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Notes from Limmud 2008

An Introduction to Tehillim

Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

We have a familiarity with some of the Psalms from the liturgy, but not all. The book is a kind of greatest hits of the Jewish people. [A view that is reinforced by the fact there are some "extra" psalms in the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which leave quite a bit to be desired—those are the ones that didn't make the Canonical grade!]

Why is it called the Book of Psalms? This comes from the Latin, Liber Psalterion, the book of songs for a stringed instrument, which is an attempt to render מִזְמוֹר. In Hebrew it's called תְּהִילִים. It's not named after an early word in it, or after its author, as many other books are. "תְּהִילִים" does not appear in the book, though the root הלל does. The speaker does not know where the title came from.

The book appears in the third section of the Bible, the כְּתוּבִים. Today it's the first book in this section, but in the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) it comes after Job, which is first. כְּתוּבִים was the last section of the Bible to crystallise, and with the exception of Ezekiel, the books about which there are questions whether they are to be included are in this section. Early works, like the NT, refer to the Torah and Prophets, not תְּנַ״ך. The book itself was clearly canonised, but there wasn't a cluster to put it in.

Early versions of the Bible also have 150 psalms as we do, but divide them up another way. The Septuagint combines 9/10, and 114/15 into one each, and splits 116 and 147 each into two. There are traditions in the midrash and Talmudim that there are different numbers: 146, 147, corresponding to the length of Jacob's life, 149, 151 and 159. Indeed, the Jewish version of the Psalms splits them differently in one case from the Christian version.

Dating is linked with authorship. The Psalms identify themselves as being written by David (73), Assaf (12), the sons of Korach (11), Solomon (2: 72 and 127), Moses (1: 90), Heman (1: 88), Eitan (1: 89), and 49 "orphan" Psalms, with no attribution in the superscription, including Psalm 1.

Psalm 72 even ends with כָּלּוּ תְפִלּוֹת דָּוִד בֶּן־יִשָׁי "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended"! Though there are Davidic psalms afterward.

So, what does לְדָוִד mean, to David or for David? What if, like Saadya Gaon, you believe all the Psalms were written by David; what do you make of, frex, Psalm 72 beginning לִשְׁלֹמֹה? Was David also writing psalms for Moses, etc? (Bear in mind that Saadya Gaon had an axe to grind in terms of opposition to the Karaites. He held that the Book of Psalms was all about King David and his life, therefore you can't use it for prayers today; you have to use the rabbinic prayers instead.)

The Talmud, in Bava Batra 14b said:

David wrote the Book of Psalms, by the ten sages, by Adam, and by Melchitsedek, and by Abraham, and by Moshe, and by Heman, and by Yedutun, and by the Asaf, and by the three sons of Korach. דוד כתב ספר תהלים על ידי עשרה זקנים על ידי אדם הראשון על ידי מלכי צדק ועל ידי אברהם ועל ידי משה ועל ידי הימן ועל ידי ידותון ועל ידי אסף ועל ידי שלשה בני קרח

This does not correspond with what's actually in the book! And what's meant by "David wrote [it] by the ten sages"? What's the Talmud's source?

Also consider Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִינוּ בְּזָכְרֵנוּ אֶת־צִיּוֹן׃ עַל־עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ׃ כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁיר וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה שִׁירוּ לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן׃ אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת־שִׁיר־ה׳ עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר׃ אִם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי׃ תִּדְבַּק־לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי אִם־לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי אִם־לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי׃ זְכֹר ה׳ לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָאֹמְרִים עָרוּ עָרוּ עַד הַיְסוֹד בָּהּ׃ בַּת־בָּבֶל הַשְּׁדוּדָה אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיְשַׁלֶּם־לָךְ אֶת־גְּמוּלֵךְ שֶׁגָּמַלְתְּ לָנוּ׃ אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיֹּאחֵז וְנִפֵּץ אֶת־עֹלָלַיִךְ אֶל־הַסָּלַע׃

This is referring to events way after the time of King David! Moreover, Psalm 147 has G-d rebuilding Jerusalem. It didn't need rebuilding in David's time! Psalm 84 also has a reference to the burning of the Temple! [I can't see it; might this actually be a veiled reference in 80:16?]

