Psalms as Prayer

Psalms as a spiritual reservoir in difficult times

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Over the centuries, certain Psalms became associated with particular moments or transitions in life, for example:

For times of communal distress: 20, 28, 85, 86, 102, 130, 142
For recovery from illness: 6, 30, 41, 88, 103
For thanksgiving: 9, 21, 57, 95, 116, 138

Reb Nahman of Bratslav, the Hasidic master of some 200 years ago, designated 10 psalms as having special power for healing: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150; he saw these as embodying the "10 kinds of song" outlined by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in the Talmud (Pesahim 177a.)

How to Use Psalms

So what do you do with these Psalms?

To answer that question, it would be helpful to identify seven "functions" that Psalms have developed in Jewish life:

Ritual: As a source of regular expression, to mark certain moments and give a container for feelings, ideas, and values--either in an established, traditional, communal context, or in one's own personal, innovative time and place. One recent example is a Jewish support group that began each meeting with a psalm of despair or complaint (such as 13, 77, or 88) and ended with a psalm of gratitude (such as 18, 91, or 118).

Prayer: As with other forms of Jewish prayer, psalms may provide various opportunities: for giving words to hopes, fears, wishes, etc.; to both experience the pain and transcend it; to "name" one's distress or gratitude; and/or to reconnect to tradition and community, or to a basic inner sense of wholeness.

Song: So many lines of psalms have been put to music, and even calling on the melodies without the words can have great impact. Here are several examples of lines from psalms that have become known as "Jewish healing songs" because of their words and/or music: 3:7-8; 27: 4, 14: 30: 9, 11; 51:12-13; 69:14; 94:18; 118:5, 19-20; 121 1-2, 4.

Study: The Hebrew of the Psalms is often obscure or otherwise hard to "crack," having gone through centuries of recopying. This means that there is a lot to explore--for example, to compare how different editions translate the same lines. For those who have not explored a Psalm before, on the opposite page we offer one approach.

Meditation: Once one finds a piece from Psalms that resonates, that has meaning for you, you might want to focus in on it for a set period of time. Words of Psalms can be a valuable tool in refocusing, centering, and quieting oneself. Some people post a verse, phrase, or word on their office computer screen so they can freely turn to it in the course of a workday; others make their own audio recording to be able to play it back while sitting in a quiet, undisturbed setting.

Community: One profound Jewish practice organizes members of a Jewish community into a Hevra Tehillim, a "Psalm Fellowship," which gathers with some regularity to study or chant Psalms together. In some places, when an individual is ill, the community has divided the 150 psalms among all its members, so that the entire book of Psalms is read and dedicated daily to cure, healing, strength, solace, and/or recovery. Community is an--maybe the--essential component of Jewish healing.

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Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub

Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW, is the Rabbinic Director of the National Center for Jewish Healing and the New York Jewish Healing Center.