Pesukei de-Zimra—the collection of psalms of praise recited at the beginning of Shaharit, the weekday and Sabbath Morning Service (following the Morning Blessings, Korbanot, and other preliminaries), and framed before and after by the blessings of Barukh Sheamar and Yishtabah—is possibly the most neglected component of Jewish liturgy. In many, if not most, Orthodox synagogues, this section is frequently treated in off-hand fashion, being raced through as if it were a 100-meter dash—even on Shabbat, to say nothing of weekdays. I have been fortunate enough to participate in a few minyanim where the opposite is the case: Bira Amikta (the “Leader” Minyan), a group which meets once a month in the German Colony, known far and wide for its leisurely-paced chanting and singing of Pesukei de-Zimra, which at certain moments approaches ecstatic heights; and Yakar, where the late Prof. Ze’ev Falk used to lead Pesukei de-Zimra slowly and melodiously, a tradition I have attempted in some small way to continue.
In the following essay, I wish to discuss both the halakhic sources of Pesukei de-Zimra and to reconstruct the underlying religious ideas that prompted its institution, through discussion and analysis of a number of classical Rabbinic texts which I see as the basic sources for this practice.
“And He is blessed above all song and praises”
The only explicit mention of Pesukei de-Zimra by name in the Talmudic literature is in b. Shabbat 118b:
R. Yossi said: “Would that my portion were among those who complete the Hallel every day!” Really? For has it not been said: “One who recites the Hallel every day commits blasphemy!“ Here, they are referring to Pesukei de-Zimra.
Rashi, explaining this rather harsh comment, notes that the “early prophets” instituted the recitation of Hallel at certain fixed times (i.e., on those occasions when Israel were confronted with dire trouble and thereafter delivered from them by God, as stated in Pesahim 117a; cf. Arakhin 10a-b, which enumerates the eighteen [or twenty-one] days of the year when one “completes”—i.e., recites the full—Hallel). If one were to recite it constantly, other than at the appropriate times fixed by the ancients, these hymns of praise to God would be reduced to triviality, to an ordinary song such as one might sing for ones own pleasure, making a mockery of it. Rav Yossi’s position is defended by explaining that the “Hallel” to which he refers here is something altogether different: Pesukei de-Zimra—a term left undefined by the talmudic text, to which we shall return later.
What is the point being made here? Why is the recitation of Hallel proscribed except at certain times, and even considered blasphemous, while the recitation of the hymns of praise known as Pesukei de-Zimra, is permitted? Rav Soloveitchik addresses this question in an essay entitled, “On Matters of Pesukei de-Zimra,” published in his Lectures in Memory of My Father The Rav offers an intriguing theological explanation. He speaks of a tension between two religious moments: the natural impulse of religious man to praise God, coupled with the ethical and halakhic obligation to do so, as an expression of gratitude; and the concomitant awareness that God’s essential ineffability, His transcendence, place Him beyond human understanding, and ipso facto beyond all praise. These two poles are symbolized, on the one hand, by the verse “Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord… May His name be praised from now and forever…” (Ps 114:2) and, on the other, by the verses “Who can tell the mighty acts of the Lord, and make heard all his praise?” and “to You silence is praise” (Pss 106:2; 65:2). This same tension, states the Rav, explains the difference between Hallel and Pesukei de-Zimra—and our puzzling passage.
Hallel is a venerable halakhic institution, of hoary antiquity. We are not allowed to praise God at our own initiative, but only within the context of the halakhah, as legislated by the Sages, who both permitted and required us to praise God at certain times and in a certain manner, through the recitation of specific texts. Anything beyond this automatically falls under the rubric of hiruf vegidduf, scorn and blasphemy. According to this line of thinking, Pesukei de-Zimra is a very limited, essentially personal, private act of praise, and not a formal part of public prayer, which strictly speaking only begins with the Half Kaddish and Barkhu. Moreover, its basic unit is the verse rather than the full chapter or parasha—hence the title Pesukei de-Zimra, “verses of song”—even though it in fact includes several complete chapters, indeed, the entire sequence of psalms from Psalm 145 through Psalm 150. Hence, it does not violate the stricture against “cheapening” Hallel by reciting it every day. Indeed, the Rav ultimately identifies Pesukei de-Zimra not so much as praise at all, but as an act of Torah study—in this case, focused upon texts describing the nature of God’s attributes. (This move of saying “this is Limmud Torah” is very typical of the Rav, reminiscent of his approach to the Passover Seder, Tisha b’Av kinot, etc.)
