An Unknown Backdrop
One of the difficulties in learning Sefer Tehillim is that many of the psalms do not contain explicit information regarding their historical backdrop and setting. As such, the reader often has a hard time distinguishing one psalm of praise or plea for mercy from another. The various psalms begin to sound alike, a mere jumble of thank-yous or tears, almost impossible to place in a moment of time.1 Psalm 118, the last chapter of Hallel, is a case in point. It is clearly a psalm of thanksgiving for salvation, but it is not clear who is doing the praising or about what. What is the backdrop of this psalm? What trial has the speaker been saved from? Alternatively, is it possible that the psalm does not refer to any one specific incident and is intentionally meant to apply to multiple scenarios?
What's the Connection?
The difficulty of deciphering the meaning and setting of Psalm 118 is compounded by the fact that the various verses of the chapter appear disjointed.2 The psalm opens with a call for various groups within Israel to thank Hashem, suggesting that there has been some national salvation. However, it does not then describe any national redemption, but rather moves into a first person narrative of what appears to be an individual's personal story of salvation.3 Dispersed between these verses are several comments which appear to interrupt the flow of the narrative as they mention singing in tents (v. 15) and a request to enter the "gates of the righteousness" (v. 19), points which appear unconnected to the surrounding verses. It is perhaps the end of the psalm, though, which is the most difficult to understand, as it feels like a patchwork of disconnected thoughts, moving from praise of Hashem, to a request for salvation, blessing of greeting, and then a sacrificial offering:
- "אֶבֶן מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים הָיְתָה לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה" (v. 22) – Who or what is the "detested stone"? Why was it rejected by the builders? What is the connection between this statement and the request to enter the "gates of righteousness" that precedes it?
- "אָנָּא י"י הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא" (v. 25) – Why, in the midst of a psalm of praise and thanksgiving, does this verse suddenly switch to speak about a plea for salvation and success?
- "בָּרוּךְ הַבָּא בְּשֵׁם י"י בֵּרַכְנוּכֶם מִבֵּית י"י" (v. 26) – Who is speaking in this verse? Whom is he welcoming? How does this blessing flow from the request for mercy in the previous verse?
- "אִסְרוּ חַג בַּעֲבֹתִים עַד קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ" (v. 27) – Seemingly out of the blue, this verse discusses the tying of a sacrifice on the altar. Who is asking that it be tied and why?
How is one to understand the disjointed nature of the psalm? How do these concluding verses relate to the rest of the chapter? Is there just one speaker in the psalm or are there multiple speakers each speaking about a different event? If so, though, how do the various sections and speeches come together?
Several other aspects of the psalm similarly raise questions and add to the lack of clarity in its message:
- Change in speaker – The psalm switches back and forth between speaking in first and second person,4 and from singular to plural.5 How is this to be understood?
- Repetitions - Several verses partially repeat each other.6 Is this due to the poetic nature of the psalm, or might there be some other significance to the doublings?
- יִשְׂרָאֵל, בֵית אַהֲרֹן, יִרְאֵי י"י – In the opening of the chapter, the psalmist calls on these three groups to praise Hashem. Why are they singled out? What is the significance of this division of the nation into three? Presumably "בֵית אַהֲרֹן" represents the priestly class but who comprises the "יִרְאֵי י"י"?
- "קוֹל רִנָּה וִישׁוּעָה בְּאׇהֳלֵי צַדִּיקִים יְמִין י"י עֹשָׂה חָיִל" – What are the "tents of the righteous" and why are they filled with singing? How does the end of the verse, "יְמִין י"י עֹשָׂה חָיִל", connect to the first half? Do these words constitute the song being sung, or are they a separate statement?
- "פִּתְחוּ לִי שַׁעֲרֵי צֶדֶק...זֶה הַשַּׁעַר לַי"י" – Who is being addressed in these words? Are "the gates of the righteous" a metaphor, or a literal, concrete gate? If the former, what do they symbolize? If the latter, what gate is the speaker requesting to enter?
Connection to the Other Psalms of Hallel
Most of the psalms of Sefer Tehillim appear to stand as independent units, unconnected to the surrounding chapters. Is this true of the psalms that constitute Hallel as well? When these psalms were originally written, did each stand alone and refer to its own specific event? Or, were these psalms composed as a unit and from the very beginning meant to be read together? If the latter, what light might the other chapters of Hallel (Psalms 113-117) shed on the meaning and historical context of our chapter?