In our efforts to streamline Rosh Hashanah services last year, one of the casualties was Psalm 47. It’s the one we say 7 times before blowing the Shofar. There were years when I said to myself, ‘Why are we doing this so many times?’ So, of course, last year I missed not reciting it. I hope my minyan does chant it this year, but in any case, it’s worth trying to fathom the meaning of this fascinating Psalm and its message for Rosh Hashana.
Even though the custom of reciting this Psalm before sounding the Shofar is quite new (there’s no mention of it before the 1700’s), the connection of this poem to Rosh Hashana goes back to Masechet Sofrim (probably 8th century). Today almost all Ashkenazim say it.
Our Psalm begins with the whole world applauding God: Clap hands all nations, cheer on God with jubilant cries (Tehillim 47:2). What’s everybody so exhilarated about? To me this sounds like a sporting event, and God just hit a grand slam. Sorry, but that’s my reference point for applause. However, our case is much more profound, as the next verse explains: For the Lord Most High (ELYON) is awesome, great king over all the earth. The starting reference for our Psalm is that God is Creator and Ruler of the universe. This is very much a Rosh Hashanah issue, for Rosh Hashanah commemorates the sixth day of Creation when humanity was created. For the first time, there were creatures who could appreciate God’s astounding achievement.
Then comes the next stage in the Creation process. We have six steps (days) in the Creation story, culminating with human beings. One might have thought that’s it, but they’d be wrong. ‘God subjects peoples to us, sets nations at our feet (verse 4).’ We, the Jews, God’s people are the continuation of Creation, or evolution, if you will. The world at large will eventually take notice. They will heed the fact that: God chose our heritage for us, the glory of Jacob whom He loved. Selah (verse 5). This ends the first part of the poem. The Psalm continues with the answer to the unasked question, when will this universal recognition of Judaism happen?
The answer: God ascends amidst the TRUAH; the LORD, to the blasts of the horn. Sing, O sing to God; sing, O sing to our king; for God is king over all the earth; sing a MASKIL (verses 6-8). The world at large will comprehend the supremacy of God and the veracity of Torah when the Jews crown and enthrone our Creator as our Sovereign. The process of achieving this goal is our Rosh Hashana devotions. First, we emphasize that God is our King in the blessings ‘the Holy King’ (HAMELECH HAKDOSH) and then ‘the King over the whole world’, both of these appear in all our silent devotions (AMIDA) of Rosh Hashana.
Secondly, we blow the Shofar. Even though the ram’s horn has much symbolism surrounding it (memorializing the Akeida, wake up to repent, and so on), the central role of the trumpet fanfare is for the annual coronation of God as our Monarch. The Shofar blasts have many messages, but the central point is God is our KING.
I believe strongly that the most important word in this middle section (verses 6-8) of our song is the last: MASKIL. Not so easy to translate this term. The Metzudat David suggest that it means a well thought out song or Psalm, because the root is SEICHEL, wise. According to Rebbe Nachman, this refers to the special melody of certain Rebbes (the ZADIK) who sing very intelligent songs which contribute wisdom to the world.
I think that our Singer is announcing that Jews inspire the world to the essence of wisdom and knowledge. This doesn’t refer to Einstein, Penzias or, my neighbor, Prof Auman. It means that the Jews announce the reality and presence of God in our cosmos. We blow the Shofar and shout from the rooftops: Gott fiert die ganze velt!! God rules the whole world! There is no greater SEICHEL.
Which brings us to the end of our song. We clearly state the Jews great contribution to the world’s knowledge base: God reigns over the nations; God is seated on His holy throne (verse 9). The Malbim claims that this verse is continuing the process of verse 6, the coronation of God. God’s reign is universal and eternal. Cool, but I think that we are clearly stating that our effort to convince the world of God’s sovereignty will ultimately succeed and be accepted.
What will move the world to eventually accede to our age-old efforts at coronating God? Well, verse 10, of course. ‘The NEDIVIM of the peoples are gathered together, the retinue of Abraham’s God; for the guardians of the earth belong to God; He is greatly exalted.’ The key term is NEDIVIM. This can be translated as noble or grand, however the essence of this term is generosity and philanthropy.
Avraham Avinu proclaimed God’s existence, but the eventual success of his efforts to spread ethical monotheism is predicated upon his character. Ultimately, the message of Judaism is NEDIVUT. This means generosity and philanthropy, of course, but so much more. The essence of this trait is self-sacrifice. We give of ourselves for the great cause of our beloved Zeidie Avraham.
The Jewish nation proclaims the sovereignty of God, and aggrandize the Divine Presence. We do it by blowing the Shofar, which became such a potent symbol through the Akeida. Avraham Avinu remains our guide and this Psalm is the trail map.