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    Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants

    The following article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple first appeared in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 41, no. 2, April-June 2013.

    benching benchting birkat hamazon birkas hamazon magdil migdolTowards the end of the Grace after Meals (Birkat HaMazon), we find the verse, Magdil (or migdol) yeshu’ot malko v’oseh chessed lim’shicho l’David ul’zar’o ad olam – “He magnifies (or is a tower of) victory for His king and deals kindly with His anointed, with David and his descendants for ever”. The source text has two forms, one found in II Samuel 22 (the haftarah for the seventh day of Passover), and the other in Psalm 18, the one prescribed for that day according to the custom of the Vilna Gaon. There are several differences between the two versions, especially in verse 51, where Psalm 18 has the hif’il participle magdil (“magnifies”) and II Samuel 22 the noun migdol (“is a tower”).

    The Psalms version seems better linguistically, since magdil as a verb is paralleled by the verb oseh in the second half of the verse. Still, it is not unknown for God to be described as a tower, eg in Psalm 61:4 where He is called “a tower of strength”. The Masoretes note in II Samuel that although the keri (“read” version) of verse 51 has migdol, a noun, the ketiv (written version) has a verb, magdil. Both sets of consonants are the same, mem-gimel-dalet-lamed; but should the dalet and lamed be separated by a yod or by a vav? Note that by pronouncing the word as migdol the Masoretes treated the yod as a shortened vav.

    It is almost impossible to account for all the differences between these versions. One cannot rightly blame the variants on scribal carelessness, since there seems to be a degree of consistency between them in that many verbs in the Samuel version are in the past tense, whereas the future is more common in Psalms. If Samuel is the original text, it could have been a historical record that was later altered when the text was turned into a prayer. Samson Raphael Hirsch reflects the common Jewish position when he says: “This psalm was set down in II Samuel, chapter 22, as part of the story of David. David himself made some changes in it when it was finally turned over to the people as a kind of national hymn.”[1]

    In this way David turned II Samuel 22:51 from a historical report, God is (or was) my tower of support, to a prayer of hope that God may in future support the Davidic dynasty. In the Da’at Mikra edition of Psalms, Amos Chacham notes other evidence of material that was reworked to become a prayer for the future. For example, Psalm 18:2 introduces a statement about the future not found in Samuel, saying erchamecha (using an Aramaism for “love”): I will love You, 0 Lord, my support.

    Moshe Zvi Segal, in his commentary to the Kiryat Sefer edition of the Books of Samuel, makes a similar point: “David, who calls himself the Lord’s king or anointed one hopes or prays that the loving kindness of the Lord will never turn away from his house.” This reflects the natural ambition of a ruler to see his dynasty endure. It must be pointed out, however, that biblical Hebrew does not always have a clear distinction between tenses.[2]

    The liturgical practice is to assign magdil to the Grace after Meals on weekdays and migdol to Sabbaths and festivals. Baruch She’amar by Baruch Halevi Epstein, maintains that although people tended to use magdil (the Psalms version), prayer books had a marginal note, “bet-shin-bet: migdol,” i.e., “in II Samuel” (b’Shmu’el Bet — migdol), which, he claims, was misread owing to the use of the abbreviations as “b’Shabbat: migdol,” meaning on Sabbath (and festivals): migdol.”[3] Epstein argues that either version is acceptable and that there is no need to assign the alternatives to different occasions. He assumes that the custom he criticises may have emerged with the invention of printing (Hebrew printing began in the second half of the fifteenth century), when a printer misinterpreted the marginal reference to II Samuel (b’Shmu’el Bet) and turned it into a rubric: “on Sabbath (and festivals): migdol.” This appears to find support in the fact that the terms I and II Samuel were first used in the Bomberg Bible of 1516/17. In the Septuagint, these two works were called I and II Kingdoms, those we know as I and II Kings being called III and IV Kingdoms.

    However attractive the Epstein theory may be, the magdil/migdol dichotomy antedated printing, and the printers cannot be blamed (or praised) for it. David Abudarham, who lived in the fourteenth century, well before the age of printing, states in his work on the liturgy that the two versions of Grace after Meals were already known to his teachers (“kibbalti merabbotai”) and his (pre-letterpress) generation knew they should say migdol on Shabbat and magdil on weekdays.[4] In light of this historical evidence, we can hardly ascribe the two versions to a printer’s carelessness.

    Abudarham provides a rather far-fetched explanation that Shabbat is melech gadol (“the great king”) of the week (as against the weekdays, which are only melech katan, a small or lesser king), indicated by the stronger vowels of migdol. It is possible that Abudarham read migdol as a contraction of the words melech gadol. He also suggests that the Psalms verse was written first, before David became king, and the II Samuel verse written later, when he was at the peak of his majestic grandeur; hence, the latter possesses a greater status and is reserved for sacred days.

