A Mountain Called Zion…

“Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion…”

These messianic words startled me when the congregation was asked to recite this unfamiliar passage the other day:

The good in us will win…
Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion,
and that all of the sufferings will gather there and become song,
ringing out into every corner of the earth, from end to end,
and the nations will hear it,
and like the caravans in the desert will all to that morning throng.
— p. 241 Mishkan T’filah (“Hugh Nissenson, adapted“)

The Shabbat morning services I regularly attend ordinarily skip this passage. Moreover, our siddur study group has noted numerous Reform liturgy revisions to avoid messianic vision, and we had recently discussed early reformers’ aversion to “Zion” language. (See, e.g., David Ellenson’s commentary on p. 159 in My People’s Prayer Book, v.2, The Amidah.) So this very specific, if metaphorical, reference definitely caught me by surprise:

“…beat with certainty”? How rarely do our prayers insist that we, as a group, are certain of anything! And the thing we’re certain about is a future vision centered on a specific, dangerously contested, location?!

I like change of pace in the worship service, and I do not expect every word we read to be in concert with my own beliefs. I’m even in favor of an occasional jolt: better to be awake and a little disturbed than to sleep-walk through prayers. But this reading did prompt me to further consider the whole idea of “Zion” and what it means in prayer.

Biblical Zion: A Brief Sketch

According to my favorite on-line dictionary, “ציון [“Zion,” sometimes “Tzion”]” is currently used as a noun meaning “Zion, Israel; Jerusalem, the Holy Temple.” My concordance lists 2 Sam 5:7 — “But David captured the stronghold of Zion; it is now the City of David” — as the first use of “Zion” in the Tanakh.

Psalm 48 describes the place as delineated by towers, ramparts, citadels. In other psalms, “Zion,” or “Mt. Zion” [har zion], appears as the name of God’s specific dwelling place:

“I have installed My king on Zion, My holy mountain” (2:6)

Sing to YHVH who dwells in Zion;
declare His deeds among the people (9:12)

Mt. Zion where You dwell (74:2)

for the Lord has built Zion
He has appeared in all His glory (102:17)

Blessed be the Lord out of Zion,
who dwells at Jerusalem. Hallelujah. (135:21)

— and as the name of a People and its once and future home:

May it please You to make Zion prosper;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (51:20)
[cf. Torah service]

God will deliver Zion;
and rebuild the cities of Judah (69:36).

the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob (87:2)

Indeed, It shall be said of Zion
“Every man was born there” (87:5)

for the Lord has chosen Zion
desired it as His seat (132:13)

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down, yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps
For there they that led us captive
asked of us words of song, and our tormentors asked of us mirth:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land? (137:1-4)

The concept of “a redeemer com[ing] to Zion” appears in passages such as this one from second Isaiah:

And a redeemer will come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD.
וּבָא לְצִיּוֹן גּוֹאֵל, וּלְשָׁבֵי פֶשַׁע בְּיַעֲקֹב–נְאֻם, יְהוָה.
— Isaiah 59:20

Rabbinic Zion: An Even Briefer Note

The coming of a redeemer/messiah — followed by restoration of the House of David, ingathering of the Diaspora, and rebuilding of Jerusalem — eventually becomes Rabbinic dogma, i.e., “an event believed to be a future certainty.” (See, e.g., Max Kadushin, Worship and Ethics, p. 75.) This belief has been infused throughout Jewish prayer for millenia.

With the rise of political Zionism in the 19th Century, lines like “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion” — closing the Avodah/R’tzei blessing of the Amidah, e.g., in most prayer books — became problematic for the Reform movement. David Ellenson (“Modern Liturgies” commentary) reports that Reform prayer books long employed variants, avoiding mention of Zion, for this blessing.

Some prayer books, like Siddur Lev Chadash, retain variants today, while others have returned to the original lines. (Ellenson mentions Gates of Prayer; Mishkan T’filah has since followed suit.) This shift “reflects the warm embrace of present-day Reform has extended to Zionism,” according to Ellenson (p.159, My People’s Prayer Book, v.2, the Amidah).

Another commentary in the same volume, however, calls the prayer “more than a Zionist hope,” stressing, instead: “this prayer is a theological aspiration that God again find us fit to dwell among us.”

Metaphorical Zion: Questions/Suggestion

The prophets understood Israel’s exile as punishment for the people’s sins. A return to Zion, in this view, is at least partially about mending the people’s behavior. We are praying, Marcia Falk explains, that Israel behave “with reverence for all life” and “that divine immanence be sought out wherever we make our homes.”

When we pray for God’s return to Zion, then, are we bewailing our exile and distance from God? or reminding ourselves of the work to which we are called? Is Zion a physical spot? a state of mind? a reality we help create?

Are we partially responsible for ending up in Babylon? What is our role in getting back?

How does a Rastafari message, like “Forward Unto Zion” or “Zion Train,” differ from Jewish prayers for God’s return to Zion?

Consider — when you have a few minutes to explore — how Psalm 137:1-4 shifts across these musical versions:

Don McLean

Boney M (their important history in this song is sadly hard to document; tried several links over the years, but apparently Boney M does not want their material on social media and blocks them all)

the Melodians

Jimmy Cliff:

Where in each version is “Zion”?

Note: The citation for these words in Mishkan T’filah says “Hugh Nissenson, adapted.” I am not familiar with the novelist’s work, however, and cannot find a direct reference. Recent experience comparing an author’s original words with an adapted passage in a Reform prayer book suggest that changes may be substantial. If anyone knows the original source, please enlighten us.


The National Blog Posting Month [NaBloPoMo] theme for December is “more/less.” I am participating in December, more or less.


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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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