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The mystery of the 92nd Psalm

One of the enduring mysteries in the book of Psalms is Psalm 92. Its opening verse reads, “A psalm, a song, for the Sabbath day,” followed by 15 more verses. Not a single one mentions the Sabbath day. In what way is Psalm 92 “a song for the Sabbath day?”

Permit me to cite one homiletical approach and one historical approach.

I. Homiletical Approach

Verse two in Psalm 92 reads, “It is good to give thanks to the L-rd and to sing praise to Your exalted name.” That word, “to give thanks to” (yes, it’s a single word in Hebrew) can also mean, “to confess.” The Hebrew bears both meanings. How, then, might “confessing” be thematically linked to the Sabbath?

The Sabbath, says the Hebrew Bible, is testimony to G-d’s creation of the world and cessation from creation on the seventh day. Take note: Some of these Biblical verses constitute the opening ritual of the Sabbath, the recitation of kiddush, the text of sanctification on Friday night.

Look at Bible’s words, and the meaning of their recitation at kiddush becomes clear. Here is the Biblical passage (Genesis 2:1-3):

“And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their array. And G-d completed on the seventh day all the work He had done, and He abstained on the seventh day from all of His work He had done. And G-d blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it . . . ”

By reciting these words at kiddush one is testifying to the reality of G-d’s act of creation and G-d’s rest on the seventh day.

Now, the Hebrew for “confess” connotes: to tell the truth. “It is good to tell the truth” is the phrase in Psalm 92 that follows, “a song for the Sabbath day.” We confess on the Sabbath, we tell the truth about reality, about G-d’s existence, about G-d’s act of creation, and about 
G-d’s abstaining from further creation on the Sabbath day.

In a “song for the Sabbath day,” it is good to tell the truth about G-d’s creation and His resting from creating, on the Sabbath.

One may carry this further.

If the intent of the recitation of kiddush is to testify, to be a truth teller about creation, then a question arises for everyone who recites kiddush: Am I a truth teller?

Every witness in court must swear (or affirm) to tell the truth before testifying. I would want to be extremely careful with what I say; otherwise, I could be prosecuted for perjury. If this is so in a human court, then how about testimony before G-d? That’s what we’re doing when we recite kiddush on Friday night. We are testifying before G-d about His acts of creation and about His rest on the seventh day.

This ritual scenario boils down to this: Before I recite kiddush, I had better make certain that my record is clean, my life is clean, my fulfillment of the Torah is spotless. Otherwise, I am not really qualified to say the words of kiddush truthfully. In the language of the Jewish tradition, Friday — the immediate time period before Friday night kiddush — is a time for teshuvah, for repentance, for whitening my record, for establishing myself as a truth teller.

So much for a homiletical linkage between Psalm 92’s “Sabbath day” and a Sabbath theme within the psalm itself.

II. Historical Approach

A historical linkage is based on an archaeological find and on a midrash (Exodus Rabbah 5:18), as understood by the late Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky.* Apparently, a version of Psalm 92 was found in the pyramids, except that it substituted “Pharaoh” for “the L-rd.” Given that Jewish tradition dates Psalm 92 back to Adam or to Moses, the version in the pyramids is taken to be a corruption of the Jewish version.

But the question arises: What did Israelite slaves in Egypt see in Psalm 92?

The midrash says that the slaves had in hand “megillot,” or scrolls, which they read from, Sabbath to Sabbath, and took much delight in.

Based on these scrolls, the slaves said that G-d would redeem them on the merit of their observance of the Sabbath.

Rabbi Kamenetsky says that it makes sense to say that one of these scrolls was Psalm 92, for indeed the slaves would delight in it. This is because the theme of the psalm relates directly to the feeling of the slaves that their observance of the Sabbath would lead to their redemption.

Which brings us back to the original question: Where in Psalm 92 is there any reference to the Sabbath, such as the slaves would see in it hope for ultimate redemption?

Said Rabbi Kamenetsky:

Imagine the scene. The Israelites are slaves. The Egyptians are free. The Israelites are righteous. The Egyptians are evil; they are slave drivers. How is it that the righteous — the Israelites — suffer?

This question must have been sharp and constant. How, then, would Psalm 92 provide comfort, provide an answer, provide delight, as it was studied by the slaves on the Sabbath? Permit me to summarize a major theme in Psalm 92’s verses by slicing and realigning them as follows:

“With the wicked sprouting like grass and all the evildoers blossoming, it is only that they may be destroyed forever. I shall see the defeat of my watchful foes, the wicked who beset me. The righteous will bloom like a date palm.”

In other words, Psalms 92 is a theodicy. It provides an answer as to why the righteous suffer. They may well suffer grievously at the hands of evildoers now, but not forever. The evildoers will be destroyed. The righteous will blossom.

This message of Psalm 92 was particularly meaningful to the righteous slaves in Egypt. They delighted in Psalm 92 when they could — on their one day of rest, the Sabbath. They delighted in it because it expressed Divine assurance of redemption from evil.

In other words, the link between the “song for the Sabbath day” and the song itself — the verses of Psalm 92 — is historical.

Incidentally, said Rabbi Kamenetsky, this might be a reason why the exodus from Egypt is integral to the text of the kiddush itself.

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