Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Vayakhel (Psalms)

The Song of the Sabbath: Psalm 92

Though the bulk of this week’s parsha (and the next) focuses upon the actual construction of the Tabernacle—that is, the execution of the instructions given in Exodus 25-30 (Terumah – Tetzaveh - beginning of Ki Tisa)—it begins with three verses about the subject of Shabbat. It therefore pulls together, so to speak, the two central vessels of holiness in Judaism: the temporal and the spatial. It is well-known that the Sanctuary, and thereafter the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, were seen as loci for God’s indwelling in the physical world; but, particularly in the post-Destruction world, the Shabbat and the holy days are that ”place” where the Jew most immediately encounters and experiences holiness. As A. J. Heschel put it, “the Shabbat is a Temple in time.” (For a brief discussion of another aspect of the relation between Shabbat and Temple, see the very end of this paper.)

Hence, the choice of psalm to be presented in connection with this particular Shabbat was obvious: Psalm 92, “A Psalm, a Song for the Sabbath Day,” which itself combines these two elements: its very title refers to the Shabbat, and its original liturgical function was for use in the Temple as the Levitical hymn used on the Shabbat. Each day of the week the Levites sang a different psalm in conjunction with the daily sacrifice, while the wine libation was poured out on the altar (these were, respectively, Pss 24, 48, 82, 94, 81, 93, and 92). These psalms found their way in turn into the synagogue liturgy, at the conclusion of the daily Morning Service, in the spirit of the well-known principle that “prayers were introduced corresponding to the sacrifices.”

Moreover, this psalm—the only one to refer to the day on which it is recited in the actual title of the psalm—plays a central role in the liturgy for the Shabbat: it is used to bring in the Shabbat, being recited at the culmination of Kabbalat Shabbat, immediately after Lekha Dodi; as the “song for the day,” as mentioned (following either Shaharit or Musaf, depending upon custom); it is included among the psalms added to Pesukei de-Zimra on Shabbat and festival days; and, among some, it is recited yet a fourth time at Minhah of Shabbat, after reading from the Torah scroll.

Turning to the text itself, the central question to be asked is: what is the connection between this psalm and the underlying ideas of the Shabbat? There are in fact two main themes:

1) “It is good to praise the Lord.” The psalm is an outpouring of joy, of the basic religious feeling of wanting to praise, to sing out to God—at all times, with a variety of musical instruments (“To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning, and Your faithfulness at night. With the ten-stringed and harp, with the melody and lyre”—vv. 3-4). Here there is none of the tortured sense of separation and distance from God that we found in Psalms 42 or 63, nor the sense of guilt and need for forgiveness that we encounter in the great penitential psalms such as 32, 51 or 130; nor, again, the anguish of the individual surrounded by enemies or wracked by bodily pain, as in Pss 3, 6, 41, 55, or 140, to mention a few random examples. Rather, the psalmist is filled with simple joy, one might say, at being alive in God’s world, of gratitude for God’s self-evident goodness as witnessed in every part of life (in this sense, the psalmist is perhaps closest in spirit to Ps 104). “You have gladdened me, O Lord, by your deeds, I sing for joy at the works of Your hand; How great are Your works, O God, Your thoughts are very deep” (vv 6-7).

Shabbat is a day of fullness, “a memorial of the works of Creation.” Many people have noted—so many books have been written on this point, that there is no need to elaborate it—that the very structure of Shabbat, even in the halakhic sense, is based upon the idea of Creation: man rests from conscious, deliberate, creative actions, even of the simplest kind, as a kind of acting out of the notion that God is the one true Creator.

2) "The boorish and ignorant people do not understand this." This motif is dominant from verse 7 on. This is not a function of IQ or of stupidity in any crude sense; the fools referred to here may be highly intelligent, learned, sophisticated people; their “ignorance” is rather a subtle misunderstanding of the way the world functions. They see wickedness flourish and evil people enjoying “the good life,” and conclude that the world is without any moral anchor; as arch-heretic Elisha ben Abuyah put it, “There is neither judgment nor judge.” Whatever morality or norms may exist are no more than man-made conventions, for the welfare of the social order, not part of the fabric of the cosmos. Hence, no punishment or sanction other than those that man invents for himself exist, so that if a person is clever enough to avoid being caught, he may ”sin” with impunity. There is no “all-seeing eye,” and goodness is not rewarded. If one is not punished, why bother to be good?

