(II Samuel 22:1-51)
October 15, 2005
David\’s song is a song of victory and thanksgiving. It is a song of exaltation and religious poetry which attributes to God the redemption of the individual and the nation. It is a song that had such an impact that it is found twice in the Tanach, once in the book of Samuel and once in the book of Psalms (18). The two versions of the song are almost identical but there are minor differences.
One of these differences is found in the last verse of the song. This verse is particularly prominent because of its liturgical role in birkat hamazon (grace after meals): \”Tower of victory (written – ktiv: magdil; read – kri: migdol) to His king, who deals graciously with His anointed, with David and his offspring evermore. (2 Samuel 22:51) The Psalms\’ version of this verse preserves exclusively the written text of this verse, utilizing the word \”magdil\” and would therefore be translated: \”He (God) accords great victories to His king\”. (See Psalms 18:51)
These two different Biblical traditions created a liturgical curiosity in birkat hamazon where this verse appears in the penultimate paragraph of the prayer as a messianic hope. (This paragraph is a post-Talmudic addition to Birkat Hamazon.) The verse from Psalms is recited on weekdays while the Samuel version is recited on Shabbat and holidays. How does one explain this anomaly? First, it is worth noting that Maimonides, in his Mishnah Torah, and a Askenazi halachic work of the same period are unaware of the distinction. Both only cite the Psalms\’ version \”magdil\”. The first to note the distinction was Rabbi David Abudraham, the 14th century Spanish liturgical scholar. He notes that he received this tradition from his teachers and explains that \”migdol – tower\” symbolized \”big king\” and is appropriate for Shabbat. The word \”magdil – accords victory\” represents a \”small king\” or a king in process. This was fitting for weekdays. He further explains that the word \”magdil\” was used in Psalms since it was composed when David had not yet become king, while the Samuel version was set after he had already become king. (See Abudraham Hashalem p.326; See also Jacobson, Netiv Binah 3, pp. 95-6 for a varied list of curious explanations.)
Professor Avraham Goldberg offers a more likely explanation based on a halachic proposition. He asserts that the liturgist who composed this custom probably was influenced by a discussion found in the Talmud over whether one should study the Ketuvim section of the Tanach on Shabbat. The Mishnah records a concern by the sages that the study of Ketuvim because of its inherent interest and exciting stories would overly attract the people\’s interest and cause them to neglect study in the Beit Midrash (studying the Oral Torah) on Shabbat and consequently urged the people to refrain studying Ketuvim. This prohibition included Psalms. (See Mishnah Shabbat 16:1 and the discussion in the Talmud, Shabbat 116b.) This, of course, was an early discussion which had largely fallen by the wayside, but it is possible that it influenced the thinking of the later sage who set that the Samuel verse would be used on Shabbat and the Psalms\’ one on weekday.
As a homiletic explanation, Abudraham\’s explanation does lend meaning to this custom. After all, it is our weekday behavior which lends itself to building God\’s ideal world and it is on Shabbat that we are allowed a little taste of the results.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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