R’ Yaaqov Emden (“Yaavetz”) remarks that it is appropriate for a woman in the throes of labor to recite Psalm 20, which is also part of the daily morning liturgy.
Does it thematically fit?
Thematically, Psalm 20 seems far removed from birth stools and midwives. Its theme is a military one, for soldiers going to battle against a powerful, well equipped enemy.
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will make mention of the name of LORD-ETERNAL our God. They are bowed down and fallen; but we are risen, and stand upright. (verses 8-9)
Is this custom preserving some vague memory of women becoming particularly aggressive during labor, of all times? Did ancient women pray to turn into fiery warmongering Amazons, thinking that those heroines don’t fear birthing pangs? Or is this psalm about the various implements used to make women most comfortable during the painful birthing pangs? Some modern women prefer giving birth in a bath or on a Roma Wheel, rather than in a bed or birthing stool. Did our ancient Israelite ancestresses prefer reclining on a horse or a wagon?
By the same token, we may ask why this psalm was incorporated into the daily liturgy of sedentary farmers and merchants. Is this not a prayer for officers and soldiers?
What’s the Connection?
R’ Ya’aqov Emden’s recommendation, that this psalm be recited by/for a woman in labor, is made parenthetically. In the main, he is trying to explain why this psalm was incorporated in the weekday morning liturgy altogether, whereupon he paraphrases a Midrash Tehillim, as did R’ David Avudraham and Eliya Rabbah (Or ha’Hayim 132-3:1) before him. That Midrash (20:2), explaining the verse “May LORD-ETERNAL answer thee in the day of trouble; the name of the G”d of Jacob set thee up on high,” states:
|Said R’ Yehoshu’a haKohen: There are nine verses in this psalm, corresponding to the nine months of pregnancy. And what do they say? May the One who answers the call of the laboring mother answer you, too.||
אמר ר’ יהושע הכהן תשעה פסוקים יש במזמור הזה, כנגד תשעה חדשים שהאשה מעברת הולד, ומה הן אומרין. מאן דענא לחייתא על מתברא, הוא יעני יתכון.
The Psalm, analyzed
Psalm 20 is introduced with a superscription (a “title” verse): לַמְנַצֵּחַ מִזְמֹור לְדָוִד, translated by JPS as “For the Leader. A Psalm of David.”
What does that superscription tell us?
Often, superscriptions attribute authorship to someone, such as תהלה לדוד, “A Psalm of David,” the superscription to Psalm 145. However, Psalm 72 seemingly beings with a similar attribution, לשלמה, which would translate into “a psalm by Solomon.” However, that attribution is doubtful, as the psalm ends with the postscript כָּלּוּ תְפִלֹּות דָּוִ֗ד בֶּן־יִשָׁי – “This completes the prayers of David the son of Jesse,” implicitly including the entire psalm into the corpus of Davidic prayers. Hence, some commentators explain the superscription of that psalm as a dedication; לשלמה thus translates into “about Solomon” or “[a psalm dedicated] to Solomon.”
If matters weren’t complicated enough, our psalm has two attributions: “To/for/by the leader” and “to/for/by David.” How should we understand that?
The continuation of the above cited Midrash Tehillim provides the clue:
|Said R’ Shim’on the son of Aba: You find that there are eighteen psalms from the beginning of Psalms before this psalm (#20), as Psalms 1 and 2 are considered a single psalm. [These eighteen psalms] correspond to the eighteen benedictions that are recited [thrice] daily. And they say to him: “May your prayers be answered.” So, too, after eighteen psalms, they said to David: “May LORD-ETERNAL answer thee in thy day of distress.”And if you will ask that there are nineteen [psalms], answer that the weekday ‘Amidah has nineteen blessings, too, once you include “who makes the pride of salvation blossom.”*||
אמר ר’ שמעון בר אבא את מוצא שמונה עשרה מזמורים מראש תילים עד מזמור זה, ואשרי ולמה רגשו חד הוא, כנגד שמונה עשר ברכות שאדם מתפלל בכל יום, והן אומרים לו תתעני צלותך, כך אחר שמונה עשרה מזמורים אמרו לו לדוד יענך ה’ ביום צרה.
|*: This Midrash obviously represents the Mediaeval Eretzisraeli rite, where for several centuries, the 14th and 15th blessings of the ‘Amidah were combined into one, to maintain a total count of eighteen blessings despite the inclusion of the 12th benediction, against sectarians and slanderers. This last comment comes from the time when the Amidah crystallized in its present form, with a total of nineteen benedictions.|
According to R’ Shim’on the son of Aba, Psalm 20 was said by some third party, to David, in a manner analogous to what one says to a fellow worshipper after the conclusion of the ‘Amidah.