Gittin 57b גיטין נז ב
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: What is meant by the verse, By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion [Psalms 137:1]? This indicates that the Holy One, blessed be G-d, showed David the destruction both of the first Temple and of the second Temple. Of the first Temple, as it is written, By the rivers of Babylon there we sat, yea we wept; of the second Temple, as it is written, Remember, O Lord, against the children of Edom [implying Rome] the day of Jerusalem, who said, raze it, raze it, even to its very foundation [ibid. 137:7]. אמר רב יהודה אמר רב מאי דכתיב על נהרות בבל שם ישבנו גם בכינו בזכרנו את ציון מלמד שהראהו הקדוש ברוך הוא לדוד חורבן בית ראשון וחורבן בית שני חורבן בית ראשון שנאמר על נהרות בבל שם ישבנו גם בכינו בית שני דכתיב זכור ה' לבני אדום את יום ירושלים האומרים ערו ערו עד היסוד בה׃

[Odd... I couldn't find this in my copy of the Talmud, and when I searched for the opening sentence, Google only came up with two hits. <scratches head>]

(In fact, the reference to Edom is not about the Romans, but because the Edomites were not very friendly towards Jewish refugees from the destruction of the First Temple.)

That's how you get around this problem in a traditional framework. The C19 commentator Malbim said that ascribing Psalm 137 to David is a dangerous thing, as you are messing with human free-will! He also notes, that it would been a bit odd, when the First Temple was around, to have the Levites singing about the destruction of the Temple, twice! So he said it was said by the Levites in the Babylonian Exile. Malbim is thought of as arch-Orthodox, writing in reaction to the rise of the Reform movement, but he is happy not to ascribe Psalm 137 not to David. (He also says David might have taught the Levites it secretly.)


מִזְמוֹר turns up 57 times. It has connotations of a song sung to musical instruments.

לַמְנַצֵחַ: to the musical director.

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת: "a song of ascents". What does this mean? The Israelites sang them as they went up to Jerusalem. Or: the Levites sang the fifteen psalms as they went up the fifteen steps in the Temple.

סֶלָה selah appears 71 times in ?31 psalms. There are theories it might be a musical direction: a break for a soloist, for example? Because it occurs with אָמֵן often, Ibn Ezra suggests it might be a response to, or a stronger form, of אָמֵן. Lots of people, including Rashi and Saadya Gaon, suggest it means "forever".

Psalms we know were used in the Temple service, but we don't know any of the details. We associate them with the Levites, but did people join in? Could you book a Levite to sing a psalm for you? Psalms are equivalent to sacrifices, maybe. There's no indication anywhere as to whether the sacrifices are done silently, or with spoken or sung equivalent.

There are also psalm-like songs, such as Hannah's, or Jonah's: maybe songs like this are sung on important occasions.

In other books of the Hagiographa, we do have reference to the singers:

1 Chronicles 25:1–8 דברי הימים א כה א-ח
David and the officers of the host separated to the service of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals. [There follows a list of all the people in the service, including:] All these were the sons of Heman the king's seer in the words of God, to lift up the horn. And God gave to Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the LORD... וַיַּבְדֵּל דָּוִיד וְשָׂרֵי הַצָּבָא לַעֲבֹדָה לִבְנֵי אָסָף וְהֵימָן וִידוּתוּן הַנִּבְּאִים בְּכִנֹּרוֹת בִּנְבָלִים וּבִמְצִלְתָּיִם ... כָּל־אֵלֶּה בָנִים לְהֵימָן חֹזֵה הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּדִבְרֵי הָאֱלֹהִים לְהָרִים קָרֶן וַיִּתֵּן הָאֱלֹהִים לְהֵימָן בָּנִים אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר וּבָנוֹת שָׁלוֹשׁ׃ כָּל־אֵלֶּה עַל־יְדֵי אֲבִיהֶם בַּשִּׁיר בֵּית יְהוָה בִּמְצִלְתַּיִם נְבָלִים וְכִנֹּרוֹת לַעֲבֹדַת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים

Interesting that they are described as prophesying: to sing is to utter the words of G-d. Also, Heman is called a seer. (The Psalms are normally thought of as us singing to G-d, but here we have G-d inspiring them...)

There were hereditary guilds of Temple singers, whose names are given in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Psalms in the Liturgy

From ca. 200 CE we have the Mishna recording the Levites singing the Psalm of the Day, which is still done today. Whether this can be projected back to the First Temple is not a question that can be answered.

Another use of the Psalms in the Temple is Hallel, though we don't really know what they referred to by this. It's not necessarily the same as the Hallel we recite today.

Shabbat 118b ב קיח שבת
[R. Yose bar Chalafta used to say:] May my lot be among those who complete a hallel every day. אמר רבי יוסי יהא חלקי מגומרי הלל בכל יום׃

What's this about? We don't say Hallel every day! There are at least three types of Hallel:

(a) Egyptian Hallel, originally just Psalms 113-114; later Psalms 115-118 were added.

