Yerushalayim haB’nuyah: Analysis of T’hillim 122
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
IYYAR 28, 44 YEARS AGO
In honor of the 44th anniversary of the liberation of Yerushalayim which
we will be celebrating next week, we are presenting a special essay in her
On Iyyar 28, 5727 (June 7, 1967), when General Motte Gur’s voice was heard
throughout the country announcing “Har haBayit b’Yadenu”, the official state
reaction was to broadcast a reading of Mizmor 122 of T’hillim, followed by
the playing of Naomi Shemer’s recently debuted “Yerushalyim shel Zahav”. The
immediate sense of the connection with T’hillim 122 was due to the “modern
Midrash” of the line “Yerushalayim haB’nuyah, k’Ir sheHub’rah lah Yahdav”
(which we will translate within the analysis of the psalm), reading the
“Hubrah” as referring to the reunification of the East and West sides of the
city. Those of us who are too young (or barely old enough) to remember need
to be reminded that for 19 years, from independence until 1967, the city of
Yerushalayim was a divided city, with a no-man’s land running between the
New City, under Israel’s control, and the Old City, under
Hashemite/Jordanian sovereignty. Pilgrims came from all over the Jewish
world to ascend Har Tziyyon and try to catch a glimpse of the Kotel, rending
their garments not only over the destruction but also over the barrier that
kept us all from even visiting the “human stones” associated with the
Mikdash. The powerful emotions that accompanied the sudden and miraculous
reunification were the realization of the image of “a city bound together”
and, thus, Mizmor 122 was the “psalm for the day”.
Before beginning our analysis, here is the history of that great anthem,
Yerushalayim shel Zahav; it is timely from a calendar perspective and doubly
appropriate due to the current situation for us to share a little-known
aspect of this glorious time in our recent history. (This piece is taken
from www.jerusalemofgold.co.il - the entire version can be found there.).
It all began when Naomi Shemer was invited to compose a song for
non-competitive part of the 1967 Israel Song Festival. Jerusalem Mayor
Teddy Kollek had asked that the songs to be peformed on Independence Day of
1967 (May 15) be related to Jerusalem. The producer of the festival, had
found no more than half a dozen recordings of songs concerning Jerusalem
written by Israeli poets and composers since the turn of the century. None
of the songs composed after the establishment of the State mentioned that
the city was divided and that Jews could not approach the Kotel (Western Wall).
Shemer had made a conscious effort for some time to compose such a song, but
to no avail. She asked to be released from the commitment. She was told to
compose a song, but asserted that it did not have to do with Jerusalem. That
very night "Jerusalem of Gold" was born.
In composing the song, Shemer was moved by the talmudic story concerning
Rabbi Akiva who slept with his wife in a straw bin after her father had
disavowed her from his property and promised her that if he had the means he
would give her a "Jerusalem of Gold" came to mind. "One must remember that
in those days Jerusalem was gray, and not golden", said Shemer. "So I asked
myself: Are you sure, 'of gold'? And something within me replied: Yes
indeed, 'of gold'". It was nighttime when she sat down to write the lyrics
This first version of the song included the first and third stanzas only.
When she played the song to Rivkah Michaeli, she asked her: "What about the
Old City?" Shemer said that she had already referred to the Old City in the
words "U-ve-libbah homah" ("And in her heart a wall"). Michaeli replied that
her father had been born in the Old City, and dreamt about it every night.
Shemer then composed the second stanza commencing "Eikhah yavshu borot
ha-mayim". In it, she bemoaned the fact that the market-place was empty,
that no visitors frequented the Temple Mount, and that no one descended to
the Dead Sea on the Jericho road. Shemer explained that in writing this
stanza she saw before her eyes two thousand years of destruction, and not
the nineteen years that had transpired since the establishment of the State
The song, performed by the youthful Shuli Natan, was an instant success and
touched upon the hearts of many. Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin who was
present at the Festival received word that Nasser had declared the closing
of the Tiran Straits, and hastened to leave the building. The military
situation with Egypt had caused considerable tension in the public.. "When I
sang the song, it somehow broke the tension and the audience sang the
refrain with me", reminisced Natan. Several days later the army began
mobilizing its reserves, and the song served to encourage the soldiers.
