Thoughts on the Sabbath Psalms (92 and 93)
In the ancient Temple, each day there was a special Psalm that the Levites would sing as part of the ritual of the day. Though we no longer have the Temple with its sacrifices, it is the custom to recite each day the designated Psalm that the Levites used to sing as part of the morning service. Most synagogues recite this at the very end of the service, while others put it toward the beginning after the Birchot HaShachar, the introductory blessings. For Friday, we read Psalm 93 and for Shabbat, appropriately enough, the Psalm designated in the Psalter as a Psalm for the Sabbath Day is read, Psalm 92. On Friday night before the evening service, we have the ceremony of welcome to Shabbat, Kabbalat Shabbat, which was added fairly late to our worship services, in the 17th or 18th centuries. After six Psalms for the six workdays and the hymn L'cha Dodi, which we've looked at before, come these two Psalms again, first 92 and then 93. Since L'cha Dodi ends with the words “Come, O Bride! Come, O bride!” with Shabbat designated as the bride, it has been suggested that we then recite the Psalm for the Sabbath bride, Psalm 92. As for Psalm 93, who does it speak about? Adonay malach, God reigns. It is a Psalm for the Sabbath groom. Alternatively, since we also call Shabbat a queen, they are for the Queen Sabbath and the King Adonay, the Lord. On Saturday morning, these two Psalms pop up again, back to back, at the conclusion of the Shabbat additions into the P'sukei D'zimrah, shortly after the Hallel HaGadol (Psalms 135 -136). Psalm 33 which some cantors link to the end of the Hallel HaGadol comes between it and Psalm 92 and 93 and it seems to also serve as an introduction to those two Psalms.
Since so much of our attention in recent weeks has been directed to the elements of the P'sukei D'zimrah, I think I will consider these two Psalms first in that context. To review, we begin with the opening blessing of Baruch Sheamar. This was followed by the lengthy passage from Chronicles, reworking two Psalm for the welcoming of the ark to Jerusalem in King David's day, followed by the florilegium (the anthology of Psalm verses) representing the five books of the Psalms attributed to King David. After that introduction follow six Psalms, Psalms 19, 34, 90, 91 and the two Psalms of Hallel HaGadol, Psalms 135 and 136. At this point, the mystics added a seventh Psalm, perhaps for the seven days of the week, but more likely to represent the seven divine emanations, the sefirot, from Binah to Shechinah in their cosmology. One of the endless metaphors the mystics use for these Divine powers are the seven days of the week, so both theories are right. For the mystics, on Shabbat the sefirah of Tiferet, Splendor, known also as the Holy Blessed One (HaKadosh Baruch Hu) unites with the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, the sefirah of Malchut. Since Malchut is also known as the Assembly of Israel, Knesset Yisrael, it is we, the Jewish people, who unite with God on this holy day. So Psalm 33 completes the number seven of this section of the service.
This seventh Psalm, Psalm 33, is ”intended as a kavanah – a preparation for greeting Shabbat – beginning as it does with song and ending with heartfelt joy.” (Siddur Lev Shalem) Its opening line may be familiar since it is quoted in the Shochen Ad prayer at the end of P'sukei D'zimrah. In many synagogues that is where the main cantor takes over the leading of the service and after the opening line of Shochen Ad marom v'kadosh sh'mo, we read “V'katuv (And it is written) – here comes the opening line of Psalm 33 – Ran'nu tzadikim badonay lay'sharm na'avah tehilah, sing to Adonay, O you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to offer praise.” The Psalm continues with other calls for praise both instrumentally and vocally. After a few more lines of praise, the author speaks specifically of God's creations: “The heavens were formed with God's speech, all their hosts with God's breath; the sea's waters were gathered together, the deep stored in treasure vaults.” Since Shabbat is the culmination of the works of creation, this seems like an appropriate lead in to the Psalm for Shabbat. The Psalmist then calls on all the earth to show reverence to God, for He spoke and world came into being. “Adonai overturns people's designs, foils the plans of nations, but the designs of the Lord endure forever.” This theme of God's defeat of the forces of evil repeats in both Psalm 92 and 93. The poet speaks of God in heaven looking down on earth, observing every human being and discerning all that they do. God's eyes are fixed on those who revere God and look for God's love and kindness. As the Psalm concludes, we read, “We shall rejoice with God as we have trusted in God's holy name. May Your love and kindness, Adonai, be with us, for we have placed our hope in You.”
