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Weekly Story: Al Naharos Bavel Vs. Shir Hamaalos

by Rabbi Sholom Avtzon

Reb Hillel was averse to saying “al naharos Bavel” on weekdays before bentching and would seek a reason to say “Shir HaMaalos” instead. He had his students on constant lookout for a seudas mitzvah, such as a bris or siyum mesechta, when one is supposed to say “Shir HaMaalos.”

One day, although they sought out such an occasion, his students found nothing. Knowing both the intensity of Reb Hillel’s desire not to say “al naharos Bavel” as well as his strict adherence to the Shulchan Aruch, they were interested to see what would happen.

Hearing that they were about to say “al naharos Bavel,” Reb Hillel exclaimed, “In honor of such an honored guest like “al naharos Bavel” that so rarely comes, we should celebrate. In its honor, we shall say “Shir HaMaalos.

I heard the following explanation from Rabbi Raskin, the Lubavitcher dayan in London. Both “Shir HaMaalos” and “Al naharos Bavel” speak about our longing for the rebuilding of our holy Beis HaMikdash. The difference between them is that “Shir HaMaalos” is an exclamation of our hopeful anticipation for this momentous occasion, and therefore one breaks out in song. “Al naharos Bavel,” on the other hand, is an outpouring of our bitterness over the extent of this lengthy exile, and our yearning for it to end with the building of the Third Beis HaMikdash. Thus, while they are different from each other, in essence they are the same prayer. Reb Hillel desired to express this longing only through the approach of happiness.

Perhaps this explains the chassidishe interpretation of the halachah, “At the onset of the month of Av, we minimize in happiness.” Simply meaning, we don’t take vacations or eat meat or wine during these days, as well as not listening to music and a host of other laws and customs.

However the Chassidic interpretation is; “How does one minimize the negative powers that is associated with Av, by doing a mitzvah with happiness.”

Rabbi Avtzon is available to farbreng in your community and can be contacted at avtzonbooks@gmail.com.