(b) Great Hallel, which the Talmud identifies as Psalm 136 (הוֹדוּ לַה׳ כִּי טוֹב); also said at Seder and as part of פְּסוּקִיֵ דְזִמְרָא for Shabbos.

(c) Daily Hallel, Psalms 145-150, said every day as part of פְּסוּקִיֵ דְזִמְרָא.

It's like finishing studying a tractate of Talmud, and having a סִיוּם afterwards, doing the last Psalms in the Book. Now, what does finishing the Psalms daily mean? In the Cairo Geniza, there are fragments of prayerbooks from the liturgy of Israel that says to do 120–150, or just a direction "psalms at this point".

Why do we choose these Psalms, 145–150? It's because 145 is Ashrei, and the Talmud says "Those who recite Ashrei three times a day are guaranteed a place in the world to come."

Of course, beyond that Psalms are all over the siddur: roughly half the book is in the siddur.

We also say Psalms for sick people, in the shiva house, at a funeral, when bentshing, at Kiddush Levana. These include uses outside shul.

Structure of the Book

If the book is an anthology, does it have any coherent structure?

There are definitely traditional strutures: It is divided into five books (1–14, 42–72, 73–89, 90–106, 107–150). The end of each has a doxology, beginning בָּרוּך. The idea of there being five books is very ancient; people think of this as being parallel to the Torah.

Curiously, the Qur'an knows of two sets of Jewish Scriptures: the Torah and the Book of Psalms.

Midrash Tehillim 1 says "Moses gave five books of Torah to Israel, and David gave five books of psalms to Israel."

There are problems because some of the Psalms appear more than once: Psalm 14, which is in Book 1, is the same as Psalm 53, which is in Book 2. The second half of 57 and the middle half of 60 appear as 108.

Possibly the Psalms were originally in smaller-sized anthologies.

From a subject point of view, there are different ways of categorising them; for example, the Encyclopaedia Judaica gives five major categories:

Hymns Laments Thanksgiving Royal (king) Educational
8,92, 145–150 Communal: 94
Personal: 3, 22
30 72 1,49

[This is just one way of classifying them; the handout offered an alternative system.]

A Royal Psalm: Psalm 45

For the conductor, on the shoshanim, of the sons of Korach: My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer. Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever. Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things. Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the king's enemies; whereby the people fall under thee. Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows. All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad. Kings' daughters were among thy honourable women: upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir. Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father's house; So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him. And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift; even the rich among the people shall intreat thy favour. The king's daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold. She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee. With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought: they shall enter into the king's palace. Instead of thy fathers shall be thy children, whom thou mayest make princes in all the earth. I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations: therefore shall the people praise thee for ever and ever. לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים לִבְנֵי־קֹרַח מַשְׂכִּיל שִׁיר יְדִידֹת׃ רָחַשׁ לִבִּי דָּבָר טוֹב אֹמֵר אָנִי מַעֲשַׂי לְמֶלֶךְ לְשׁוֹנִי עֵט סוֹפֵר מָהִיר׃ יָפְיָפִיתָ מִבְּנֵי אָדָם הוּצַק חֵן בְּשִׂפְתוֹתֶיךָ עַל־כֵּן בֵּרַכְךָ אֱלֹהִים לְעוֹלָם׃ חֲגוֹר־חַרְבְּךָ עַל־יָרֵךְ גִּבּוֹר הוֹדְךָ וַהֲדָרֶךָ׃ וַהֲדָרְךָ צְלַח רְכַב עַל־דְּבַר־אֱמֶת וְעַנְוָה־צֶדֶק וְתוֹרְךָ נוֹרָאוֹת יְמִינֶךָ׃ חִצֶּיךָ שְׁנוּנִים: עַמִּים תַּחְתֶּיךָ יִפְּלוּ בְּלֵב אוֹיְבֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ׃ כִּסְאֲךָ אֱלֹהִים עוֹלָם וָעֶד שֵׁבֶט מִישֹׁר שֵׁבֶט מַלְכוּתֶךָ׃ אָהַבְתָּ צֶּדֶק וַתִּשְׂנָא־רֶשַׁע: עַל־כֵּן מְשָׁחֲךָ אֱלֹהִים אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן שָׂשׂוֹן מֵחֲבֵרֶךָ׃ מֹר־וַאֲהָלוֹת קְצִיעוֹת כָּל־בִּגְדֹתֶיךָ מִן־הֵיכְלֵי שֵׁן מִנִּי שִׂמְּחוּךָ׃ בְּנוֹת מְלָכִים בְּיִקְּרוֹתֶיךָ נִצְּבָה שֵׁגַל לִימִינְךָ בְּכֶתֶם אוֹפִיר׃ שִׁמְעִי־בַת וּרְאִי וְהַטִּי אָזְנֵךְ וְשִׁכְחִי עַמֵּךְ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ׃ וְיִתְאָו הַמֶּלֶךְ יָפְיֵךְ: כִּי־הוּא אֲדֹנַיִךְ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִי־לוֹ׃ וּבַת־צֹר: בְּמִנְחָה פָּנַיִךְ יְחַלּוּ עֲשִׁירֵי עָם׃ כָּל־כְּבוּדָּה בַת־מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה מִמִּשְׁבְּצוֹת זָהָב לְבוּשָׁהּ׃ לִרְקָמוֹת תּוּבַל לַמֶּלֶךְ: בְּתוּלוֹת אַחֲרֶיהָ רֵעוֹתֶיהָ מוּבָאוֹת לָךְ׃ תּוּבַלְנָה בִּשְׂמָחֹת וָגִיל תְּבֹאֶינָה בְּהֵיכַל מֶלֶךְ׃ תַּחַת אֲבֹתֶיךָ יִהְיוּ בָנֶיךָ תְּשִׁיתֵמוֹ לְשָׂרִים בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ׃ אַזְכִּירָה שִׁמְךָ בְּכָל־דֹּר וָדֹר עַל־כֵּן עַמִּים יְהוֹדוּךָ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד׃