The psalmist’s answer comes in the very next verse: “though the wicked sprout like grass… it is [only] to be destroyed forever….” (v. 8). Those who verge in nihilism because of the injustices they observe in the world as it is make a fundamental error: they lack the wider, long-range perspective, in which the worldly triumph of evil is perceived as temporary, even if long-lasting in terms of the human time scale. The balance of our psalm elaborates on this theme, speaking of God’s eternal rule, the fall of the doers of iniquity, and the vindication of the righteous, who shall flourish like a palm tree or a cedar, rejuvenating even in old age (v. 11-16).

In brief, the answer to the triumphs of wickedness in this world in found in the messianic future, relating to the second aspect of Shabbat: me’ein olam haba, a kind of quintessence or foretaste of the World to Come. Thus, the psalm for the Shabbat unites in one hymn past and foretaste: Shabbat as reminder of Creation, and Shabbat as harbinger of Messianic correction of the evils of this world. What is the difference between this answer to the irksome problem of theodicy and that offered by the friends of Job? Our psalmist does not attempt to deny the facts — e.g., the innocence of Job and the gratuitousness of his suffering— but rather places it in a different, long range perspective.

While writing these words, I recalled a conversation I had some time ago with an atheist friend who argued that he didn’t believe in God because, “If God exists, he must be one ornery bastard” (pardon the blasphemy; his words, not mine). I found this claim quite interesting. I am familiar with other arguments presented for non-belief or agnosticism that are logically coherent: e.g., the fact that the entire religious enterprise is based upon postulates that can never be proved empirically; that somewhere along the line, religion is based upon axioms and assumptions that are outside the realm of observable data, or else upon intuitive, emotional arguments (basically, that thing called “faith”); in other words, that religion goes outside of the boundaries of an empirical world view. I would fully agree with this accusation, albeit from the other side of the religious divide (to my mind, one of the best books on this subject is Huston Smith’s The Forgotten Truth).

But my atheist friend’s above-mentioned argument almost begs the question, and invites a much simpler response. The implication of that argument, carried to its logical conclusion, is that, since the world created by God (or, in his view, by no-God) is such an awful place, than non-existence would be preferable to existence; it would have be better never to have been alive at all. Supposedly, my friend would have preferred never to have seen a sunset or walk in the woods and enjoy the beauties of nature; never to have known the love of a woman, or the joys of family life, or to have seen his children grow and marry; never to have heard a symphony of Beethoven or Brahms or Mahler; never to have read a work of great literature or profound thought; never to have engaged in constructive, humanly meaningful work, as he has done for decades; etc. No matter how much injustice and suffering there is in the world—violence, poverty, disease, arbitrary catastrophes like the Tzunami—would it really have been better—even, say, for a child who was ultimately killed in the Holocaust— to have been, as Job put it (3:11-18), a stillborn who never saw the light of day, but to have gone straight to the peace and darkness of non-existence? Or, even more than that, if the whole business of life, of the constant birthing and dying of multitudes of sentient creatures, never would have been? If the universe itself would have remained lifeless, with nothing but the giant nuclear reactors that are stars giving off light and warmth into the eternal silence of inter-stellar darkness, shining upon dead lumps of stone and frozen gas? Or perhaps, for the Big Bang or whatever else happened in the “white parchment” before Gen 1:1 never would have occurred? For Being itself never to have been (if one can conceive such a thing, if it is even meaningful to posit such a thing)? Somehow, it is hard for me to conceive of any normal human being seriously thinking thus except in dark moments of despair.

Prayer as Duty and Prayer as Inner Need: The Philosophical Roots of Pesukei de-Zimra

The mood of spontaneous, joyful affirmation of the goodness of God’s world expressed in Psalm 92, like the almost-mystical longing for God that motivate the author of Psalm 42-43 (see HY VI: Tetzaveh), raise a central issue in Judaism: the tension between spontaneous religious feeling, welling up from within the individual’s soul, and the commitment to fixed forms and institutional religion (see on this, e.g., Arthur Green’s Devotion and Commandment). I would now like to bring some further examples of this, and turn from there to a more general discussion.