Thus far the Rav. With all due respect to my revered late teacher, I must confess to a certain disappointment in this essay. I felt that there were several important sources and issues relating to Pesukei de-Zimra that the Rav chose to disregard; the latter half of the essay is in fact devoted to other issues related to public prayer, important in their own right, but is not the comprehensive treatment of Pesukei de-Zimra I had been hoping for, suggested by its title. This lacunum was one of my motivations in writing the present paper.
This evocation of the problematic and ambivalent nature of praise of God brings to mind a number of incidents related in the Talmud. One passage, in b. Berakhot 34b, tells of a certain prayer leader who extolled God with a long string of adjectives: “The great, powerful, and awesome God, tremendous, heroic, fearsome, strong, brave, certain and honorable…” When he had finished, Rabbi Hanina interjected sarcastically, ”Have you finished reciting the praises of your Maker?” He then went on to say that, were it not for the biblical verses that serve as precedent, we could not even recite the well known opening phrase of the Amidah, ha-El ha-gadol ha-gibbor veha-nora.
The parallel version of this story in the Jerusalem Talmud is shorter and more curt. There, Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Yonatan cut the prayer leader short after the first two extraneous words, informing him that, “You have no right to add to the formula coined by the Sages” (j. Berakahot 9.1 [12d]). This is followed by a series of biblical proof texts—Job 37:23, 20; Ps 65:2—illustrative of the inadequacy of human words to properly praise God.
But why turn to erudite Talmudic texts? This same idea is eloquently expressed in the concluding section of Pesukei de-Zimra itself, recited by every observant Jew on Sabbaths and festivals, in the piyyut Nishmat kol Hay. “Even if our mouths were filled with song like the sea, and our tongues song like the multitude of its waves, and our lips were filled with praise like the span of heaven… and our legs swift as deer, and our hands spread forth like [wings of] eagles, we could not praise or thank You… for even one part of the thousands upon thousands of thousands, myriads of myriads of goodness You have done for us…”
Meditation and Prayer, Praise and Study
But Pesukei de-Zimra needs to be understood in another context as well. I hold that this institution as we know it is essentially the translation into practical terms of the Hazalic insight that prayer requires preparation, a certain divesting of ones thoughts of the everyday world, a turning of ones mind and soul to totally different modes. This is expressed in a brief mishnah dealing with the mental attitude required for prayer:
One does not stand up to pray save with a serious demeanor. The pious men of old would wait one hour and then pray, so as to direct their hearts toward their Heavenly father. (m. Berakhot 5.1)
The gemara on this passage, at fol. 32b, adds several interesting elements. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states that this was not only a pious practice of the “old timers,” but also a normative requirement: the worshipper, presumably every worshipper, must tarry an hour both after and before prayer. (Maimonides, as we shall see later, brings this as halakhah, but interprets it as not necessarily a clock hour, but as a certain amount of time, something like the usage of sha’ah kalah in modern Hebrew.) This is followed by a beraita about the pious men of old, stating that they would wait a full hour before praying, spend an hour in the act of prayer, and then sit for one hour thereafter, so as not to make it seem as though their prayer were a burden they were eager to rid themselves of. Thus, they spent a total of nine hours daily in prayer, leaving precious little time for either work or Torah study. Both of these needs apparently benefited from a special heavenly blessing thanks to their extraordinary righteousness and piety.
We are not told precisely what they did during this hour of preparation, of “sitting” or “staying.” Presumably they engaged in some form of meditation, clearing their minds of the practical tasks and concerns and worries of practical life, and directing their minds to awareness of the Divine presence, as a prelude to the worship of God.