The Six Day War broke out on Monday, June 5, 1967. The Old City of Jerusalem
was captured by the Israel Defense Forces on June 7. When the war broke out
and Jerusalem was freed "Jerusalem of Gold" immediately became an anthem of
sorts. During the liberation of the city, the soldiers burst out singing
"Jerusalem of Gold" at the Western Wall. Television producer Yossi Ronen,
who at the time reported from the scene, noted that "the excitement reached
its peak. The paratroopers burst out in song, and I forgot my role as
'objective reporter' and joined with them in singing 'Jerusalem of Gold'".
What is remarkable is how much of a feeling of imminent reunification
existed in Israel at the time. R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook zt”l, in his “sichah” on
Yom ha’Atzma’ut that year, startled the celebrants when he cried out “but
what about Hevron, what about Sh’khem?”
MIZMOR 122: THE TEXT
1. A Song of Maalot of David. I rejoiced when they said to me, Let
us go into the house of Hashem.
2. Our feet shall stand inside your gates, O Yerushalayim.
3. Yerushalayim is built as a city which is bound firmly together;
4. There the tribes go up, the tribes of Hashem, Edut l’Yisra’el, to
give thanks to the name of Hashem.
5. For thrones of judgment were set there, the thrones of the house of
6. Pray for the peace of Yerushalayim; those who love you shall prosper.
7. Peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.
8. For my brothers and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be
9. Because of the house of Hashem our G-d I will seek your good.
It is clear from the opening line, that this is a “pilgrimage song”, one
intended to be sung by members of a group ascending to Yerushalayim and to
the Beit haMikdash.
There are two types of group-pilgrimage to Yerushalayim:
1) The thrice-yearly Aliyah laRegel, on Matzot, Shavu’ot and Sukkot,
2) The annual bringing of Bikkurim, the first fruits, as commanded in
D’varim 26:1-11. This Aliyah would take place at any time from Shavu’ot
until Hanukkah, i.e. throughout the harvest season.
It is most likely that this song was composed for the Bikkurim pilgrimage,
since that is the one ascent that has no specified date (see M. Bikkurim
3:2). This gives more sense to the line “I rejoiced when they told me…”
Although we have no clear description of the pomp and circumstances
associated with the thrice-yearly Aliyah laRegel, we do have a clear
presentation of the fanfare which accompanied the M'vi'ei haBikkurim. The
majority of the third chapter of Massechet Bikkurim is devoted to a
step-by-step description of the Bikkurim offering, from field to Mikdash.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (ibid. 3:2) explicitly weaves our Mizmor into that
On the road, they would sing "I rejoiced when they said to me, Let us go
into the house of Hashem. In Yerushalayim, they would sing: "Our feet shall
stand inside your gates, O Yerushalayim."
Rambam (Bikkurim 4:16) explains that once the entire Bikkurim entourage
would enter the city gates, they would begin reading "Our feet…"; i.e. the
entire psalm from that verse on.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE MIZMOR
As mentioned above, the Mizmor is arranged into clearly identifiable
stanzas. In order to mark them, we will note linguistic and thematic nuances
that help us in this identification.
STANZA I: vv. 1-3
(Since the first three words are not properly part of the text, we will
begin after that introductory line). These three lines chart the progress of
the pilgrim as he ascends, with his group, to the city and stands astonished
at the beauty of the city. Note that the second verse ends with
"Yerushalayim", which also begins the third verse, tying together his
arrival ("Our feet…") with his observations about the city (…k'Ir sheHubrah
lah Yahdav).. . We would title this stanza: "Arrival"
STANZA II: vv. 4-5
These two verses describe the goings-on in the city: Notice the repeated use
of "Sham" and the unusual use of the past perfect Alu, Yash'vu. This stanza
is "The City".
