“The LORD is my shepherd” “Out of the mouths of babes ….” “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, as we remembered Zion.”
Some of the most widely recognized phrases and sentences from the Bible come to us from the Book of Psalms, referred to in Hebrew as Tehillim (תהילים). (The above are Psalm 23:1, Psalm 8:2 and Psalm 137:1 as translated in the King James Version.) And it’s no wonder. While the Torah presents itself as the divine word imparted to the people Israel, the 150 poems in the Book of Psalms represent a range of human voices: the sounds of lament and of thanksgiving to God, individuals extolling God’s beneficence or imploring God to bring rescue and redemption.
In short, the poets in this ancient anthology give voice to sentiments we all share and seek to express at one time or another in our lives. The Book of Psalms is among the most popular and widely read of all the books of the Hebrew Bible. Its continual subjects may be God’s workings and God’s relationships with humankind, but its passions are our own.
The Psalms in Jewish Liturgy
Many psalms are employed in Jewish liturgy. For example:
- Psalms 113-118 make up the Hallel, which is recited on various holidays.
- Individual psalms, as well as selected verses from psalms, are featured in the “Verses of Song” (Pesukei D’Zimra) that precede the daily morning service .
- Seven psalms form the core of the Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night) service.
- Verses from Psalms 34 and 99 accompany the procession for taking the Torah out for public reading in the synagogue; On Shabbat, Psalm 29 is sung when returning the Torah to the ark.
- Psalm 126 is recited before the grace after meals (Birkat Hamazon) on Shabbat and holidays, and Psalm 137 on ordinary days.
The liturgical use of psalms dates back to Temple times; the Talmud records a weekly cycle of psalms to be read in the Temple, which is echoed in today’s morning prayer service. Many sections of the siddur, or prayer book, include whole psalms or selected verses.
Psalms As a Source of Solace and Inspiration
In times of trouble, traditional Jewish communities have turned to the recitation of psalms — often the entire book — as a prayerful response. Even now, in some circles the family and community of someone facing a grave illness may ask for psalms to be recited as a collective prayer for the sick person’s health and recovery.
Beyond its role in liturgy and in Jewish healing efforts, many readers have turned to individual psalms for solace or inspiration. To express joy and wonder at the created world, for example, nothing beats Psalm 8, which includes this observation:
When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars that You set in place
what is man that you have been mindful of him,
mortal man that you have taken note of him?
To express despair at the social order, you might turn to Psalm 12: “Help, O LORD! / For the faithful are no more; the loyal have vanished from among men.” Meanwhile, these lines from Psalm 102 speaks for many of us in moments of anguish about our health:
O LORD, hear my prayer;
let my cry come before You.
Do not hide Your face from me
in my time of trouble;
turn Your ear to me;
when I cry, answer me speedily.
For my days have vanished like smoke
and my bones are charred like a hearth.
My body is stricken and withered like grass;
too wasted to eat my food.
Who Wrote the Psalms?
Although many of the psalms are linked in an introductory line to King David, and the rabbinic tradition credits him with the authorship of the whole collection, most scholars today believe they are actually the work of multiple poets and were written after David’s death, during the period when the First Temple stood in Jerusalem (from the 10th century BCE to 586 BCE). The theory is that the psalm writers were Temple priests and musicians.
Psalms in Western Culture
Although there is no continuous tradition of musical settings for the Psalms among any Jewish community, sections of psalms in the original Hebrew have been set to music by many choral composers, from Salamone Dei Rossi in Renaissance Venice to Leonard Bernstein (“Chichester Psalms”) and Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun (1922–2014). From Monteverdi’s “Vespers” (1610) to Stravinsky’s 1930 composition, “Symphony of Psalms,” translations of psalms into many other languages have provided the text for choral works by composers both major and minor. (Many of these can be found easily on YouTube.)
Recommended Collections of Psalms (and Commentaries) in English
English translations of the Book of Psalms, as well as commentaries on it, are abundant. The entire text is available in Hebrew and English free of charge on Sefaria.
- For scholarly observations and insights, one fine entry point is the Psalms section of The Jewish Study Bible, whose editors, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, set each psalm in context and point out its distinct features.
- Nahum Sarna’s Songs of the Heart [republished as On the Book of Psalms] offers a fine introduction to the Book of Psalms and analyses of selected chapters.
- The Psalms volume in Robert Alter’s series of annotated translations of the Hebrew Bible combines familiarity with biblical scholarship and a refined sense of style.
- Benjamin Segal’s A New Psalm offers a careful literary analysis and a new translation.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: SIDD-ur or seeDORE, Origin: Hebrew, prayerbook.