This week I want to look at two other תהילים by אסף, but ones that are very different from what we’ve seen before. These are not rebuking Israel but prayers for its salvation. The first is תהילים פרק פג, which we say in times of trouble in modern Israel:
This is what I would call a “suspiciously specific” perek. By naming each individual nation, he clearly has some actual incident in mind. What incident is harder to tell. It has to be before the time that Assyria was an all-conquering empire, because it describes Assyria as only mercenaries for בני לוט, who presumably are the main antagonists here. It would have to be after the time of David and Solomon, because during their reigns the Phonecians (גבל and צור) were allied with Israel.
That’s the story, and there are two things that make Radak and Malbim connect it to our perek. First is the נביא: זכריהו…מן בני אסף. If we’re attributing this to the time of יהושפט, then it can’t be literally written by אסף himself, but we could say that this perek is a prayer of the נביא of the time and מזמור לאסף is a dedication to his ancestor. Second is the nature of the war, and the fight against בני עמון ומואב והר שעיר fits with the mention of all those nations in תהילים פרק פג.
Let’s look at the perek in more detail.
אל דמי לך; אל תחרש ואל תשקט
The Malbim points out that the three terms דמי, תחרש and תשקט are different. דום is used in the sense of inanimate, the opposite of חיים. חרש means mute, unspeaking. שקט in תנ״ך doesn’t mean silent, but quiet in the sense of still, peaceful (ותשקט הארץ ארבעים שנה doesn’t mean that nobody spoke). So the sense of the pasuk is and escalating plea: ה׳ don’t be דום; feel something! Don’t be חרש; say something! And don’t be שקט; do something!
נועצו לב יחדו
Why? Because all the surrounding nations are conspiring together. We have no earthly allies. נכחיד means extinct; they are trying to eliminate Israel as a people.
אהלי אדום וישמעאלים
And who are these surrounding nations? The author lists just about everyone, from the well-known to the most obscure. He starts with אדום and ישמעאל, the people most closely related to us (יעקב‘s and יצחק’s brothers, respectively), who would be hoped to be more sympathetic. Instead, they are leading the camp. מואב, עמון, עמלק and פלשת we know. צור is a Phoenician city; in תנ״ך the Phoenicians are considered allies of the Philistines. גבל is mentioned one other time in תנ״ך, in יחזקאל כז:ט as one of the Phoenician cities. It is usually identified as Byblos in northern Lebanon. הגרים is more of a mystery (it’s “Hagrites”, not “the Grim”, by the way). Presumably they are the הגריאים mentioned in דברי הימים:
Which would put them in modern eastern Jordan. It is usually assumed that they were descended from Hagar, Avraham’s wife. If she is identified with Keturah, then we have a list of nations besides Ishmael:
גם אשור נלוה עמם
Assyria at this time (even in the time of יהושפט) was not the world-dominating empire it would become. Here they are just mercenaries for the other enemies of Israel. Rashi points out that the last time אשור was mentioned, they were good guys:
One nation that is strikingly missing is Aram, the major enemy of Israel throughout the early first Temple period; this goes with the story of Jehoshaphat where the enemy comes from the area of Aram but Aram itself is not mentioned.
The question that we’ve avoided is how could this be a prayer for a war in the time of יהושפט if ספר תהילים was written by David? We know the gemara:
But we’ve mentioned the שיר השירים רבה that puts a much later date on the final composition of תהילים:
So according to that view, there’s no problem with dating פרק פג to the post-David era. The Malbim takes this view:
However, he adds a very interesting footnote:
Malbim’s entire commentary takes the first approach. Which one he personally believed I do not pretend to know; Neither approach is כופר בעיקר, and I will not mind if you choose one or leave it undecided. For the purposes of this shiur I would assume that this perek is late, largely because it does not read like a נבואה. A prophecy of the distant future should be a warning (“repent or the temple will be destroyed!”), not a תפלה for salvation from something that has not yet happened.
I think there’s a position between the two extremes. We say פרק פג for trouble in ארץ ישראל, even though the names of the nations have changed. We take the names symbolically, and if we look carefully at the perek, only psukim 7-9 are “localized”. The rest of the perek would apply to any צרות in Israel. So we have an opening for an approach suggested by the Malbim:
So פרק נג was based on an original psalm of David, adapted for the occasion, and still attributed to David. I would say the same thing about our perek. It may have been written by Asaf, without the section about the nations. You could insert the relevant names (like we do with מי שברך or א־ל מלא). This version was recorded for posterity because it resulted in a miracle:
With that, let’s conclude the perek.
