Thoughts on Nishmat Kol Chai
The Book of Psalms concludes, as we have noted some time back, with Psalm 150 which is filled with all sorts of musical instruments blaring out their praise of God, shofar, harp, timbrel, and drum, etc.: Halleluyah, Halleluyah. However the closing verse caps off the Psalm with God's greatest instrument offering its praise: Kol haneshamah t'halel Yah, Everything that breathes, every soul, shall praise God, Halleluyah! The word neshamah, soul, is so close to neshima, a breath, that we tend to use them interchangeably. As we have seen over the weeks, the P'sukei D'zimrah originally concluded with Psalm 150, this chorus of praise, instrumental praise, and ultimately the praise uttered by God's creatures, every soul, every breath, offering praise. Later in history, as we learned, the P'sukei D'zimrah was further expanded and a whole new section was added on including the Song at the Sea which culminated with the enthronement of God over all the world, “Adonay yimloch l'olam vaed.” “God will reign forever and ever.”
On weekdays, right after the Song at the Sea, we offer the closing blessing of Yishtabach which the sages link to the opening blessing of Baruch Sheamar. Ideally one should not interrupt one's prayers between the opening and closing blessings of P'sukei D'zimrah, they are considered to be one unit. We say the opening blessing, recite the various biblical passages and many Psalms, and then conclude with the final blessing. On Shabbat and major festivals, however, there is a little more leisure time. We are not running off to work. So before we get to the blessing of Yishtabach, we find a lovely expression of praise beginning with the words Nishmat kol chai t'varech et shimcha - the breath, the soul, of all that lives will praise Your name. Customarily, this passage is broken into two sections and generally the first part provides the conclusion for the leader of the preliminary prayers, the Birchot HaShachar and P'sukei D'zimrah, while the second part, beginning on Shabbat with Shochen Ad and on Yom Tov with HaEl B'Taatzumot Uzecha, is where the cantor, who is chanting the main portion of the Shacharit service, takes over. So in an earlier piece, many months ago, I did write about that second portion from Shochen Ad to Yishtabach. However, today I'd like to take a closer look at the opening part which is quite beautiful and provides a special conclusion to all of these Psalms and Songs that make up this preliminary offering of praise to God, setting the tone for our worship of the day.
The Rokeach, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, writing in the end of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th, says that the Chasidim (that is the earlier Chasidei Ashkenaz of his time, not the latter day Chasidim of the Baal Shem Tov) recite Nishmat every day, not just on Shabbat and festivals. He says that every person who has the breath of life within him, should concentrate on the words of this prayer with all of his might, for it is the praise of the song of songs. Happy is he who concentrates on every word and recites it with all his strength aloud with a melody.
In the 19th century, the Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, says of this poem that it is highly exalted and one should say it with a pleasant melody. He sees it as a charm for any trouble that one might face. One should vow to recite it whenever one is rescued from any sorrow or trouble. He sees it as referring to a higher level of spirituality which he feels is only within the Jewish soul. A century later, the Kaf HaChayim, Rabbi Yakov Chaim Sofer, cites the Beh Ish Chai and suggests taking a vow to recite it as one heads off on a journey out of town, again seeing it as a protective device. Later authorities also see benefit in reciting this prayer when one recovers from illness or is saved from other types of trouble and distress.
The prayer begins with the words “Nishmat kol chai, the soul or the breath of all that live shall praise Your name, Lord our God, and the spirit (ruach) of all flesh shall glorify and exalt Your remembrance always, our Sovereign.” It continues with praise of God, from one end of the universe or of time to the other (min ha-olam v'ad ha-olam – olam can have both a spatial and a temporal meaning) You are God and besides You we have no Sovereign, Redeemer, and Savior.” As the prayer continues, the author likes to string together synonymous verbs and phrases for emphasis. So he continues with five more attributes of God: He redeems, He saves, He provides, He answers, and He shows compassion at every time of trouble and distress. (The commentators differentiate between tzarah and tzukah, one is inner distress and the other is trouble from without.) We have no Sovereign, Helper and Supporter but You. God of the first ones and of the last ones, God of all creatures, Lord of all that are born, extolled in the multitude of praises. He directs His world with lovingkindness, and His creatures with compassion.
