06 November 2020

‘A rehearsal within time,
for the age beyond time …
strife, evil and oppression’

The Stadttempel synagogue in Vienna … Franz Schubert produced a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92 for synagogue (Photograph courtesy Jews of New York)

Patrick Comerford

Following Monday night’s on the Stadttempel, the only surviving pre-war synagogue in Vienna, I have written about the synagogue and about Franz Schubert, who produced a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92, Tov Lehodot La’Adonai or Lecha Dodi (‘It is good to give thanks to the Lord’), for the synagogue on Seitenstettengasse in Vienna.

Schubert is the only great composer before the 20th century to compose a setting in Hebrew of the liturgy for the synagogue. But it is interesting to understand when he was commissioned to produce a setting of Psalm 92.

In the Authorised Prayer Book, one of two prayerbooks that I regularly use for prayers and reflections on Friday evenings, the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, describes Psalm 92 as ‘a song for the Sabbath Day.’

Lord Sacks recalls that by the 12th century, the custom existed to say Psalm 92 as a song of welcome to the Shabbat. He says this psalm was understood by the Sages as ‘a song for the time to come, for the day which will be Shabbat and rest in life everlasting.’

The Tzfat mystics, including Rabbi Isaac Luria, developed the custom of saying special psalms and songs of welcome to Shabbat, including six extra psalms (95-99 and 29), before singing Psalm 92.

Lord Sacks says Shabbat is ‘not merely a day of rest, it is a rehearsal within time, for the age beyond time when humanity, guided by the call of God, moves beyond strife, evil and oppression, to create a world of harmony, respecting the integrity of creation as God’s work, and the human person as God’s image.’

He continues: ‘At that time people looking back at history will see that though evil flourished “like grass”, it was short-lived, while the righteous grow slowly but stand tall “like the cedar of Lebanon.” Because our time perspective is short, we seem to inhabit a world n which evil prevails. Were we able to see history as a whole, we would know that good wins the final victory; in the long run justice prevails.’

Psalm 92 (NRSVA):

1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
3 to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
4 For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
5 How great are your works, O Lord!
Your thoughts are very deep!
6 The dullard cannot know,
the stupid cannot understand this:
7 though the wicked sprout like grass
and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction for ever,
8 but you, O Lord, are on high for ever.
9 For your enemies, O Lord,
for your enemies shall perish;
all evildoers shall be scattered.

10 But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox;
you have poured over me fresh oil.
11 My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies;
my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.

12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
15 showing that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Shabbat Shalom

‘The righteous … grow like a cedar in Lebanon’ (Psalm 92: 12) … a young girl with a violin and her friend beneath a cedar tree at Curraghchase Forest Park near Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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