Thoughts on the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat
After a two week break, we resume our study of our prayers with a look once more at Kabbalat Shabbat. As we engage in reflection on these prayers, our thoughts are directed toward friends and family in Israel and all the citizens of the Jewish state who are currently under attack once again by the missiles indiscriminately sent into civilian areas by Hamas. We offer our prayers for their safety and for the swift return to peace and quiet in that troubled part of the world. We send our consolation to the families of those killed in the attacks and our prayers for healing of those wounded. “May the Almighty who makes peace on high grant peace to us and to all Israel, and let us say: Amen.”
Last summer, I wrote a piece on Kabbalat Shabbat, focusing on the hymn L'cha Dodi. In that piece, (You can still find it on the Temple B'nai Israel webpage.) I mentioned that this introductory service on Friday evening was created by the Kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century and is made up of six Psalms for the six days of labor each week, followed by the hymn L'cha Dodi, in which we formally welcome Shabbat into our midst. This, in turn, is followed by two Psalms for Shabbat, Psalm 92, whose heading indicates that it is a Psalm dedicated to the Sabbath day, and here becomes a hymn to the Sabbath bride, and Psalm 93, which begins “Adonay malach” “God reigns” is dedicated to God who we might call the Sabbath groom.. Psalm 92 and 93 appear also in P'sukei d'zimrah on Saturday mornings and we discussed them in that context some months ago. We also have looked at the sixth of the six introductory Psalms, Psalm 29, back in March, as it is also sung when we return the Torah to the ark on Shabbat morning. Again, these earlier essays remain on our webpage for your perusal. That leaves only the first five Psalms for our consideration this week, Psalms 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99.
These five Psalms are among those that scholars call Kingship or Coronation songs. Some go as far as to suggest that at some earlier time, these Psalms might have been part of an annual ceremony, perhaps held at Rosh Hashanah time amidst the sounding of the shofar, confirming God's kingdom on earth. Since the prophets link the establishment of God's kingdom to some future day, as part of the messianic hope, it is appropriate to sing these Psalms proclaiming God's kingship as we begin Shabbat, a day which represents the time of the Messiah, yom shekulo shabbat umenuchah, a day entirely of Sabbath and rest. The rabbis proclaim Shabbat as mei-ein olam haba, a foretaste of the world to come.
These Psalms are filled with expressions of joy and celebration, hence the custom of singing part or all of these Psalms with joyful and energetic melodies, a custom that has been renewed in recent years particularly in those congregations that hold what has come to be called “Carlebach services” utilizing melodies and niggunim composed by the late Chasidic rabbi and songwriter, Shlomo Carlebach. In some synagogues these Psalms are accompanied by instrumental music, since they generally are chanted prior to the onset of Shabbat, which as noted in my piece on L'cha Dodi, does not officially begin until the recital of the Psalm of Shabbat, Psalm 92. Thus before sundown, one can still play music even in congregations that ordinarily do not allow instruments to be played on Shabbat. I've also seen some congregations that form circles in the synagogue, and dance joyfully and intensely to the repetitive melodies accompanying these Psalms. It took some time before Kabbalat Shabbat became a nearly universal practice among Jews. In those benighted days prior to modern communication, it was not until the 17th century or later that other communities outside of Safed learned of this practice and by the 18th century most congregations had accepted it as part of the liturgy. We might note that the Sephardic tradition does not include Psalm 95 -99, but begins with Psalm 29. Some early Reform prayer books also omitted these Psalms or condensed them into a single responsive reading and some Conservative congregations, including ours, generally choose three or four out of the six Psalms each week to shorten the service a bit. We always begin with Psalm 95 and end with Psalm 29 and in between pick one of the four remaining Psalms as a responsive reading.
Even if we take each Psalm separately and consider some of the various commentaries that have been written on each, I think they come together as a continuous hymn in which we proclaim joyfully God's rule over the earth and accept His authority over our lives as represented by the Shabbat observance that we are entering each week as we chant these verses. Psalm 95 sets the tone of this portion of the service, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout aloud to the flock of our salvation.” “Naria,” translated here as “shout” can also remind us of the teruah sound of the shofar. Indeed, I recall hearing one rabbi many years ago say that if we took this Psalm to heart, we'd announce Shabbat's arrival with the sounding of horns not unlike a New Year's Eve celebration. “Let us greet Him with thanksgiving, shout aloud (naria) to Him with songs of praise. For the Lord is the great God, the King great above all powers.” This is the first mention of God in the role of sovereign, a title earned as Creator of all that exists as the succeeding verses make clear. “In His hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks are His. The sea is His, for He made it, the dry land too, for His hands formed it.” In response, we are called upon by the Psalmist to worship God, to bow down and bend our knee, for He made us as well. The Psalm focuses on the Jewish people in particular singled out as “the flock He tends.” However, the Psalm ends on a rather strange note, reminding us of the sins of our ancestors and warning us not to fall into their path by hardening our hearts as they did in the wilderness causing God to bring punishment, not allowing that sinful generation to enter the land of Canaan.
