Shir (Not So) Hadash for Hanukkah

Rabbi Wendy Zierler, Ph.D., Sigmund Falk Professor, Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies, delivered this Shir Hadash this week in honor of Hanukkah.

In honor of Hanukkah, I’d like to offer up a few short remarks on Psalm 30, the special “Shir shel Yom” (Psalm of the Day) that we are instructed in Masechet Sofrim 18:3 to recite at the conclusion of Shaharit on the eighth day of Ḥanukkah:

A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David. 2 I will extol thee, O LORD, for You have raised me up, and hast not suffered my enemies to rejoice over me. 3 O LORD my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me; 4 O LORD, Thou brought up my soul from the nether-world; You kept me alive, that I shouldn’t descend to the pit. 5 Sing praise unto the LORD, O godly ones, and give thanks to God’s holy name. 6 For God’s anger is fleeting, God’s favor is for a lifetime; one may lay down crying in the evening but joy comes int the morning. 7 Now I had said in my security: ‘I shall never be moved.’ 8 You established, O LORD, in Your favor my mountain as a stronghold—You hid your dace and I feared. 9 I called out to You, and made supplication: 10 ‘What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise You? shall it declare Your truth? 11 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious unto me; LORD, be my helper.’ 12 You turned my mourning into dancing; You loosened my sackcloth and girded me with gladness; 13 So that my glory may sing praise to You, and not be silent;O LORD my God, forever I will thank You.

א  מִזְמוֹר:  שִׁיר-חֲנֻכַּת הַבַּיִת לְדָוִד. ב  אֲרוֹמִמְךָ  ה׳ , כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי;    וְלֹא-שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי. ג  ה׳ אֱלֹקי–    שִׁוַּעְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ, וַתִּרְפָּאֵנִי. ד ה׳–הֶעֱלִיתָ מִן-שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי;    חִיִּיתַנִי, מיורדי- (מִיָּרְדִי-) בוֹר. ה  זַמְּרוּ לַה׳ חֲסִידָיו;    וְהוֹדוּ, לְזֵכֶר קָדְשׁוֹ. ו  כִּי רֶגַע, בְּאַפּוֹ–    חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ: בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי;    וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה. ז  וַאֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִי–    בַּל-אֶמּוֹט לְעוֹלָם. ח ה׳–    בִּרְצוֹנְךָ, הֶעֱמַדְתָּה לְהַרְרִי-עֹז: הִסְתַּרְתָּ פָנֶיךָ;    הָיִיתִי נִבְהָל. ט  אֵלֶיךָ  ה׳ אֶקְרָא;    וְאֶל-אֲדֹנָי, אֶתְחַנָּן. י  מַה-בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי,    בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל-שָׁחַת: הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר;    הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ. יא  שְׁמַע- ה׳ וְחָנֵּנִי;    ה׳, הֱיֵה-עֹזֵר לִי. יב  הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי, לְמָחוֹל לִי:    פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי; וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה. יג  לְמַעַן, יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד–    וְלֹא יִדֹּם: ה׳ אֱלֹקי,    לְעוֹלָם אוֹדֶךָּ.

Unlike Psalm 27 (LeDavid Hashem ori veyishiʿi), which we say only during Elul and the Tishrei holidays, Psalm 30 is something we say every morning at the beginning of Pesukei dezimra, and in that sense, it is not special or unique to the Hanukkah holiday. Why bother, then, to recite a psalm that we have already recited at its beginning?

One easily identifies the textual link between the holiday and the psalm, namely the opening phrase which refers to ḥanukkat habayit – the dedication of the Temple. But there is a well-acknowledged anachronism to the rest of the tagline, that is, its attribution to King David. Afterall, we all know that the Temple was not built during David’s lifetime, rather during the lifetime of his successor/son, Solomon. Moreover, despite the opening line, the psalm doesn’t actually address the subject of the dedication of the Temple at all. As for its appropriateness for recitation on Hanukkah, Psalm 30 it seems to contradict at least some of themes of the Hannukah story as reported in Second Temple sources. Verse 10, for example, which asks מַה בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל שָׁחַת הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ — what is the point is of descending to the pit of death, given that dust cannot attest to God’s truth?. This verse explicitly goes against the grain of II Maccabees 6-7, namely the willingness of Elazar the Scribe and Hannah and her sons to be martyred rather than to eat non-kosher meat. Why, then, this particular psalm for Hanukkah?

Over the centuries, various commentators have attempted to address the anachronism of the psalm as well as the seeming lack of correspondence between the tagline and the content. I’d like to cite one such commentary from the Midrash Telilim on this Psalm 30 in the hope of addressing not just these two issues but also the question of why we add an additional recitation of this psalm on Hanukkah.

