“You will eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). There are few pleasures shared by cultures around the world as the pleasure of eating. Because it is human nature to take much pleasure in feasting, it is written in the Zohar (book of mystical teachings attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) that a person who derives pleasure from bread, delights in given foods, is required to remember and worry over the sanctity of the Holy Land and over the Palace of the King which is in ruins (Teruma 157a) . Since the destruction of the Holy Temple two thousand years ago, the Jewish people have not, according to tradition, been able to experience true joy because every celebration is a bit marred by the knowledge of our spiritual exile.

In order to connect to the proper sentiments reflecting the Jewish exile, it became customary to recite Psalm 137 before Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals). Psalm 137, “By the Rivers of Babylon” (click here to read the full Psalm), which includes the famous verse: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”

Psalm 137 captures the pain of the Jewish people during their forced march to Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple. On Shabbat, holidays, and other joyous celebrations, when normal mourning practices are set aside, Psalm 137 is replaced by Psalm 126, frequently referred to simply as Shir Hama’alot, a Song of Ascents. (Click here to read the full Psalm.)

Shir Hama’alot is a psalm of rejoicing and a poem of gratitude. In contrast to Psalm 137, which describes the Children of Israel’s somber march into exile, Shir Hama’alot begins “When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men who dreamed…” In keeping with the spirit of Shabbat joy, Shir Hama’alot is usually sung just prior to Birkat Hamazon.

-The recitation of Psalm 137 is now a custom followed by a minorty. However, the custom of reciting Psalm 126 on Shabbat, holidays and joyous occasions continues to be prevalent in the Ashkenazi communities.  

Click here to listen to a traditional version of Shir Hama’alot. 

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