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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, 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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Donna Stevens Gisborne, New Zealand February 3, 2017

Thank you Rabbi Silberberg for helping me to understand a bit more than I did.
"Blessed be you Rabbi Silberberg by the One and only true G-d creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be the One and only true G-d who has opened the airways allowing you to share understanding to those who search!" Reply

Gillian Priestley April 29, 2016

But what was God's name inscribed on the earthenware shard and why does it always remain so elusive."Hallowed be thy name" in the Lord's Prayer means make my name be known. Reply

Rochel Chein for chabad.org 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. Reply

Maecia Chauvin California 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? Reply

Raphaelle Do Singapore October 4, 2014

The Shitin was a canal which existed before Solomon was called to build the Temple, right?
This is interesting. Reply

Anonymous china November 28, 2013

Really interesting Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org 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. Reply

Philip K India September 15, 2013

Psalms of ascent Request you to kindly give the exact period and historical setting of the psalms of ascent. Reply

Derrick Allen Crepy en Valois, France 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. Reply

Maryann Therese Ruelle Ypsilanti, Michigan 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 Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) 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). Reply

Fred Lang St Louis, Mo 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? Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) 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. Reply

Fred Lang St Louis, Mo April 29, 2010

Songs of Ascent What temple is David referring to, since the temple wasn't built until Solomon? Reply

David Lee 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, Reply

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