by Rav Elchanan
48: "You have made them all in wisdom"
104 according to Meir Weiss (Part II)
The first half (sections 1-4)
the beginning of this study, we presented psalm 104 as divided into nine
sections. This division is primarily based on the differences in content between
the sections; sometimes, these substantive differences also express themselves
in linguistic distinctions. In this section, we will discuss the first four
sections of the psalm, which constitute its first half (vv.
first section (vv. 1-4)
(1) Bless the Lord, O my
O Lord, my God, You are very great.
You are clothed with splendor and majesty.
(2) He covers Himself with
light as a garment.
He spreads the heavens like a curtain.
(3) Who roofs His chambers
who makes the clouds His chariot,
who walks upon the wings of the wind.
(4) He makes His angels
His ministers flaming fire.
after the psalmist calls out to his soul, "Bless the Lord, O my soul," he moves
on to the blessing itself. He turns to God in second person and
Lord, my God, You are very great.
are clothed with splendor and majesty.
Weiss comments about this verse as follows:
their original sense, the words "splendor" and "majesty" – each one by itself
and the two together – are "accessories" of royalty. Accordingly, that which is
expressed in the first clause – that God is very great – is illustrated in the
second clause with a metaphor meaning that God is king. This designation, as we
all know, is one of the most common designations of God in
Why, then, is the term "king" not explicitly mentioned in the first
section, or, for that matter, anywhere in the entire psalm?
The answer seems to be that the relationship described in our psalm between God
and His world is not a relationship of "kingship" –of God's rule over His
creatures - but rather a relationship of constant paternal concern on the part
of the Creator with respect to His creations. In a certain sense, this
relationship is the very opposite of that which characterizes kingship. It is
not the subjects who serve their king, but rather it is God who worries about
the lives and welfare of His creatures.
Nevertheless, when the author of our psalm uses the words "You are very great"
and "You are clothed with splendor and majesty," he surely alludes to the fact
that God is king, as argued by Weiss.
Verse 1 is different than the three verses that follow it in the first
section. First, there is a striking difference in the form of the verbs:
"gadalta" and "lavashta" are in past tense, whereas the rest of
the verbs in this section, "ata," "nata,” "ha-mekareh,"
"ha-sam," "ha-mehalekh" and "asa," are all in
present tense. Second, in v.1 the psalmist turns to God in second person,
whereas in the following verses He refers to Him in third
This second difference is not unique to this section. Throughout the
psalm, there is a constant switching back and forth between addressing God in
second person and speaking about Him in third person. In one case, this
switching is done in the very same verse, between two parallel clauses.
We cannot offer a persuasive explanation for all these switches in person
in the psalm, and we will therefore disregard this phenomenon in our section as
first difference, however, requires explanation. What is the reason for the
change in tense from past to present?
When we examine the rest of the psalm, we find that God's actions in
establishing the world on its foundations at the time of its creation are
described in past tense: "He established the earth on its foundations… You set a
boundary… He made the moon for the seasons…." His continuous actions in
maintaining the world, on the other hand, are described in present or future
tense. The present and future terms are used precisely for this reason - to give
expression to a continuous or often-repeating action. Here are several examples:
"He sends the springs… He waters the mountains from His upper chambers… You put
down darkness… You give them."
Based on this, it seems that v.1 should be understood as follows: "O
Lord, my God," when You created Your world, "You were very great. You
were clothed with splendor and majesty." In other words: When You created Your
world, You became king.
In order to clarify the meaning concealed in this verse, let us cite the
words of the anonymous paytan who composed the famous piyyut,
is the eternal Lord who reigned
any being was created.
the time when all was made by His will,
was at once acknowledged as King!
While it is true that God was king even before any being was created, at
that time there was no one to serve Him and no way to give expression to His
kingship. When, however, God created His world, mankind was given the
opportunity to imagine God's kingship by attributing the various created beings
to Him. The psalmist will do this in the coming verses.
