The Book of Psalms

Traditional & modern views of the Book of Psalms, and the role of Psalms in Jewish liturgy

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Excerpted with permission fromThe Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press

Some Very Ancient Liturgy

The Book of Psalms, Hebrew Tehillim, ("Praises"), is the first book of the third section of the Bible, the Ketuvim or Sacred Writings, and comprises 150 psalms. Many of the psalms have superscrip­tions, describing their contents, their author, and, it is generally assumed, in some cases, the melodies to which they were sung in the Temple. In the Jewish tradition, but not in the King James Version, these superscriptions are counted as separate verses. (The New English Bible translation omits the superscriptions altogether: an extremely odd procedure, since, even if the superscriptions are later additions, they became part of the book at a very early period, and one would have thought that the aim of any translation should be to convey the book as it has come down though the ages.)

book of psalmsMany of the psalms are obviously liturgical compositions. The Levites [in the Temple] sang a psalm for each day of the week and on the Sabbaths and festivals, accompanying the song with instru­mental music.

Are They All King David's?

It has long been noted that the first Psalm appears to be an introduction to the book as a whole, as Psalm 150 appears to be an epilogue. There is a concluding note at the end of Psalms 41, 72, 89, and106, which suggests that the book is in five separate sections. The rabbinic midrash [rabbinic interpretation from the period of the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud] to Psalms states that David com­posed his Psalms in five books, just as Moses wrote the five books of the Pentateuch.  In this Midrash, and very frequently in the Rabbinic literature, David is assumed to be the author of the book of Psalms.

But in the famous Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 14b) on the authorship of the biblical books, it is said that David included in his book psalms written by some who preceded him. The superscription to Psalm 90, for instance, is: "A prayer of Moses, the man of God." In fact, while seventy-two of the psalms are attributed to David, this one is attributed to Moses, and some to other authors.  Some of the psalms are attributed to no par­ticular author and are known, in the tradition, as 'orphan psalms'. Itis incorrect, therefore, to say that in the traditional view David is the author of all the psalms in the book. Neverthe­less, the tradition still sees David as the final author of the book, although he is said to have included the works of others in his final compo­sition.  In 2 Samuel 23:1 David is described as 'the sweet singer in Israel'. 

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.