The destruction of the state and the Temple and the exile to Babylonia (6th-5th centuries, B.C.E ) were traumatic experiences that produced extensive literature expressing desires for revenge, stirrings of repentance, expressions of anguish and lament, and a yearning to be reconciled with God and restored to the land of Judah. Outstanding in this literary outpouring is Psalm 137 (best known by its opening words "By the rivers of Babylon"), a hymn of national mourning.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.

WALL PLAQUE for the REMEMBRANCE of JERUSALEM Artist: Zalman Zwieg, c1910
From the Gross Family Collection, Israel
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There on the willows we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall;
how they cried, "Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!"
Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks.

Hebrew text

Psalm 137 has been attributed by rabbinic sources to the prophet Jeremiah, placing him "at the rivers of Babylon" either at the very beginning of the exile or at the very end; many modern scholars refute this view. In his scholarly article on Psalm 137, James Kugel discusses the complexity in pinpointing this poem's authorship and period of composition.[1]

Several scholars have claimed that the harp-playing weepers by the rivers of Babylon were not an abstract personification, but the levitic singers, whom their captors forced to join the other exotic court orchestras that the Assyrian and Babylonian kings kept for entertainment. After the return from Babylon, these orchestras served as the prototype for Temple music established in Jerusalem. Music as a sacred art and an artistic sacred act was gradually given its place in the organization of the Temple services, but not without a power struggle between the levites and the priests. It has been suggested that the descriptions of the numbers and performance of the levitic singers may have been exaggerated so as to afford prestige for the levitic singers, and for the same reason, the poem "By the waters of Babylon" may have been inserted in the collection of Psalms.


The midrash offers us another insight: "Why did Israel see fit to weep along the rivers of Babylon? R. Yohanan said: The river Euphrates killed more people among the Israelites than the wicked Nebuchadnezzar had killed. For when Israel had been dwelling in the Land of Israel, they drank only rain water, running water and spring water; when they were exiled to Babylon they drank the water of the Euphrates, and many of them died."[2]

Writes Prof. Kugel: "This explanation, perhaps rooted in reality a well as biblical texts (see Jeremiah 3:18), connects the weeping in Babylon with that weeping's cause: there was where we sat down and wept because it was there, at the river of Babylon, that more of us died than had died even at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. It is to be noted that such a reading not only justified the emphatic 'there,' but gives new meaning to the psalm's opening words 'al naharot bavel' meaning not so much 'by' or 'beside' Babylon's river as because of Babylon's rivers we sat down and wept, for they were the cause of our greatest suffering."[3]

II: Psalm 137 in art and music   I    III: A romantic poem by Lord Byron, 1815


[1] James L. Kugel, "Psalm 137," in In Potiphar's House (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) [back]

[2] Midrash Tehillim, 522; Pesikta Rabbati 1352 (ch. 28) [back]

[3] James L. Kugel, p. 183. [back]




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