Monday, August 14, 2023

Different melodies for "Hinay Mah Tov" Psalm 133


Psalm 133 is a poem we all know, because of its musical variations and because of its profoundly hopeful message:  "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." "Heenay mah tov u'mah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad."

Here are a number of versions of this verse, spanning across time and around the Jewish world. And if that's not enough, here are some more, from the Zmirot database, and here are dozens of Christian versions of Psalm 133, and you'll find below a classical version, Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and this one is from a children's choir from of all places, Fairfield County.

One of my favorites, from the Hasidic Song Fesitval. Hinay Mah Tov begins at about 37:10 in. Notice that back then, Hasidic music was sung by women and not all the men wore kippot. It was religious music that was embraced by all the people. 


Above: Hinei Ma Tov " (See how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together) Psalm 133 Composed and sung by the Abayudaya Jewish Community of Uganda Recorded and Compiled by Jeffrey A. Summit from the Smithsonian Folkways Recording CD “Abayudaya: Music From the Jewish People of Uganda” Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2003.

Entering the Psalm

By Andrew David, PhD

Psalm 133 is an exquisite gem of biblical poetry. Its two central images—fine oil running down Aaron’s beard and dew falling on Mount Hermon—are sensuous and even hyperbolic, when we consider that the dew running from Hermon to Zion must travel hundreds of kilometers. The sensuousness of the psalm is highlighted by the language it shares with the Song of Songs. In both poems we find hinnēh (“look!”), ṭôb (“good”), nā‘îm (“pleasant”), ṭal (“dew”), šemen (“oil”), and Hermon.

In addition to these striking images, the poetic quality of Psalm 133 is apparent in its tightly constructed word chains and phonetic echoes. The adjective ṭôb (“good”) describes both the cohabitation and the oil, and the verb yōrēd (“running down…comes down…falls upon”) occurs three times within vv 2-3a. Each instance of the latter occurs as a non-finite participle in the middle of a couplet, effectively creating within the poem the very flow they describe. The repetition also unifies the images of oil and dew. Other lexical and phonetic repetitions include the prepositions  (“like”) on oil and dew and ‘al (“on”) on head, collar, and mountains. Finally, we note the –ôn ending of Aaron, Hermon, and Zion, which links the psalm’s three proper names.

As one of the songs of ascent (Ps 120-134), Psalm 133 was probably recited on the way to the Jerusalem Temple or upon arrival at it. Although the temple is not mentioned in the psalm, it is implied in the mention of Zion and the reference to Aaron, the founder of the Jerusalem priesthood whose consecration involved Moses pouring oil on his head (Lev 8:12). The genre of Psalm 133 reveals a correspondence between its imagery and its ancient singers. Like the dew that runs from the Israel’s northern limit to Zion, so also families stream from across the region to God’s house in Jerusalem.

While much of this psalm’s excellence lies in its aesthetic beauty, we should not overlook the ethical thrust that frames it. The first line emphasizes the importance of solidarity among brothers and sisters, even (or especially) in times of division. The references to Hermon in the north and Zion in the south are subtle reminders of Israel’s divided kingdoms and God’s desire for them to recognize their kinship and religious heritage. This solidarity and its accompanying abundance are none other than blessing proclaimed in the last line of the psalm. The blessing that awaits in Zion is anticipated in the kinship and bounty we enjoy along the way.

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