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For centuries, Ashkenazi Jews have been saying, or singing, Psalm 126 before Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals.
The theme of Psalm 126 is the return to Zion and an end to exile: “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion, we will see it as in a dream . . . they who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.”
Birkat Hamazon not only thanks God for our food but also for the Land of Israel and asks for Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Shir Hama’alot speaks of these same yearnings and anticipates their fulfilment.
Adding this chapter to Birkat Hamazon on Shabbat and festivals gave Jews in the diaspora encouragement and helped them keep faith with the hope of one day returning to Israel.
Today with the real possibility of living in Israel, and Israeli agricultural technologies helping “those who sow in tears reap in joy” in developing countries around the world, Shir Ha’ma’alot takes on new meanings.