Thoughts on the Daily Psalms

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

In the Mishnaic tractate of Tamid, the rabbis give us an inside view of what already in their day was past history, the intricate procedures followed in the Temple for the daily sacrificial offerings brought on behalf of the people of Israel. Most of these actions were performed by the Kohanim, the priests, the descendants of Aaron. However, there was a second group of officiants designated by the Torah to serve in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. These were the Levites, the tribe of Levi from which the Kohanim derived. In the wilderness, the Levites' duties included the transporting of the various components of the Tabernacle during the wanderings of the people over a forty year period. Each of the three clans of Levites had its specific duties to perform. However, once settled in the land, the Levites were relegated to 48 Levitical cities and did not receive any farmland as did the other tribes. They were to be supported by the tithe offerings of their fellow Israelites. Already in the Torah, we are reminded to see to the welfare of the Levites as well as to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. The kohanim have numerous gifts that they receive at the Temple, some 24. But the Levites have only the offerings of tithes from the harvest. In the Temple, however, the Levites did have some important duties. They assisted the Kohanim in various ways and specifically, we know, they were gatekeepers and singers. Their role as singers in the daily rituals of sacrifice is described in the final chapter of Tamid. The Mishnah describes the offering of the morning sacrifice, known as the Tamid shel boker, when the High Priest himself decided to participate.

We read, after it describes his actions in placing the parts of the animal upon the altar, “They gave the Kohen Gadol wine to offer; the Deputy would be standing on the horn (a protrusion from the altar) with the flags in his hand (these he would use to signal the Levites), and two Kohanim would stand on the Table of the Fats (a table so designated next to the altar ramp) with two silver trumpets in their hands. They sounded a tekiah-teruah-tekiah. They came and stood next to Ben Arza (the name of this choir director was applied to his successors as well), one to his right and one to his left. The Kohen Gadol bent down to pour the wine and the deputy waved the flags, and Ben Arza sounded the cymbals, and the Levites chanted the song. When they arrived at the end of a stanza they sounded a tekiah, and the people prostrated themselves. At every stanza a tekiah, and at every tekiah a prostration.”

The Mishnah which follows is the concluding passage of this tractate and we already looked at it a few weeks ago in my piece on Ein Keloheinu and the passages which follow in the Shabbat service. There, after the description of the compounding of the incense to be offered in the Temple, we read the opening lines of the specific Psalms sung by the Levites each day of the week. In the absence of the Temple, we no longer offer sacrifices on the altar. There is no more incense offering. No more wine libations our poured out and the Levites have stopped singing. Nonetheless, our service contains not only many prayers for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, but also various passages to help us recall those ancient rites. Though the daily recitation of the Amidah, is intended to replace the daily sacrifices, there is a lengthy passage in the birchot hashachar, that we have yet to examine, known as korbanot, in which we read of the procedure for the daily offering as a kind of substitute for the actual offering we may no longer bring. The pitum haketoret passage, on the incense, that I mentioned, was to remind us of the Temple incense offering. Thus it is not surprising that a tradition arose of reciting each day the appropriate Psalm that the Levites would have sung on this day in the Temple.

That tradition already appears in the post-Talmudic tractate of Soferim which we have referenced before. The author of Soferim cites a discussion between Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan over whether it is appropriate to recite the Psalms of the Levites in the absence of the wine libations. It is determined that it is fine to do so on the basis of the principle that “anyone who mentions a verse in its proper time is considered as if he has built a new altar and is offering a sacrifice upon it.”

It seems that at first these daily Psalms were not established as a fixed observance. Maimonides writes in his prayer book included in his Mishneh Torah law code, that “some people” have the custom of reciting the Psalm which the Levites recited in the Temple after the prayers of supplication, the tachanun prayers. What was a practice of “some people” in Maimonides' day, becomes the general practice in the later law codes and in most congregations around the world.

The introductory line that we find in our prayerbooks before each Psalm, however, was not introduced until later under the influence of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalistic authority in 16th century Safed. Each Psalm is preceded by the statement, “Hayom yom x bashabbat, shebo hayu haleviyim omrim b'veit hamikdash.” “Today is day x of the Shabbat week on which the Levites recited in the Temple (the following Psalm.) This introduction, using the word bashabbat rather than bashavua to refer to the week, provided a daily opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of “Zachor et yom Hashabbat l'kodsho” “Remember (or mention) the Sabbath day to make it holy.” Zachor is more than a mental process of remembering, it implies actual mention of the day which we do when we say Kiddush or Havdalah and now also each day as we recall the levitical chorus in the Temple with its appropriate Psalm.

We should note, as some of the halachic authorities do, that the wine libation and the Levites' songs accompanied not only the morning sacrifice, but also the one brought at twilight and thus we might expect that the Psalms of the Levites would be repeated at minchah as well. However that is not the practice, since the Kohanim often were delayed in offering the afternoon offering and it was not considered appropriate for some reason for the Levites to sing at night.

