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By The Rivers of Babylon or On The Rivers of Babylon?

Psalm 137 reads, “Al naharot bavel, sham yashavnu gam bachinu, bezochreinu et Zion.”

That translates as,

“On the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and we also cried, in our remembering Zion.”

That begs the question – why did we sit when we remembered Zion? What difference would it have made if we stood or lay down? What does our position matter at all?

At a basic level, it’s possible that the meaning is similar to how we sit on the floor on the 9th of Av. (The 9th of Av is the fast where we remember the destruction of the Temple.) We didn’t sit “by” the rivers of Babylon, as the Psalm is often translated… but literally on them – on the river banks.

Not on chairs as during the remainder of the year when we’re in better moods. But on the ground as when we’re in mourning, so that we shouldn’t be comfortable. We were in exile in Babylon, and in mourning our lost country and spiritual status, we sat on the floor.

We didn’t just talk about mourning. We acted by making ourselves uncomfortable.

At a higher level, the verb to sit in Hebrew, lashevet, is of the same root as the word for a place of [Jewish] learning, a yeshiva. Literally, a yeshiva means “a sitting.”

When we remembered Zion, we thought of our former spiritual level and learned. There were great yeshivot (plural of yeshiva) in Babylon, and there they composed the Babylonian Talmud.

Posted in Judaism.


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