God created the light, we can imagine God as a king whose garment – His royal
garment that covers Him – is light; after He created the heavens, we can imagine
God as one who spreads the heavens like a tent so that he can sit inside; after
God set the heaven as a barrier between the upper waters and the lower waters,
we can imagine God as a king who roofs His chambers with water. The rest of the
created beings, those that were not explicitly mentioned in the account of the
creation on the first and second days - the clouds, the winds, fire – help us
imagine God as a king, these being His attendants.
turns out, then, that v.1 relates to the meaning of the initial act of creation
- through which God became king – and it is therefore formulated in past tense.
The verses that follow teach how the first created beings – light, heaven, and
that which is connected to them
- those things that continue to exist from the time of creation and until today,
serve man as means of imagining God's kingdom through them. Therefore, the verbs
associated with these created beings appear in present tense, denoting: always,
us summarize the significance of the first section with the words of
descriptions of God in verses 2-4 spell out and illustrate the general blessing:
"O Lord, my God, You are very great. You are clothed with splendor
and majesty" (v.1), not through the act of creation, but through the
presentation of the act of creation as His tool. And it is appropriate for the
incorporeal One that His tools be fashioned out of non-solid and non-material
elements, elements that are ethereal: light, heaven, water, clouds, wind and
As stated at the end of the previous section, the primary interest of our
psalm lies in the description of the world as we know it at this time and as in
need of God's management at all times. For this purpose, the author of our psalm
sometimes makes use of the creation account in the book of Bereishit, for
the maintenance of the world in the present is conditioned on the arrangements
established when it was first created. Does the first section also serve this
purpose? It would seem that this section deals with a portrayal of God's kingdom
by way of the first creations - light and heaven; its interest is not in our
mundane world – the home of man, the animals and the plants – but rather in
heaven, the seat of God. The role of this section seems to be to praise God for
His greatness as king, and this is an introduction to the rest of the
When, however, we reach the fourth section, we will see that this is not
true. This section, whose connection to the act of creation is so clear, is also
needed in order to understand the arrangements operating in our world at this
Section 2 (vv. 5-9) – the foundation of the earth and the
He established the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never collapse.
(6) You covered it with
great waters with a garment.
The waters stood above the mountains.
(7) At Your rebuke they
At the sound of Your thunder they hastened away.
(8) They went up the
mountains, they went down the valleys,
to the place that You prepared for them.
(9) You set a boundary that
they could not pass over,
that they would not return to cover the earth.
Weiss explains his considerations for defining verses 5-9 as a separate
section as follows:
5 begins a new section that ends with verse 9. This is attested to by the past
tense used at the beginning of the verse, "He established" (yasad), as
opposed to the present tense of the previous verbs, on the one hand, and
starting with verse 10, on the other. This is also attested to by the contents
of the section beginning with verse 5. Nothing more is related here about the
heavens above, but only about the earth below.
This section describes what happened on the third day of
God said, “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together to one place,
and let the dry land appear;” and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth;
and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. (Bereishit
The situation that preceded the creation of the dry land was described
earlier, in Bereishit 1:2:
the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.
And a wind from God moved over the surface of the waters.
In our psalm, this situation is described in verse
covered it with great waters with a garment.
waters stood above the mountains.
Weiss raises a difficulty concerning this section:
topic of the section under discussion is the foundation of the earth, as is
stated in the first clause of verse 5. The other verses in this section (vv.
6-9) also come to describe how the earth was founded. The gathering together of
the water is merely a means for revealing the earth… Now Scripture speaks at
length about the gathering together of the water to the point that it describes
in detail the water's hasty fleeing, and even its going up and going down. At
the same time, however, it makes no mention whatsoever of the appearance of the
land itself, which is the main topic of the section.
This disproportion in the structure of the section is dictated by
reality. The foundation of the earth is indeed a necessary consequence of God's
occupation with the water that covered the earth. The objective of this
occupation with the water was, of course, the appearance of the earth, and
therefore the framework of this section is "the earth." At the beginning of the
section, we read that "He established the earth on its foundations," and
at its conclusion, "that they would not return to cover the earth."