STANZA III: vv. 6-7
These two verses are clearly tied together, as they both use the paired
Shalom and Shalvah, wishing peace and tranquility to the city and those who
love her. This stanza is aptly titled "Peace".
STANZA IV: vv. 8-9
This final stanza is highlighted by the anaphora of L'ma'an, in which both
the welfare of the co-celebrants and of the city is the focus of the
blessing and prayer. We might title this stanza: "Blessing".
ANALYSIS OF THE PSALM
The title "Shir haMa'a lot" is shared by fifteen consecutive psalms, of
which ours is the third. There is much discussion and dispute about the
meaning of this superscription (one variant is at the beginning of ps. 121 –
Shir laMa’alot; in addition to which David’s name is added in 122, 124,131
and 133). The Gemara (BT Sukkah 53b) credits the composition of these
fifteen psalms to David and associates them with the “damming up” of the
netherworldly waters which threatened to flood the world when David drilled
holes beneath the future site of the altar. Others understand them as songs
composed in honor of the return from Bavel during the period known as
“Shivat Tziyyon” (6th-5th c. BCE), based on the verse in Ezra (7:9): Yisud
haMa’aleh miBavel. Others understand the superscription as a musical
notation, indicating that the songs were to rise in tone or volume. Yet
another, related interpretation, reads “HaMaalot” as a literary marker,
indicating that these fifteen psalms all share a literary style of word-play
where the word at the end of a verse appears, in one form or another, at the
beginning of the next verse, creating a “chain” (Heb Sharshur) which
continues to ascend. A common interpretation (which we have utilized in an
earlier essay on “Dayyenu”) ties the fifteen “Shirei haMa’aleh” with the
fifteen Maalot in the courtyard of the Mikdash, upon which the Levi’im would
stand and sing during the Simchat Beit haShoeaveh. The most conventional
explanation for this superscription is that these were psalms composed for
the Olei Regel. This approach is anchored in the many mentions of
Yerushalayim, Tziyyon etc. – even Aharon is mentioned in one of them
(#133). Our Mizmor is probably the strongest source of support for this theory.
The superscription does not end, in our case, with the word Maalot; David’s
name is appended. The casual reader would assume that the prefix lamed means
to credit David with authorship; this presents us with several problems
within the text itself. First of all, how could David compose a psalm for
pilgrims - to a House that doesn’t yet exist? This is not so difficult in
and of itself, since he could have composed it in anticipation of such
pilgrimages – remember, his great desire was to build that House himself
(see II Sh’mu’el 7). Once we get into the psalm itself, a greater problem
presents itself – how can the psalmist wax rhapsodic about “… thrones of
judgment were set there, the thrones of the house of David”? Praising the
Davidic dynasty before its successful creation is a bit odd.
One might counter that David composed this prophetically – but that is
difficult on three counts.
First of all, as we noted in an earlier essay, Rambam’s definition of Ruach
haKodesh that he associates with the composition of T’hillim precludes prophecy.
Even if we reject his approach to this general question, keep in mind that
T’hillim were composed to be sung in the Mikdash; what meaning would there
be to singing a psalm whose words make no sense at the time?
Finally, the use of the past perfect Yash’vu indicates that these thrones
have been in place for quite some time; a prophetic wording would be
Yeish’vu (will sit).
How then can we reconcile the Davidic “colophon” here?
The entire question rests on a premise (credited above to “the casual
reader”) which can be demonstrated to be false. The associating of a psalm
to a person via the prefix lamed (e.g. liV’nei Korach, Mizmor l’Asaph etc.)
does not necessarily imply authorship; it may be dedication, inspiration or
assignation. In other words, the psalm may have been composed in honor of
that individual; it may have been inspired by the deeds of that individual
or it may have been composed for that individual (or group) to perform.
