In the small, dimly lit room of an Eastern European synagogue, a young boy sat captivated as his grandfather recited verses from the Book of Psalms. The words felt like ancient echoes reverberating through the walls, linking past and future. As his grandfather arrived at Psalm 87, his voice softened but grew more passionate: “It shall be said of Zion ‘Every man was born there’…The LORD will inscribe in the register of peoples that each was (indeed) born there.” Those words struck the boy like a bolt of lightning. Though born miles away from the Land of Israel, he felt an instant connection, a sense of belonging that surpassed geography. Years later, that young boy would become a pillar in his community, a lifelong advocate to unite Jews around the world. For him, as for many others, those ancient verses were more than just poetic expressions; they were a testament to the enduring, unbreakable bond between the Jewish people and their ancestral homeland.
Indeed, Psalm 87, has inspired countless numbers of Jews throughout the ages. Verses 5-6, overheard by the boy in the story above, state:
“It shall be said of Zion ‘Every man was born there’ …The LORD will inscribe in the register of peoples that each was (indeed) born there” Psalms 87:5-6
Rabbi Meisha, quoted in the Talmud (Ketubot 75a), explains that it is not only those who are physically born in the Land of Israel who are considered her children. Rather, those who yearn for the Land of Israel and long to see it are also considered B’nei Tzion, ‘Children of Zion.’
For centuries, Jews born in the diaspora saw the psalmist’s words as a confirmation of their deep conviction that Israel was their home.
In the book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (pages 110-115), Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik explains that this psalm is “the moral basis for the Law of Return”. The Law of Return is an Israeli law which gives anyone with one or more Jewish grandparent, and their spouses, the right to relocate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship.
In support for his position, he cites a story about the eminent Rabbi Yosef Sonnenfeld who lived during the British mandate. The British authorities passed a law that limited the number of Jews who could enter Palestine. A group of Romanian Jews thought of producing false affidavits stating they were born in Czechoslovakia, since this would allow them to enter the country. When they inquired of Rabbi Sonnenfeld about this plan, he forbade them to follow it. In his eyes, this would be against the biblical prohibition “For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to Hashem your God” (Deuteronomy 25:16). However, when they inquired if they could produce false affidavits stating they were originally born in Palestine, he gave them permission. When asked about the seeming discrepancy between these two decisions, he replied that the later claim is not false. His reasoning was based on the law derived from our psalm that includes people who desire to see Israel, together with people who dwell there, to be considered to have been “born in Zion”.
Another renowned figure who felt this way was Shai Agnon, the Israeli winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his 1966 Nobel Banquet speech (given in Hebrew), he introduced himself in the following way:
“As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.”
Here we see Shai Agnon’s greatness. He was able to duplicate in modern language the love of Zion originally expressed in psalm 87.
From the wisdom of rabbis to the eloquence of Nobel laureates, the psalm’s profound message reverberates across generations, cultures, and even legal frameworks. It offers us an understanding that home is more than a place; it is a state of the soul, a longing deep within that ties us to something greater than ourselves. Whether we are born in the diaspora or in the Land of Israel, Psalm 87 unites us all as ‘Children of Zion,’ reminding us that the yearning for the sacred land can make us natives of that very place in the eyes of the Divine.