22 July 2022

Listening to the Psalms – all 150
of them – in reflections each day

‘O that my people would listen to me’ (Psalm 81: 3) … an old record player in a restaurant in Córdoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

My daily reflections on the Psalms in my morning blog prayer diary, which began in March, come to a conclusion tomorrow morning (23 July 2022) with my reflections on the last of the Psalms, Psalm 150.

The Psalms, also known as Tehillim, is slim in sizes a book yet towers in importance in the Bible and in literature. This is, for example, the only book in the Bible to be included in whole in the Book of Common Prayer.

In English, this collection is known as the Psalms from the Greek ψαλμοί, which means ‘instrumental music.’ The Hebrew name Tehillim (תהילים), means ‘praises,’ the Psalms contain many praises and supplications to God.

Traditionally, many of the psalms were composed by King David, who is referred to as the ‘sweet singer of Israel’ (II Samuel 23: 1). Almost half the psalms are preceded with ‘Mizmor Ledavid’ (‘A Song to David’) or another opening line ascribing it to David.

Some of the Psalms have no attribution, while some have the names of others such as Asaph, the Sons of Korah, Solomon and Moses. The Talmud says David composed this book with the input of 10 Elders, although only some of whom are named.

The Book of Psalms is divided into five smaller sections or books. The Jewish sages compare this to the Torah, which also contains five books.

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Levites would sing and play music. There were special psalms for each day of the week, as well as Psalms reserved for when the First Fruit (bikkurim) were brought, and other special occasions. The Hallel (Psalms 113-118) were sung when the Passover sacrifice was brought.

The psalms give us the word Hallelujah. The word Hallel means ‘praise, and the Psalms of Hallel often contain the word הללוי-ה, which means ‘praise God,’ rendered in English as ‘hallelujah.’ In all, this word occurs 24 times in Psalms, all of them in the final third of the book, and never in any other books in Scripture.

In all, there are 150 psalms. Despite the different traditions about numbering the Psalms, the sum total is 150. Interestingly, however, the Talmud says there are 147 Psalms, corresponding to the years of the life of Jacob, the common ancestor of all Jews. This discrepancy is because there are certain Psalms (such as Psalms 1 and Psalms 2) that were originally considered a single chapter.

The shortest psalm is Psalm 117, the longest is Psalm 119, the average length of a psalm is 17 verses. Psalm 119 has 176 verses. Following the Hebrew Alphabet, it has 8 verses starting with each of the 22 letters (22x8=176).

Several other psalms are alphabetical in their literary structure.

Three times every day, Jewish people say Psalm 145, known as Ashrei, since it is often preceded by a line from Psalm 84: 5, which begins with this word. Along with Psalm 25, it has one verse for every letter. According to the Sages, saying it regularly guarantees a person’s place in Paradise since it praises God with every letter of the alphabet, and it includes the request: ‘Open your hand and satisfy every living thing [with] its desire.’

A standard edition of Psalms is also divided into seven parts, one for each day of the week, as well as 30, one for each day of the month. The daily portion of Psalms, as it is said on the monthly cycle, can be part of a daily study regimen.

In times past, there were many simple Jews for whom even an elementary Torah class may have been too advanced. Many of them, however, knew how to read. With tears and with love, they would read copious psalms, expressing their most intimate desires and their sincere wish to come closer to God.

The Midrash tells us that when King David compiled the Psalms, he had in mind himself, every Jew, and every circumstance. No matter who you are or what the situation, the words of the Psalms speak the words of your heart and are heard on high.

Shabbat Shalom

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