Preliminary Blessings and Psalms
With introductory blessings and psalms, the creators of the Jewish prayer service created a model that allowed for spiritual preparation prior to the main section of the morning service.
Rabbi Kohn describes the preparatory materials that precede the main morning service. These materials include blessings, readings from the Torah and Rabbinic literature, and extended selections from the Psalms.
The Rabbis of the Talmud state: "One should not stand up to pray unless it is with a sense of respectful awe. The early pious ones used to wait an hour and then pray in order to better focus their hearts on God" (Mishnah Berakhot 5:1). Given the fact that the Rabbis established a fixed structure of obligatory prayers, they recognized and encouraged worshippers to take the time to develop and enter into an appropriately reflective and meditative state of mind. The Rabbis even warned, "Do not make your prayers perfunctory, rather, they should be true entreaties before the Holy One, blessed be God" (Pirkei Avot 2:13). To ensure that people would recite important prayers like the Shema and its blessings and the Amidah in a meditative mood, they created an introductory liturgical unit to the morning worship service called Birkhot HaShahar, or "Blessings of the Morning."
Originally recited by individuals in their home as they awoke, washed, and dressed for the day, these blessings, such as thanking God for giving sight to the blind (once recited before one opened his or her eyes in the morning), raising the downtrodden (recited before standing up from bed), and clothing the naked (recited before getting dressed), were transferred to the synagogue and included in the siddur. This section also included blessings after using the bathroom, a prayer thanking God for the creation of our souls, and selections of biblical and rabbinic texts to fulfill the daily mandatory requirement to study Torah every day.
A second, larger, more spiritually reflective set of preliminary readings following the Birkhot HaShahar section is called Pesukei D'Zimra (verses of song). These verses of song include a lengthy selection of psalms and passages from the Hebrew Bible chosen precisely to increase the kavvanah, or spiritual focus, of the one who is praying. These readings are sandwiched between an opening and closing blessing separated by the numerous exerpts from the Bible. The opening blessing is named after its first line, Barukh Sh'amar, or "Blessed is the One who spoke." Barukh Sh'amar consists of 11 different attributes of God, such as Creator, Redeemer, and Rewarder, beginning with the word barukh, blessed. The opening blessing of this section states, "Blessed are you, Adonai our God, King, extolled with songs of praise."
Following Barukh Sh'amar are a couple of compilations of verses, selected mostly from the Psalms, but including some passages from Chronicles and Proverbs, called Hodu L'Adonai kir'u vi'shmo (Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name) and Yehi Khevod. In between these two passages, Psalm 100, Mizmor L'Todah (a psalm of thanksgiving) is recited on weekdays. "Worship the Lord with joy" the psalm exults, "come before the Lord with songs of gladness!"
After these collections of verses come the two sets of readings that form the core of Pesukei D'Zimra. The first is Psalm 145, called Ashrei, meaning, "Happy are they (who dwell in your house, Lord)." It is interesting to note that the title and opening lines of this prayer are actually not a part of Psalm 145, but instead, are from Psalms 84:5 and 144:15. These two additional verses and Psalm 145 were probably already understood as a discrete prayer by the time of the Talmud, for the Rabbis taught, "One who recites Ashrei three times daily is assured a share in the World to Come" (Berachot 4b). Ashrei is an alphabetical acrostic; every line begins with the succeeding letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, thus symbolizing every possible praise to God, from "A to Z." (The only letter that is missing is nun, perhaps because it alluded to the word, nofel, or fall or disaster.) The highlight of this psalm is the line that states, "You [God] open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing," which refers to God's power to sustain all life in the world.
The second core of the Pesukei D'Zimra section consists of the concluding five psalms of the book of Psalms from the Hebrew Bible. Following Ashrei, Psalms 146 to 150 are recited. Because each of these psalms begins with the word halleluyah, or "praise God," it is referred to as Hallel in the Talmud. (This is not to be confused with another liturgical section of the siddur also called Hallel, which is only recited on festivals.) Rabbi Yosi, from the time of the Talmud, stated, "May my share be among those who complete Hallel every day," which the Sages explain refers explicitly to these five psalms (Shabbat 118b). The final psalm of the 150 in the book of Psalms reaches the book's climax in the verse, "Let every living thing that has breath praise God, Halleluyah!"
Both before and after these two core sections, there are other various psalms and selections from the Hebrew Bible. For example, following the five psalms of Hallel, the biblical Song of the Sea is chanted. This poem was recited by Moses and the Israelites upon the destruction of Pharaoh and his army as the divided Sea of Reeds crashed down upon them, drowning them. It begins with the line, "I will sing to the Lord, majestic in triumph! Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea!" (Exodus 15:1). It includes the triumphant exaltation, "Who is like You, Lord, among all that is worshipped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?!" which is repeated later in the service preceding the Amidah.
The concluding blessing of this section, also called after its first word, Yishtabakh, or "You shall be praised," sums up the lengthy praises of God. The final blessing states, "Praised are you, Adonai our God, Lord, King, exalted through praises, God of thanksgiving, Master of wonders, who chooses musical songs of praise--King, God, life-giver of the world." This is then followed by the Hatzi, or half, Kaddish which serves as a liturgical punctuation point signifying the end of Pesukei D'Zimra and the beginning of the Shaharit, or morning service, which includes the Shema and its blessings and the Amidah.
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