A few years ago (see HY II: Ki Tetzei II: Yahrzeit Shiur) we wrote at some length about the introductory section of the daily Morning Prayer, known as Pesukei de-Zimra (lit: “verses of song”). The conventional view is that the function of this section is purely introductory, serving as a period of preparation for prayer: a kind of transition from the hustle and bustle of daily life (or, more likely, from the torpor of sleep and the routines of beginning the day, washing, dressing, etc.) to the inner focus and concentration that is a desideratum, nay, the sine qua non of prayer. The psalms that constitute this section serve the purpose of meditation, of directing thought; halakhically, they are seen in a distinctly minor key, as leading up to the center of prayer, the focus of mitzvah intention, in Shema and the Amidah. In many synagogues, they are in fact recited quite rapidly, if not perfunctorily (even on Shabbat!), many people drifting in towards the middle, thus often defeating this ostensible purpose.

But now let us ask for a moment: What would an approach in which the service is centered upon Pesukei de-Zimra look like? Such an approach is in fact practiced in some places: in many Sephardic synagogues, Pesukei de-Zimra is chanted together, slowly, by the entire congregation, taking an hour or more; a similar approach is taken in the monthly “Leader Minyan,” or Amika de-Bira, of Jerusalem. In the Habad tradition much attention is given to Pesukei de-Zimra, as the means by which the inner love of God residing within each Jew’s heart is brought to the fore.

In such an approach, the underlying idea is that the act of praising God per se is an end in itself—or, in the words of our Shabbat psalm, “It is good to praise the Lord.” Interestingly, the Tur, the late medieval halakhic compendium, opens its presentation of Pesukei de-Zimra (OH §56) by citing the Talmudic dictum that a person “ought to arrange the praises of the Holy One blessed be He [and only then pray].” In this view, Pesukei de-Zimra is essentially a kind of personal, non-obligatory, almost spontaneous act of worship: it can be truncated or even skipped entirely if one arrives late, and there is much debate as to whether one needs to “make it up” later at all. Thus, I would interpret this section as based upon a kind of direct religious feeling: as an act of love of God. In Pesukei de-Zimra a person has a sense of standing before God without any needs or wants, but simply wishing to thank Him for all the good things in life—or for the gift of life itself. The predominant feeling here is that the world is a good place; no matter how bad things may be, no matter how many troubles, pain and suffering one may undergo, the gift of life itself is wonderful. Thus, Pesukei de-Zimra represents what Heschel calls “radical amazement,” the experience of simple, constant, child-like amazement at the greatness of God that lies at the core of religious consciousness. And this consciousness, which is intensely personal, which is felt within the person, which is formless, is as essential to Yiddishkeit as that of “He held the mountain above them like a barrel,” the sense of heteronomy, of coercion, of mitzvot as being external and even alien to the person.

Yet another area in which we find models for both voluntary, spontaneous religious behavior and for obligatory performance is that of the Temple service itself. On the one hand there were many fixed, compulsory sacrificial offerings in the Temple, from the daily and additional offerings offered on behalf of the public as a whole on weekdays, sabbaths and festivals; ranging through the variety of atonement offerings made by individuals to atone for sin, guilt, and trespass; through the mehusrei kapparah, the special offerings brought after childbirth, upon completing one’s term as a Nazirite, or after certain kinds of impurity, such as leprosy and certain bodily discharges. On the other hand, there were many voluntary offerings: the korban todah, the offerings brought as a sign of gratitude to God for special events in one’s personal life; the shelamim brought in celebration, as a sign of a sense of wholeness with God, usually on pilgrimage festivals, but not only then; and the nedarim & nedavot brought simply because one wished to make a kind of gift to God, through the Temple.

