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What is a “Song of Ascents”?

What is a “Song of Ascents”?

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Question:

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

Answer:

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

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor, and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, NY, 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 (10)
November 28, 2013
Really interesting
Anonymous
china
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 Chabad.org
September 15, 2013
Psalms of ascent
Request you to kindly give the exact period and historical setting of the psalms of ascent.
Philip K
India
March 23, 2012
Ascents
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
Ascents
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
May 3, 2010
To Fred:
While it was Solomon who actually built the Temple, David, his father, had longed to do so. We read in Chronicles 1:22 how King David told his son to build the Temple, as G-d had told him that while he would not be allowed to build the Temple, he would have a son, Solomon, who would. The Midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:27) tells us that while King David knew that he would not be destined to build the Temple, he prepared for the project by purchasing all the materials, preparing as much as he was able, and even preparing the structures design.

In addition, the Book of Psalms was written prophetically which also explains how the Psalm could be a reference to the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile an event which transpired centuries after King Davids death.
Naftali Silberberg (Author)
April 29, 2010
Songs of Ascent
What temple is David referring to, since the temple wasn't built until Solomon?
Fred Lang
St Louis, Mo
December 9, 2008
Thank you
Thank you for this page. I found it very informative. the Songs of Ascent include some of my favorites.

thank you,
David Lee
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