Immediately after is “A Psalm, the song of the day of Shabbat.” Many commentators struggle to understand what connection this Psalm actually has to Shabbat. The Midrash claims that this is not a Psalm for Shabbat or about Shabbat, but a Psalm actually recited by Shabbat personified. We saw this Midrash incorporated into the blessing of Yotzer Or before the Sh'ma, where it states, “The seventh day itself praises God and says, 'A psalm, a song by the Sabbath day, It is good to thank You, Adonai, and sing to Your name, Most High.'” The verse which follows we saw last week utilized by the rabbis to explain the two versions of the Geulah prayer, “To proclaim Your love at daybreak, Your faithfulness each night.” The morning version of the prayer of redemption speaks of God's ongoing love and the evening version opens with words about God's faithfulness, Emet ve-emunah.
As the Psalm continues, the Psalmist invites musicians to join him,”Finger the lute, pluck the harp, let the sound of the lyre rise up.” Inspired by the works of the six days of creation, we continue, “You gladdened me with Your deeds, Adonai, and I shall sing of Your handiwork. How wonderful are Your works, Adonai, how subtle Your designs.” On the seventh day, we take time to stop and celebrate the works of Creation. The Psalmist then condemns those who fail to see God's role in the majesty of creation: “The arrogant do not understand, the fool does not comprehend this: the wicked flourish like grass and every evildoer blossoms, only to be destroyed forever – but You, Adonai are exalted for all time.”
After a couple more lines about the destruction of the wicked, the Psalmist turns to the fate of the righteous in the closing verses, “Tzaddik katamar yifrach, the righteous flourish like the date palm, thrive like a cedar in Lebanon; planted in the house of Adonai, they flourish in our God's courtyards. In old age they remain fruitful, still fresh and bountiful, proclaiming Adonai is upright, my rock in whom there is no flaw.” This seems like a picture of the peaceful day of rest, not only the weekly Sabbath that we observe, but the Sabbath of the future, the age which is called a day entirely of Shabbat and rest, yom shekulo Shabbat umenuchah, that describes the Messianic era yet to come. When we recite this Psalm as the culmination of Kabbalat Shabbat, it is even more powerful, for the six Psalms chosen for the opening of that service do not look back to the Creation story, but proclaim the coming Kingdom of the Lord in days to come. Thus we end that service with the Psalms for the Sabbath Bride and her groom in Psalm 93. All the upper spheres are united on Shabbat at that great wedding on high when the Lord takes Shabbat as His bride, when the people of Israel connect wth their heavenly Lover..
In the Shabbat morning P'sukei D'zimrah, that final Psalm, Psalm 93, begins with the proclamation: “Adonai is sovereign, robed in splendor, girded in strength; the earth stands firm,not to be dislodged. From earliest time You were enthroned; You are eternal” We affirm that God is ruler over time and space, “mei-az” literally “from then” whenever that earliest time might be and before it. But the emphasis is not so much on the past as the future. This being the culmination of Creation, it is a description of God's ultimate triumph over the forces of evill and the establishment of His sovereignty over all the world.
The middle verses of this short Psalm speak of rivers that rise up, 'the rivers raise up their roar, the rivers raise up their waves. Above the roar of the vast sea and the majestic breakers of the ocean, Adonai stands supreme in the heavens.” Most of the commentators see these rivers and waves as a metaphor for the nations of the world, those who rebel against God's authority and make a lot of noise, but ultimately are subdued by the vast power of the Almighty. God will have, indeed He always has had, the last word over the roar of the seas, “In Your house, beautiful in its holiness, Your testimonies endure, Adonai for all time.” On one level, Your House may simply refer to the Temple in Jerusalem, but beyond that the whole world is God's House and if we open our eyes, we will see the beauty of its holiness transcending any forces of evil that try to negate that beauty. For God's testimonies endure, the teachings of Torah, the ultimate values are firmly established and we week after week re-affirm our connection with God and these fundamental values through the observance of Shabbat.
Our task as we renew that connection week by week is to go forth into the world after Shabbat to do our part to realize that perfected world where all is Shabbat and rest, the world of peace and harmony that we dream of and which we need to continue to work to make a reality.
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