Did you ever recite Psalm 20 at a time of distress, perhaps when clouds of war were appearing over Israel? I surely did. Well, perhaps we need to revisit this practice, because, as is implied in the Midrash, Psalm 20 is does not address G”d, it merely mentions His Name. In fact, Psalm 20 is not a prayer at all!
The Midrash is telling us that psalm 20 is not a prayer, it is a blessing, from one person to another, more precisely, from the “leader,” to King David, as the latter set out to war. Perhaps the “leader” was a kind of chief army chaplain, perhaps the kohen meshua’h mil’hama, the associate High Priest charged with ministering to the troops. Consequently, the superscription should be translated as: “From the Leader, to David.”
According to R’ Shim’on son of Laqish, quoted a little later in the same Midrash (20:4), the psalm was actually by King David, but he, too agrees it is a blessing and not a prayer. According to him, it is David’s blessing to the Israelites as they went out to war.
A Reverse Analogy
This is all fine an dandy, but what custom is R’ Shim’on referring to? When do we wish one another anything in particular after reciting the ‘Amidah?
Avudraham, Eliyah Rabbah and R’ Ya’aqov Emden seem to understand that the Midrash was explaining the liturgical use of Psalm 20. Since it is not a prayer, what is it doing in the weekday morning prayer service? Well, it is a blessing to our fellow worshippers, upon the completion of the ‘Amidah and the Ta’hanun-petitions, that our prayers will indeed be answered on High.
Since worshipper, then like today, were probably more knowledgeable about liturgical customs than about the literary structure of any psalm, the Midrash used a reverse analogy. We recite Psalm 20 as a blessing to one another, which is really what the “leader” was doing in that psalm in the first place: blessing King David. That this happens in the 20th psalm, after – depending on how we count – eighteen on nineteen preceding psalms, makes it all the more appropriate for inclusion after the recitation of eighteen or nineteen benedictions.
Pregancy and Childbirth Revisited
If Psalm 20 is not a prayer, why suggest its recitation for women in difficult labor?
This is just one of several analogies the Midrash uses to explain that Psalm 20 is a blessing, not a prayer, and to explain the phrase “May LORD-ETERNAL answer thee in thy day of distress.” It would seem that the Midrash marshals these analogies to give the beneficiary of the blessing the confidence that the blessing, and thus his personal prayers, will indeed be answered, for G”d has answered many others’ prayers.
There is no claim that this psalm is about or particularly appropriate for childbirth, rather, childbirth here is a kind of metaphor or archetype of a situation where G”d listens attentively to our prayers. That prayers and distress surrounding labor are used as a metaphor is further reinforced when R’ Shim’on the son of Laqish elaborates upon the same theme (ibid. 20:4) and quite explicitly states:
|This is analogous to a pregnant woman in difficult labor, to whom they say: “we do not know what to tell you, but may He who answered your mother’s prayers in her time of distress answer your prayers, too.||
משל לאשה עוברה שהיא מקשה לילד, ואומרים לה לית אנן יודעין מה נאמר לך, אלא מאן דעני לאמך בעידן קושייתה, הוא יעני יתך בעידן קשיותך
R’ Ya’aqov Emden’s parenthetic assertion, that the recitation of this psalm is particularly appropriate during labor, thus becomes questionable.
However, a more precise read of R’ Ya’aqov Emden’s remark allows for the possibility that he didn’t at all mean to say that the expectant woman should recite it, but rather, that others should utilize this psalm to bless her, that her prayers be answered. as he writes:
|it is propituitous to say it to a woman in labor [emphasis mine–af]||
הוא מסוגל לאומרו לאשה היושבת על המשבר
It should be noted that the theme of labor and childbirth also appears in a third context in the Midrash (20:1), as an analogy to G”d’s feelings, as it were, to the exiled People of Israel.
An Additional Theme of Ps.20
It has previously been noted that the Book of Psalms intentionally hides or obscures the exact setting of most psalms, apparently in order to make them polyvalent. Even though they were originally authored on a particular occasion, they should be neutral enough to be recited by other people, in their respective situations, when they are moved to prayer. This exercise continues in the Midrash, which often relativizes the setting of psalms when it is given, and reapplies the psalms to new situations.
The Midrash Tehillim (20:4) applies the setting of our particular psalm to other times of distress, unconnected to the Davidic military campaigns. Most poignantly, it finds in the wartime setting of the psalm a depiction of the “birth pangs of the Mashia’h”, the increasingly difficult conditions in Exile prior to the advent of the Messiah. Thus, its inclusion in the daily liturgy may also be interpreted as a blessing to our fellow worshippers, that they may survive the initial turmoil and witness the Final Redemption.
Remember, the next time you reach Psalm 20 in the morning liturgy (which will be after ‘Hanukkah, during which Ps.20 is omitted), think of all your fellow worshippers you are blessing, and be blessed by them, too.