Psalm 137 vs. Psalm 126: Shabbat and yom chol in Birkat haMazon

When I came back to campus this week from Winter break, there were a couple of graded papers waiting in my mail box from Yehezkel Landau, my professor for Jewish Spirituality last semester. (I previously wrote about that course here and shared a short reflection paper from that course here.

On a short reflection on the topic of sacred time and the Jewish calendar, Landau had written:

Shabbat is also and experience of messianism now, a rehearsal for, & harbinger of, a redeemed future–cf. Psalm 137 before BIRKAT HAMAZON on yom chol vs. Pslam 126 on Shabbat: DREAM of REDEMPTION MADE REAL, EXPERIENTIALLY

So I have investigated. I began by checking my various benchers. None that I own include Psalm 137 before Birkat haMazon, but all include BhM’s familiar Shabbat opener, Pslam 126–“Shir hama’alot. Beshuv Adonai etc.”

So I googled. And Wikipedia kindly informed me:

Psalm 126, Shir Hama’alot (Song of Ascents), which expresses the Jewish hope of return to Zion following their final redemption, is widely recited before birkat hamazon on Shabbat…. Less common is the recitation on weekdays of Psalm 137, Al Naharot Bavel (By the rivers of Babylon), which describes the reactions of the Jews in exile as would have been expressed during the Babylonian captivity….

So that’s interesting. 137–you know, the one Bob Marley wrote–is a sad remembrance of expulsion and diaspora, while 126 is a joyous vision of a return and redemption.

Each week, we get kicked out of our redeemed state and our day of rest and back into our everyday drudgery. And each week, we get sing Psalm 126 as we get to return to the joys of Shabbat.

If I actually said BhM after every meal, I think I’d start adding Psalm 137.

PS–Dear bencher editors, what gives? Where’s 137, huh?

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21 Responses to Psalm 137 vs. Psalm 126: Shabbat and yom chol in Birkat haMazon

  1. Geoff January 26, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    I think the progressive elements have trouble with the whole “ashrei sheyochez vnifetz et olalayikh el hasala” bit. Can’t say as I blame them.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 26, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

      Well, I can certainly see why that would be. (Trans: Psalmist gets excited about killing Babylonian babies.)

  2. BZ January 26, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    It’s in some siddurim that you might own (I just checked and it’s in Artscroll, Koren, Rinat Yisrael, Metsudah). But I’ve never actually seen anyone do it.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 26, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

      Well, that’s what I get for only looking in birkonim….

  3. Rich January 27, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    iBirkat has 137, but not 126.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 28, 2011 at 11:51 am #

      WHAT? Really?

      • Rich January 28, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

        Yes.

        The assumption, I believe, is that you should not be using your iPod if Psalm 126 is called for.

        Or was that comment sarcasm?

        • David A.M. Wilensky January 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

          I don’t think I knew that iBirkat was for iPod, but I suppose I should’ve guessed. I don’t know what I thought it was.

          But that just goes to show you… more liberal Jews need to develop prayer apps. Then, we’d have 126.

        • BZ January 29, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

          Even on Rosh Chodesh?

          • Rich January 29, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

            Just switched it to Rosh Chodesh, moved to the opening Psalm, and there, to my shock and I’m sure yours as well, read “על נהרות בבל”

  4. Sarah January 27, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    It’s in loads of birkonim. I say it with birkat hamazon with some regularity, though not always.* The birkonim we got for our wedding certainly have it. It was one of the things we made sure to have. (Along with translation, benching in the beginning, havdallah in the end. The extra perks that I enjoy having but didn’t require included: yaaleh v’yavo for Yom Kippur, sparse non-intrusive commentary, lots of songs.) I think at least half of all the birkonim I see include Al Naharot Bavel.

    * If I’m eating with one or more others, and we didn’t speak any Torah at the meal, and I’m not in a super rush, I add in Al Naharot Bavel before I bench.

  5. ML February 10, 2011 at 1:52 am #

    you know, the one Bob Marley wrote

    Not only didn’t Bob Marley write “Rivers of Babylon”, I don’t believe he ever performed it either.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivers_of_Babylon

  6. meira February 16, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    Some add 137 during the three weeks/9 days and not every day. If im not mistaken though there are other psalms and piyutim used in other edot in place of 137 and 126. Spanish Portuguese start with “ein keElokeinu” and im pretty sure there are different psalms for italian benching.

  7. Dalia Marx June 19, 2011 at 4:57 am #

    It seems to me that the last (and very very challenging) verse of Ps. 137, is indirectly referring to what the Babylonians did to the children of the singers. It looks to me like a post traumatic response – instead of talking about what they did to us, let us say what we want to do to them or what we want them to undergo (heard many holocaust survivors talk this way). Yair Zakovich also wrote in that direction.

    Thank you for the post,

    Dalia Marx

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

      Very interesting thoughts, Dalia. Definitely a useful, not to mention plausible, way of dealing with uncomfortably violent desires in the Tanach.

      Thanks for your comment.

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  2. A Week of Things I Like, Day 3: Old Wilensky Family Siddurim | The Reform Shuckle - June 28, 2011

    […] Now that I have this bencher, along with the next book in the post, I finally have some that are examples of prefixing Birkat Hamazon with Al Naharot Bavel, as we discussed in the comments on this post. […]