Oz Torah: Vengeance in Psalms – Ask the Rabbi


Question. The end of Psalm 137 (“Al Naharot Bavel”) says,

Blest is he who takes and shatters your infants against the rock”.

How can the Psalm say something so offensive and vengeful?

Answer.    Psalm 137 is a sad reflection of how bitter it was for the remnants of the Jewish people to be in Babylon and suffer under the harshness of the regime. Imagine how the enemy taunted them:

“Go on, sing one of your Jewish songs!”

What heartache is expressed in the verse,

“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

No wonder the people pledged to themselves and to God that they would never forget their Jewish identity, and they prayed that the Day of the Lord would overcome Babylon.

How many times over the last 2000 years did Jews echo this psalm…

What a tragedy it is that now that Jews can freely live a Jewish life in Israel, so many have got used to life in the Diaspora…

What a pity that it is resurgent antisemitism that is making European Jews interested in Aliyah….

The last verse of the Psalm is not a statement of religious dogma, but part of a poem, and no-one has to automatically applaud the poet’s phraseology.

It is one of several so-called psalms of vengeance, and in each case the idea is that those who commit wrongs will one day get a dose of their own medicine. Hence if the Babylonians were cruel to Jewish children, their own children will eventually suffer.

This may not be the noblest of sentiments, but it is the anguished cry of a people undergoing horrific suffering.

PSALM 137.

1. By Babylon’s rivers,
There we sat, we wept
When we thought of Zion.

2. Upon the willows in its midst
We hung up our harps –

3. For there our captors asked us for song,
Our tormentors wanted mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4. How can we sing the Lord’s song
In a strange land?

5. If I forget you, Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither;

6. Let my tongue stick to my palate
If I do not remember you,
If I do not place Jerusalem
Above my best joy.

7. Remember, O Lord,
Against the people of Edom
The day of Jerusalem;
Those who said, “Lay it bare,
Bare to its foundations!”

8. O city of Babylon,
Doomed for destruction –
Blest is he who treats you
As you have treated us.

9. Blest is he
Who takes and shatters your infants
Against the rock.


Question. Does anyone check a Torah scroll before it is sold?

Answer.    Assuredly yes. For some reason, Torah scrolls written these days seem more prone to error than was the case in prewar days.

It has been estimated that up to 80% of scrolls used to be completely correct after painstaking personal checking, but now about 30% are found to have one or more mistakes.

Since there are over 300,000 letters in a Torah, the most scrupulously careful scribe can still occasionally make a blunder, e.g. spelling “No’ach” with a chaf instead of a chet or writing a word twice.

Sephardi Sefer Torah. Pre - 1492
Sephardi Sefer Torah. Pre – 1492 at the synagogue in Hebron.

If there is even only one error the scroll may not be used until it is corrected, and there are times when a particular scroll has been in regular use for many years and no-one has detected the problem.

But now there is technology available that eases the scribe’s mind. Every column is computer-scanned for errors. Any error that is detected can then be carefully corrected by a sofer before the scroll is put into regular use. The same facility is also available for existing scrolls.

An example is a small Torah scroll that I brought back from Israel for a family in Australia; with the scroll came photocopies of its columns and a detailed report from an Israeli organisation that developed an expertise in this area.

It should be added that sometimes the problem with an old scroll is not spelling but fading or cracked writing, and generally this too can be fixed with a steady scribal hand and kosher ink.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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One comment

  1. Online Commenting Guy

    I would like to emphasize, Psalm 137 does not call upon Jews, or any specific human beings, to take revenge on the Babylonians. Rather, it calls out to G-d to create justice, and implies, as the Rabbi mentioned, that justice will indeed bring calamity upon the Babylonians quite as they had ruthlessly done to the Jews. It’s not pretty, but it’s a fair step up from human blood-vengeance.