Sa’adiah’s approach is most relevant here; since he ascribes all T’hillim to
David, he must explain the various assignations in another manner. Indeed,
he explains that those psalms were composed for those individuals (or for
their children) to sing in the Mikdash. This is how he explains the
difficult “T’fillah l’Mosheh” (ps. 90) – it was composed for Mosheh’s
descendants (Levi’im) to perform. A clear example of “dedication” or
“inspiration” is ps. 72, which opens with the one word superscription:
liSh’lomoh. None of the opinions among Haza”l or the Rishonim (which we
assayed in our introductory shiur to Hallel) allow for Solomonic
participation in the composition of T’hillim – even if psalms were written
later than David. One might counter that that odd introduction proves
nothing – but psalm 127 follows a more familiar pattern: Shir haMaalot
liSh’lomoh, patterned after our superscription, with the substitution of
Shlomoh for David.
Hence, we have no problem reading this psalm as postdating David, written
during a period when the Temple had stood for a while and there was already
a powerful and positive history of “thrones of the House of David” which
adorned the history of the city.
STANZA I: ARRIVAL
I rejoiced when they said to me, Let us go into the house of Hashem.
Our feet shall stand inside your gates, O Yerushalayim.
Yerushalayim is built as a city which is bound firmly together;
Notice the shift from first person singular to plural within the first line
- "I rejoiced" becomes "Nelekh". The surprisingly quick transformation of
the individual to a member of the group is one of the subtle messages of the
text in its praise of Yerushalayim. "B'omrim Li" can be understood two
ways: I rejoiced when they told me, or I rejoiced in those that told me. The
meanings are quite distinct and depend on how we understand the nature of
the happiness. Is the psalmist happy because it is time to ascend to the
city? Is he responding to the call of the "town crier"? (M. Bikkurim 3:2)?
Or is he taking pleasure in his company in the pilgrimage. The first read is
more likely, but the second one is not impossible within this context. Truth
to tell, Yerushalayim elicits both types of happiness - we are ecstatic when
we are afforded the opportunity to go, and our co-travelers are also a
source of happiness in that we delight in their company.
The first verse expresses a feeling of movement and ends with the word
Nelekh which sets the tone for dynamic transition.
This is immediately offset by Om'dot - "our feet stood in your gates,
Yerushalayim". Standing is not only the opposite of walking, it also
represents stasis. This does not necessarily imply an arrival at a final
destination, but the interplay and dialectic between dynamism and stability.
Note how quickly the journey has reached its apex - from the distant call of
Nelekh, we are immediately brought into the city gates. The psalmist subtly
expresses his sense of time contraction (what Haza"l referred to as
"K'fitzat haDerekh"). The silence here regarding the journey itself is not
due to its insignificance, rather to the sense of immediate arrival which
retrospectively turns the ascent into a quick blur.
In the first verse, the psalmist addressed his audience, sharing his
excitement about the impending Aliyah. He immediately shifts his target,
turning to the city itself and speaking to her: "In your gates".
The final verse of this stanza may be understood as one compound idea or two
independent reflections. The psalmist stands in amazement at the built city
- but what are we to make of the second stich: *k'Ir sheHubrah Lah Yahdav"?
Does the prefix kaf describe the built city, or is it a separate facet of
his wonder? That will depend on how we interpret this phrase.
As mentioned in the opening section, there are those who would interpret
"the bound together city" as referring to the East and West, the New and Old
cities. While this makes for an emotionally compelling recitation, it is
unlikely that this was the psalmist's intent (considering that there were no
East/West or New/Old divisions until 1869).
Some Rishonim explain that the intent is not a description of the city, but
rather its effect - it is a city that binds the people together. This is
born out by the following verse that describes the assemblage of the tribes
"there". Although this works well in the context of the psalm - and is
undoubtedly a valid and worthy sentiment - it does not fit the words well.
The phrase describes the city, not its inhabitants or visitors.
