Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Nishmat (‘The breath of’), is the opening word of an ancient hymn, after which the hymn itself is called. The hymn begins: ‘The breath of every living being shall bless Thy Name, O Lord our God, and the spirit of all flesh shall ever extol and exalt Thy fame, O our King,’ and continues with the praises of God.
Thanksgiving for God’s mercies is expressed with typical oriental hyperbole: ‘Were our mouths full of song as the sea, and our tongues of exultation as the multitude of its waves, and our lips of praise as the wide extended skies; were our eyes shining with light like the sun and the moon, and our hands were spread forth like the eagles of the air, and our feet were swift as the wild deer; we should still be unable to thank Thee and to bless Thy Name, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, for one-thousandth or one ten-thousandth part of the bounties which Thou hast bestowed upon our fathers and upon us.’
The hymn continues further with thanks for God’s past deliverances from the time of the Exodus from Egypt, which is why the hymn is recited at the Seder on Passover. Nishmat is recited in all rites during the morning service on Sabbaths and festivals.
Parts of the hymn may go back to Temple times; other parts are later additions. By the Middle Ages, the whole hymn was known in its present form.
A curious legend circulated in medieval France and Germany to the effect that Nishmat was composed by none other than the Apostle Peter, who is said to have built the Christian Church in order to remove Christians from the Jewish community, while believing himself that only Judaism is the true faith.
The legend has no basis in fact but was often repeated.