Psalm 96 begins with a call to “sing a new song.” All the earth, in this more universal Psalm, should join together in song to the Lord, blessing His name and proclaiming His deliverance. God's glory is manifest not only to us, but to all the nations of the world. This is something new, indeed a new song, that God is not limited, as the ancients believed, to any one nation, but is Sovereign over all the earth. In this Psalm, all nations are called upon to render glory and might to the Lord. “Say among the nations, 'The Lord is king.'” In this hymn, God is not only the ruler, but the judge of humankind. “He will judge the peoples with equity.” The Psalmist describes all of nature responding to God's power, “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad. Let the sea roar, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and all they contain. The trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord.” One Friday night in Jerusalem, I was privileged to hear a simple d'var Torah in Yiddish by a Chasidic rebbe of some small group, who described how all of creation joins in song on the eve of Shabbat and what do they sing? Here he sang a simple repetitive song, “Shabbos koydesh, shabbos koydesh, shabbos, shabbos, shabbos koydesh.” Holy Shabbat!” If all of nature recognizes this special, holy day, we too must join the song and enter into its holiness. “For God is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with justice, and the peoples with faithfulness.” As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, 'Yet we believe not only in one God, Creator of heaven and earth, but also in the inseparable connection between cosmos and ethos, the world that is and the world that ought-to-be.” Each Shabbat, we wait to sing that new song of universal justice and peace.
In Psalm 97, the Psalmist assumes God's reign is established and therefore let us rejoice. “Let the many islands rejoice. Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Fire goes ahead of Him, consuming His enemies on every side.” God's enormous power is described by the Psalmist. He lights up the world with lightning, the earth trembles before Him, mountains melt like wax. In the face of such overwhelming might, all other gods are put to shame as are their worshippers. God sets up a divide between the wicked and the righteous. “Let those who love the Lord hate evil for He protects the lives of His devoted ones, delivering them from the hand of the wicked.” “Or zarua latzaddik,” says the Psalmist, “light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous and give thanks to His holy name.”
When we get to the fourth Psalm, Psalm 98, we see the same ideas echoed from Psalm 96. Once again, we are called upon to “sing a new song to the Lord for He has done wondrous things.” God brings salvation, yeshuah, to the world. We are accustomed to hearing Christian preachers talk about salvation from sin. That is not a Jewish idea. We emphasize our free will. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes, “The Jewish tradition never believed we could be saved from sin, for that would rob us of free will and our ability to choose right over wrong, and we would no longer be human.” He explains that in Hebrew we use yeshuah to describe God rescuing us from real and potential danger. We offer thanks each day for His salvation. “He remembered His loving kindness and faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our Lord.” What then is our response? Take out those horns again, hariu, Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth; burst into song, sing with joy, play music. Play music to the Lord on the harp...with trumpets and the sound of the shofar, shout for joy before the Lord.” Once more, the Psalmist imagines all of creation joining this musical tribute to God. “Let the sea and all that is in it thunder, the world and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap hands, the mountains sing together with joy – before the Lord.” Once again as in Psalm 96,”for He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the earth with justice and the peoples with equity.”
The last of this group of royal Psalms, is Psalm 99. As in Psalm 97, we begin by proclaiming that God reigns. “Let the people tremble.” We now imagine God taking His place on His throne, upon the Cherubim. If we recall the description of the tabernacle and later the Temple, the ark with the tablets of the Ten Commandments is placed in the Holy of Holies, with a gold cover on each side of which emerges a cherub, a holy being. In pagan Temples the throne of the local god would be placed on the back of these creatures. In our sanctuary, there is an empty space where we might imagine God's throne and the Almighty seated upon it. Before this image, the Psalmist sees all the world quaking in fear and reverence. “Great is the Lord in Zion, He is exalted over all the peoples.” The same themes are reiterated in this poem as well. “O great and awesome One: He is holy! The King in His might loves justice. You have established equity. The justice and righteousness in Jacob is Your doing.” We are called upon once again to exalt the Lord and bow at His footstool, i.e. the Temple. He is holy! The Psalmist calls to mind three leaders, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel representing respectively prophecy, priesthood, and kingship (Samuel anointed the first two kings, Saul and David.) “They called upon the Lord and He answered them. He spoke to them in a pillar of cloud; they observed His testimonies and the statute He gave them. Lord our God, You answered them. You were for them a forgiving God, though You punished their misdeeds.” Even our greatest leaders were human, not without sin, nonetheless, when they called upon God on behalf of the people, God answered their prayers. Therefore, the Psalmist concludes, “Exalt the Lord our God and bow at His holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy.” This last verse is also chanted as we carry the Torah around the sanctuary as it is brought to the reading table on Saturday morning.
As we've seen before, the sixth Psalm, Psalm 29, is seen by our rabbis as a description of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, a revelation that included the teaching to Remember the Sabbath Day to make it holy. That Psalm is the climax of the six weekday Psalms and leads into the hymn of welcome, L'cha Dodi, and the Psalms designated for Shabbat itself, Psalms 92 and 93.
These Psalms remind us that Shabbat is not merely a day of leisure, but rather serves to remind us of our hopes and dreams as a people for a better world, a world that will bring true salvation, justice, harmony, and peace. We pray for a day that is entirely of Shabbat and of rest, Yom shekulo Shabbat umenuchah. Our world has abandoned the notion of a Sabbath day. We are on the go 24/7 and we no longer set aside time for rest and reflection, a time of sanctity and for prayer. Shabbat is our chance to escape into holy time and to reset our compass to work in the week ahead toward the perfection of God's creation. The Psalmist dares to imagine that more perfect world and we join in song each week as we welcome Shabbat into our homes and into our lives.