R. Ovadiah S'forno suggests that the praise here is for the fullness of the
city, that it is populated from wall to wall as if it were built at one time
(Yahdav). R. Menahem haMe'iri (echoed by Amos Hakham in Da'at Mikra)
suggests a variation on this idea, that the entire city is built and filled
up. It is important to note that in ancient times - indeed, until the 20th
century - a city that had gaping spaces was considered undesirable. Walled
cities were usually built with the intention that more people would
immigrate to the city; hence, the walls were built around a greater area
than was already built up. If the city never attracted large numbers, it
continued to have open spaces - which, in today's eco-friendly society, is
considered an asset. If a city were truly a good place to live, everyone
would want to be there. The crowded conditions of Yerushalayim were
testimony to the greatness of the city and its popularity.
R. Elhanan Samet suggests another approach, one that takes us back,
ironically, to the "1967 Midrash". The city of David was not the "Old City"
that we know. It was a long, narrow town that stretched north and south and
had, as its highest place, the Har haBayit, on its north side. To its
immediate west were mountains that were higher than the Temple Mount. In the
9th and 8th centuries BCE, this area was settled by wealthy people who built
larger homes. This other city was called "The Upper City" (Ha'Ir
ha'Elyonah) and occupied most of the area of today's "Old City". Notice that
the western half - indeed, most of the Old City - is higher than Har haBayit.
At some point, perhaps during the reign of Hizkiyahu (c. 720 BCE), the two
cities were joined. This may be the intent of *Ir sheHubrah lah Yahdav".
If we accept any of the later interpretations, the second stich is tied in
with the first - it is either an example or the meaning of B'nuyah. If we
prefer those Rishonim who explain that the city binds people together, than
it is an independent paean to the city, in addition to the praise for the
STANZA II: THE CITY
There the tribes go up, the tribes of Hashem, Edut l’Yisra’el, to give
thanks to the name of Hashem.
For thrones of judgment were set there, the thrones of the house of David.
Again, the tension between dynamism and stasis is present in this praise. In
the first verse, the focus is on the ascent of the tribes (either as
pilgrims or for judgment - see D'varim 17:8) whose very assemblage is
testimony to the existence of Yisra'el. This ascent, as with Nelekh, is
dynamic. The next verse, echoing the opening sheSham of the previous one,
also describes what happens Sham. This description is not, however, of
movement and festive assemblage. It focuses on the stable presence of judges
and kings in the city. These two verses share another feature. Included in
the list of alternative explanations for Maalot, the literary style of
"linking" was noted. These two verses utilize that style - Sh'vatim -
Shivtei Kah, and Kis'ot l'Mishpat, Kis'ot l'Veit David.
The phrase Edut l'Yisra'el is a difficult one to interpret - indeed, the
text at Qumran has Adat Yisra'el which, within the context of the verse, is
a much smoother read.
This dialectic - between the dynamic ascent and the stable "thrones of
justice" - reflects an essential duality in our relationship with the city.
Yerushalayim is a place of growth, of change, of enrichment; yet it is a
city that is never changing, reflecting the stable truth of our faith.
This dichotomy can be expressed in other terms that bear great relevance to
our world. Yerushalayim is a city of spirituality, of "other-worldliness".
Yet, at the same time, it is the seat of our government, the center of our
national institutions. It is, at one, our religious and national capitol.
One of the unique facets of Am Yisra'el is this unification, which sees the
message of the Torah as inextricably bound up with the society it was meant
to perfect. That society is a complete one, with economic, educational,
military and political infrastructures that need wise statecraft in their
governance. We are, as R. Saadiah stated, only a nation by virtue of our
Torah. Nonetheless, we are a nation and not, in fashionable western terms, a
Spirituality is, by its nature, a dynamic process. This is exemplified by
the tribes who ascend, bearing testimony to Yisra'el. Statecraft, in order
to succeed, must play the opposite role and maintain ultimate stability and
STANZA III: PEACE
Pray for the peace of Yerushalayim; those who love you shall prosper.
Peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.
The psalmist turns to his fellows, likely those who have joined him in his
pilgrimage, and adjures them to pray for both the city (stasis) and those
who "love you" (those fellow pilgrims - dynamism). The psalmist has gone
back to addressing the city herself; Ohavayikh.