I have noticed over the years several different customs as to when in the service we should recite the Psalm of the Day. In the Artscroll Siddur, it is placed at the end of the service, after Shir Hakavod (An'im zemirot) and followed by a mourners' kaddish. In the Koren Siddur and others, it precedes Shir HaKavod. In Seminary, I recall that we recited the Psalm after the Readers' Full Kaddish following the Shacharit Amidah, right before the Torah service. That practice has some logic to it, since this places it close to the service that replaces the morning sacrifice, when the songs were actually sung and prior to the service that replaces the Shabbat musaf sacrifice.

In most Conservative prayerbooks, including the most recent, Lev Shalem, you will find the daily Psalms early in the service, at the end of the Birchot Hashachar and before the 30th Psalm preceding P'sukei D'zimrah. I'm not sure if the editors ever explain this arrangement, but I suspect that I know the reason for it. I recall as a teenager that a number of middle-aged men who were reciting Kaddish either for a yahrzeit or during the year of mourning for a parent, came to the beginning of the service on Saturday mornings. Following this arrangement, they would get to recite the Kaddish d'Rabanan after Rabbi Yishmael's thirteen principles, another mourners' kaddish after the Psalm for the day, and a third kaddish after the 30th Psalm, all within the first ten minutes of the service. After that, those who had to go downtown to open their businesses would depart and those who were retired remained for the rest of the service. I'd guess that something similar may have happened in other Conservative congregations. It's just a conjecture, but it makes some sense since there is no requirement to place the Psalm at the end of the service specifically.

The Talmud in the tractate of Rosh Hashanah tries to link each of the Psalms for the seven days of the week to the seven days of creation described in the opening chapter of Genesis. The explanations for some of the Psalms, particularly the Psalm for Sunday and the Psalms for Friday and Saturday clearly make sense. The other explanations, however, I find somewhat forced.

The Psalm for Sunday, Psalm 24, which we considered when we discussed the prayers for returning the Torah to the ark a few months back, begins with the verse, “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.” This, the Talmud tells us, is “in commemoration of the first day of Creation, because on that day, God acquired the world and transferred it to humankind, and He was the only ruler in His world, as the angels were not created until the second day.” Some people have a custom of inscribing this verse in the front of their books, noting that while everything belongs to God ultimately, this book right now is in my possession.

On Monday, we read Psalm 48, which begins with the verse, ”Great is the Lord and highly to be praised in the city of our God, His sacred mountain.” The Talmud notes that on the second day of Creation, God separated His works, dividing between the upper waters and the lower waters, and ruled over them as King. Thus we see the Psalm refers to Jerusalem as the city of a great king. The Tiferet Israel commentary further explains this as an indication that God has not ascended into the heavens and forgotten about us. Rather He has inclined the heavens to reveal His Shechinah, His Presence, on His holy mountain.

Psalm 82 is the Psalm for Tuesday and it begins with the words, “ God stands in adat El, variously translated as the council of God or the council of the mighty, pronouncing judgment over judges.” Again the connection to the third day of Creation when the dry land appeared and was separated from the seas, is bit sketchy. Once the dry land appears, human life could be established upon it and once that happened judges needed to be appointed to maintain order on earth.

On Wednesday, we have the long Psalm 94 to which it is customary to add a verse or three verses from Psalm 95 which follows, to sweeten the original bitter ending. This Psalm opens, “God of retribution, Lord, God of retribution appear.” The fourth day of Creation, God made the sun, the moon, and the stars, which were the first objects of idolatrous worship. Hence this Psalm recognizes the need for God to bring retribution, appropriate punishment, upon the sinning idolaters on this fourth day of the week. This is nobody's favorite Psalm particularly since it is so long and rather unpleasant.

Thursday's Psalm by contrast is Psalm 81, “Sing joyfully to God our strength, shout with gladness to the God of Jacob.” To the sages, this joyful hymn of praise reflects the creation of birds and fish on the fifth day. These creatures were intended to sing God's praises in the world Or, alternatively, as Rashi suggests, when we hear the varied songs of the birds in the world, we should give thanks to God who created them. The Tiferet Yisrael adds, through these creations we see God's wisdom and power and anyone who contemplates Nature should offer praise to the Creator.

Psalm 93 appears both at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat and in the P'sukei d'zimrah and in both places is linked with Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat. I wrote about these Psalms together some months back. However, here Psalm 93, the Psalm for Friday, is designated specifically for the sixth day of Creation. On this day, all the land creatures appear and as the culmination of the works of creation, God fashions human beings “in His image, after His likeness.” The Psalm begins, “The Lord is sovereign, crowned with splendor.” Creation has been completed and the human creatures are capable of recognizing God's sovereignty and offering praise.

Of course, the seventh day is Shabbat and Psalm 92 is designated in the Psalter as “A song for Shabbat.” There is some disagreement, however, on whether the Psalm celebrates the completion of Creation of old and God's ceasing His labors on the seventh day or whether this Psalm looks to the distant future, to a time when the entire world will be nothing but Shabbat. It seems somewhat inconsistent to have six Psalms looking back to Creation and one looking forward to the end of time, but either interpretation works.

