How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5) These words quoted from the Torah are the opening lines of the prayer known as Ma Tovu, Hebrew for “How Lovely.” The Ma Tovu prayer is found in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book, from the Hebrew word meaning “order”) at the beginning of the Sabbath service. It is traditionally recited upon entering the synagogue or other place of worship.
מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב
וַאֲנִי בְּרב חַסְדְּךָ
אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל הֵיכַל
יהוה אָהַבְתִּי מְעון בֵּיתֶךָ
וּמְקום מִשְׁכַּן כְּבודֶך
וַאֲנִי אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְאֶכְרָעָה
אֶבְרְכָה לִפְנֵי יהוה עשִׂי
וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי לְךָ יהוה עֵת רָצוֹן
אֱלֹהִים בְּרָב חַסְדֶּךָ
עֲנֵנִי בֶּאֱמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ
Here is the Hebrew transliteration:
Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov
Va’ani b’rov hasd’kha
Eshtahaveh el heikhal
Adonai, ahavti m’on beitekha
um’kom mishkan k’vodekha
Va’ani eshtakhaveh ve’ekhra’ah
avar’kha lifnei Adonai osi
Va’ani t’filati l’kha Adonai et ratzon
Elohim b’rov hasdekha
aneini be’emet yish’ekha
The words of the Ma Tovu are taken nearly word-for-word from Scripture. Here is the translation of the Hebrew words, given according to the Artscroll Siddur:
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)
As for me, through Your abundant kindness I enter Your House.
I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You. (Psalm 5:8)
O Lord, I love the House where You dwell,
And the place where Your glory resides. (Psalm 26:8)
I shall prostrate myself and bow,
I shall kneel before the Lord my Maker. (from Psalm 95:6)
As for me, may my prayer to You, O Lord, be at an opportune time.
O God, in Your abundant kindness,
Answer me with the truth of Your salvation. (Psalm 69:14)
It is interesting to note that this prayer, which in this most popular Siddur is the very first prayer recited on Sabbath during the morning service, begins with words uttered by a gentile. During the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, King Balak of Moab had called Balaam, a pagan prophet, to come and curse the camp of the Israelites. Yahweh, the God of Israel, would not permit him to curse, and instead Balaam pronounced this blessing which has become the beginning of the Ma Tovu prayer.
The prayer continues with several passages from the Psalms expressing awe and reverence for the sanctuary and the presence of God Himself. It ends with an earnest prayer from Psalm 69 that recognizes the lovingkindness (chesed) of God and asks that He answer “with the truth of Your salvation.” How beautiful it is that Jewish people everywhere begin their Sabbath service praying the Ma Tovu and asking for this answer, and how awesome it is to know that the “truth of Your salvation” is Yeshua, the salvation of Yah, who identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
You can click the player below to hear the Ma Tovu prayer chanted and read in Hebrew.
This recording is from Jeremiah Greenberg, Director of Messianic Liturgical Resources, who has granted permission for its use here. He has published a wonderful Messianic Shabbat Siddur which you can purchase here. The traditional Artscroll Siddur is available here.
A beautiful musical rendition of the Ma Tovu can be found on Paul Wilbur’s live recording Shalom Jerusalem. For more information see my review of Paul Wilbur’s live recordings here.