Thursday, February 09, 2006

Psalms: General Introduction (Beshalah)

The Structure of the Book of Psalms: Titles, Authors, Musical Styles, the Five Books

I have wanted for some time to present some material about a rather murky, general subject—murky because there are more questions than answers: the titles of the psalms and the overall structure of the Psalter. The majority of the psalms, perhaps two-thirds of the total, open with a title of one kind or another. These contain as many as four different components: i) the name of the author or school from which the psalm originated: David, the sons of Korah, Assaf, etc.; ii) the basic genre or type to which the psalm belongs—mizmor, shir, tehilah, tefillah, shir ha-ma’alot (psalm or hymn; song; praise; prayer; song of ascent); iii) special terms, generally thought to designate the specific musical mode or scale or perhaps instrumentation in which the psalm is meant to be sung: the most common of these is la-Menatzeah (often translated as “for the Choirmaster” or “For the Leader”), but these also include shigayon, mikhtam, be-neginot, al ha-gittit, al ha-sheminit, maskil, al-shoshanim, etc.; iv) descriptive phrases describing the occasion for which the psalm was written, or the event that inspired it. Many of these are taken from David’s life: “when he fled from Absalom his son” (Ps 3); “for the death of the son” (Ps 9); “for the dedication of the House” (Ps 30); “when he feigned insanity before Abimelech, and he chased him away, and he went” (Ps 34); “when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone to Bathsheba” (Ps 51: a powerful psalm of penitence); “When he was in the Judaean desert” (Ps 63); “when he was in the cave” (Ps 142); or the lengthy heading to Psalm 52.

The musical terms presumably allude to the various musical modes used by the Levites when singing the psalms in the Temple service, but they are long forgotten. Do these terms allude to scales, or to schemes of intervals of pitch and timing—possibly similar to the maqamim, the scales or modes used by many North African Jews for various parts of the synagogue worship and other piyyutim (some communities have a different maqam for each parshat hashavua, not to mention the various festival days)? (In this connection, it should be remembered that these are not scales in the Western sense. Neither traditional Sephardic music nor that of the ancient world follows the Western convention of the “well-tempered” scale, in which there is only one flat or sharp for each of the notes in the eight-tone octave; rather, their music contains quarter-notes, much improvisation, and more.) Or does it refer to some other aspect of the musical mode, or perhaps to different combinations of instruments? The late French Jewish composer, organist, and music theoretician, Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura (1912-2000), attempted to reconstruct some of this, along with the ancient cantillation of the various books of the Bible—opinions differ as to her degree of success.

All this relates to another question: is there any underlying principle or reason to the arrangement of the Book of Psalms? Are there any common, distinctive features or characteristics of those psalms bearing a given heading, such as those attributed to the sons of Korah, to Assaf, to the group of fifteen known as shir ha-ma’alot (“Songs of Degrees” or “Ascent” or “Pilgrim Songs”)? Interestingly, while browsing recently in the Hebrew Union College Library, I discovered shelves of books, mostly by non-Jewish scholars, with such titles as The Korahite Psalms, The Songs of Assaf, The Fifth Book of Psalms, Reading Psalms as a Book, etc. There is thus much to read and study on this subject.

The Book of Psalms is divided into five books, suggesting some sort of parallel or correspondence to the five books o the Torah. Nahum Sarna suggests an intriguing explanation for this: that the five-part division of the Psalms dates back to the triennial Torah cycle of ancient Palestinean Jewry, in which the Torah was completed every three years—i.e., roughly 150 weeks, corresponding to the 150 chapters of the Book of Psalms. The antiquity of this five-fold division is also indicated by the fact that the concluding psalm in each of the first four books is concluded by a festive peroration, praising God in general terms, generally beginning with the word barukh (“Blessed”).

What patterns are there in the arrangement of the Psalter? Examining the Psalms book by book, one finds definite patters that emerge, at least in terms of the superscriptions, albeit not with absolute consistency:

Book I: Pss 1-41: David’s name appears in almost all of the psalms in this book, whether in the form Mizmor le-David, Le-David Mizmor, simply le-David, or some other formulation. The terms la-Menatzeah, conventionally translated “For the Choirmaster” (RSV) or “For the Leader” (NJPS), appears in many as well (Pss 4-6, 8-9, 11-14, 18-22, 31, 36, 39-41). There are a few which have no heading at all—1, 2, 10, 33—but no headings using names other than that of David.