However, between the first time and the last time that the earth is mentioned,
the section deals with the water: how the water covered the earth, before God's
action; how the water responded to God's rebuke; and how God set a boundary that
the water would no longer pass.
It should, therefore, be added that the removal of the water from the
earth is not merely a negative action with respect to the water, the objective
of which is the appearance of the earth. Rather, it is also connected to the new
and positive situation created with respect to the water. This finds expression
both in the Torah's account in Bereishit and in this section of our
psalm. The Torah states: "Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together
to one place… and the gathering together of the waters He called
Seas." In other words, it was not only the Earth that was created on the
third day; the seas were also created on that day. In the continuation of the
creation account, in the description of the fifth day of creation, the water is
turned into a place that is filled with life just like the earth, "And God said,
Let the waters swarm abundantly with moving creatures that have life…," and the
creatures living in the water are also blessed: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and
fill the waters in the seas" (v. 20-22).
In the section of our psalm, this finds expression in the fact that the
root "yod-samekh-dalet" appears twice in this section, once at the
beginning - "He established ("yasad") the earth…" - and a second time
near the end - "to the place that You prepared ("yasadta") for them.
Hence, the action described in verses 8-9 has a twofold meaning - the foundation
of the earth and the foundation of the seas.
The continuation of the psalm, sections 3-5, describe the maintenance of
the earth, but even in our psalm, one section is dedicated to life in the sea –
According to Weiss, a comparison between the description of the
foundation of the earth in our psalm and that in Bereishit reveals a
the account in Bereishit, there is no mention of any action on the part
of the water; the water is absolutely passive. God said, "and it was so." In the
account in our psalm, the water is exceedingly active.
Bereishit, God speaks; in our psalm He rebukes and
is our psalm's intention?… For what purpose does the author of our psalm
describe the gathering together of the water in this fashion?… Why does he speak
about God's rebuke and thunderous voice, about expressions of anger, and about
the water's hasty fleeing and anxious reaction, rather than speak about the
expression of absolute superiority, about a quiet and festive command, and about
passive and mechanical obedience?
Weiss will only answer these questions when he reaches the final section
of our psalm, and we, too, shall follow in his footsteps.
Let us conclude our discussion of this section with a question that is
similar to the question raised at the end of the previous section. Is the
description of the foundation of the earth and the sea at the time of creation
necessary in order to describe the world in which the psalmist finds himself and
which he comes to describe? Our psalmist doesn't describe the creation of the
plant world, the animal kingdom, or man!
This question is not difficult. The maintenance of life on the earth,
which is described in most of the rest of the psalm, and of life in the sea,
which is described in section 7 of the psalm, is conditioned upon the primal
differentiation that God made between the land and the water when He founded the
earth and the seas!
already in the next section, section 3, we will be given another, more precise
Section 3 (vv. 10-12) – "He sends the springs into the
(10) He sends the springs into the
They go between the mountains.
(11) They water every beast of the
The wild asses quench their thirst.
(12) Beside them dwell the birds of the
From among the branches they give voice.
section seems to move to a new topic. It does not deal with a one-time action
that God performed in the past, but rather with one of His constant actions –
sending spring water into the streams. This shift finds expression in the tenses
of the verbs. At the end of the previous section, it said: "You set a
boundary that they could not pass over," in past tense, whereas our section
opens with: "He sends the springs into the streams" – in the present
Nevertheless, already upon a superficial reading we see a connection
between the two sections. The action described in this section is the opposite
of that performed by God in the previous section. There, God removed the water
from the land, thus allowing for life on the land, whereas here God restores the
water to the land in order to allow for the maintenance of that life. It is
precisely such a contrast that teaches us about the relationship between the two
points to an even more precise oppositional relationship between the two
understand the clause, "He sends (ha-meshale'ach) the springs
(ma'ayanim) into the streams," attention should be paid to the original
meaning of the verb "shin-lamed-chet" in the pi'el conjugation,
which is the opposite of holding onto something by force: setting free one who
had been restrained up until now, liberation (Bereishit 8:7; 31:42;
32:27; Shemot 5:1; I Shemuel 20:5; and elsewhere). Attention
should also be paid to the precise meaning of the word "ma'ayan." The
term "ma'ayan" refers to waters of "the deep," of the primordial ocean to
which a boundary had been set (Bereishit 49:25; Devarim 33:13).