These are the kinds of connections made by the Talmudic sages and the early medieval rabbis. The later rabbis of mystical bent, connect the seven days and the seven Psalms with the seven lower sefirot from Chesed to Malchut and with seven biblical heroes that are linked to the sefirotic system. For those who study the Zohar, the chief work of Jewish mysticism, this is no surprise since among the endless metaphors for the divine emanations, the sefirot, the term “days” frequently recurs.

As mentioned, we have studied three of these Psalms before in other contexts in the Shabbat service. However, there are four Psalms that we have not previously encountered and we should take a few moments to look at the Psalms designated for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in terms of their actual content.

Monday's Psalm, Psalm 48, is designated as one of the Songs of Zion, singing the praises of the Holy Land and of Jerusalem in particular. This is one of a number of Psalms attributed to the sons of Korach, a levitical family descended from that rebellious cousin of Moses. These pious children did not follow in their father's footsteps, we see. The Psalm begins with the praises of God in His holy city of Jerusalem. This beautiful city on the hill of Zion is seen as the city of the great King, from which God looks out upon the earth. The Psalmist goes on to speak of kings who sought to capture the city, but whom God sent off in a panic. Some suggest this is a reference to the Assyrian siege which ended abruptly. The author then turns to God in direct discourse, offering thanksgiving of the people for His salvation, for fulfilling His promises to watch over them and demonstrating His lovingkindness. In the final lines, the Psalmist invites his listeners to “Walk all about Zion, encircle her. Count her towers, review her ramparts, scan her citadels. Then tell her story to later generations, tell of our God who will guide us forever.” This is truly a love song for our God and for the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Tuesday's Psalm is quite brief. Psalm 82, is one of a number of Psalms attributed to an early poet named Asaf. This Psalm opens with a dramatic picture of the Almighty rising in “Adat El” which we might think of as the celestial court on high. It is not clear if He is pronouncing judgment upon the celestial beings or, more likely, upon earthly judges. The Torah sets standards for judicial behavior, but here God seems to be calling out the judges, “How long will you pervert justice? How long will you favor the wicked? Champion the weak and the orphan; uphold the downtrodden and the destitute.” The foundations of the earth are righteousness and justice. When these principles are violated “the earth's foundations are shaken.” God had high hopes for His people, but now He sees that they will die like mortals, fall like any prince, demonstrate the foibles of humankind. So the Psalmist addresses God and concludes, ”Arise, O God, and judge the earth, for Your dominion is over all the nations.” Ultimately we are dependent on God's justice in the world.

Psalm 94 on Wednesday, has no heading, but immediately jumps into its message, calling on God to wreak vengeance on the wicked and to punish the arrogant. “They crush Your people, Lord, and oppress Your own. Widows and strangers they slay; orphans they murder.” It is these unfortunates who are considered truly “God's people.” According to the Psalmist, the arrogant think that God does not see what they are doing and pays no attention to their crimes. But this is foolishness, for surely the one who created the ear can hear and the one who formed the eye, can see, and is totally aware of their cruel schemes. The Psalmist believes that God will not forsake His people. Justice will return to the upright. “Were it not for God's help, I would be in my grave. When my foot slips, God supports me.”

Rhetorically, he asks, “Are You allied with seats of wickedness, with those who frame injustice by statute? (That last charge, I'm afraid sounds awfully familiar to many of us today who are concerned about “injustice framed in statute”.) The Psalmist is sure that “God will repay them for their wickedness and destroy them with their own evil. Adonay our God will destroy them.” That's the end of the Psalm, but our sages couldn't end the service with words of destruction. So we add the opening lines of Psalm 95 which follows, the same Psalm which opens the Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening. “Let us sing to the Lord, let us rejoice in our Creator; let us greet God with thanksgiving, singing psalms of praise; Adonai is exalted, beyond all that is worshiped.”

The last Psalm that we will consider, is the Psalm for Thursday, Psalm 81, also attributed to Asaf. This Psalm with its mention of the sounding of the shofar on the new moon is associated with Rosh Hashanah. In stark contrast to the Psalm for Wednesday, this poem opens with a joyous song. “Sing with joy to God , our strength; shout with gladness to the God of Jacob. Strike up a melody, sound the timbrel, play sweet music on the harp and lyre. Sound the shofar on the New Moon, on the full moon for our festival day.” Though it is a festival day, it is also a day of judgment. God recalls all His gracious acts that He performed for our people in bringing them forth from Egypt. But in spite of all God's miraculous deeds, the people still failed to listen to Him, so God let them follow their own inclinations. The Psalmist promises that if the people would only listen to God and obey His laws, God would subdue all their enemies. He would feed them the richest of wheat and would satisfy them with honey from a rock. Thus the Psalmist reminds us that it is in our power to determine whether we will enjoy God's blessing or find ourselves wandering aimlessly in the wilderness.

Each day, is a new opportunity for us to sing God's praises, to find new insights into the nature of the world. In the midrash known as Perek Shirah, all of creation sings songs of praise to God. By adding these designated Psalms once sung by the Levites in the Temple to our daily worship, we too join that chorus and sing of God's praise, His lovingkindness, His justice, and we celebrate God's presence throughout creation.

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