Book II: Pss 42-72. The first part of this book contains a group of psalms with the heading “For the sons of Korah” preceded by “la-Menatzeah”: Pss 42-49, with the exception of 43. Almost all from 57 – end. Bear the heading Mikhtam le-David (with execution of ….) Psalm 50 bears the heading “A Psalm of Assaf.” The next group, Pss 51-70, all contain both “David” and “la-Menatzeah,” with the exception of 63 and 66. Pss 52-56 also use the term Maskil; 57-59 bear the heading Mikhtam. Pss 71 has no heading, while 72 is “A Psalm of Solomon” (the only appearance of his name except for 127). Thus, the predominant feature of this book is the term La-Menatzeah, in conjunction with either the sons of Korah or David.

Book III: Pss 73-89. Psalms 73-83 bear the heading Assaf, in combination with different musical terms; Pss 84-88 is a second group of Korahite psalms. Psalm 89 stands by itself, as “Maskil, to Eitan the Ezrahite. Assaf was one of David’s chief singers and musicians, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:24 and elsewhere.

Book IV: Pss 90-106. This book consists mainly of psalms of praise. It includes several with special titles, such as the “Prayer of Moses the man of God” (Ps 90), “Mizmor, a song for the Sabbath day” (Ps 92); “A Song of Gratitude” (100); “Bless my soul, O the Lord” (103, 104), two beginning with “Hallelujah” (Pss 105, 106), and a series of untitled songs, including those praises used in the Kabbalat Shabbat service (Pss 95-99). The heading “David” appears in 101 and 103 alone.

Book V: Pss 107-150. Again, most of these psalms are psalms of praise, of diverse kinds and groupings. Psalm 107 begins with the well-known leitmotif “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good”; Pss 111-112 are the pair of “condensed acrostic” psalms discussed in HY VI: Vayeshev; Pss 113-118 is the well-known group known as Hallel; Ps 119, the longest psalm, and the longest chapter in the Bible as a whole, is an eight-fold acrostic in praise of Torah; Pss 120-134 form a distinct group, entitled Shirei ha-Ma’alot, “Songs of Degrees,” which may plausibly have been used either in the Temple or by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem during the three pilgrimage festivals; Pss 135-136 are two similar psalms of praise, one in “regular” poetics, the other, known as “the Great Hallel,” in antiphonic form; Ps 137, which follows, is a song of mourning “By the Rivers of Babylon,” written after the Destruction of the Temple, which we can imagine having been placed here in sad contrast to the joyful pilgrimage songs which precede it. Pss 138-145 is a “mixed bag,” all of which bear David’s name (in addition to these, Pss 108-110, 122, 131, and 133 contain his name). Finally, Pss 146-150 each begin and end with “Hallelujah,” and form a series of hymns, the ”Hallel of the Everyday,” that constitute the heart of the daily Pesukei de-Zimra. These conclude with the festive phrase, “May everything that has breath praise the Lord, Hallelujah.” A suitable conclusion to the book of as a whole.

So much for the formal structure. A question that us called for is: Is there any relationship or correspondence between these formal features or titles of the psalms, and the genres we have discussed thus far: e.g., personal prayer in times of trouble; “Wisdom” or philosophical, reflective psalms (instructive” or “sapiential”); songs of praise; historical psalms; etc.?

I would like to conclude by essaying an answer to an interesting question. My brother and I, like many people, are accustomed to visiting our parent’s graves on their respective Yahrzeits, where we recite a series of seven psalms generally customary (at least in Eretz Yisrael) for such visits: Pss 33, 16, 17, 72, 91, 104, and 130, followed by the letters of their names in Psalm 119. Almost every time, my brother (who happens to be named David) raises the question: why does Psalm 72, the final psalm of the second book, end with the statement “Competed are the Prayers of David son of Jesse”? This statement would seem to be patently false, since there are a dozen or more psalms in the later parts of the Psalter that also bear King David’s name?

My theory is that, in fact, the majority of the Davidic psalms, and certainly those that are personal, petition prayers, are more-or-less completed here—as may be seen from the above overview. In the later books, the psalms beginning with “David” appear in isolation, only one or two at a time, possibly by accident or fir some special reason. Moreover, many of them are psalms of praise and not “prayer” in the narrow sense of being motivated by need. True, the sequence of Pss 138-145 is a problem, but even of these only Pss 140-144 are petitionary prayer in the full sense.


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