The Book of Psalms

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

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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.

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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.