The Southern Steps and the songs of the High Holidays

Sights and Insights: The Southern Steps excavations may have been where the Psalms of Ascents were sung on High Holidays.

By WAYNE STILES
September 19, 2011 17:23
4 minute read.
Southern Steps in Jerusalem

Southern Steps in Jerusalem 311. (photo credit: BiblePlaces.com)

 
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Wayne Stiles is an author who has never recovered from his travels in Israel—and loves to write about them from his desk in Texas.

Fewer places in Jerusalem give the sense of the Second Temple period like the Southern Steps excavations. In fact, because it is forbidden to dig on the Temple Mount itself, this area immediately south of the mount offers important archaeology to help unpack the history of the Temple Mount during the first century.

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Excavation of this area began in 1968 by Benjamin Mazar and continued for ten years. Since the 1990s, archeological excavations have progressed under Ronny Reich. In fact, the recent discovery of the First-Temple period Ophel (mentioned in 2 Chronicles 27:3; 33:14) has been opened to the public.

The 200-feet wide flight of stairs represents both original and restored steps from the Second Temple period. Three times a year worshipers would enter the Temple from these steps, after a customary cleansing in the nearby ritual baths, or mikvot.

These pilgrimages were required by God, as written by the hand of Moses: “Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths, and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed” (Deuteronomy 16:16).

Over the years, a songbook developed that served as the pilgrims’ traveling songs. Psalms 120-134 all bear the superscription, “A Psalm of Ascents.” These are the songs that the Jews sang as they ascended to Jerusalem every year for their feasts. These fifteen short psalms served as the psalter for the High Holidays.

Photo: BiblePlaces.comSome suggest that these fifteen psalms were sung on the fifteen wide steps we see today in the Southern Steps excavations. A popular activity for tourists often includes reading each psalm—or the first verse of each psalm—on each wide step, moving up two steps to the next wide step for each successive reading.

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However, the Mishna notes that these fifteen psalms were sung by the priests who stood not on the Southern Steps, but on the fifteen steps from the Court of the Women ascending to the Court of Israel: “On the fifteen steps which led into the women's court, corresponding with the fifteen songs of degrees, stood the Levites, with their musical instruments, and sang” (see m. Sukkah 5:4-5).

At the top of the Southern Steps, at the far east of the stairway, stands a triple gate—today closed with stones. This gate served as a primary entrance into a subterranean tunnel that ascended into the Temple Courts. At the far west of the broad staircase, a double gate stood—today only a portion of this gate and its lintel can been seen. This gate represented an exit, and the stairway below it—with their alternating wide and narrow steps—offered a place for teaching, for visiting, or for a simple descent.

Photo: BiblePlaces.comRegardless, as we approach the High Holidays, it is appropriate to ponder the psalms that the pilgrims of old would recite from memory. The closest comparison my American culture offers to any national spiritual songs would be patriotic tunes like “God Bless America,” or perhaps better, Christmas carols. Typically sung on holidays, these songs are familiar to all, and—as with the Psalms of Ascents—they stir up critical reminders of basic themes in a believer’s life. Reminders of faith, forgiveness, family, children, peace, hope, brotherhood, sacrifice, and right attitudes toward God and people. Indeed we need to hear these themes often.

Built into the first-century Jewish culture was the necessity of reminders and repetition—the need of rehearsing truth when the Roman world around them countered God’s Word at every step.

What to do there:
Read the first verse of each of the Psalms of Ascents as you successively climb the fifteen wide steps to the top of the stairway. Examine the Double and Triple Gates, as well as the many mikvot that lie in ruins beside the steps. Be sure to visit the newly opened Ophel excavations.

How to Get There:
In Jerusalem, enter the Dung Gate and take an immediate left, following the path around to the entrance to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. The Southern Steps are accessed by walking the length of the southern wall, through the gate, and up to the left.

Read Wayne’s blog and subscribe to his weekly Podcast at www.waynestiles.com

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