Personal Religion and Heteronomous Religion

There is an pivotal discussion relating to this subject in the Talmud, repeated in four different places (Kiddushin 31a, Bava Qamma 38a, 87a, Avodah Zarah 3a). A certain blind sage, named Rav Yosef, mused that when he first heard R. Judah’s statement that a blind person is exempt from the mitzvot (the rationale for this idea, which in any event was not accepted as halakhah, need not concern us in this context), he wished to make a personal holiday, inviting all the sages in his town to a feast. He felt that, since he performed all the commandments even though he was not required to do so, he had special reason to take pride in his performance of them. But then he heard the statement of R. Hanina: “Greater is he who is commanded and performs [the commandments] than one who is not commanded and performs them.” Upon hearing this latter ruling, Rav Yosef mused that he would have preferred knowing that a blind man is in fact obligated, so that he too could share in this higher level of doing that which he was commanded. (Incidentally, this same Rav Yosef had an unusually deep emotional connection to the Torah as a central raison d’être in his own life. There is a story in Pesahim 68b about how he celebrated Shavuot with special enthusiasm, slaughtering the choicest calf for the festival meal, because “were it not for this day, there are lots of Yosefs in the marketplace.”)

Two questions are prompted by this story: What did Rav Yosef think before he heard R. Haninna’s saying? And what was the reasoning underlying the position of the latter?

R. Yosef’s original understanding must have been a kind of common-sensical position, that that which comes from personal decision, from the individual’s own inner feeling and soul, from an inner sense of love of God, is somehow nobler, more praiseworthy, that that which stems from duty or obligation. Whom among us has not admired the person who does something, not because he has to do it, but because he wants to do it, because he believes that it is the right thing to do. One who volunteers to undertake a difficult or irksome, time-consuming task on behalf of others without remuneration is usually admired (although behind his back, especially here in Israel, there are those who are likely to call him a freier, a “sucker”). Certainly, for those educated in the Western intellectual and moral tradition—of democracy, of personal moral responsibility (and, one might add, of Protestant religious thought, especially of the Calvinist and Puritan streams, which in America shaped the New England type)—there is a widespread feeling that the ideal human type is that motivated by inner conviction and conscience. This idea is even more central in the thought of existentialists of the school of Sartre and Camus, who argue (it must be noted: starting from thoroughly non-religious axioms, of a world empty of any inherent meaning) that man has no option but to give meaning to his own actions, through his own freely-made choices.

Where does R. Hanina’s almost diametrically-opposed position come from? Essentially, he holds that a position based upon heteronomy, upon obligation, is preferable, because one is acting in the belief that one’s actions correspond to a higher law, one ultimately rooted in the very fabric of the universe, and not merely originating in one’s own self and its psychological-intellectual-moral dynamic. Various explanations are given for this position. A very brief Tosafot at Kiddushin 31a says, quite simply and succinctly, that a person is more likely to worry about fulfilling the mitzvot of the Torah if he sees himself as subject to an objective obligation and not merely one based on his own decision; after all, a personal decision can always be changed. More interestingly, the Tosafot at Avodah Zarah 3a states that, so long as one is doing something on a voluntaristic basis, there is no inner conflict; the moment one perceives that one has an obligation external to oneself, a certain inner dynamic begins in which one is tempted to slack off and not to persist in the action; this is known in Jewish thought as milhemet ha-yetzer, the struggle with the “Evil Urge.”

In any event, Orthodox apologetics in the modern world, beginning with Rabbi S. R. Hirsch in the 19th century, has stressed the heteronomous nature of halakhah, of Torah and mitzvot— at times, it would seem, to the exclusion of any other motivation, discouraging explanations of the mitzvot which overly stress humanistic, ethical, or spiritualistic rationales. The ideological struggle between heteronomy and autonomy looms large in much such writing, in certain streams almost approaching, lehavdil, the view popularly attributed to Tertullian of Carthage, credo quia absurdum est, “I believe because it is absurd” (see some of Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s statements, for example).

Today, there is a certain critique or rejection of this tendency. Many young people, raised in traditionally Orthodox, observant homes, are seeking greater “spirituality” or personal connection (the buzzword in Israel is lehithaber) with the mitzvot. The widespread popularity of what has become known as Nusah Carlebach, a style of prayer in which there is much soulful and ecstatic singing, is one expression of this tendency; the growing interest in Hasidism and Kabbalah is another.

