Shir – as in ‘shin’
‘a’s – as in ‘Mamma’
Lot – ‘o’ as in ‘door’
Ma’a lot = ascent(s), from the same root as the word ‘aliyah’ = emigration to Israel, lit. to ascend, to go up to.
This Song from the Psalms and its application in Jewish religious custom, provides wonderful confirmation of the Return from Exile
Shir HaMa’alot is the introductory song for Grace After Meals (Birkat HaMazon) on Shabbat and Festivals and is from Tehillim (Psalms) 126:1-6, 145:21, 115:18, 118:1, and 106:2. These Meals are regarded as Festive Meals, commemorating the Sabbath and Festivals with all that they metaphorically imply and prefigure.
Shir HaMa’alot is also used for the meals celebrating Marriages and circumcision ceremonies. These celebrations, like the Shabbat and Feasts, all foreshadow the Redemption from Exile and the Covenantal relationship with HaShem in His Kingdom. The Song carries a special Message of inspiration for Returnees:
Psalm 126 – A Song of Ascents
“When HaShem will return the Captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song. Then they will declare among the nations, ‘HaShem has done greatly with these.’ HaShem has done greatly with us; we were gladdened, O HaShem – return our captivity like springs in the desert. Those who tearfully sow, will reap in glad song. He who bears the measure of seeds, walk along weeping, but will return in exultation, a bearer of his sheaves.”
* ‘Return the Captivity’ = return from exile
On weekdays, Jewish Grace after Meals starts with Ps 137 “By the Rivers of Babylon”, bewailing the Exile, the destruction of the Temple and the Longing for Return (Redemption).
For the 6 working days of the week, we bewail the Exile and express our longing for the Return to the Land and Jerusalem. On the Sabbath, it is improper to intrude upon the Joy with memories of tragedy. Through Shir HaMa’alot we therefore rejoice in what is to come in the Times of Return and the Restoration of Zion – when we will be returning to Jerusalem as if in a dream, filled with laughter and singing.
There are 15 Pilgrimage Psalms (120-134) named “Songs of Ascents”.
The song Shir HaMa’alot is in fact one song in a series of fifteen Pilgrimage Psalms, all written by King David, and beginning with the words “Shir HaMa’alot”, or “song of ascents”. The song is typically identified as a song the Levites sung as they stood on the steps of the Temple. Some scholars believe that the pilgrims chanted it as they made aliyah to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot and Succot.
Shir HaMa’alot is undoubtedly a song of gratitude as it begins with the Exiles of Israel returning to Jerusalem as if in a dream, filled with laughter and singing. The opening line allows all guests at the Passover Seder to express our appreciation for G-d delivering us back into the land that he promised our forefathers so many years ago. The first part speaks of the miracles and wonders G-d has done for us, more specifically associating itself with the restoration of Zion.
The national anthem of Israel is Ha’Tikvah – The Hope. Shir HaMa’alot was one of the other considerations for the Zionist National Anthem, as sung by the famous chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt.
The Feasts of 7th month depict the Restoration of future United Kingdom of Israel, the Birth of the new world,
The climax of the Sukkot ritual was the ceremony of the Drawing of the Water. During this service the Levites chanted the fifteen Pilgrimage Psalms (120-134), each of which begins with the superscription “A Song of Ascents” (Shir HaMa’alot ). The “ascent” songs were also sung by the pilgrims when they ascended to Yerushalayim for the festival celebrations at the Temple.