If you’ve been to synagogue on a weekday morning recently, you may have head something like this:
Today is the first day of the week, on which the Levites used to recite in the Temple: “Of David. A psalm. The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds….”
Today is the second day of the week, on which the Levites used to recite in the Temple: “A song. A psalm of the Korahites. The Lord is great and much to be acclaimed….”
These refrains are familiar to morning worshippers in synagogues around the world. The Mishnah (Tamid 7:4) records that in ancient times the Levites would recite one chapter of the Book of Psalms in the Temple each morning after the daily morning sacrifice (tamid). One psalm was assigned to each day of the week, culminating, on the seventh day, in the psalm whose superscription announces that it is “ a song for the Shabbat day” (Psalm 92). These are the seven psalms that are recited throughout the week:
- Sunday: Psalm 24
- Monday: Psalm 48
- Tuesday: Psalm 82
- Wednesday: Psalm 94
- Thursday: Psalm 81
- Friday: Psalm 93
- Shabbat/Saturday: Psalm 92
As with some other non-sacrificial Temple traditions, the daily psalm was adopted as a synagogue ritual. As late as the 12th century, though, we find Maimonides describing it as an individual choice practiced by “some of the people” (Mishneh Torah, Book of Adoration, Laws of Prayer, ch. 3)
Most often the day’s psalm is added at the end of the Shaharit (morning) service — before Aleinu in Sephardic and Middle Eastern traditions, after Aleinu among Ashkenazim. Its recitation usually occasions another Kaddish given to mourners to recite immediately afterward.
Synagogue practices developed further with the addition of a special psalm for each festival and holiday. On Passover, Psalm 136, which details the events of the Exodus is recited. On Hanukkah, which celebrates the Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks and recapture and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews say Psalm 30, “A song for the dedication (hanukkah) of the Temple.” The original practice seems to have been to recite the psalm of the day after the Shaharit service and the psalm for the holiday after Musaf (the additional Amidah added on Shabbat and holidays), but in many communities today only the holiday psalm is recited on such occasions.
Why these seven psalms?
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) describes the significance of each daily psalm in the seven-day cycle. Rabbi Yehudah, citing Rabbi Akiva, suggests that the first six psalms in the list recapitulate the events of the week of creation as described in Genesis 1, beginning on Sundays with Psalm 24’s exclamation, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that it holds!” — a nice way to mark the beginning of God’s project.
Some of the Talmud’s mapping of days to elements of creation seem forced: the psalm for Wednesday, for example, begins with “God of retribution, Lord, God of retribution, appear” (84:1). The Talmud says this is appropriate for the fourth day of the week because “on that day God created the sun and the moon, and God will one day punish those who worship them.”
Other connections are delightful. On Thursdays, for example, we recite Psalm 81, which calls out in plural form: “Sing joyously to God, our strength, raise a shout for the God of Jacob” (81:2), reminding us — the Talmud teaches — of the many creatures brought into being on the fifth day of creation, creatures that tweet and chirp and croak in praise of the Lord.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer suggests (in his Or Hadash commentary on the weekday prayerbook, p. 86) that “it is also possible that there is no direct connection between the psalm for each day and what was created thereon.” Commenting on the psalm for Monday, a paean to Jerusalem, Hammer ventures to say that “perhaps, after praising God on the first day as the Creator and Ruler of the world, we simply go on to praise God as the One who chose Zion and sanctified it as the specific locus of the Divine Presence. We thus move from the universal to the particular.”
One contemporary scholar suggests a different rationale for the order of the daily Psalms. Miriyam Glazer (in The Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy) sees a “demanding process” that keeps us on our toes all week. We begin the week on Sunday with Psalm 24 which offers a “robust, exhilarating welcoming of Adonai in our world.” However, by Monday the mood has shifted entirely, to the problem of God feeling very far away, and the world feeling entirely broken (not an unfamiliar sentiment for many on a Monday morning). God taunts earthly judges in Tuesday’s Psalm 82, “How long will you pervert justice? How long will you favor the wicked?” (82:2).
By the time we get to Wednesday (Psalm 94), the middle of the week, Glazer continues, “we are right at the heart of the evil in the world, right at the heart of our own shortcomings.” Psalm 81, the psalm for Thursday, offers a turning point as we come closer to Shabbat. Now God begins to respond to our cries: “In distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you from the secret places of thunder” (81:8). By Friday, she notes, “a true transformation has occurred—not only do we celebrate God’s reign in our universe, but we declare our love for God’s law, God’s way.” As Friday’s Psalm 93 declares, “Your decrees are indeed enduring, / holiness befits your house, O Lord, for all times.” (93:5)
By Shabbat morning, Glazer concludes: “we have reached a sense of spiritual and existential security and a reassuring, gentle, and beautiful promise. Going through the week, then, is like going through the furnace of human life into the beauty of God’s majestic light.”
Whether reciting psalms throughout the week is like reexperiencing creation all over, culminating in its crowning day of rest (Shabbat) or a complicated theological journey from triumph to woe and back to reconciliation, for thousands of years the practice has been (and will remain) a significant way for Jews to mark time with poetry and recall the ancient Temple worship.