This trend is even more significant when viewed against the various kinds of possibilities that have been available for those who seek a deeper religious commitment. In very general terms, these may be divided into three options: greater punctiliousness in observance (dikduk hamitzvot / humrot); expression of religious ideals in the social, moral-ethical realm of Tikkun Olam or “the pursuit of justice”; deeper inner spirituality. The first option is one that has been familiar within the Orthodox world for many years (certainly, for most of my adult lifetime, i.e., at least 35-40 years). While this path can be very demanding, it is so primarily in an external way, in terms of money, time, running around (e.g. to buy special kosher food, a perfect etrog, etc.), but not so much in terms of inner personal work or character development (while such strictness sometimes carries over into the interpersonal realm, people talk about “being careful about lashon hara,” I wonder whether they exhibit any greater love for the other). The second approach is offhand a positive one, but it too has its pitfalls—i.e. “social justice” may too easily be identified with a particular political line. In the US, classical Reform seemed to identify “ethical monotheism” as a Jewish version of the Protestant Social Gospel. But once one begins to feel that the liberal PC view is wrong (as people started to feel after the Six Day War; any, in many people’s eyes, the anti-Semitic undercurrent of some of the criticism of Israel become a flood about the time of the turn of the millennium, Intifada II, and Sept 11). In Israel, religiously inspired political activism has taken a totally different twist: since post-’67, religious Zionism saw the settlement enterprise as the very embodiment of religious fervor; a conclusion which this author sees as misguided, and whose possibly imminent end will force those energies into new channels. Hence, the third option, that of inner religious consciousness and spirituality, is enjoying a new lease on life. It too has its drawbacks: there is a very real danger of solipsism and self-absorption. Then, too, it is often identified with Kabbalah in an arcane, esoteric and even dangerous sense, engendering the fear that some neophytes may “go off the deep end,” as illustrated by the famous Talmudic story of the “four who entered Pardes.” But there are other spiritual options as well, which I’ve tried to articulate from time to time in these pages: quite simply, that of deepening inwardness and kavvanah through cultivating one’s religious consciousness and feeling in terms of the individual’s real inner world. The sefirot may be read as symbols, rather than as tangible realities that can be understood in any literal sense (more on that come Parshat Shmini, God willing).

Returning to the question of autonomy vs. heteronomy: it seems to me that the choice is not one of “either/or.” There is need for stability, for commitment, for that which can bring the person to spiritual moments even when he is not spontaneously filled with the will, e.g., to pray; but there is also a need for feeling, for recognizing the vitality of emotion, of spontaneity, of the desire to, even, the need for points of ecstasy, of intense vital feeling, in religious practice. There is a need for balance, for the recognition that both are part of our religious life. Traditionally, Mussar books and handbooks to Jewish spirituality speak of the two foundations of ahavah and yirah, of “love” and “fear,” as going hand in hand. (Although, interestingly, the three paragraphs of Keriat Shema that form one of the cornerstones of daily prayer mention only ahavah and not yirah, both in the first paragraph—“you shall love the Lord your God…”—and in the second—“to love the Lord your God and to serve Him …”)

Or perhaps, ultimately they must become one. The tzaddik is one for whom Torah and inner feelings and life experience have somehow become one. As Rav Soloveitchik wrote in a eulogy for his uncle (“Mah dodekh mi-dod”) Rav Velvel of Brisk-Jerusalem was not only “betrothed” to the Torah, but “married’ to it.

And if one is mentioning marriage, one might fittingly conclude our discussion with a certain analogy to marriage. Marriage is, on the one hand, a relationship entered into by a man and woman because of the deep emotional bond they feel between them; indeed, for many people this sense of love and attachment is the very raison d’etre / moving force of marriage. On the other hand, it is a formal legal and halakhic structure, carrying with it definite obligations and restrictions, enforceable by law and by Divine sanction, however understood. (I see these two aspects as symbolized by the two elements of the Jewish wedding ceremony: kiddushin and nissuin/huppah, and even more so by their blessings: Birkat Erusin and Birkat Hatanim / Sheva Berakhot – but that too is another discussion).

