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'. 

An Anthology With Davidic (or Older) Roots

This view of Davidic authorship was not left unquestioned in the Middle Ages and is rejected by all modern biblical scholars as anachronistic.  Psalm 137, for instance, speaks of the period, hundreds of years after David's death, when the Temple had been destroyed and the Jews were in exile in Babylon. The book of Psalms is now seen rather as a collection or anthology of psalms compiled at different periods, though there is no real reason to deny that some of them may go back to David himself, with psalms or groups of psalms added later to the collection.

There is no agreement on the dating of the various psalms.  The older view that the whole book dates from as late as the period of the Maccabees is nowrejected by the majority of scholars, some holding, on the analogy of an­cient Near Eastern texts unearthed fairly re­cently, that psalm-making, even with the employment of the same terms and language­-patterns, was a feature of the surrounding culture long before Israel came on to the scene. Needless to say, the question of dating and authorship is totally irrelevant to the value of the book of Psalms as religious outpourings of the highest order, recognized as such by the millions of worshippers, Jews, Christians, and others, who have used the Psalms to express the deepest emotions of their ownreligious heart.

Special Psalms for Special Days

It is interesting that in the Talmudic period no Psalms were recited as part of the service except for the Hallel psalms (a special grouping of psalms of praise) on the festival[s].  As the post-Talmudic liturgy developed, a large number of further psalms were incorporated into the Prayer Book, not all at once but gradually over the centuries.  To the daily morning service were added: Psalms 100, 145 and 150. To the Sabbath and festival services were added Psalms 19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92,93 in this order, since on these days people, not having to go out to work, did not have to hurry from the synagogue.

At the end of the morning service, a special psalm for each day is recited, prefaced with the words:"This is the first [second, third, and so on] day of the week, on which the Levites in the Temple used to say . . ." Psalm 24 is recited when the Sefer Torah is returned to the Ark after the reading on weekdays, and Psalm 29 on the Sabbath. 

The penitential Psalm 27 is recited at the end of the morning and evening service during the penitential season from the beginning of the month of Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah [the final day of Sukkot]. Be­fore the evening service at the termination of the Sabbath Psalms 144 and 67 are read.  Psalm 104 is read during the morning service on Rosh Hodesh, the New Moon, and during the afternoon service on winter Sabbaths.  As part of their ritual for welcoming the Sabbath, the Safed Kabbalists [mystics who lived and wrote in Safed in the Land of Israel) in the sixteenth century in­troduced the recital of Psalms 95-99 and 29, corresponding to the six days of creation, on the eve of the Sabbath, andthis is now the universal custom at the Friday night service. Verses from Psalms are scattered through other parts of the Prayer Book.

A Storehouse for Individual Use

In addition to their recital as part of the standard service, the Psalms have been recited by individuals whenever the mood took them. Some pious Jews would recite the whole book of Psalms each week, some even each day. "Saying Psalms" (Zoggen Tillim, in Yiddish), as it is called, is often practiced as a prayer for a sick person or when other calamities threaten.  In some communities there is a custom to recite on a Yahrzeit [the anniversary of a relative's death] verses of the eightfold alphabeti­cal acrostic, Psalm 119,the initial letters of which are those of the letters of the nameof the deceased. 

There are various chants in which the Psalms are recited, and the Hebrew Bible even has notes for cantillation [traditional chanting] of the Psalms but the musical system these represent is no longer known. The Lithuanian tradition has a particularly yearning and plaintive melody for "saying Psalms."

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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.