O.T. Psalms in Jewish Life


 

In the Pentateuch (or Torah), Moses leads the Jews in two songs of praise: upon the splitting of the Red Sea (Exodus 15), with his sister A man reads Psalms at the Western WallMiriam, and before his death (Deuteronomy 32). Also, the Jews sing upon miracles done for them with the well (Numbers 21). Other Jewish figures would sing songs to celebrate miracles, including Joshua and Deborah. It is David, though, who is known as the “sweet singer of Israel”.

 

In Jewish tradition, the Psalms were actually sung in front of the Tabernacle, and then later during the reign of King Solomon, when the Temple was completed, they were sung from the steps of the Temple. The singers all came from the tribe of Levi (Levites), and it was exclusively their privilege – no non-Levites were allowed to sing in that area of the Temple. Levites played musical accompaniment on various instruments, some mentioned within the Psalms themselves. While the Psalms are used extensively in worship and prayer, the original intent was as a vehicle to teach, explain, encourage, and communicate with the individual listener as well as the entire people, hence their public performance. Today we have some knowledge as to which Psalms were sung on specific days or occasions, but we do not know the entire schedule.

 

Some of the titles given to the Psalms in their ascriptions suggest their use in worship:

 

·         Some bear the Hebrew designation shir (שיר; Greek ode, a song). Thirteen have this title. It means the flow of speech, as it were, in a straight line or in a regular strain. This title includes secular as well as sacred song.

 

·         Fifty-eight Psalms bear the designation mizmor (מזמור; Greek psalmos, a Psalm), a lyric ode, or a song set to music; a sacred song accompanied with a musical instrument.

 

·         Psalm 145, and many others, have the designation tehillah (תהילה; Greek hymnos, a hymn), meaning a song of praise; a song the prominent thought of which is the praise of God. Tehillah is also the singular of the name of the book in Hebrew, Tehillim.

 

·         Six Psalms (16, 56–60) have the title michtam (מכתם; “gold” [1]). Rashi suggests that “michtam” refers to an item that a person carries with him at all times, hence, these Psalms contain concepts or ideas that are pertinent at every stage and setting throughout life, deemed vital as part of day-to-day spiritual awareness.[2]

 

·         Psalm 7 (along with Habakkuk ch. 3) bears the title shigayon (שיגיון). There are three interpretations: [3] According to Rashi and others, this term stems from the root shegaga, meaning “mistake” – David committed some sin and is singing in the form of a prayer to redeem himself from it; shigayon was a type of musical instrument; Ibn Ezra considers the word to mean ‘longing,’ as in the verse in Proverbs 5:19 “tishge tamid.”

 

When a Jew dies, a watch is kept over the body and Tehillim (Psalms) are recited constantly by sun or candlelight, until the burial service. Historically, this watch would be carried out by the immediate family – usually in shifts – but in contemporary practice, this service is provided by an employee of the funeral home or Chevra kadisha.

 

Many Jews complete the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis. Each week, some also say a Psalm connected to that week’s events or the Torah portion read during that week. In addition, many Jews (notably Lubavitch, and other Chasidim) read the entire Book of Psalms prior to the morning service, on the Sabbath preceding the calculated appearance of the new moon.

 

The reading of psalms is viewed in Jewish tradition as a vehicle for gaining God’s favor. They are thus often specially recited in times of trouble, such as poverty, disease, or physical danger; in many synagogues, Psalms are recited after services for the security of the State of Israel. Note that Sefer ha-Chinuch [21] states that this practice is designed not to achieve favor, as such, but rather to inculcate belief in Divine Providence into one’s consciousness – as consistent with Maimonidesgeneral view on Providence. (Relatedly, according to some people, the Hebrew verb for prayer – hitpalal התפלל – is in fact the reflexive form of palal פלל, to judge. Thus, “to pray” conveys the notion of “judging oneself”: ultimately, the purpose of prayer – tefilah תפלה – is to transform ourselves;[22] for the relationship between prayer and psalms – “tehillah and tefillah” – see S. R. Hirsch, Horeb §620. See also under Jewish services.)

 

Psalms may also be read by a group of people who divide up the psalms between them to allow for a complete reading of the book.

 

The 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament show that they were familiar to the Judean community in the first century of the Christian era.

 

Taken together, the Psalms express virtually the full range of Israel’s faith.[1]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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