Now, if one were to ask, which is more likely to assure marital fidelity: a married person’s knowledge that adultery is forbidden by Torah and halakhah, or the feelings of love and affection between the two, the answer would obviously be the former: subjective feelings may come and go, but moral and religious commitments made before the Living, Eternal God are more permanent. But if one were to ask: would you rather be told by your partner that he/she is faithful because, as a pious Jew, the halakhah requires him to be so, or because he loves and cherishes you, and could not even imagine making love to another woman, the answer is obvious. While the invocation of Torah is more steady and certain, what person would not want to know that their spouse is faithful because they are beloved, endeared, precious, and unique in their eyes?

Verses of Song Revisited: More Thoughts on Pesukei de-Zimra

Two summer ago, on the occasion of my father’s Yahrzeit, I presented on these pages a study of Pesukei de-Zimra (HY II: Ki Tetsei). In that essay, I emphasized the aspect of Pesukei de-Zimra as preparation for prayer, as a practice modeled after the behavior of the “pious men of old” who used to sit quietly (meditating? studying? reciting preliminary prayers?) as a prelude to the “real” order of prayer consisting of the Shema and Amidah (m. Berakhot 5.1). I also critiqued the discussion of Pesukei de-Zimra of my revered teacher, Rav J. B. Soloveitchik ztz”l, (in his Shiurim lezekher Avi Mari), which seemed to overlook this facet. There, the Rav interpreted the dictum in Shabbat 118b as implying that Pesukei de-Zimra was somehow a muted, limited form of praise of God; nay, not praise at all, but an act of Torah study! The Rav’s theological position, based on such Rabbinic sayings as the criticisms of overly verbose prayer leaders in b. Berakhot 33b and j. Berakhot 9.1 (12d), is that one cannot praise God at all without explicit halakhic permission.

I would now like to return to this discussion. The more I think about it, the clearer it seems to me that the Rav’s approach presents but one side of the coin. There is a tension within Judaism between the spiritually abstemious tendency—the sense of being so overwhelmed by God’s grandeur and holiness that even uttering His praise is seen as an act of hutzpah, of arrogance and hubris—and the simple, heartfelt, almost childlike impulse to praise God. “All my bones say, ‘O Lord, who is like unto You!” (Ps 35:10, quoted inter alia in Nishmat). After all, it is a basic human response, in looking upon the wonderful world created by God, to be filled with radical amazement at the beauty, order, and grandeur reflected therein—and to burst into prayer. Bemehilat kevod zikhro, there is something unfeeling, almost inhuman, in the cold, formalist, “Litvish” response that says: If it’s not in the halakha, I cannot praise God spontaneously. What of the legions of poets and minstrels and plain folk (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who composed hymns and psalms and stories and ballads and melodies without words to express their burning love of God? What would be left of our Mahzor if everyone were to follow literally the counsel of Rav Hanina with his acerbic, “Nu, have you finished reciting the praises of your Master?” (b. Berakhot 33b).

There are many in the Torah world who dismiss Pesukei de-Zimra as being somehow secondary, peripheral, to “real” prayer. I recall a conversation during my student days with a friend—an ex-yeshiva bokhur, a fine talmid hakham who later became an outstanding academic Judaica scholar—who told me that he generally skipped Pesukei de-Zimra because, from a strictly halakhic purview, it was dispensable; unlike Keri’at Shema or Tefillah, it was nether a mitzvah deoraita nor derabanan, but merely based upon a bit of good advice mentioned in passing in one Talmudic dictum.

It is interesting to contrast this approach with that of Hasidut, which speaks of Pesukei de-Zimra as an integral part of avodah shebelev she-hi tefillah—“the service of the heart, which is prayer”—in its own right. In some sources, it is described as part of the progression through the four worlds (see our recent discussion of this in HV IV: Tetzaveh-Ki Tisa), which begins in the World of Action with the morning blessings and the passages describing the Temple sacrifices, and culminates with devekut, the cleaving to God in the spiritual worlds, in the Amidah. En route, Pesukei de-Zimra, with its arousal of the emotional faculties, has an honorable place. Or compare Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avodah, which devotes an entire section, Sha’ar ha-Shir, “the Gate of Song,” to this section of the prayer.