Rav Hunah said: One who thinks of doing a mitsvah, even if he doesn’t actually do it, it is as if he had done it. Know that it is so, because David thought to build the Temple but didn’t actually built it, it is attributed to his name, as it is written, “A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David.”

אמר רב הונא: …חשב לעשות מצווה, אף על פי שלא עשאהּ, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו עשאהּ. תדע לך שהוא כן, שכן דוד חשב לעשות בניין בית המקדש ואף על פי שלא בנאה, נכתב על שמו, שנאמר “מזמור שיר חנכת הבית לדוד.

At first blush, this commentary seems absurd. Is it actually the case that thinking about something is tantamount to doing it? If I think about eating matsah but don’t actually eat, it cannot be said that I have fulfilled the commandment. Similarly, it is not enough for me merely to think about lighting Hannukah candles. I actually have to light them.

I’d like to suggest an explanation of this midrash and of the psalm that hinges on the meaning of the Hebrew root ח.נ.כ., which in the context of this holiday we translate as “to dedicate” but elsewhere we connect to the notion of “חינוך”— of apprenticeship or education. What the midrash suggests is that in order for a person to carry out an act that transforms reality, say, the winning of a war over one’s adversaries, the building and rededication of the Temple, the re-establishment of sovereignty, and the rekindling of national optimism, one needs first להתחנך, to educate and train oneself in a new way of thinking. One needs, as a habit of mind to practice the possibility that one can be raised up from the pit, that dark night can transform into morning, and that mourning can be turned into dancing. One needs to undertake that חינוך (education), which is not something that can happen overnight. It requires daily dedication and the commitment of more than one lifetime. And this is one way of understanding the seemingly hyperbolic statement of the midrash that anyone who thinks about doing a mitsvah gets credited with having done it. One needs to cultivate a mindset and pass it on to one’s children in the hope that if you yourself cannot achieve your goal, perhaps your children, trained in your thinking, might do it in your stead.

We tend to consider Passover the holiday of intergenerational teaching, but the name of the holiday and the daily and Hanukkah liturgical recitation of this psalm suggest is that like Passover, Hannukah is a holiday of חינוך. The early Zionists certainly thought so, In fact, Hannukah, with its motifs of enlightenment, activism, military victory, and intergenerational collaboration of the Maccabees, was their preferred pedagogical holiday.

The following Hannukah song, with words by Avishar Oded and melody by Moshe Wilensky clearly adopts a number of the motifs and keywords of Pesach as a way of underscoring the pedagogical importance of Hanukkah:

Father, father, please tell me
Why is night black and dark,
The winds transporting cloud shreds?

It is dark, my child, the night is dark,
The wind passes and tells its secrets
About a father who rebelled with his five sons.

Tell me father, from where, from where
From where does the burning torch rise
And why does it run its way so quickly?

It rose, my son, the torch rose
From the fields of Mod’in to the path of graves
To seed it all with flame and light.

And where is the lane, the path,
The ancient path of generations
That the torch ran, seeding lights?

The path pases over mountain and valley
From Galilee heights to the sea of Eilat
On the fields where the brave fell by their swords

One more thing, my father, tell me just this
Why on this night of all other nights
Do the lights shine, abound, and rise?

From generation to generation, my son, this is the sign,
The light shines, rises and flickers
On this night, the 25th of Kislev.

אפל ילדי, הלילה אפל ורוח עובר ומספר סודותיו על אב שמרד עם חמשת בניו
הגד אבי, מאין עלה מאין עלה הלפיד הבוער ולמה ירוץ בדרכו וימהר?
עלה ילדי, עלה הלפיד משדות מודיעין אל משעול הקברים לזרע כולו שלהבות ואורים
ואי השביל, איה המשעול איה המשעול זה עתיק הדורות בו רץ הלפיד וזורע אורות?
בהר בגיא עובר המשעול ממרום הגליל עד אילת והים על שדות גיבורים שנפלו על חרבם
ועוד אבי, אמור לי רק זאת מדוע הלילה מכל הלילות זורחים האורים ומרבים לעלות?
מדור לדור, ילדי, זה האות זורח האור ועולה ומהבהב בלילה הזה ליל כ”ה בכסליו

The Passover Seder references in this poem are obvious: the use of the verbs ”haggidah” and “hagged,” bringing to mind the Passover Haggadah; the allusion to “Ma Nishtanah” in the phrase “mikol haleilot” (of all other nights), and the notion of the holiday as a miraculous “ot” or sign, evocative of the signs and wonders brought about by God during the story of the Exodus. But whereas Passover is a holiday of intergenerational celebration of God’s saving wonders, for the Zionists Hanukkah was a celebration of human activism and self-salvation. There is a sorrowful quality to the tune of this song and to its words, with its reference to the graves of fallen Israeli soldiers. But it is the literary descendant of Psalm 30 in its depiction of a torch rising from the darkness and of mourning turning into morning.