Thus, the verse, "He sends the springs into the streams," means that God sets
free the waters of the depths to which He had set a boundary that would not be
passed over when He had founded the earth, and He allows them to appear in the
streams. If originally "the waters stood above ("al") the
mountains," now "they go between ("bein") the mountains." And all
this so that "they water every beast of the field. The wild asses quench their
thirst" (v. 11). They (who are mentioned here because animals "accustomed to the
wilderness do not enter a settled area" – Radak) break their thirst at the
springs. "Beside them" (v. 12), beside the springs (Rashi, Ibn Ezra), "dwell the
birds of the sky," and they "from among the branches" (Daniel 4:9, 11,
18) "give voice." In this way, God turns the waters of the deep, which could
have inundated the earth, into a source of life and even a spring of joy.
When God restrained the water of the depths at the time that He founded the
earth, He revealed His greatness. When He sets free the springs that water
"every beast of the field" and "the birds of the sky," He reveals His
loving-kindness. And through this revelation of His loving-kindness, God's
wisdom becomes manifest.
The wisdom of God that reveals itself in the creation is a dialectic
wisdom; the act of creation and the its continued maintenance depend on God's
performing an action and its very opposite. God's action in section 2 consists
of a clear differentiation between water and land.
This differentiation is a necessary condition for the maintenance of life on
earth, but it does not suffice; without water there can be no life. And since
"differentiation does not imply absolute separation,"
God works toward a new and controlled encounter between the water and the land,
and in this encounter lies the secret of the maintenance of life on
One expression of maintenance of life on earth is in the channels through
which water streams. The streams that flow through the land are arteries of
life; this is especially striking in the case of streams that flow through dry
desert areas. Thick vegetation grows along the banks of these streams, turning
the streams into strips of green that gladden the eye. Many animals live in
close proximity to these streams, where they quench their thirst, and birds
sound their voices from the branches of their trees and
(Biblical) man derived almost no benefit from these streams,
but in our psalm, man is only one of the partners in creation; even if he is the
senior partner, not everything is measured from his utilitarian perspective. It
is precisely in these streams that the joy of the created beings in their very
existence is evident, far more so than in the places of human settlement. This
joy expresses itself, among other ways, in the fact that birds give voice among
the branches of the trees – in the chirping of the birds.
At the end of our discussion of the second section of our psalm, we asked
whether the account of the founding of the land and the founding of the sea
appearing in that section was needed for the description of the present world in
which the psalmist lives – the world which is the topic of this psalm. It now
becomes clear that not only is the founding of the land a condition for life
upon it, but the founding of the sea is also a condition for this, for the water
that God causes to flow non-stop into the streams, the water of the deep, is the
very water that God rebuked when He created His world and gathered together in
one place – the sea.
It turns out, then, that understanding the world in which our psalmist
lives depends upon recognizing the dialectic arrangements between the sea and
the dry land, arrangements that were established during the act of
This issue – the dialectic connection between "water" and "land" – will
continue to preoccupy the psalm (and us) in the next section as
by David Strauss)
"You set a boundary that they could not pass over." Differentiation itself is an
expression of wisdom, and for this reason the Sages enacted that the havdala
passage recited on Motza'ei Shabbat ("ata chonantanu") should
be recited in the "chonen ha-da'at" blessing, for "if there is no wisdom,
whence differentiation?" (Yerushalmi, Berakhot