The mighty kings Og and Sihon — mentioned in Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:4, with more detail in chapter 3 — were defeated while the Israelites were still in the wilderness (Numbers/Bamidbar 20, 21). But Og and Sihon provide a direct connection to several prayers as well as to contemporary debate about what, more generally, is a “morally uplifting offering” in prayer.
The kings are also linked to midrashim on Genesis and Exodus, and, less directly, to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and an array of texts through the years. In fact, a brief exploration of Og and Sihon suggests that, as hypothesized about world population, any given Jewish text is no more than six degrees of separation from any other.
Og, Sihon and the Psalms
The kings appear, in very similar passages, in Psalm 135 and Psalm 136 (Psalms 135:10-12 and 136:18-22).
Psalm 136:6 is the source of the blessing, “…who stretches the earth over the waters.” (E.g., Mishkan T’filah, p.38).
Psalm 136:25 — “who gives bread to all flesh” — appears in the first paragraph of the Birkat Hamazon [blessing after meals].
These two aspects of God — providing a foundation for us and giving food to all — have been the source of much discussion for millenia. For more on the “ground” blessing and an ancient exploration of just where we stand every morning, see also Morning Blessings). The “bread” blessing reappears below in the context of the morning service.
Og and Sihon in (and out) of the Sidddur
Psalm 136 is recited by many at the close of the seder, although it is not included in the 1974 Reform (Baskin) haggadah or the more recent volume, The Open Door (see Passover sources).
It is also a standard part of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Shabbat and festival morning services. Reform Mishkan T’filah* omits it entirely, while Kol Haneshamah, the Reconstructionist prayer book,* includes 13 of the 26 verses. (More on partial inclusion and exclusion of this psalm below.)
Siddur Eit Ratzon* includes all the verses as well as a line that reads “[L’…, …] — [To the One who…, …]” and the following suggestion for the prayer leader:
Alternatives. Opportunity may be provided to members of the congregation to add their own verses to this psalm, at the indicated location, beginning with the phrase “To the One who…”. After each added verse the congregation should respond with the refrain. (If Psalm 136 is chanted, a few worldless repetitions of the chant will make it easier for members to add their own verses.) — p.26
There are many tunes and chants for all or part of Psalm 136. The one identified here as “Calypso Nusach” works well for adding congregational expressions as suggested in Siddur Eit Ratzon. This chant, like others with frequent repetition, can be used to highlight the psalm’s progression from God’s kindnesses of the past to “to the loving-kindness we ask for now.” (See Ellen Frankel’s commentary below.) It also manages to include all 26 repetitions of “ki le’olam chasdo,” 26 corresponding to the numerical value of the four-letter name of God, YHVH.
Following Kol Haneshamah, “Calypso Nusach” omits verses 10-22. The song also omits verse 9 — “Et ha-yare’ach ve-chochavim le-memshelot ba-laylah” [“moon and stars to rule the night”] — which is notoriously difficult tune-wise.
Those less familiar with Psalm 136, or familiar with only half of it through Kol Haneshamah, may be singing along without reference to the death of the firstborn or the defeats of Pharaoh, Og and Sihon. Those more familiar with Psalm 136 may — deliberately or perhaps not quite consciously — add the missing verses. So, even when they’re not present on the siddur page, Og and Sihon bring questions about the place of particularism in our services as well as how to address violent images associated with God.
Some mornings I’m personally grateful not to have difficult text in front of me and/or might skim through the more violent, middle verses. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s more problematic to celebrate being set free without acknowledging the cost.
Rejoicing? Remembering? Demanding?
A commentary in Kol Haneshamah suggests that verse 23 — “who amid our lowliness remembered” — stands in for all of Israel’s “low” moments. These presumably include captivity in Egypt, being chased by Pharaoh and threatened by Sihon and Og. And recognizing that God “set us free from our enemies” (verse 24) is apparently sufficient without detail. Abridging Psalm 136 is intended to avoid the appearance of “rejoicing over the deaths of Israel’s enemies.” back
David Ellenson — who offers “How the Modern Prayer Book Evolved” commentary for the My People’s Prayer Book* series — explains in Volume 10: Shabbat Morning: Shacharit and Musaf that most Reform prayer books since 1819 have omitted Psalm 136. He attributes this, in large part, to a desire for brevity. But he also notes issues of content, offering a rewrite of the Reconsructionist commentary cited above. His oddly garbled version removes the sentence, “It is crucial that we remember who and where we have been, lest we forget the values that shaped us,” as well as reference to verse 23: “…who amid our lowliness remembered.”
Compilers of Reform prayer books, Ellenson concludes, “were looking for psalms that were spiritually and morally uplifting, and in that regard, Psalm 136, no matter how well-known, came up short.” (p.32, My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 10. This commentary, and others referenced here, can be found via Google Books.)
What Manner of Mercy is This?
Frankel — (“a Woman’s Voice”) in My People’s Prayer Book — describes the “hypnotic” repetition of the “kindness” refrain in Psalm 136:
As we chant the hypnotic refrain, “ki l’olam chasdo” (“His love is everlasting”), however, we feel anything but mercy emanating from God’s “outstretched arm.” For although the world began with wondrous gifts — a stable material universe illumined by the sun, moon and stars — Israel’s beginning as a nation, freed from Egyptian servitude and reassigned to God’s service, is marked by violence and destruction: Egypt’s first-born are killed, Pharaoh’s army drowned, great kings cut down, all in order for Israel to receive its nachalah, its heritage. What manner of mercy is this?
