Singing of Joy and Jerusalem on Foreign Land

Many people are familiar with the Jewish tradition of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. It has become the marker for when people go from sitting quietly to screaming “mazel tov!” for the new couple.

The shattering of the glass traditionally is accompanied by a few lines from Psalm 137 (5-6) which are sung in a subdued manner:

אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלָ֗͏ִם תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי׃

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;

תִּדְבַּֽק־לְשׁוֹנִ֨י ׀ לְחִכִּי֮ אִם־לֹ֢א אֶ֫זְכְּרֵ֥כִי אִם־לֹ֣א אַ֭עֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלַ֑͏ִם עַ֝֗ל רֹ֣אשׁ שִׂמְחָתִֽי׃

let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.

One would imagine that keeping “Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour” would imply making such memory very festive at a wedding ceremony. That is when the bride and groom are at their “happiest hour,” and as they burst for joy, they should sing about Jerusalem in that same boisterous spirit, not one of solemnity capped by broken glass.

The entirety of Psalm 137 must be internalized to appreciate how Jews incorporate these few lines of song at a wedding. Here are the opening lines (1-4) which precede the wedding song:

עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זׇכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן׃

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.

עַֽל־עֲרָבִ֥ים בְּתוֹכָ֑הּ תָּ֝לִ֗ינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵֽינוּ׃

There on the poplars we hung up our lyres,

כִּ֤י שָׁ֨ם שְֽׁאֵל֢וּנוּ שׁוֹבֵ֡ינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁ֭יר וְתוֹלָלֵ֣ינוּ שִׂמְחָ֑ה שִׁ֥ירוּ לָ֝֗נוּ מִשִּׁ֥יר צִיּֽוֹן׃

for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement said “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

אֵ֗יךְ נָשִׁ֥יר אֶת־שִׁיר־יְהֹוָ֑ה עַ֝֗ל אַדְמַ֥ת נֵכָֽר׃

How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?

The nature of the Psalm is one of sorrow. Tormented in diaspora, the local nations taunted the Jewish people to sing, but the joy of song could not be completed while on foreign soil. The “right hand wither[ing]” and “tongue stuck on my palate” are expressions that no harp can be played nor song uttered about Zion and Jerusalem while stuck far away.

With such orientation, consider the following wedding celebrated during the COVID pandemic:

A young man made aliyah and joined the Israeli army as a lone soldier. He completed his study at a Hesder yeshiva and his army service, and then met a beautiful girl. She had also made aliyah, albeit more recently, as she waited to hear from graduate programs in the U.S. They fell in love and got engaged with plans to marry in Israel together with their new community of friends. Unfortunately, as they spent a semester in the United States to take courses, they got stuck due to COVID restrictions and could not have the wedding in Jerusalem. They hastily made arrangements to get married in the diaspora, despite their best efforts and plans.

With the unexpected backdrop, the bride and groom finally stood beneath the wedding canopy. The chazan – who himself had made aliyah but happened to be in the U.S. for another affair – sang Psalm 137 verses 5 and 6 and then paused, as is the custom in Israel, for the groom to repeat the two sentences.

As the groom recited those words, everyone in attendance was pulled by this couple’s longing to be in Israel, and internalized line 4 from the Psalm which was unsung but deeply felt: How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?

Hopefully this new couple will be blessed to share many happy anniversaries in the land in their hearts, the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem.

Related articles:

Humble Faith

Shtisel, The Poem Without an End, Continues

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