Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Ekev (Psalms)

Psalms 148 & 150: “Praise him in the heavens… in the earth .. Let all that has breath praise the Lord!”

This week’s parsha contains, among other things, the phrase from which Hazal inferred the duty of regular daily prayer: “’… to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your hearts…’ [Deut 11:13]. What service is it that is performed with the heart? That is: Prayer” [Sifrei; b. Ta’anit 2a]. In the past I have written at some length about Pesukei de-Zimra, the group of psalms recited every morning as the opening, “introductory” section of Shaharit (see HY II: Ki Teitzei – Yahrzeit Shiur). The core of this collection consists of Pss 145-150, the last six psalms of the Psalter, all but one of which begin and end with the word “Hallelujah!”—“Praise the Lord!” Two of these six, Pss 148 and 150, are seen as being of particular importance: Rashi, in his comment on Rav Yossi’s rather cryptic remark in Shabbat 118b, identifies Pesukei de-Zimra as “two hymns of praise” (mizmorim shel hillulim)—i.e., these two. Following his lead, and that of several other later authorities (e.g., Ran and Maharsha), the codified halakhah states that a latecomer, who needs to skip some of the psalms so as to catch up with the congregation, must nevertheless recite these two if at all possible, together with Psalm 145 “Ashrei.”

At first glance, these psalms seem almost childishly simple, little more than inventories—the one of the denizens of heaven and earth, the other of musical instruments—of those that praise God.

Psalm 148 is an invocation to all parts of the cosmos to praise God. The first half (vv. 1-6) is a call to “praise God from the heavens”—celestial bodies and luminaries, angelic hosts, and “the waters above the heavens.” The second half (vv. 7-12) calls upon various things upon the earth to praise God, beginning with the titanic, inanimate forces of nature (wind, fire, snow and hail; great mountains and hills), through the vegetable and animal kingdoms (vv. 7-10), and ending in mankind—from high and mighty rulers (v. 11) down to ordinary folk: young and old, youth and maiden, etc.

How literally is this meant to be taken? The Psalmist, like medieval thinkers after him, no doubt conceived of the celestial bodies and spheres as intelligent beings (see, e.g., Rambam at Yesodei ha-Torah 3.9, who states that the stars are superior in intelligence to human beings, albeit inferior to the angels); nevertheless, he surely must have known that wind and fire, or great hunks of rock or earth, for example, do not literally have a consciousness of God. I dare say that even our cat, well beloved as he may be, and a living, sentient creature, is also rather limited in his theological conceptions. Perhaps then this invocation needs to be read differently way: that the greatness of the created universe, with its numerous and diverse objects and living creatures of all different kinds inspires but one thought: the greatness of God who created all this, and the resultant awe and praise due to Him as a result.

Much the same may be said about an ancient little book called Perek Shirah, in which a long list of creatures are depicted singing God’s praise, each one using a suitable Biblical verse. Here, too, we must assume a good measure of hyperbole or poetic fancy at work, in attributing these verses to these beings. Surely, the religious message is: see how great are Your works—and the issue as to precisely which creatures are in fact capable of appreciating them is left in abeyance. The last two verses of this psalm (vv 13-14) are a kind of summing up. After two sections that begin with the invocation “Praise God from…,” the psalm as a whole finishes by saying “May the Lord‘s name be praised, for His Name alone is lifted up. His splendor is on heaven and earth, but he has exalted the horn of his people… Hallelujah.”

At this point I must mention a pet peeve. In most synagogues these verses are recited when the cantor takes the Torah to return it to the ark. The cantor sings or chants the first half of verse 13; at that point, the congregation bursts into song, most often singing with great gusto: Hodu al eretz ve-shamayim…” The word, however, is hodo, not hodu. The former would mean something like “give thanks on heaven and earth,” without any direct object or pronoun to indicate who or what is being acknowledged or thanked—in short, a syntactical monstrosity. In fact, the word hodu is derived from the infinitive ydh, “to thank”) while the correct word is hodo, a noun meaning splendor or majesty (from the root hwd), which is totally unrelated to it, being derived from a completely different semantic field. Even in Israel, where people presumably know Hebrew and use it as their everyday language, this error is deeply ensconced. But I fear that I’m tilting at windmills.

Psalm 150 presents a similar theme. The psalm begins with a general invocation to “Praise God in his holy place, praise Him in the firmament of his strength; Praise Him for His might… for his greatness.” The next verses take us on a round, so to speak, of all the instruments of the Levitic orchestra of First Temple days, which together make a joyful sound to the Lord. (The Diaspora Yeshiva band has recorded a rendition of this psalm, sung in English, with all the gusto of contemporary musicians who clearly love and take great relish in their work, and convey the feeling of music-making as an act of joyous worship.) It concludes with the most sublime instrument of all, the human voice: “Let all that has breath praise the Lord, Hallelujah.” There is a lovely double entendre here: we praise God with our “souls,” in the sense of our psyche or the enduring spiritual element, spark of the Divine, within us; but also, quite simply, with the breath with which we speak, sing, or play wind or brass instruments. One is also tempted to offer a further pun, saying that prayer itself is qol ha-neshama, “the voice of the soul.”

This psalm also serves a further liturgical function: it is quoted, in full, in Shofarot, the last of the three blessings recited at Musaf of Rosh Hashanah in conjunction with the blowing of the shofar—as a fourth, extra passage from the Ketuvim. It is, in fact, the only psalm (or other biblical chapter) recited in full in any Amidah of the year. Rav Soloveitchik once suggested that this addition, like the other verses from the Psalms in that section, represents the role of the shofar, along with other musical instruments, in shirah bamikdash, song as a form of worship in the Temple.

Why were these two psalms, specifically, seen by Rashi et al as the quintessence of Pesukei de-Zimra? One answer is a simple linguistic one: these two psalms are literally hillulim, a kind of Hallel, in the sense that the verb hl”l is used in them repeatedly: at the beginning of each section, and of each verse, in the first half of Ps 148; and, in Psalm 150, twice in each and every verse (save the last).

Striking by their absence here are such subjects as the dilemma of there being righteous and wicked people, good and evil, the anguish of the individual plagued by those who attack and scorn him, God’s role in the history of both Israel and the nations, the existential quandaries of human being, etc. These two psalms, precisely because of their very simple, repetitive structure, invoke a sense of God’s comprehensive, all-embracing nature. The theme of these psalms is God as creator; the “great chain of being,” the glory and sublimity of Being itself, as the surest, most obvious manifestation of God. Hence, thy serve as a fitting conclusion to the Psalter as a whole.


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