The first verse only expresses the prayer for peace and tranquility; the
second does much to clarify the terms that will indicate success. There not
only needs to be peace b'Heyleikh - meaning security and protection, there
also needs to be tranquility b'Arm'notayikh. The palace in question might
even refer to the royal dwelling - or even the Mikdash itself. There is
little question that a society that is besieged is sorely tested as to the
mettle of its members. Will they devour each other in desperation or will
they unite to fight for survival? This is a question that most peoples, at
one time or another, have had to answer. The resolution was not always
pleasant, but we have a proud history of answering the call and putting our
differences aside in common cause.
A much more difficult challenge faces the society that is secure from
outside threats. The lack of an enemy can often serve to tear apart the very
fabric of the civitas, allowing insignificant issues to cloud the brightest
day. Therefore, the psalmist blesses the city that she should be safe from
the outside and also at peace internally.
STANZA IV: BLESSING
For my brothers and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within you.
Because of the house of Hashem our G-d I will seek your good.
Who are the "brothers and friends" in v. 8? Weiss suggests that they are the
tribes who are unified by the city. While this is an attractive read, I
believe that a more contextually consistent understanding would be that
these are the co-celebrants who have come up with the psalmist. The psalmist
continues to address the city - and will do so until the conclusion of the
At the end of the psalm he goes back to the opening theme, forming perfect
bookends around the psalm. He began with his gladness at being told it was
time to go up to the house of Hashem. Now, he commits to seek the welfare of
Yerushalayim because of that selfsame house.
R. Reuven Margaliyot, in his HaMikra vehaMesorah, shares an insight which is
both fascinating on its own merit and is instructive to us as we conclude
our study of this "psalm of the day" for Yom Yerushalayim.
At the twilight of the first commonwealth, after the exile of Yehoyachin
(597 BCE), the false prophets in Yerushalayim were assuring the populace
that the exiles would return post haste and that sovereignty would be
restored. They also communicated with the exiles, telling them to "sit on
their suitcases". Yirmiyahu, the one true prophet at the time who spoke out
against them, warned the people that they would be in for a multi-generation
stay and that they should settle in, get married, raise families and create
lives for themselves in Bavel.
Towards the end of his letter to the exile community, Yirmiyahu states:
And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away
captives, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace shall you have
peace. (Yirmiyah 29:7)
This command is the source for the "Prayer for the welfare of the
government", mentioned in Avot (3:2).
Margaliyot points out that Rabbinic tradition had a different take on this
verse, one which led in a curious direction.
He notes the Midrash that states that everything that happened to Yoseph
happened to Tziyyon (Tanhuma Vayyigash). Among the events they share, the
Midrash states: Regarding Yoseph it states: "Go see the welfare of the
flock" and regarding Tziyyon it states: "Seek the welfare of the city". As
Margaliyot points out, this seems to be a strange reading of the text in
Yirmiyahu, since he was telling them to seek the city to which they were
exiled (Bavel) and not the city from which they were exiled (Tziyyon). He
cites several other Midrashim which read the verse in Yirmiyahu in a
similarly odd fashion.
Margaliyot explains that linguists have identified a curious phenomenon in
T'nakh. When a word ends with a letter and the following words begins with
the same letter, that letter is often dropped; he brings several examples of
this in T'nakh. Therefore, he reads the verse as follows:
v'Dirshu et Sh'lom ha'Ir Asher Y'tza'tem MIsham…
Yirmiyahu's message to the exilic community was profound - even as you are
building your lives in Bavel, seek the peace of Yerushalayim, for your
welfare is dependent upon hers.
We all love the city of our dreams and want only the best for her
inhabitants - but we must also be cognizant that so long as Yerushalayim is
not at peace, none of us are. We must always be Doresh Sh'lom Yerushalayim,
for her peace is the harbinger of our own:
BiSh'lomah Yih'yeh Lakhem Shalom
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.