To return to the halakhic analysis: It is interesting that the Tur Shulhan Arukh, in Orah Hayyim §51, derives the reading of Pesukei de-Zimra, neither from the ”Hallel of every day” (Shabbat 118b) nor from the hour of preparation for prayer discussed earlier (Berakhot 32b), but from a saying in Avodah Zarah 7b: “A person should always order the praises of God and then pray.” This seems to suggest that Pesukei de-Zimra is an entity unto itself, a significant religious obligation in its own right, albeit one placed in a particular location in the order of the liturgy for a certain reason.

An interesting halakhic controversy appears in Tur Orah Hayyim §52: What should one do about Pesukei de-Zimra if one arrives late at synagogue? Rav Natronai Gaon says that one should join the congregation in Shema and Amidah and not say it at all. Rabbenu Asher b. Yehiel says that one may say it later, but without the opening and closing blessings. Rabbenu Yonah allows one to say the entire Pesukei de-Zimra, even with blessings, after the completion of the regular prayer service. (Interestingly, devotees of the Lurianic school of Kabbalah say that one should recite it in full, in its proper order, even if one thereby misses praying with the community entirely!) The underlying question here clearly is that of the relationship of Pesukei de-Zimra to prayer: is it purely subsidiary to prayer, or an independent entity (or, since we are unsure, do we take an intermediate position, like that of Rabbenu Asher)?

The idea that “A person should always order the praise of God and then pray” is explained by the Bah and Beit Yosef, not in terms of it being psychological preparation for prayer, but as a kind of ethical rule: that there is something almost sacrilegious, self-centered, contemptuous towards God in putting one’s own needs first, and only thereafter reciting His praise. It is more polite and respectful to begin with His praises. But: his praises as an act if significance in itself.

What is meant by “ordering the praises of God”? The phrase seems to imply more than just a random stringing together of inspiring psalms. This is suggestive, even, of “the mystical conception that the hylic material of creation, the letters and words, are subject to various ‘combinations’ and alignments (that is, the universe is created out of divine letters, words, and text)…” (Mark Kirschbaum, in his Torah commentary at the Tikkun website, Parshat Mishpatim). Are we to understand that there is a proper natural, or even metaphysical, “order” or “sequence” to the proper praise of God?

At least one concrete remark on the “order” of Pesukei de-Zimra: there seems to be a definite coherence to the order of the six psalms that form the halakhic core of Pesukei de-Zimra, Pss 145-150. The first three are descriptive of God’s actions and involvement in the universe. Thus, “Ashrei” (Ps 145), which is recited twice more every day, is itself an alphabetical setting forth of God’s attributes; Ps 146 draws a contrast between human transience and mortality with God’s righteous acts; while Ps 147 is a more unsystematic, associative description of various aspects of God’s acts in the world.

The second group of three, Pss 148-150, describes the human response—the act or process of praise itself. (Interestingly, Rashi on Shabbat 118b, and other rishonim, see Pss 148 and 150 as the essence of Pesukei de-Zimra). Psalm 148 is a kind of a catalog describing how the entire cosmos, both heaven and earth, extol God. In Ps 149 Israel praises God, in an almost military setting (this psalm, especially v. 6—“the extolling of God are in their throats, and a two edged sword in their hands”—always reminds me of the song ”Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”—a bit reminiscent of Bush’s Southern USA piety). Psalm 150, which concludes the entire Book of Psalms, is a call to praise God with a variety of musical instruments, culminating with “Let all that has breath praise the Lord, Halleluyah!”

It is interesting that the Hallel said on festive days emphasizes the particular experience of Israel. Some of the psalms composing it speak of Israel’s redemption (Ps 114, etc.), while in others we can almost see the throngs of pilgrims worshipping in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Pss 116, 118). Pesukei de-Zimra, by contrast, speaks of praises of God in the everyday—i.e., God’s presence in the universal.

We can now return to the saying of R. Yossi in Shabbat 118b: “Would that I were among those that complete the Hallel every day” means: Would that I had the religious fervor, the sensitivity, to praise God every day, to see Him in the “day of small things” (yom ketanot) and not only in the great dramatic events of history.


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