Psalm 137 is a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Israel. The psalmist responds to the sarcastic taunting of his captors who ask the exiled Jews to “sing a song of Zion.” (Psalms 137:3) After stating in the previous verse that he cannot bring himself to sing songs of Zion while heading into exile, the psalmist declares:
If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.
In context, this verse is a commitment to never forget Jerusalem, even though the joyous songs of Zion will not be sung while mourning in exile. More precisely, the psalmist commits himself never to forget how to play these songs on his harp, referred to in verse 2 of this psalm. Harp strings were traditionally played with the right hand. According to this contextual reading, the skill mentioned at the end of the verse is the skill of playing the harp.
What will be forgotten?
According to all English translations, the second half of this verse, let my right hand forget its skill, is phrased as a wish. In other words, the psalmist is saying that if he forgets Jerusalem, let it be that his right hand should forget its skill. This is a rhetorical way of saying I will never forget Jerusalem.
Almost every English translation ends the verse with the words its skill, or its power. While this makes sense in context, if we examine the word-for-word translation of the Hebrew, we find something different.
In Hebrew, the verse is composed of 5 words:
Im – If
eshkachech – I forget you
Yerushalayim – Jerusalem,
tishkach – will forget
yemini – my right hand
In Hebrew, a subject in a sentence can appear before the verb, as in English, or after the verb. So, the final two words, tishkach yemini, mean, “my right hand will forget.” In other words, the actual exact translation of the verse is:
If I forget you Jerusalem, my right hand will forget.
Notice that the verse does not say what will be forgotten. The Hebrew does not say its skill, its power, or anything else. The psalmist says, simply, that his right hand will forget.
A wish or a consequence?
Furthermore, we should note that the exact translation of the Hebrew does not necessarily imply that this forgetting is a wish he is making, in the event he forgets Jerusalem. Rather, the simplest reading of the verse may be that the psalmist is describing cause and effect. Let me explain.
Consider the difference between these two translations:
If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget
If I forget you Jerusalem, my right hand will forget
In the first, the psalmist is wishing or praying for his right hand to forget should he forget Jerusalem. In the second translation, his right hand forgetting is a consequence of forgetting Jerusalem, not a wish.
A Jew is one who remembers Jerusalem
In the year 1771 the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published in Edinburgh, Scotland. Below is the complete text of the entry for the word “Jews.” It appears on page 833 of volume 2 (the entire encyclopedia consisted of three volumes):
Jews: Those who profess obedience to the laws and religion of Moses. When a modern Jew builds an (sic) house he must leave part of it unfinished in remembrance that the Temple and Jerusalem now lie desolate. They lay great stress upon frequent washings. They abstain from meat prohibited by Levitical Law; for which reason whatever they eat must be dressed by Jews and after a manner peculiar to themselves. Every Jew is obliged to marry, and a man who lives to twenty unmarried, is accounted as actually living in sin. The Jews, it is said, were formerly at the disposal of the Chief Lord where they lived and likewise all their goods. A Jew may be a witness by our law being sworn on the Old Testament and taking oaths to the government.
The last two sentences deal with the status of Jews in British law at that time.
The first sentence is a general statement of what Jews are, followed by four examples of Jewish practice. The list includes Kashruth – the kosher laws –, “frequent washings” which may be a reference to the laws of family purity and the presence of a mikvah – ritual bath house – in every Jewish community. Alternatively, it may refer to the requirements to wash hands before eating and praying. The reference to marriage displays the importance of family building in Judaism.
Each of these practices is a custom of Jewish life that would be visible to anyone who is the least bit familiar with Jews.
The first item on the list is the most striking.
When a modern Jew builds a house he must leave part of it unfinished in remembrance that the Temple and Jerusalem now lie desolate.
This practice is one of thousands of codified Jewish laws. After stating that Jews adhere to the Torah, the first detail of Jewish life that the British scholars and academics who wrote this encyclopedia in the 18th century saw fit to mention was the fact that Jews are mourners for the Temple and Jerusalem. Their homes remain unfinished because their “Home” is not built. 1700 years after the burning of the Temple and Jerusalem, a non-Jew who interacted with Jews recognized this fact as a primary component of Jewish identity.
Who is a Jew? A Jew is one who adheres to the Torah. A Jew is one who mourns the loss and yearns for the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem. If this was so clear to the writers of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1771, it must have been prominent among the Jews of 1771.
The power of memory
Today, the Jewish people have returned home. There is no doubt that this would not have happened if not for the power of Jewish memory. Throughout the Bible, the right hand symbolizes strength. This is the meaning of our verse.
“If I forget you Jerusalem, my right hand will forget.” If I forget Jerusalem, I have lost my strength. It is the memory of Jerusalem that gave the Jewish people the strength to make it through the long and dark exile. To remember Jerusalem is to live in a constant state of yearning for the return to Jerusalem. Without this memory, there would have been no return.
Remembering Jerusalem, a central component of Jewish identity throughout 2000 years of exile, gave the Jewish people the strength to survive. The ingathering of the exiles of Israel in our times is the expression of the right hand – the strength of Jewish faith that never faltered.
This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s new book, Verses for Zion. Verses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast