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,
Chabad.org editorial team