Maimonides relates to this passage in his discussion of the requirement for kavvanah in prayer:
What is “intention”? That he empty his heart from all thoughts and see himself as if he is standing before the Divine presence. Therefore he needs to sit a bit before prayer, so as to direct his heart, and thereafter he should pray leisurely and with supplication… The pious ones of old would wait an hour before prayer, and an hour before after prayer, and pray for one hour. (Laws of Prayer, 4.15-16)
A second text concerning the nature of prayer that sheds light on our subject appears in both Berakhot 32a and Avodah Zarah 7b:
Rabbi Simlai expounded: A person should always arrange (or: order) the praise of the Holy One blessed be He, and then pray.
There is a basic problem in the interpretation of this passage. Both Rashi (on the passage in Avodah Zarah alone), and Kesef Mishneh to Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 1.2, see this as alluding to the internal structure of prayer: the threefold pattern of praise, petition, and thanksgiving into which the eighteen (or nineteen) blessings of the Amidah are divided. (Interestingly, Kesef Mishneh misquotes the passage in a way that more closely fits this rubric—presumably an unconscious, if fortuitous, lapse of memory.) By contrast, Bet Yosef on Tur, Orah Hayyim §51 cites this same passage as referring to Pesukei de-Zimra. Moreover, he quotes in this same context a passage a bit further on in the same sugya, in which the need for meditation prior to prayer is derived from the verse Ashrei yoshevei beitekha—a phrase closely associated liturgically with Pesukei de-Zimra, as we shall see presently (indeed, the Tur cites this as the reason for adding this verse prior to Psalm 145). Moreover, I once heard it said in the name of the late Rav Yosef Kapah (by Rav Hananel Seri, one of his younger, close disciples), that the “waiting” before prayer referred to here is in fact accomplished by Pesukei de-Zimra.
“Every day I shall bless You”: The Contents of Pesukei de-Zimra
Of what exactly do these “hymns” or Pesukei de-Zimra consist? As we mentioned earlier, the use of the term in Shabbat 118b without any further elaboration suggests that the term was already a familiar one at the time of the amoraim, whose meaning was regarded as self-evident. Yet what it in fact meant in the Talmudic context is difficult to determine. Rashi’s comment on the passage in question (paralleled by that of Ran and Maharsha) is surprising to those of us accustomed to the modern Siddur: “Pesdukei de-Zimra: two psalms of praise: ‘Praise the Lord from the heavens’ [Psalm 148] and ‘Praise God in his holy place’ [Psalm 150].”
This rather narrow identification of Pesukei de-Zimra with Psalms 148 and 150 is puzzling. Why these two in particular? I would suggest two possible explanations. The first is based on a simple linguistic pattern: the invocation of praise by means of the repeated use of the infinitive of the verb hl”l is seen as the quintessence of praise. A second explanation is that these two psalms, precisely because of their very simple, repetitive structure, invoke a sense of God’s comprehensive, all-embracing nature—and hence of the concomitant praise that is His due. Psalm 148 calls upon all parts of the cosmos to praise God: beginning with the celestial bodies and luminaries, and moving to the earth, from the titanic, inanimate forces of nature, through the vegetable and animal kingdoms, to mankind—beginning with the high and mighty and going down to the ordinary folk: old and young, maid and youth, etc. Psalm 150 presents a similar theme, taking 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 of song to the Lord, concluding with the most sublime instrument of all, the human voice; “all that has breath praise the Lord, Halleluyah.” One can easily understand why these two psalms, taken together, could well be described as the “Hallel of every day.”
But before examining this text further, we must examine a second pertinent text, that relating to what we know as Ashrei:
“Rabbi Eleazar said in the name of Rabbi Avina: Whoever recites ‘A Psalm of David’ [i.e., Psalm 145] three times every day is promised a portion in the World to Come.”
Why is this particular psalm chosen for this distinction? Two answers are offered: One, that it contains all the letters of the alphabet (i.e., it is an alphabet acrostic); two, that it refers to the quality of God providing sustenance, basic life needs, to all His creatures. The obvious objection is raised that there are other psalms that meet these requirements: Psalm 119 contains the entire alphabet, eight-fold; Psalm 136 also contains a verse in which we read that God “gives food to all flesh.” To this, the answer is that Psalm 145 contains both.