    A different homiletical approach is ascribed to Elijah Gaon of Vilna, who is thought to have seen in the Talmudic debate (TB Shabbat 115a-b) about rescuing books from a fire on the Sabbath a halachic dictum banning the study of the Ketuvim (the Hagiographa or “Writings”) on Shabbat. This is quoted in Siddur Tzelota D’Avraham as a justification for replacing the verse from Psalm 18 on Shabbat by the version from II Samuel.[5] But the Shirata DiTzelota of Ya’akov Werdiger comments that if there were a real objection to Ketuvim on Shabbat, it is difficult to explain how so much material from the Book of Psalms entered the Sabbath liturgy, e.g., in the early morning P’sukei D’Zimra, This objection is dealt with by Solomon of Chelm in his responsa, Lev Shlomo, where he distinguishes between P’sukei D’Zimra, a set part of the prayer service which cannot be changed, and Grace After Meals which can draw on one of two sources for the same verse.[6] One might also ask how the employment of a verse from Psalms can be regarded as a study exercise. Perhaps the disapproval of Ketuvim was really aimed at works like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and possibly Job, which were considered theologically debatable, but not against Psalms.

    Whatever the original reason for the practice, it may be an example of a tendency to allot two versions of a text to different occasions.[7] It would therefore be logical for one version to be kept for weekdays and the other allocated to the Sabbath.

    It is possible that the Psalms version was retained for more frequent use, namely weekdays, because of a theory the Ketuvim (at least the Psalms) predated the Nevi’im. The earlier version thus takes precedence over the latter one. Another example of this practice is the Additional (Musaf) service for Rosh HaShanah, where the sequence of proof texts in each of its three sections – Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot – is Torah-Ketuvim-Nevi’im-Torah as against the customary placing of Ketuvim after Nevi’im.

    Whatever the relative merits of the two texts, a wider question remains. Why do we need to conclude Birkat HaMazon with the magdil/migdol verse at all? This is based on the practice of ending major liturgical units (Amidah, Kaddish, Alenu, the Haggadah, etc.) with a reference to messianic redemption. As Grace draws to a close, a messianic theme[8] is inserted in the prayer: “May the Merciful One make us worthy of the days of the Messiah and the life of the World to Come.” This is followed by magdil/migdol and the universalistic Oseh Shalom: “He who makes peace in His high places, may He make peace for us and for all Israel” (based on Job 25:2). Shabbat, according to the Grace itself, is a foretaste of eternity, and the Tower of David (Song of Songs 4:4) represents the pride, power and dignity of messianic redemption. Midrash Tehillim (on Psalm 18:51) makes this point explicitly. “Can mighty tower be understood in any other way other than that the lord Messiah will become like a tower for them? Thus Scripture states, ‘The Name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous hastens to it and is set on high’ (Proverbs 18:10).”

    1. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Psalms, trans. Gertrude Hirschler (New York: Feldheim, 1978), p. 116.
    2. An early analysis of the “elasticity” – SR Driver’s word – of the verb structure is Driver’s famous 1881 work, Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew; King David’s erchamecha may therefore be no more than “I love You”.
    2. Baruch HaLevi Epstein, Baruch She’amar (1970), pp. 214-215.
    4. David Abudarham, Sefer Abudarham (Jerusalem: Even Yisra’el Publishing, 1994), vol. 2, p. 368.
    5. Abraham Landa, Tzelota D’Avraham, vol. 2, p. 555. See also Ya’akov Sh’muel Spiegel, “Kuntres Amar Eliyahu”, Yeshurun, vol. 6 (1999), pp. 759-762.
    6. Shlomo of Chelm, Lev Shlomo (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1972), siman 23, p. 134.
    7. Seligmann Baer, Siddur Avodat Yisra’el (Schocken edition, 5697), pp. 561-2.
    8. The tower (migdal) is often used as a messianic symbol; see Shubert Spero, “Towers of Spice, Towers of Salvation: An Inquiry into the Logic of Explanation,” Jewish Art, vol. 15 (1989).

    Other articles by Rabbi Apple in the Jewish Bible Quarterly:
    Rewarding a Mitzvah: The Etymology of Issachar
    Arami Oved Avi (Deut. 26:5): P’shat and D’rash
    Pillars of the Temple
    Psalms of the Day
    Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text (Book Review)
    Sinai upside-down: The theological message of a Midrash
    Matrilineality – letter to the editor of the JBQ
    The happy man of Psalm 1
    The two wise women of proverbs chapter 31

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