Updated: Dec 18, 2020
I've always referred to the opening prayers of the services both on weekdays and Shabbat and Festivals as the “preliminary service.” It is actually made up of two sections, the Birchot HaShachar, morning blessings and meditations with some study sections added in mainly on the sacrificial offerings, and the P'sukei D'zimrah, “verses of song” a collection of Psalms and other prayers, mainly offering praise to the Almighty. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, in a comment in My People's Prayerbook,writes, ''By including the P'sukei D'zimrah in the liturgy...words are actually placed in our mouths, so that if we are not particularly awake on a given morning, a set of prescribed words can coax us into greater awareness of what God means to us and how we should respond to the manifold manifestations of God in our lives.” It is not always easy to achieve a sense of spiritual uplift when you have barely “uplifted” yourself out of bed.
In previous posts I have focused on some of the Psalms that make up this section as well as the opening blessing of Baruch Sheamar and the closing section that begins with Shochen Ad on Shabbat and holidays and concludes with Yishtabach. However, there is still quite a bit of this collection that remains to explore. Personally, while I hope my readers enjoy these explorations, I know that in researching these prayers, I am learning a lot myself. There is a big block of prayer that opens P'sukei D'zimrah which I want to look at today. I am uncertain what to call it, so I've just used the opening words as my title this week, Hodu Ladonay Kir'u Vishmo, Acknowledge the Lord with thanks, call upon His name. In our Ashkenazic prayerbook this section comes right after the opening blessing of Baruch Sheamar. The Sephardic prayerbook places it before the 30th Psalm and the blessing.
This lengthy prayer which fills several pages in most prayerbooks is actually made up of two separate sections. The first part is a quotation of a liturgical piece, a kind of Psalm, found outside the book of Psalms itself in the book of Chronicles. The second part is what liturgists call a florilegium, a word I just learned thanks to a new volume by my colleague Rabbi Kenneth Berger on the development of Ashkenazic prayer. A florilegium which originally was indeed, as it sounds, a collection of flowers, is used to refer to an anthology of literary passages, in our case, an anthology of Psalm verses.
Most of us are not that familiar with the books of Chronicles at the end of the Bible. I've read them a couple of times through over the years, but I don't always remember what I've read there and am frequently surprised by what I find in its pages. Once you get past the genealogies at the beginning of the book, about ten chapters or so, there is an interesting retelling of the stories from Samuel and Kings with many variations and additions. In chapter 16 of First Chronicles, we're told of the arrival of the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem after David's conquest of the city. Jerusalem, which had been held by the Jebusites, now becomes both a political and spiritual center of the country and geographically, like Washington, DC, is roughly in the middle of the country from North to South. This passage thus marks the moment when Jerusalem is elevated from the center of David's administrative kingdom, to the capital of the Jewish religion, the point toward which we direct all our prayers.
In this chapter, there is mention of a celebration held at that time and the appointment of a group of Levites to minister before the ark (interesting that these are not kohanim, but Levites). The text goes on to say, “Then, on that day, David first commissioned Asaph and his kinsmen to give praise to the Lord” and right after that come verses 8 through 36, the passage which we read in our service. Interestingly, the first part of this poem is almost identical with Psalm 105 in the book of Psalms and the second part is mostly taken from Psalm 96, the second Psalm of the Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday nights. In both cases there are some variations and additions. Based on this translation of the verse from Chronicles, it seems that Asaph may have either been the author of these two anonymous Psalms or that he took these well-known poems and adapted them for the occasion. Others who apparently translate the verse differently think that David wrote both parts of this poem, quoting liberally from his previous work and giving it to Asaph and his group to sing. Asaph, however, does appear in numerous places in the Book of Psalms as an author in his own right, so he could very well be the author of this combined piece in Chronicles and of the two anonymous Psalms.
Since this was the first Psalm recited by the Levites in Jerusalem, it seems appropriate to begin with it as the opening song in our service. The passage opens with a series of praises and words of thanksgiving to God for the various wondrous acts He has done for us. These opening five verses contain a total of ten imperatives, commanding us to praise God. Perhaps the author especially was thinking of the miraculous acts done by the ark itself during its recent captivity among the Philistines before David brought it to Jerusalem. The poet mentions the covenant He established with Abraham which endures through the generations. In particular, that covenant included the promise of the Land of Canaan as the everlasting inheritance of the people of Israel. The poet concludes this section with the words, “He allowed no one to oppress them; He reproved kings on their account, 'Do not touch my anointed one, do not harm My prophets'” referring to the patriarchs as prophets and kings as it were.
