June 2, 2024
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Psalm 22:1: What Is ‘Ayelet Ha-Shachar’?

This psalm begins: “la-menatzeach al ayelet ha-shachar mizmor le-David.” What is the meaning of “ayelet ha-shachar”? Rashi here gives four interpretations, and Radak gives five!

Literally, “ayelet ha-shachar” means: doe of the dawn. A doe is a female deer. (That song from “The Sound of Music” that I learned when I was seven finally came in handy!) A male deer would be an “ayal.” A female deer is an “ayalah.” “Ayelet” is the construct state of “ayalah” (=ayalah of the…).

There are two times in Tanach where the letters aleph-yod-lamed mean “strength.” See Psalms 22:20 and 88:5. Accordingly, many suggest that the meaning in our verse is something like “strength of the morning.” Then we could interpret this with a meaning like “sunrise.” But our “ayelet” has a dagesh in the yod. With the dagesh, the meaning is almost always the “deer/doe” meaning.

An amora in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 1:1) explains “ayelet ha-shachar” by taking the position that the light of morning first appears like two horns on the horizon and then illuminates the entire horizon. He probably means that there is a similarity to the antlers of a deer that branch out in different directions. In this interpretation the verse is referring to the morning light. (This statement in the Jerusalem Talmud is best understood in light of another statement at Yoma 29a.) But the word used in Psalms 22:1 is “ayelet,” not “ayal,” and female deer have no antlers! (Of course, a response could be that the verse is speaking loosely about deer in general and for some poetic reason chose to use the female form.)

The Jerusalem Talmud also records a view that “ayelet ha-shachar” means “kochavta.” This literally means “star,” but is commonly translated as a reference to the planet Venus. (The amora who mentions this view disagrees with it.)

Let us work with the assumption that the meaning is “star.” Could there have been a star that appeared every morning that looked like a doe? If a star appears in the morning it is going to look like a dot, not like a deer or doe.

Many interpret “ayelet ha-shachar” as a musical instrument. Note for example that Psalm 12 begins as follows: “la-menatzeach al ha-sheminit mizmor le-David.” Most likely, “ha-sheminit” is a musical instrument, one of eight strings. The format of our verse, 22:1, perfectly parallels the format of verse 12:1. But try as I might, I cannot imagine a musical instrument with a name like “doe of the dawn.” (But my son Shaya jokingly suggested that it could be a musical instrument that looked like a doe and was used to wake people in the morning!)

Rashi and Radak mention a view that the doe symbolizes Bnei Yisrael who seek the redemption symbolized by the word “shachar.” See similarly Song of Songs 6:10.

The key to solving our problem is the introductory sentence of Psalm 56: “la-menatzeach al yonat eilem rechokim.” The word “eilem” has a few different interpretations, but in all interpretations the reference is to a dove that is far away. This cannot possibly be a reference to a musical instrument. The Soncino commentary writes here that “it is doubtless the title of a song to whose melody the Psalm was sung.”

This must be the approach we should take to verse 22:1. The introductory sentence is pointing to a well-known song called “ayelet ha-shachar” and telling the conductor to use the tune of this song. (As Dr. Richard Gertler suggested to me, in our times it would be as if the instruction said: “to the tune of ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’”!) This approach is taken in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (13:1321, entry by Nahum Sarna) and in the Soncino commentary on our verse (“in all probability, the name of a melody to the accompaniment of which the Psalm was to be rendered”). See also Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, p. 71, Koehler-Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 40, and Psalms I (Anchor Bible), p. 136.

Among our Rishonim, Ibn Ezra takes this approach as well, on both Psalms 22:1 and 56:1. (Regarding 22:1, he thinks that the allusion is to a love song, since that word “ayelet” is used in the expression “ayelet ahavim” at Proverbs 5:19.)

Although this tune instruction approach does not fit the word “al” perfectly, I can live with it. The entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica takes the position that “al ayelet ha-shachar” may have been the name of the song, but this is unlikely. It is too coincidental that the song at 56:1 would begin with “al” as well. Rather, “al” is a common word used in those first line instructions in Psalms. Sometimes it is an instruction regarding the specific musical instrument to be used and other times, like here, it is an instruction with regard to the tune. (For examples of other times where the introductory verses likely refer to a tune or well-known song, see the introductory verses to chapters 45, 57-59, 60, 69,75, and 80, and the Soncino commentary on each.)

Here are the four approaches that Rashi had mentioned: 1) the name of a musical instrument 2) a way of referring to the Israelites 3) the Sages’ homiletical approach that it refers to Esther (see Yoma 29a and Megillah 15b) and 4) “strength,” citing Menachem Ibn Saruk.

The five approaches mentioned by Radak were: 1) the name of a musical instrument 2) strength 3) the name of a morning star 4) an allusion to David fleeing from Saul and 5) a way of referring to the Israelites. He preferred the last approach.

Uriel Simon (“Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms,” p. 240) points out that Ibn Ezra wrote two poems based on the theme that Israel is an “ayelet.” But as a commentator, he does not even mention this view in his standard commentary, since it is not at all a plain-sense approach. (But he does mention and reject it in an earlier recension of his Psalms commentary.)

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. Whoops! I meant @aol.com! Please wish him a mazel tov as his son Shaya just got engaged to Ayelet Lerner!

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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