Another short psalm for the Bible study group

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1 A song of ascents. From David. How good and pleasant it is for brothers to live together (in Hebrew: henai ma tov u’ma’naim shevet achim gam yachad).

2 It is like fine oil on the head that runs over the beard, Aaron’s beard, which runs down to the collar of his robe;

3 like the dew of Hermon that falls on the mountains of Zion. There the Lord commanded the blessing, eternal life.

Verse 1 is the most important verse in this glorious little psalm and may well be the most important verse in the Bible. So I will consider it last. Let’s start with verse 2 and its somewhat bewildering image of a greasy beard.

In biblical times, clean running water for bathing or drinking was scarce, but sweat, like now, was plentiful. With the sweat comes the smell of sweat and it was, as it is now, both uncomfortable and off-putting. The ancient world developed its own ways of combating body odor, and Psalm 133 reminds us of a deodorization technique. Oil mixed with fragrant spices was poured over the heads of wealthy men who could afford to waste their olive oil. There were no razors, so the oil was running down their faces and beards. Wealthy women had their own ways of dealing with body odor in a hot land without a bathtub. They mixed spices with honey and beeswax and tied the fragrant mixture in a bun in their hair. This honey cake would melt in the sun and send its sticky, gooey but fragrant mixture all over their faces. In fact, there were rock-cut tubs connected to water systems that collected rainwater in cisterns and brought water to wealthy towns and homes. King Hezekiah dug a tunnel into Jerusalem to bring rainwater into the city from the surrounding hills. You can still see ruins of Roman aqueducts in cities like Caesarea today. This ends my old personal hygiene story for the week!

The other meaning of oil involves the installation rituals of a king. The kings of Israel were anointed with oil to symbolize the blessings of God that flowed upon them. The Hebrew verb for anointing is mashach and from this we get the English word Messiah. The Messiah is the anointed of God because the Messiah was (for Christians) and will be (for Jews) the king of Israel and ultimately the king of a united world worshiping the one God.

Mount Hermon is the highest mountain in Zion and therefore the dew that condenses on the herbs and plants of Mount Hermon resembles the oil psalmist dripping from the beards of newly deodorized or newly ordained people.


Let us now turn to the famous verse 1 which is one of the most popular songs in the Jewish liturgy. When we sing henai ma tov in the synagogue, we stand up to bless the holy gathering of our people in prayer in the synagogue. However, in Biblical times there were no synagogues, no rabbis and no cantors, only temples where animals were sacrificed by priests – a lineage inherited from Jews from the tribe of Levi and the Aaron’s house. Cereal offerings were also brought with the firstfruits of the earth and offerings in celebration of the birth of a child.

What the psalmist visualizes is therefore not a synagogue service, it is a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which takes place three times a year during the feasts of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. Each of these festivals was called in Hebrew a witch. The haj which is the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca comes from the same root.

So imagine on one of these holiday pilgrimages thousands of pilgrims camping out in the hills around the great Temple in Jerusalem. Thousands of campfires, and the sound of songs and dances. All revenge forgotten. All tribal conflicts forgiven. Each family is part of a greater fire and greater holiness. Such a gathering, such a vision is described by the psalmist as being both “good” (tov) and pleasing to the senses (naim). This is good because the highest being deserves the highest praise, and it is nice because just for a brief shining moment, we are one. We are not divided. We are not at war. We see in our neighbor the source of our accomplishments, not the source of our limitations. Such a home for God is both a memory and a dream.

Let’s study:

When have you felt most connected to a large group of people? Can you feel connected to Zoom or do you need to sit close to each other and sing songs for God?

Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad by email at godsquadquestion@aol.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies”, co-authored with Fr. Tom Hartman.


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