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I do not understand the last lines of psalm 137 ("By the rivers of Babylon"/"Al naharos bovel," the psalm recited before Birkat Ha-Mazon on weekdays. [It includes the famous lines "Im eshkachech Yerushalayim tishkach yemini."--"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill."]). These lines read:

בת־בבל השדודה אשרי שישלם־לך את־גמולך שגמלת לנו׃

אשרי שיאחז ונפץ את־עלליך אל־הסלע

...Alternately translated as:

"O violated daughter of Babylon -- praiseworthy is he who repays you in accordance with the manner that you treated us. Praiseworthy is he who will clutch and dash your infants against the rock."

(Artscroll Ashkenaz siddur)

and

"O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that repayeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock."

(source)

Please tell me:

  • Who is the "violated/to-be-violated daughter of Babylon?" (I assume this is either a metaphor or a metonymy.)
  • What is happening to her and her child, and why do they deserve it?
  • Why should we feel holy and ennobled when reciting this before bentching? (or, perhaps more to the point:
  • Why was this psalm chosen to be sung before weekday bentching? Why is it reasonable?)
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    This verse also creeped me out a bit...I haven't seen anything "inside," but I believe that "בת בבל" = Bavel, where we were exiled...they did some pretty bad things to us, first... – MTL Apr 9 '15 at 20:35
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    The parallel language in the final two verses is a poetic means of expressing the barbarism of the Babylonians who actually seized small Jewish children and smashed them against boulders. By extension, this starkly illustrates the suffering of the Jews at that time. – Fred Jul 29 '15 at 0:11
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    @SAH Some alternative possibilities I could think of: 1. The Jews were saying this out of pain. When we recite it, we are recalling their agony rather than approving of the statement itself. 2. The Radak says that "happy shall be he" is a specific reference to Darius, who visited cruelty upon Babylon. This verse is not an endorsement of his act, but rather a further insult to Babylon that its destroyer would become great. – Fred Jul 30 '15 at 5:13
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    @SAH 3. The Targum indicates that it was the angel Gavriel, Tziyon's passionate guardian angel, who spoke these final verses. Gavriel is known as an avenging angel throughout rabbinic literature. Although it would be inappropriate for a person to wish such gratuitous cruelty upon children, Gavriel was in a position to wish for the good fortune of those who he knew would unleash such fury on the progeny of the destroyers of Tziyon. – Fred Jul 30 '15 at 5:14
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    @SAH 4. Although the wording seems deliberately graphic, it may be a symbolic reference to recompense for the enslavement and sale of the children of Jerusalem abroad. The actual meaning of the words may be that their children would also be scattered abroad (including to the places of the יֹשְׁבֵי סֶלַע). This would nicely complement Yo'el 4:6-8, and it would also explain the choice of the ambiguous אֶל־הַסָּלַע rather than עַל־הַסָּלַע. – Fred Jul 30 '15 at 5:14
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Okay, I do not have any Talmud or later sources, but my gut impression upon reading the Psalm is:

This Psalm was written by captive Judeans, quite possibly Temple singers, using the emotional energy of their situation to do something artistic, as has been done for a long long time before and since.

They did a classic, immortal job of it!

It PERFECTLY expresses the raw emotions of somebody that probably fought against the invader, and ended up getting marched across the desert and settled in a strange land. Just a perfect expression of homesickness and helplessness, and then on top of it all, they were asked to sing a song for their captor's entertainment?!? I hope they sang the last two verses for them over and over, and had the Babylonians dancing to them!

Through the Prophets or from just plain anguish, they are hoping that the Edomites and Babylonians get repaid for causing their misery. An expression of raw revenge, and a hope for Divine Justice.

I think that takes care of your first two bullet points. As for why we should feel holy when reciting it...good question. But--at this time of year we put ourselves in the shoes of the freed slaves leaving Egypt--If there was an equivalent ritual for the release and homecoming from Babylon, this Psalm would be a major part of it.

  • Thanks for this great answer. I'm still curious about my last bulletpoint--really, what I should have asked is why we are singing this every weekday before bentching, I love your answer, though! – SAH Apr 13 '15 at 19:50
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    Hi SAH! Glad I helped some! Other than the last two lines, it IS a great anthem-y sort of Psalm, the raw emotion of longing for the Homeland becoming universal over the ages...and a nice Bob Marley song. As for those last two lines--still don't know about the "holy and ennobled" part--Some other chosen readings have been adjusted a little bit, like not ending the reading of Malachi with the "lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction" and repeating the line before it, in order to not end the reading on a negative note. But not here--probably because the Enemy is the destruct-ee. – Gary Apr 13 '15 at 22:02
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    ....and go ahead, ask it! ask it! We can't be the only curious ones around here... – Gary Apr 13 '15 at 22:03
  • Thanks @Gary. Maybe I'm a hippie, but I have a problem with having something like this in the everyday liturgy. What about darchei shalom, and the importance of avoiding anger? Are we really supposed to be not affected by this brutal image? Etc – SAH Apr 14 '15 at 6:38

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