— Frankel, p.32
Frankel points out that verse 23, portraying God as the one who “‘remembered us when we were low [b’shiflenu],’ literally, in a state of depression,” represents an “abrupt shift” away from the narrative (including Og and Sihon). The focus in the final four verses, she says, is on an “intimate, mindful God [who] takes notice of our moods, shows sensitivity to our hunger and thirst, and responds to our call for mercy.”
…As we repeat the refrain, “His love is everlasting,” we move in our imagination from the love shown Israel in the past — at the dawn of the world, at the dawn of the nation — to the loving-kindness we ask for now, when we feel vulnerable, or when we hunger for faith and sustenance.
— Frankel, p.33
Hungering and Psalm 136
In addition to offering at least ten different perspectives on every prayer — which is useful in itself — the siddur-study series, My People’s Prayer Book , frequently offers striking juxtapositions that suggest additional insights. One such example is found in the discussion of Psalm 136 as part of the morning service. Frankel’s remarks (above, as well as Ellenson’s) are juxtaposed with Daniel Landes’ comments on halachah and prayer.
Psalm 136 precedes formal prayer (Shema, Amidah, etc.), Landes explains, because the congregation, having not eaten — halachically, morning prayers precede a meal — is unprepared to recite “who gives food to all creatures” (literally: “bread to all flesh,” 136:25). In the Talmud, this psalm is prescribed for times when bellies would be full, and it was later placed in the “warm-up” service for Shabbat and festivals for a related reason:
Were Hallel Hagadol [the Great Hallel] to be recited during a technically ‘real’ prayer section, it would necessitate ‘the physically satiated soul,’ as when it is said for the coming of rain [following drought] and, for that matter, when it is added to the Passover Seder after the meal.
— Landes, p.37
So perhaps the placement of Psalm 136 in psukei d’zimra [“verses of song,” AKA prayer “warm-up”] reflects more than one kind of hunger: the physical hunger Landes cites, preventing us from “really” praying Psalm 136, and the “hunger for faith and sustenance” Frankel cites as the driving force of the psalm’s repetition.
* Full citations and more information in Source Materials.
Psalm 136 begins with God making the heavens and closes with God giving “bread to all flesh.” Intermediate verses praise God for a variety of wondrous deeds, among them smiting the first born, casting Pharaoh and his army into the sea, leading Israel through the wilderness, giving the Land to Israel “as an inheritance” and slaying “the mighty kings.” Sihon and Og are explicitly named. (The kings appear in a similar context in Psalm 135.) The refrain “ki le’olam chasdo” [“God’s love is everlasting” or “God’s steadfast love is eternal”] is repeated 26 times in response to the litany of God’s deeds. Full text for Psalm 136
Psalm 136 (or, some sources say, psalms 135 and 136 together) is known as Hallel Hagadol [“the Great Hallel” ].This distinguishes it from “the Egyptian Hallel,” Psalms 113-118, recited on festivals and Rosh Chodesh. The Egyptian Hallel does not include Sihon or Og but presents similar themes of praise. Like Psalm 136, Psalm 118 (as well as 106 and 107) incorporates the refrain “ki le’olam chasdo.”
More on Psalm 136. back
The video labeled “Calypso Nusach” was recorded by Bnai Or Reconstructionist Congregation of Pueblo, CO, and posted on YouTube by a student of Hebrew. I don’t know who first had the idea of singing Psalm 136 to the tune of “The Banana Boat Song” — “…Work all night on a drink a rum. Daylight come and me wanna go home….Come Mister tally-man, tally me banana….highly deadly black tarantula…” — but I first heard that tune used at Fabrangen in Washington, DC.
For fun and edification, check out this performance, which Belafonte says was his first rendition of the song on TV. (Muppet-Wiki says the “Muppet Show” footage was produced in November 1978). back
An antiphonal psalm such as this one, which alternates individual verses with a single refrain chanted by all, helps to create a worshipping community. This psalm builds community around the group’s awareness of God as creator of the world, and God as redeemer of Israel. In this abridged version of the psalm, verses 10-22 have been omitted. These verses narrate the killing of the Egyptian firstborn….and Israel’s inheritance (by conquest) of the land of Canaan. While contemporary religious sensibilities preclude our rejoicing over the deaths of Israel’s enemies, we nonetheless refer to the broad variety of redeeming acts in the phrase, “who amid our lowliness remembered” [136:23]. It is crucial that we remember who and where we have been, lest we forget the values that shaped us. — H.L. [Herbert Levine]
—Kol Haneshamah, p. 200
DAVID ELLENSON COMMENTARY
A suggestion as to how Psalm 136 proved lacking as a morally uplifting offering may be found in the explanation that the 1996 Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah provides. Its commentary there explains:
[While] an abridged version of [the Psalm 136 is included because the psalm praises God for a] broad variety of redeeming acts, verses 10-22 have been omitted. These verses narrate the killing of the Egyptian firstborn and Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the death of Pharaoh’s army, the victorious battles in the wilderness against foreign people, and Israel’s inheritance (by conquest) of the land of Canaan. [All these passages are problematic to] contemporary religious sensibilities [that] preclude our rejoicing over the deaths of Israel’s enemies.