Thoughts on Three Prayers from P'sukei D'zimrah
As I have prepared these lessons on the prayers in the Jewish tradition, I continue to learn much I did not know about these biblical and rabbinic passages that we often rush through as part of our regular services. Over the past months, in particular, I have tried to dissect the preliminary portions of the service, particularly the P'sukei D'zimrah for Shabbat and have come to a much greater appreciation of that portion of the service. There is one major element that was added later than most of the other portions, that we have not yet touched upon, but I thought that before dealing with that section of the Song at the Sea, I would take up three shorter pieces that complete the earlier portion of the unit, namely the short Psalm 100 which is said only on weekdays, and the Y'hi Kh'vod collection of verses and Baruch Adonay L'olam verses which appear before and after the daily Hallel prayers every day.
Just to orient everyone, here is what we have covered to date. This section opens with a blessing, Baruch SheAmar. In the Ashkenazic tradition this is followed by a lengthy unit from Chronicles that is filled with verses of praise on the arrival of the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem. This section, Hodu Ladonay kiru bish'mo is followed by a series of verses from Psalms that continue the theme of praise. On weekdays, the next prayer is Psalm 100, a Psalm of Thanksgiving, which we will look at shortly. On Shabbat and major festivals, we omit Psalm 100 and replace it with a collection of nine Psalms which we have looked at over the past months, Psalms 19, 34, 90, and 91 which we studied individually, then the two Psalms of the great Hallel, 135 and 136, the introductory Psalm for Shabbat added by the mystics, Psalm 33, followed by the two Psalms of Shabbat 92 and 93. The transition from these additional Psalms back to the daily version of P'sukei D'zimrah is the collection of verses that begins Y'hi kh'vod Adonay l'olam (May the glory of God endure forever), which we will look at today. Following this comes the familiar Ashrei prayer, said three times a day and the section we dubbed “the Daily Hallel” - Psalms 146 – 150, all beginning and ending with Halleluyah. This had been the final section of P'sukei D'zimrah originally and it is followed by some concluding verses which will be the third piece that we will look at today. What follows that now, however, was a later addition leading into the Song of the Sea and our examination of that will have to wait for another day. It, in turn is followed by the concluding blessing of Yishtabach which have discussed, but which on Shabbat has a lengthy prologue, Nishmat Kol Chay, that we have yet to examine.
First let us consider Psalm 100. Because it is introduced as a Psalm of Thanksgiving, the rabbis understood it as a Psalm associated with the Korban Todah, the thanksgiving offering in the Temple, a free will offering that was a sub-category of the Sh'lamim, the peace offerings which, being non-obligatory, do not override Shabbat and Yom Tov, hence the Psalm's omission on those days. It also is omitted on the eve of Passover and throughout the Passover week because that Todah offering included ten leavened rolls which are forbidden on those days of Pesach as chametz. On the eve of Yom Kippur the Psalm is omitted as well out of concern that the sacrifice might not be fully consumed by those offering it prior to the fast and would need to be burned, an act that while permissible was considered disrespectful to the offering. Since the Todah offering was not brought on that day, we omit the Psalm of Todah as well. Only on Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, do we say both Psalm 100 and all of the additional Psalms for Shabbat and festivals. It is believed that this Psalm may have been recited back in Temple days in association with the Todah offering thus linking it even more closely to that sacrifice and the laws that govern its prohibited days.
According to the Midrash, at the end of time, all prayers and all sacrifices will come to an end with the exception of the Todah, the prayers and offerings of thanksgiving. I'm assuming that at that time of perfection we will no longer need to bring sin offerings and guilt offerings and all of our desires will be fulfilled. All that will remain is the need to offer thanks, to express our gratitude to the Almighty for our many blessings.
