author does not cite Midrash Tehillim, sec. 27 (also known as Midrash Shocher Tov), which has an explanation for אורי representing Rosh Hashanah and ישעי representing Yom Kippur and finds allusions in the psalm to Sukkot and Hoshanah Rabbah as well.

The author of “Shem Tov Katan” was Rabbi Binyamin Beinisch ha-Kohen, a kabbalist from Poland. In the “Shem Tov Katan,” R. Binyamin did not provide the specific time in the evening and morning prayers that “Le-David” should be recited. But he published a different work ten years later, “Amtachat Binyamin.” There he specified that the time for its recital was after the Amidah of Shacharit. (Presumably he meant that it should be recited after the Amidah of Maariv as well).

Rabbi Binyamin’s “Shem Tov Katan” was very popular, so we can understand how the custom spread after being first proposed by Rabbi Binyamin.

———לבקר (verse 4): The psalmist is asking to see the pleasantness of God and “le-vaker” in his temple. The 1917 JPS translation has “visit.” Rashi had cited Dunash for the idea that it meant “to come every boker” (i.e., morning). But neither of these are biblical uses of the root בקר. Rather, the verb in the Bible means something like “investigate.” Here, the spin we should give it is perhaps “contemplate.” See, e.g., Radak and Daat Mikra. The latter translates: “le-hitbonen.” ArtScroll correctly translates: “contemplate.”

Daat Mikra also suggests that the term bikur cholim originally meant “thinking about the needs of the sick” before it expanded into “visiting” the sick. But I think it is simpler to derive it from the “investigate” meaning: physical investigation requires a visit.

חמס יפח (verse 12): These words are often translated as “breathe violence,” on the assumption that the first word derives from the root נפח. But based on the parallel to שקר עדי and the fact that the Ugaritic cognate to יפח means “witness,” it is evident that יפח means “witness” here, and the two words mean “evil witness.” We also have a parallel of עד and יפח at Prov. 14:25. (יפח probably also means “witness” at Hab. 2:3).

I once saw a scholar theorize fancifully that our psalm was composed as a prayer to be recited by an accidental killer, hurrying to a city of refuge. The reciter is afraid of false witnesses, who might testify that he did the killing purposely!

נפש (verse 12): “Do not give me to the נפש of my enemies.” 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 used as a verb (e.g., וינפש), it means something like “catch one’s breath, breathe easy.” It also has a meaning of “throat.” (See Isa. 5:14 and elsewhere). “Throat” was probably the original meaning of the noun before it expanded to “breather,” “person,” etc. Perhaps “throat” is the meaning here with its vivid image of enemies chasing the psalmist as if they were animals trying to eat him like prey. Daat Mikra is willing to suggest this as a possibility.

קוה (verse 14): 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.” (Whoever would have imagined this!) That noun קו may be a loanword from Sumerian.

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

The most interesting aspect of this verb is that there are verses in Tanach where קוה seems to mean “call out loud.” A prime example is Psalm 40:2: “kavo kiviti Hashem, va-yeit elai, He inclined to me—va-yishma shavati.” Those last two words mean: “He heard my cry.” As far as I know, שוע means a cry for help that is out loud, and not a silent prayer. See similarly Psalm 19:5 and 52:11, and the Daat Mikra on all these verses. Klein suggests the “call out loud” meaning is a special sense development of the “gather” meaning, but no connection calls out loud to me here. (Perhaps we can now read the “call out loud” meaning into many other verses where we thought the verb only meant “wait!”)

לולא (verse 13): “Were it not that I believe I should see the goodness of Hashem in the land of the living…” This phrase is fascinating because the thought is not completed! We do not know what would have happened if his faith had wavered! But there are many such elliptical statements in Tanach, usually when oaths are involved. An example is Lavan’s statement in the oath and agreement at Gen. 31:50: Lavan never states what will happen if Jacob violates the agreement. Why is the consequence often not stated in these oaths? Perhaps to increase the anxiety about a violation, or merely to avoid stating the terrible consequences.

P.S. There are four dots above and below the word לולא. Daat Mikra suggests that these dots allude to the fact that the sentence is not complete and the reader is supposed to fill in his/her own thoughts.

I would like to thank Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom for some of the above insights on the words and phrases.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. If only he could get more feedback from his readers, then… (I leave it to you to finish the thought!)

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