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What is a “Song of Ascents”?

What is a “Song of Ascents”?



Why do certain psalms begin with the words, "A song of ascents"? What sort of ascent is this referring to?


Fifteen psalms, chapters 120-134 of the Book of Psalms, begin with the words, "A song of ascents."

Many interpretations have been given for these ambiguous words. Here are a few of them:

a) In the Holy Temple courtyard, there was an ultra wide stairway that consisted of fifteen large, semi-circular steps that "ascended" into the inner section of the courtyard. The Levites, whose job it was to accompany the Temple service with song and instrumental music, would stand on these steps and sing these fifteen psalms.

b) These psalms were sung on a high "ascendant" musical note.

c) These psalms were sung starting in a low tone of voice and steadily ascending to a higher one.

d) These psalms were sung by the Jews who ascended from Babylon to Israel in the times of Ezra the Scribe.

e) These psalms were sung by the Jews when they would "ascend" to visit the Holy Temple three times annually for the festivals.

f) These psalms praise, exult and "elevate" G‑d.

g) The Talmud gives an aggadaic explanation:
"When King David was digging the Shitin [a stream that ran beneath the Holy Temple, into which the wine libations were poured], the water of the depths arose and threatened to flood the world. David said, 'Is there someone who knows whether it is permitted to write [G‑d's] name on an earthenware shard and we will throw it into the depths and it will subside?' . . . Ahitophel responded, 'It is permitted.' [David] wrote the name on earthenware and threw it into the depths. The depths receded 16,000 cubits. When he saw that it receded greatly, he said, 'The higher the depths, the moister is the ground [which benefits agriculture].' He said the fifteen [songs of] ascents, and the depths rose 15,000 cubits."

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg, editorial team

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Discussion (13)
July 22, 2015
Re: Psalm 121
The Sifrei (Ekev 47) explains that the letter lamed in this verse, with numerical value of thirty, hints to the thirty ascents of the righteous in the future, from the Tree of Life to the Throne of Glory.

Rabbi Elazar Hakalir composed a poem that references this:
Beneath her, thirty rungs;
One above the other;
To the Throne of Glory.

Flying and rising;
In song of delights;
Song of Ascents.
Rochel Chein for
July 17, 2015
Psalm 121
Why is the Hebrew word for ascents prefaced differently in Psalm 121 than the other 14 where a hei is used, while in 121 it's a lamed?
Maecia Chauvin
October 4, 2014
The Shitin was a canal which existed before Solomon was called to build the Temple, right?
This is interesting.
Raphaelle Do
November 28, 2013
Really interesting
September 18, 2013
Re: Psalms of ascent
The exact period would depend on which opinion listed in the article you are asking about. But to put it in context, according to Jewish tradition King David passed away in 837 BCE and the first Temple was dedicated in 827 BCE.
Yehuda Shurpin for
September 15, 2013
Psalms of ascent
Request you to kindly give the exact period and historical setting of the psalms of ascent.
Philip K
March 23, 2012
This has really helped my understanding. The scriptures are so intriguing and inspiring. God is truly great. I love him and his word.
Derrick Allen
Crepy en Valois, France
January 11, 2012
I really appreciate the variety of definitions you've given. Personally, I believe that the Levites singing those particular Psalms AND the account of King David are both correct. Thank You
Maryann Therese Ruelle
Ypsilanti, Michigan
May 4, 2010
Back to Fred....
1) Correct.
2) Yes, it was operational at the time, in the city of Nob and then Gibeon (though the Tabernacle lacked the Holy Ark when it was erected in these locations).
Naftali Silberberg (Author)
May 3, 2010
Song fo Ascents
So David was looking forward prophetically, and possibly creatively imagining what it would be like to go up to the house of G-d?

Was the tabernacle still in use at the time of David?
Fred Lang
St Louis, Mo
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