Jewish tradition assigns a specific psalm to each day of the week and to each of the holidays. The special psalm for Hanukkah, Psalm 30, includes a hint of that practice in its superscription. Mizmor shir hanukkat ha-bayit l’David – Psalm, song for the dedication of the house, for David (in Robert Alter’s elegant translation). The superscription is more than a little cryptic and problematic. The phrase mizmor l’David – a psalm for/of David – appears at the head of many psalms. Here, and only here, those words are separated from one another, and the words between them for a coherent statement of their own. This poem is to be read, then, as a ‘song for the dedication of the house.’
Bayit – house – often refers to the Temple in Jerusalem, THE house. But which one? The first Temple, while imagined and perhaps planned by David, was built by Solomon. The second Temple was built centuries later. Or is the reference to a still later dedication, perhaps the (re)dedication undertaken by the Maccabees in 164BCE?
The theme of the psalm itself deepens the dilemma. As Nahum Sarna puts it, “a straightforward reading of this psalm conveys the picture of a pious worshiper who gives thanks to God for recovery from a deadly illness.” Psalm 30 is, Sarna continues, “typical of biblical thanksgiving psalms in general.” Even more, the “genre of thanksgiving hymns (was) widespread in the ancient near eastern world.” A thank you for recovery from disease, “gratitude for deliverance” in Sarna’s fine phrase, makes for a beautiful poem. How, if at all, does it connect to Hanukkah?
Illuminated manuscript of the first book of Maccabees, 10th c., Leiden University Library
Psalm 30, read metaphorically, I suggest, is a perfect Hanukkah psalm on multiple levels. As Sarna’s sensitive reading of the poem makes clear, the psalm conjures up a public declaration of gratitude. The individual experience of healing and renewed health is affirmed and celebrated by a congregation. Recovery, let alone deliverance, is a communal occasion, not just a personal one.
Hanukkah celebrates recovery on both the historical and mythological planes. The Maccabees/Hasmoneans restore the Temple in Jerusalem to ritual purity and to its proper use. And all of that happens during the year’s darkest week. A beautiful Talmudic tale describes the first human being celebrating the return of daylight just after the winter solstice, just after mourning the disappearance of that light in the days just prior. The Temple’s restoration and the light’s return both strike me as (more than) ample rationales for celebration, private and public.
Psalm 30 also presents an image that echoes the Joseph story, parts of which serve always as the Torah reading on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. “Lord, You brought me up from Sheol, gave me life from those gone down to the Pit.” “Sheol in this context,” says Sarna, “is a metaphor for imminent mortal danger.” Joseph finds himself in a literal pit more than once, and by this week’s parasha (Miketz) he has been delivered from imminent mortal danger two or three times (at least).
Finally, there’s the matter of tears. This week (in parasha time, that is) Joseph weeps privately upon seeing his only full brother Benjamin for the first time in twenty plus years. Next week, he will shed tears openly at the moment at which he reveals himself to all of his brothers. Psalm 30, too, speaks of tears, and in an entirely upbeat way, in its most beloved phrase. Two translations of Psalm 30, verse 6, first Alter’s, then Pamela Greenberg’s.
“At evening one beds down weeping, and in the morning, glad song.”
“At night, I went to bed weeping; in the morning – a cry of joy.”
The speaker of Psalm 30 serves up the punch line, a phrase which aptly and powerfully summarizes Joseph’s story, the Hanukkah story, and the story (hopefully) of our lives. “You changed my mourning clothes to dancing, your loosened my sackcloth and covered me with joy. So that my depths might sing out to you and never be stilled, God, my Help, I will spill out gratitude to you forever.” Transformation can, and does, happen. Temples are restored, light returns, new life emerges from the pit, mourning gives way to dancing. This Hanukkah, every Hanukkah, we celebrate that much and more.
Hag Urim Sameah – A Grateful and Joy-filled Hanukkah.