The second half of this selection from Chronicles, which mirrors Psalm 96, calls on all the world to break into song in praise of the Lord, whose glory is over all nations and His greatness exceeds that of all those that are worshipped as gods. The Psalm goes on to speak of God as the Creator of heaven and earth. All of creation should give forth song in celebration of God who is coming to judge or to rule over the entire world. At the conclusion of the passage, having cited these two Psalms, the writer adds additional praise, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel from eternity to eternity.” and we're told by the Chronicler, “And all the people said, 'Amen' and 'Praise the Lord.'”
By putting this poem before the opening blessing, Baruch SheAmar, the Sephardic tradition links it with the detailed passages traditionally studied during the Birchot HaShachar, about the sacrifices brought to the Tabernacle and later to the Temple. The Ashkenazic tradition, placing it at the beginning of P'sukei D'zimrah, after the blessing, apparently sees it as a great way to begin this section filled with the abundant words of praise that are contained in the Psalms.
We should not forget that this lengthy citation from Chronicles is followed in both traditions with a florilegium of verses from the Psalms, eighteen quotations in number, that carry on the praises begun in the opening reading from Chronicles. While the verses from Chronicles tend to be rather universalistic, these Psalm verses are more inwardly directed to the people of Israel. It has been suggested that this anthology is meant to stand in for the entire book of Psalms for it includes representative verses from each of the five sections (books) of the Psalms. Some contemporary scholars have suggested that if we think of the five books of the Torah as the work, to a large degree, of the kohanim, the priests, the five books of the Psalms is the response of the Levites, the poets and singers of the Temple. Thus it is appropriate that it follow the description of an ancient ceremony held largely by the Levites at the time of the arrival of the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem under King David. This anthology will lead into all of the many Psalms that are part of P'sukei D'zimrah.The fact that there are eighteen verses selected may be a reminder of the central prayer later in the service, the Shmoneh Esreh, the 18 blessings, better known perhaps as the Amidah. Eighteen, of course, is also the numerical value of the word “Chai” life, something indeed to pray for.
Many of the verses chosen are verses familiar to regulars in the synagogue from other places in the liturgy. We start off with the two Rom'mu verses from Psalm 99 which we know from the Kabbalat Shabbat as well as from singing them in the Torah service as we parade with the Torah on Shabbat. The verse beginning “V'hu rachum” appears in a number of places, most notably right at the beginning of the Maariv service before Barchu. Jumping down a bit, the verse that begins “El N'kamot Adonay” is the opening of the daily Psalm for Wednesday. The next four verses are familiar to us from the introduction to Havdalah. “Hoshia et amecha,” we sing at the end of the Hoshanah processions during Sukkot. The next verses from Psalm 33, we will include later in P'sukei D'zimrah right after the Hallel HaGadol, Psalm 136. The verse beginning “Anochi Adonay Elohecha” is taken from the Psalm for Thursday. “Ashrei ha-am shekacha lo” is the second verse of the Ashrei. Very few of these verses are used solely in this prayer of Hodu. The compiler of this section has gathered not only some beautiful verses expressing praise of the Almighty and affirming our faith in His power and goodness, but he has selected some “old friends” so to speak, verses that roll off the tongue because they are so familiar from other places in the Siddur. Of course, it's always hard to know when we run across a famous quotation if the author knew it was famous or if he or she made it famous by using it.
On Shabbat and Festivals this combined prayer unit leads directly into the additional Psalms for those holy days, beginning with Psalm 19. On weekdays, it is followed by a very short Psalm, Psalm 100, which is associated with the Thanksgiving offering in the Temple. That leads, after another shorter collection of verses (Y'hi K”vod) into the Ashrei and the concluding Psalms of the Psalter, 146 – 150, the central core of P'sukei D'Zimrah. It seems to me that, with a little imagination, we might visualize ourselves back in the days of King David, and open our daily outpouring of praise with the songs of the Levites in ancient Jerusalem and receive the opening commands once again, to offer thanks, to proclaim the Name of God, to sing, to offer praise, and rejoice in this opportunity to be a part of the ancient chorus in the presence of the Lord.