This appears to be a psalm for a royal marriage. (No wonder we don't say it in shul!) The Midrash has a field-day with all this, and says it's all about Abraham. Abraham is not the king referred to here but the princess: the king is G-d.

Rashi by contrast says it's all about the Talmudic Sages. Ibn Ezra says it's David and his wife, but could be metaphorically about the Messiah and the people of Israel. Isaiah of Traani says it's about Solomon and his wife Naamah the Ammonite.

There's a lot in the book; you can adapt it to all situations. There are 116 quotations from Psalms in the New Testament. Muslims regard it as Divine, and it is mentioned three times in the Qur'an. It has been much set to music, both by Jews and non-Jews: Bernstein, Stravinsky, Steve Reich, etc.

R. Judan said in the name of R. Yehudah: Everything King David said in his book is about him, and all Israel, and all different times. ר׳ יודן אומר בשם ר׳ יהודה כל שאמר דוד בספרו כנגדו וכנגד כל ישראל וכנגד כל העתים אמרו׃

Psalm, by Yehuda Amichai (1971)

A psalm on the day
A building contractor cheated me. A psalm of praise.
Plaster falls from the ceiling, the wall is sick, paint cracking like lips. The vines I’ve sat under, the fig tree–
It’s all just words. The rustling of the trees
creates an illusion of God and Justice.

I dip my dry glance like bread
into the death which softens it,
always on the table in front of me.
Years ago, my life
turned my life into a revolving door.
I think about those who, in joy and success,
have gotten far ahead of me,
Carried between two men for all to see
Like that bunch of shiny pampered grapes
from the Promised Land,
And those who are carried off, also
Between two men: wounded and dead. A psalm.

When I was a child, I sang in the synagogue choir,
I sang till my voice broke. I sang
first voice and second voice. And I’ll go on singing
till my heart breaks, first heart and second heart.
A psalm.

Translated by Chana Bloch, 1986

Further חַבְרוּתָא study

(a) Supplication psalms: Psalm 6 and Psalm 13

  • What makes these psalms supplications?
  • Why are the speakers asking for help?
  • How would you compare them?

(b) Can you find the longest and the shortest psalms? (Clue 1: you don't need to count the lines—they are pretty obvious! Clue 2: They are quite close together.)

Can you find a word or very short phrase that sums up the theme of each of these two psalms?

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-01-30 06:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zsero.livejournal.com
[Odd... I couldn't find this in my copy of the Talmud, and when I searched for the opening sentence, Google only came up with two hits. ]

Look again; it's almost exactly halfway down the page, on a line ending בבל.

Date: 2009-01-30 06:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zsero.livejournal.com
Oops. E-daf blocks deep links. So you need to go to the site and select the appropriate page and view it there.

Date: 2009-02-01 06:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Ah, I've twigged. I was looking in my local copy of the Talmud off the Hebrew University website, but the quotation I was looking for is broken up with a reference and hyperlink halfway through.


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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