What kind of an answer is this? Perhaps the combination of these two features suggest the idea of comprehensiveness. The alphabetical arrangement may be significant because of the mystical idea that God created the universe through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Hence, an alphabetical hymn carries special importance (for which reason the question of the missing letter Nun, with which the sugya continues, is a significant one). Second, God’s providing food to every living creature indicates the all-embracing nature of God’s providence, to all levels of life, “from eagles’ nest to gnat’s eggs.”
In any event, as everyone knows, this psalm occupies a major place in our order of prayers, and indeed, under the name Ashrei, and with the addition of three other verses, Ps 84:5, 144:15 and 115:18, is indeed recited thrice daily—in Pesukei de-Zimra; it the concluding, “winding down” section of Weekday Shaharit, coupled with U’va le-Tziyon; and as the opening prayer of Minha (Afternoon Service).
Thus, taking Ashrei together with the two Halleluyot mentioned by Rashi gives us a “core text” consisting of Psalms 145, 148 and 150, together with the opening and closing blessings. (The latter, incidentally, are among the few blessings of Geonic rather than Talmudic provenance, and have notwithstanding become thoroughly accepted throughout Jewry.). Indeed, this bloc constitutes the minimum that must be recited by one who arrives late at synagogue (SH. Ar., O.H. §52; but see the detailed discussion there for the halakhic niceties applicable under various circumstances).
By contrast, Maimonides, following Rif, describes the core obligation of Pesukei de-Zimra—the “everyday Hallel” mentioned earlier, if you will—as consisting of all six of the “Halleluyah” hymns at the end of the Psalter:
The Sages praised one those who read hymns from the Book of Psalms every day, from “a Psalm of David” [Ps 145] until the end of the book [i.e., Ps 150]. And it has already become customary to read other verses before and after them, and they instituted a blessing benediction before the hymns, namely, “Barukh Sheamar,” and one afterwards, namely, ”Yishtabah.” And thereafter he reads Shema’ with its blessings. (Laws of Prayer 7.12)
It is not clear whether this represents an alternative tradition to that of Rashi and Ran, or an expansion of the above-mentioned “core text,” adding the other psalms that appear next to it in the book of Psalms, thereby creating an unbroken sequence of six psalms. In any event, Rif/Rambam’s position can also be supported as a plausible interpretation of the phrase “to complete the Hallel” every day, in that it presents a complete sequence of Psalms, each one of which (with the notable exception of Ashrei) begin and end with “Halleluyah.”
The other psalms thematically complement the first three: Psalm 146 expresses the application of God’s ethical qualities in real life, from human existential viewpoint, applying the abstract phrases of Psalm 145 in more concrete terms; Psalm 147 explores the application of the Divine qualities to history, to human life, on several different planes—from healing the pain of the broken-hearted individual, to acting in the history of Israel, to His hand in nature; Psalm 149 may be read as a bridge between 148 and 150, developing the theme of “singing out to God” in a very specific Israelite way.
We may now return to our original question: in what sense is Pesukei de-Zimra a special category, which constitutes “Hallel” but at the same time is not an act of mockery or even blasphemy? The miracles and wonders for which the classical Hallel, Hallel ha-Mitzri, was introduced were exceptional events, irruptions into history of the Infinite, of the God who ordinarily allows the world to run its course according to the laws which He Himself has set up at its beginning. We believe that God does intervene and make His presence known in history—but not every Monday and Thursday. If one were to recite this Hallel every day, the miraculous, the extraordinary would be reduced to banality. Pesukei de-Zimra, on the other hand, is the celebration, not of the God of history, but of God the Creator, the God of everyday, whose presence is felt in everyday life, but through different aspects than those celebrated by the Hallel (see on this also what I wrote in Hitzei Yehonatan I; Shevi’i shel Pesah). And it is this aspect, rather than that of the spectacular, supernatural miracles, that we must reflect upon so as to prepare our minds properly for prayer. (After preparing this essay, I found a similar idea expressed by the Hiddushei Maharsh”a on this passage in Shabbat).
Finally, to return to the Rav’s thesis, in which Pesukei de-Zimra is seen as a kind of Talmud Torah: to my mind, such a position is possible, but only if Torah study is substantially redefined. It must be understood here, not as “learning” in the usual sense—absorbing a text, repeating it so as to remember it in the future, and engaging in its intellectual analysis of its concepts—but as meditation: reflection and contemplation of various aspects of God’s qualities, so as to internalize them and apprehend them in an existential way, thereby preparing ones mind and soul for the encounter with the divine that is tefillah, prayer.