עשה להם כמדין, כסיסרא כיבין
The author then mentions the two previous miraculous battles, from ספר שופטים. The battle of סיסרא and יבין in נחל קישון is the story of דבורה:
The battle with מדין is less familiar. It is the story of גדעון:
Unfortunately, no one has any idea what עין דאר has to to with either battle (it’s a city in the north of Israel, between the lands of מנשה and יששכר) Presumably that was the city where one of these battles took place; we just don’t have that information.
They (סיסרא and מדין) were destroyed when they tried to conquer נאות אלקים. Artscroll translates נאות as “pleasant habitations”, a portmanteau word from נאה, pleasant, and נוה, sanctuary. It’s a term used in תנ״ך for the בית המקדש.
So to may our current enemies be destroyed. גלגלת, wheel, in this context means “tumbleweed”, like straw scattered in the wind to be consumed in the fire that destroys entire mountains.
Rav Hirsch translates יֹאבֵדוּ not as “they will be lost” but as a consequence of יַחְפְּרוּ, their shame, they will feel lost, as their hopes go down in flames.
There’s a sense of anticlimax here, as we go from אש and להבה to סערה and סופה to קלון to בושה. I think that is intentional, and it’s something we see throughout תהילים. The author is trying to de-escalate our emotions. We’re not supposed to read this perek and be fired up to rush out and riot with torches and pitchforks. We look to ה׳ for help. Reacting in anger only makes the situation worse.
וידעו כי אתה שמך ה׳
Because the goal is not the destruction of our enemies but their conversion to allies, in a world where ה׳ is acknowledged as עליון על כל הארץ.
The second perek of מזמור לאסף is clearly about an event far in the future of the historical אסף:
The idea of נתנו את נבלת עבדיך מאכל לעוף השמים is from the תוכחה:
אסף sees the חורבן as a fulfillment of ה׳'s word. While he laments the reality, he can’t claim it is a surprise. But the extent of the cruelty of the enemy makes all of Israel martyrs:
קלס is an interesting word. It usually means “praise”.
Again, אסף assumes that what happens is due to ה׳'s anger at us. The assumption is that ה׳ cares, and the destruction is what we deserve. The prayer is that it eventually ends, and that ה׳ recognizes that the enemy has gone too far.
We don’t take revenge ourselves but ask that ה׳ do it. It is what we say at the seder every year when we open the door for Eliyahu. Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman (Rabbi Shulman’s brother) in הגדה ישמח אב has an interesting explanation for why we quote these psukim:
We have to look at the seder as described in the Mishna:
Why do we split הלל up like this, part before ברכת המזון and part after? הלל on the seder night is different from other times we say הלל:
The fact that this הלל is a שירה means that it is supposed to be the spontaneous outpouring of emotion. חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצריים; לפיכך אנחנו חייבין…[ל]אמר לפניו הללוי־ה. It doesn’t have the limitations that the ritualized קריאת ההלל has. So we’re allowed to split it up. But why do it? Why not say all of it now?
So that nicely explains the custom of opening the doors. But what about שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ?
This is when we sing הלל של שירה. If we are truly in the moment, we should feel it. We open our doors to join with the rest of בני ישראל in ירושלים, but then we look out and see…St. Louis. We’ve even poured the fifth cup, for the fifth לשון גאולה and we invoke אליהו, the harbinger of גאולה:
But it does no good. Our anticipation of singing הלל is dashed.
So we break out with this perek, the מזמור לאסף that is the antithesis of הלל, a song not of thanksgiving but of vengeance. We say four psukim and we get back under control and realize we still need to show הכרת הטוב to ה׳ (that’s the meaning of דיינו), and finish our הלל.
אל תזכר לנו עונת ראשנים
אסף asks ה׳ not to remember עונת ראשנים. As we’ve said before, we can be punished for the sins of our ancestors when they become part of our culture:
אסף is asking that we be spared this, כי דלונו מאד. We can’t handle any more.
א שאַנד פֿאַר די גויים
And the defense is something the נביאים have used before: destroying Israel would be a חילול ה׳:
Note the pun of the קרי/כתיב of בגיים (the arrogant) and בגוים (the nations). It is their arrogance in asking איה אלקיהם that is the חילול ה׳, that makes it critical that ה׳ should be acknowledged.
אסף asks for ה׳'s vengeance specifically on שכנינו; all the nations of the Middle East were conquered by Babylon, so we hoped that they would be sympathetic. But instead they cheered as the Temple was destroyed:
“Sevenfold” is a common expression for “a lot”:
נודה לך לעולם
The Radak points out that the last pasuk is not conditional. We praise ה׳ whether or not we are saved.