Reading Psalm 30 is a Hanukkah tradition. Not nearly as well-known or widely practiced as lighting the Hanukkah candles, eating fried foods (latkes and donuts) and playing dreidel, but just as essential.
Psalm 30 contains one of the most uplifting of all biblical verses. The sometimes perplexing Hebrew leads to a variety of English translations, but it is best known this way:
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler explains the connection between Psalm 30 and Hanukkah:
Jewish custom mandates that a psalm be recited for each weekday, and a special psalm for each festival. This custom goes back at least to late rabbinic times, as recorded in the post-Talmudic Tractate Soferim (ch. 18), where Psalm 30 is associated with Chanukah. Ostensibly, the psalm was chosen because the superscription, מזמור שיר חנכת הבית לדוד, refers to the dedication (chanukah) of the temple.
Traditionally, the superscription refers to the dedication of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, though some scholars connect it to the dedication of the Second Temple (some psalms are clearly Second Temple in origin). Thus, the connection between Psalm 30 and Chanukah would be a loose one, but the best the rabbis could find—after all, Chanukah occurred in 164 B.C.E., hundreds of years after the dedication of the Second Temple in 515 BCE. Thus, the psalm cannot be referring to Chanukah … or can it?
In fact, I, along with many other biblical scholars, believe that the superscription to Psalm 30 does not refer to the dedication of the Temple (first or second) but literally refers to Chanukah….
A number of points connect this psalm and the Maccabean uprising. First, the psalm describes overcoming, at great odds, enemies—an apt description of the Maccabean experience and the exact situation that led up to Chanukah. In addition, the psalm mentions chasidim (v. 5). The NJPS translates this phrase properly as the “faithful,” the typical meaning of this term in early psalms. Yet we know from both 1 and 2 Maccabees that in the second century B.C.E. a group or party developed, associated with the Maccabees, who called themselves Chasidim, as reflected in the Greek term asidaioi.
In other words, it is possible that someone (on the winning side) after the Hasmonean victory in 164 BCE could have read Psalm 30 and imagined: “David prophesized this about us!” The psalm, for that very reason, may even have been recited as part of the dedication ceremony on Chanukah in 164 BCE since it was seen as broadly appropriate—or even prophetic—to what had happened.
What does Psalm 30 say? In The Jewish Study Bible translation:
1 A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.
2 I extol You, O Lord,
for You have lifted me up,
and not let my enemies rejoice over me.
3 O Lord, my God,
I cried out to You,
and You healed me.
4 O Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
preserved me from going down into the Pit.
5 O you faithful of the Lord, sing to Him,
and praise His holy name.
6 For He is angry but a moment,
and when He is pleased there is life.
One may lie down weeping at nightfall;
but at dawn there are shouts of joy.
7 When I was untroubled,
I thought, “I shall never be shaken,”
8 for You, O Lord, when You were pleased,
made [me] firm as a mighty mountain.
When You hid Your face,
I was terrified.
9 I called to You, O Lord;
to my Lord I made appeal,
10 “What is to be gained from my death,
from my descent into the Pit?
Can dust praise You?
Can it declare Your faithfulness?
11 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
O Lord, be my help!”
12 You turned my lament into dancing,
you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy,
13 that [my] whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly;
O Lord my God, I will praise You forever.
Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas or nothing, light candles or tree lights, believe in God or gods or none, this is a message for all seasons and all time. Especially this season and these times.
When we are troubled, with a desecrated temple, death or illness, heartbreak, we can find a path to turn our lament and mourning into dancing. Weeping may linger for the night (many nights), but joy and light come with the morning.
Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 22. Chag urim sameach (Happy Festival of Lights).