This brief Psalm is built around seven imperatives and thus has a certain urgency to its tone. “Shout aloud to the Lord, all the earth; serve the Lord with rejoicing; come before Him with joyous intonation. Know this: the Lord He is God; He made us and we are His, His people, the flock of His pasture. Come into His gates with thanksgiving, His courts with acclamation. Thank him! Bless His name! For good is the Lord, His steadfast kindness (chesed) is everlasting; His faithfulness is from generation to generation.”
This Psalm follows naturally after the passage from Chronicles and contains many of the same themes and echoes the opening words of that passage of Hodu, give thanks. The central verse points to the foundation of this sense of gratitude that we have. It is the knowledge of our special relationship to God as His creation that leads us to offer our thanks.
Right after this Psalm on weekdays and after the Shabbat Psalms on Shabbat and Festivals, comes the collection of verses known as Y'hi Kh'vod. This is not simply a random selection of verses, rather it known as a “catena” a chain of verses linked together by common words and ideas. Almost every verse in this passage contains God's name, as Adonay. Frequently consecutive verses echo each other with some of the same words repeated from one verse to the next creating that sense of a chain of verses. One verse builds on the next. We begin with words of praise for God who is praised throughout time and space. We see God as sovereign reigning throughout eternity. God foils the plans of the nations that might rise up against Him and only God's plan prevails throughout the world. After this universalist opening, the last verses focus on God's special relationship with the Jewish people, “For God chose Jacob to be His, Israel to be His prized possession. For God will not abandon His people, nor leave his heritage.” We end with a plea, “Adonai, save us! May our King answer us when we cry out.”
As mentioned, this collection of verses leads into the Ashrei which is primarily built around Psalm 145 and then come the five Psalms which conclude the Psalter, 146 to 150. The Book of Psalms is divided into five books and each of those books has a closing verse, a doxology, offering praise to God. It is customary to repeat the last verse of Psalm 150, the final Psalm in the book, thus that is one of the closing doxologies, the end of Book five. “All that has breath shall praise the Lord, Halleluyah!” Two other doxologies are part of this closing tribute, the end of Book three and then of Book two and one other verse from Psalm 135 is included between them as well. While various attempts are made to explain this strange collection, the fifteenth century Portuguese rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Yachya, sees the extra verse from 135 as a verse of hope for the Messianic future, much appreciated by that generation of Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula at that time. “Blessed be Adonay from Zion, the one who dwells in Jerusalem, Halleluyah.” That verse is in the middle of this short collection which begins with the praise at the end of Book three of Psalms, “Blessed be Adonay forever, Amen and Amen.” The closing verse which is the end of the second book of the Psalms gives an appropriate finish to our offerings of praise throughout P'sukei D'zimrah, “Blessed be God, Adonay, the God of Israel, sole worker of wonders. And blessed be His glorious name forever. May His glory fill the entire earth, Amen and Amen.”
Each of these five books of the Psalms ends either with Amen or Halleluyah or both, or as in these two verses, a double Amen to emphatically affirm God's praises. By creating this collection with two of the traditional doxologies as well as a prayer for redemption, following immediately after five Psalms of intense praise, beginning and ending with Halleluyah, there is a sense of a grand finale, a culmination of praise at this point of conclusion in the service. Yet, as we'll see, we Jews seem to have difficulty saying Amen and meaning it as a conclusion. There is always a little something more to add to our prayers, one more section, and that happens here as well thanks to our medieval authorities.
Life is filled with struggles, pains, difficulties, and disappointments. The idea of beginning our day with words of praise and thanks, acknowledging that which is good and positive in life, seems like a wonderful way to start off our morning. Yes, we have needs and desires which we will express later in our worship, but it is important that we begin by looking around and recognizing how good the world is, how full of blessing our lives are, and offering thanks and praise to the power beyond our comprehension who is the Creator of all that exists. P'sukei D'zimrah provides us with that positive outlook on life and gives us the strength and energy to face whatever challenges will meet us during the day. “Blessed be the Lord forever, Amen and Amen.”