What Is a Gittith? Who Was Asaph? Originally Published January 8-9, 2021.

Psalm 81 (which is also the Psalm of the Day for Thursday) begins:

לַמְנַצֵּ֬חַ ׀ עַֽל־הַגִּתִּ֬ית לְאָסָֽף׃  

For the leader; on the gittith. Of Asaph.

Many Psalms have “incipits” such as this (opening notes) which scholars believe indicate musical annotations.  Other Psalms mention the gittith, as well.  Just a note - English dictionaries use the spelling with “th” at the end, but we will modernize our transliteration and spell it gittit

According to one source, a gittit is a musical instrument, supposed by some to have been used by the people of Gath (a city whose name means “wine press”), and thence obtained by King David.  Targum is quoted (nonspecifically) as describing “on the harp which David brought from Gath,” which indicates it is a stringed instrument.  The Gath derivation is implied in its name, Rashi indicated, while also saying that it might allude to Edom, which will be trodden down like a wine press, a similar word, but Edom has nothing to do with anything in that text so Rashi seems to have dismissed it.

Ibn Ezra said those psalms were composed for the sake of descendants of Obed-edom the Gittite, who was a Levi (and in whose home the Ark of the Covenant stayed for a bit).  Ibn Ezra also didn’t like prior indications that the psalm should go to the tune of the wine presses.

The instrument is not mentioned in Psalm 150, which does mention shofar, nevel (thought to have been a frame harp), kinnor (often translated as a lyre, though thought to have been a lute, today a violin), tof (drum), mahol (dance), minnim (flute), ugav (maybe strings or maybe reeds, now an organ), and tsiltsilei (cymbals, both noisy and resounding).   Of course, timbrels and asors are not mentioned there, either.

Interestingly, Goliath was also from Gath, which is about halfway between Jerusalem and Ashkelon, and archeologists have recently found very large amenities in living spaces beneath the more recent city buildings, possibly the homes of the Phillistine giants of 3,000 years ago.  Maybe the gittit was a bass! 

Your correspondent feels (though Rabbi Adelson is dubious) that it may be no coincidence that a gittern was a 14th century model of guitar, and these words all sound very similar.  The Greek kithara was a sort of zither, and the etymology also follows through that route.

Maybe Asaph, who was a Levi assigned by King David to lead in the Temple chorus and who apparently also wrote Psalms, was a tall fellow, too.