The next section begins by stating that the Lord neither slumbers or sleeps and then the author continues with another half a dozen rhyming attributes, Ham'orer y'sheinim, V'hameikitz nirdamim, v'hameisiach ilmim, v'hamatir asurim, v'hasomeich noflim, v'hazokeif k'fufim. Some of these terms are familiar from the Amidah and others from the introductory morning blessings. “God awakens those who sleep, rouses those who slumber, gives speech to those who cannot speak, frees those who are bound, support those who are falling, and straightens those who are bent over. L'cha l'vadcha anachnu modim, unto You alone do we give thanks.”
Having mentioned giving thanks, the author now realizes how inadequate are our efforts to thank and praise God. “Were our mouths filled with song as the sea, our tongues to sing endlessly like the countless waves, our lips to offer limitless praise like the sky, our eyes to shine like the sun and the moon, our arms to spread heavenward like eagles' wings, and our feet swift as deer, we would still be unable to fully express our gratitude to You, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, or to praise Your name for even one of the myriad moments of kindness with which You have blessed our ancestors and us.”
Now that he has indicated how limited our ability to offer thanks, the author proceeds to list some of the many things for which we need to offer thanks to the Almighty: “From Egypt You redeemed us and from the house of bondage You liberated us. In famine, You nourished us; in prosperity, You sustained us; from the sword, You saved us; from pestilence, You spared us; and from illness, bitter and long, You raised us up. Up until now, Your compassion has helped us and Your lovingkindness has not abandoned us. Lord, our God, do not ever desert us.”
We are indeed limited in our ability to praise God, nonetheless, we make use of what we have been given and every aspect of our being we direct toward God's praise, as the author now illustrates, “And so, the organs You formed within us, the spirit and soul You breathed into our nostrils, the tongue you placed in our mouths – they will all thank and bless, praise and acclaim, exalt and honor, sanctify and crown Your name, our sovereign. Let every mouth thank You, every tongue pledge loyalty, every knee bend to You, every body bow before You, every heart be loyal to You, and every fiber of our being chant Your name, fulfilling the song of the psalmist: “Kol atzmotai tomarna, Adonay, mi chamocha, every bone in my body cries out, Adonai, who is like You: saving the poor from the powerful, the afflicted and impoverished from those who prey upon them?”
At this point, the leader of the service usually comes in to chant the conclusion: “Mi yidmeh lach umi yishveh lach umi ya'aroch lach, Who resembles You? Who is equal to You? Who compares to You?” Now come the list of adjectives that we repeat several times in our prayers most notably at the beginning of the Amidah, “HaEl hagadol hagibor v'hanora, el Elyon, the great, mighty and awesome God, God most high, to whom heaven and earth belong. We will praise, acclaim, and honor You, and bless Your sacred name, fulfilling David's words: 'Borchi nafshi et Adonay v'chol k'ravai et shem kodsho.' Let my soul bless the Lord, and every fiber of my being praise God's sacred name.”
The paragraph which follows is where we begin our services on the three pilgrimage festivals, expanding on each of the terms we have just used: HaEl – God in the fulness of Your power, HaGadol - Great in accord with Your glorious name, HaGibor - Mighty in all of time, V'HaNora – Awesome, in your awe-inspiring deeds. We conclude with the final line, HaMelech hayoshev al kisei ram v'nisa, Sovereign who is seated on a high and exalted throne.” That final line is where the reader begins on the High Holidays, extending the word HaMelech, Sovereign, a term repeated throughout the liturgy of the Days of Awe.
So after approximately thirty minutes or so devoted to offering words of praise, some sixteen or seventeen Psalms and various other biblical passages including the Song at the Sea as words to set the tone of our Shabbat worship, we conclude by modestly noting the inadequacy of our ability to even begin to fully appreciate and utter all of the praise due unto God. In spite of our recognized limitations, we feel it is essential that we begin the process of acknowledging God in the world and even if we cannot cover every aspect of the obligation we owe Him, we make our humble beginning, by presenting our prayers before Him each week. It is out of the abundance of prayers in this opening section of our service that we come before God to affirm our belief in God through the Sh'ma and its blessings and to celebrate His place in our lives through the words of the Amidah each week. Nishmat sums up those feelings and end this portion of our worship on an exalted plain.