During the month of Elul and the days from Rosh Hahsanah through Yom Kippur we place particular emphasis on the saying of tehillim. The letter we share this week gives some fascinating facts about the origins of Tehillim from a historical perspective and about its emphasis by kabbala and chassidus. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
13th of Teves, 5726
Bronx, N.Y. 10469
This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter in which you ask several questions relating to the reciting of Psalms.
To answer your questions fully would require a lengthy essay. However, we will attempt to answer your questions briefly, in the order which you put them:
1. When and why did the origin of saying Psalms take place?
According to the Talmud , there were ten authors who composed Psalms which were included in the Book of Psalms. The authors ranged over a period from Adam to Ezra, though the main author of the Psalms was King David, the “Sweet Singer of Israel”, after whom the whole Book of Psalms is called. Tradition tells us that Adam composed the Hymn to the Sabbath, Psalm 92 and that our Father Jacob recited Psalms in times of distress.
During the time when the Bet Hamikdash was in existence, Psalms were recited at the offering of every sacrifice. In addition, the Levites used to sing the “Psalm of the Day” (Sir Shel Yom) each day of the week. We still recite the Psalm of the Day at the conclusion of the daily morning prayer.
When the Men of the Great Assembly and the Sages who followed them arranged our daily prayers, certain Psalms of praise were included as a fitting introduction to the main prayer. This was based on the principle that before we present our petition to G-d, we should praise Him first.
From time to time additional Psalms were included in our prayers on special occasions. Thus, for example, Hallele was prescribes for Rosh Chodesh and festivals.
Already in the time of the Second Bet Hamikdash, there were saintly men who completed the whole Book of Psalms every day.
2. Why has this Book been most often used by the laymen?
The importance and significance of the Psalms have been greatly emphasized in the Talmud. Thus, for example the Sages declared that “He who recites the Psalm of David (Psalm 145) three times daily is assured of a share in the world to come,” (Berachot 4B). This is the reason why we do indeed recite that Psalm three times daily, twice in the morning and once in the afternoon prayers.
The Zohar, the main source of the sacred Kabbala (the inner and esoteric exposition of the Torah) further emphasizes the importance of the recital of the Psalms and so did Rabbi Ytzchak Luria, the saintly Ari (founder of the nusach Ari and of the Lurianic school of Kabala). General Chassidus, founded by the saintly Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and Chabad Chassidus, founded by the Alter Rebbe, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch still further emphasized the importance of the Psalms as a most effective way of attaching oneself to G-d and as a most effective prayer in times of distress. This is why Jews have always recited the Psalms with great fervor, whether individually or in groups.
3. What are the spiritual feelings a person feels when he recites these Psalms?
Any feelings, particularly spiritual feelings, are hard to describe; they must be experienced. However, the Psalms express every possible feeling and sentiment, of the utmost purity and holiness, which a Jew can feel. For, as our Sages tell us, King David composed the Psalms not only for himself but also for all the community of the Jewish people and for all times. Hence the Psalms are endowed with a special quality of enabling every Jews who recites them to project himself into David’s personality, as it were, and to partake of some of those holy feelings and sentiments which David so eloquently expressed and which he composed in the spirit of prophecy. Moreover, as has been emphasized in Chassidic literature, this quality endures even when the Jew reciting the Psalms does not fully know the meaning of all the words, or of the text, provided he recites them with sincerity and with a desire to attach himself to G-d.
4. Are there any English texts that deal with this matter?
Much has been written about the Psalms in various sources, but English texts on the subject are limited. There is no text in English that we can recommend to you without reservation. There are of course translations of the Book of Psalms, with commentaries, in English. References to the emphasis on the recital of Psalms may be found in “Some Aspects of Chassidus” and the “Commentaries” which we have published, as well as some of our other publications in English.
Dr. Nissan Mindel