Shir HaMaalot: Crown Heights’ new trad-egal havurah

This is a guest post by Marisa Harford. Shir HaMaalot is a new monthly Friday night havurah with full Hebrew liturgy services and musical instruments, followed by vegetarian dinner, socializing and singing. Our next service is Friday, March 9th at 7 pm at Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway. RSVP with your potluck contribution here or email [email protected] to join the listserv.
We’ve just named our new havurah Shir Hamaalot, Song of the Heights, a new traditional, egalitarian havurah in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I’m honored to be able to share some information about the meaning of the phrase in context in the Bible and how its significance might help us reflect on the goals and the sacred work of this new community.
The 150 hymns in the book of Psalms are divided into different sections, usually by introductory phrases, some of which are very familiar to us, such as “mizmor l’David” (meaning “a song of David”). “Shir hamaalot” is one. There are 15 consecutive “shir hamaalot” psalms, numbers 120-134. Shir means song or poem, and ma’al can mean ascents, stairs, or anything that is above or over. For example, in Sukkah 5:4, the Mishnah explains that there were 15 stairs between the men’s and women’s courts of the Temple where the Levites would stand to sing these psalms during Sukkot.
When I re-read the psalms in order, however, I favored a scholarly interpretation that these psalms were written to be sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the three festivals. We still refer to “going up” or making aliyah (from the same root as ma’alot) to Israel or Jerusalem -— both because Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are literally situated on hills, but also figuratively because we imagine progress toward Jerusalem to be a spiritual ascent. The shir hamaalot psalms begin with several in which the narrator feels besieged or alone and looks upward, seeking help from God, as in this well-known line from psalm 121:

אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי, אֶל-הֶהָרִים– מֵאַיִן, יָבֹא עֶזְרִי. I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?

This set of psalms ends with triumphant celebrations of the Temple and God’s sovereignty and there is a definite progression to the series. I could easily imagine pilgrims reciting each psalm at a different stage of their journey to Jerusalem while looking up at their destination on the distant hills.
The dominant themes of these psalms speak directly to the project of creating a new community. The pilgrims were on a journey to travel from their individual homes to come together for the purpose of celebration, to create holiness as a united group. In search of spiritual ascent, we progress from the weekday to Shabbat, a holy time when we seek to renew ourselves, celebrate, give thanks, and establish relationships. Being on that journey together — striving to create something new and ever-renewed — is sacred work.
The Temple, God’s dwelling-place, is another key theme of the shir hamaalot psalms. In the Temple, the Israelites made space for God’s presence through their journeys, their offerings, and their commitment to gathering together in community. Through our songs, prayers, and community-building, we can also strive to establish holy space and time that creates a dwelling-place for the divine.
In re-reading psalms 120-134, I was most surprised and inspired by the context of another one of the most famous quotes from this series—the first line of psalm 133:

א שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד:
הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים– שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד.
1 A Song of Ascents; of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
ב כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב, עַל-הָרֹאשׁ–
יֹרֵד, עַל-הַזָּקָן זְקַן-אַהֲרֹן:
שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו.
2 It is like the precious oil upon the head,
coming down upon the beard; even Aaron’s beard,
that cometh down upon the collar of his garments;
ג כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן– שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן:
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–
חַיִּים, עַד-הָעוֹלָם.
3 Like the dew of Hermon, that cometh down upon the mountains of Zion;
for there the LORD commanded the blessing,
even life forever.

Here, the famous first line is followed by two similes in which the poet seeks to express what it means for “brothers to dwell together.” I expected metaphors that were a bit more earthy, ones that related to the strength of a united group of people. Instead, the poet compares the establishment of a community to the oil used to anoint the priests and the dew that falls from above Mount Zion — two ethereal, delicate images of blessing emanating almost magically from heaven. The existence of a community somehow draws down sanctification from another source, or creates a cumulative effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether you believe in immanence—that in being together, we establish sacred space and time — or in transcendence, that we can call down blessings from outside ourselves through building community, this psalmist asserts that the practice of “dwelling together” is profoundly powerful.
As a new community, may we continue on our journey together to craft sacred space and time, and may our dedication and the songs and thanks we bring cause an overflow of blessing and pleasantness for us all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.