* * * * *
I find this issue, and especially the above passages relating to kavvanah and the need for deep preparation for prayer, of particular significance to our present religious and spiritual situation. To put things bluntly, contemporary Orthodoxy has largely forgotten how to daven in any true sense. There is great emphasis on piety in the sense of Talmud Torah—whether intellectual acumen or simply “hitting the books”—and/or meticulousness in observance—the widely-observed contemporary tendency toward “humrot.” Somewhere along the way, the idea of prayer as a profound inner act, as demanding intense spiritual investment and concentration, has been forgotten—or is seen as something “optional,” for rare individuals gifted with natural piety, or for eccentrics and religious neophytes. The ineluctable halakhic fact that kavvanah is a mandatory halakhic requirement of prayer (Rambam, Tefillah 4.1, 15; Sh. Ar., O.H. §98, 101.i, but see also Ram”a’s psychologically astute demurrer there ) has been largely forgotten, or ignored. Years ago, the Rav summed up this unfortunate situation (both publicly and in private conversation) in describing his own protegees with the words: “They serve Him with their minds and hands, but not with their hearts.”
Prayer requires a very special frame of mind, one that defies easy description in words—not intellective, but meditative, spiritual, perhaps intuitive-receptive. The transition to this mindset, and the need for some sort of spiritual preparation, is doubly important in our day, because modern culture and life molds people into a mindset that is conceptual, information- and task-oriented, emphasizing control, results, mastery, and cognitive, verbalizable understanding.
As I hope to elaborate in another essay in the very near future, much of modern culture moves along the axis of intellectual and existential experience. Prayer requires a breakthrough to a different, “higher,” meditative-universal mind set. This is, perhaps, one of the insights that we may glean from the New Age spirituality, with all its shortcomings. Who knows? Perhaps the renewal and rejuvenation of Jewish spiritual life will come, not from the “heartland” of the religious community, whether the various Haredi camps, the yeshivot, or the Religious Zionist mainstream, but from these seemingly “quirky,“ marginal communities. (Indeed, what is the posthumous interest in Shlomo Carlebach as rebbe if not an expression of a thirst for something authentically spiritual, stemming from a sense of failure and disappointment in the standard path?)
That the type of kavvanah required by prayer is something outside of normal, cognitive thinking processes is made clear by innumerable sources. Even the celebrated “amor deus intellectualis” of Maimonides ultimately leads to intensely felt emotional experience, as may be seen from the tenth chapter of his Hilkhot Teshuvah, where one finds a passionate description of the love that man ought to feel for God; this side of Rambam is likewise reflected in the interesting biographical fact that his son, R. Abraham Maimonides, adopted a highly mystical path, almost a Jewish counterpart to Sufism, as seen in his Kifayat al-‘Abidin (Guide to the Servants of God).
Similarly, Habad, which stresses a strongly intellectual, mind-centered type of Divine service, and which requires the serious Hasid to master an elaborate intellectual-theosophic structure (interestingly, such an adept is called a maskil, “one with great knowledge”), sees the intellect, not as an end in itself, but as a trigger for arousing the emotions, as may be seen from numerous passages in the Tanya.
Many aspects of Pesukei de-Zimra remain to be explored. What is the source and significance of the numerous additions to the core framework discussed above? These include, particularly: passages from Chronicles and Nehemiah, emphasizing the aspect of God’s involvement specifically in Israel’s history—a kind of historical frame surrounding the more creational and personal/ethical psalms; the Song of the Sea, often considered The archetypal Song of Praise; the abundant additions made on Shabbat, incorporating Psalms 19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92, 93 and, in the Hasidic and Sephardic rites, also 122, 123, 124, 97 and the mystical hymn Ha-Aderet veha-Emunah; etc. What is the reason for the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic practice in terms of the arrangement of the psalms, and particularly for those included in the “sandwich” between the two blessings? What is the reason for reading Psalm 30 (Mizmor Shir Hanukat Ha-Bayit), a rather melancholy psalm of supplication (although one that moves from despair to hope, and from self-reliance to thrusting ones burden upon God), just before the beginning of Pesukei de-Zimra?Finally, why is Pesukei de-Zimra recited only in the morning, making Shaharit into what is called by some tefillah arikhta, ”the long prayer service,” and not the other two daily prayers? These questions are, to be sure, abundantly addressed by many Siddur commentaries, but an organized, systematic analysis would be of value and interest.
Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukei de-Zimra
I would like to conclude with a rather speculative insight. I note a certain parallel between Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukei de-Zimra. Both are essentially “optional,” non-halakhically structured prayer services, which strictly speaking do not require a minyan. Hence, in many communities in Israel, young children prior to Bar Mitzvah are chosen to lead these services. In at least one congregation (that of the “Yerushalmi Briskers,” the descendants and protegees of the late Reb Velvel of Brisk), Kabbalat Shabbat is not recited at all, and in the Hevron Yeshivah the announced starting time for Shaharit is that for Barkhu. Furthermore (coincidentally?), both services are structured around a sequence of six psalms (as is the Hallel!).
I see the central theme underlying all of these similarities as the idea of preparation. The one involves preparation for the major tefillah of the day, “tefillah arikhta,” with which the Jew begins his day; the other is, of course, the final preparation or act of receiving the Shabbat. The Rav once expressed the insight that many of the laws of Tefillah and Shabbat are similar. One prepares for prayer in various ways, bodily and spiritual; similarly, one performs various acts in preparation for Shabbat, that are seen as expressions of kavod, honor—buying and preparing special foods; donning clean, nice clothing; setting the table and covering it with a cloth; lighting candles; etc. The underlying idea, in both cases, is that one is receiving the Shekhinah; that both prayer and Shabbat represent moments in time in which one encounters Divine presence in the world, in which one experiences holiness in an augmented sense. Hence, both require similar kinds of preparation, in both the physical and, it would seem, in the liturgical sense as well. These practices developed by the Jewish people, which perhaps enjoy the status of minhag more than they do that of formal halakhah, remind one of the saying, “If Israel are not prophets, they are surely sons of prophets.”
Verses of Song Revisited: More Thoughts on Pesukei de-Zimra
To continue the above 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. With all due respect, 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.
Three Meditations on Pesukei de-Zimra
1) Pesukei de-Zimra opens with the blessing Barukh She-amar. This blessing is sui generis in Jewish liturgy in that, before the standard opening formula of Barukh atah Adonai, it contains a series of a dozen or so short phrases beginning with the word Barukh: “Blessed be…” These enumerate ion the things for which we praise God. The opening phrase, “Blessed be He who spoke, and the world was,” seems a key to all religious feeling, and for that matter all philosophy. God spoke—and the world was. Why is there Being at all? The very fact that anything IS, is in itself a source of inconceivable wonder. Why should there be a world at all? Why is there not simply eternal nothingness, darkness, an absence of all chemical, biological, or physical activity?
Physicist Gerald Schroeder, in his book The Science of God, notes that the very fact that there are atoms at all, that during the “Big Bang” (assuming there is any reason why such an event ought to have happened at all), positive and negative charges did not totally neutralize one another; that during the first millionth-of-a-second, at super-white heat, fusion took place creating the carbon atoms that would later be necessary as building blocks of all organic life—all this is a great wonder.
2) The liturgy requires us to recite Ashrei (Psalm 145) three times daily. The tendency to recite this psalm on automatic pilot, rushing through its words, is very common, nay, all but ubiquitous in most synagogues I know. And yet, our Sages stress its great importance, saying that whoever says it three times daily performs a meritorious act, and is assured a share in the World to Come.
I have found it useful to sit down for Ashrei and to pause briefly, perhaps taking a breath, between each individual verse. Ashrei was placed before Minhah as a kind of meditation; as a fulfillment, however small, of the idea of a moment of “sitting” or just “staying” in silence prescribed by Hazal before prayer. The awareness of the words, through simply slowing down, may have a profound affect upon one’s davening as a whole.
3) The final section of Pesukei de-Zimra is interesting. First, at the end of the core of this section, i.e., the six final psalms of the Psalter (145-150), each of which begin and end with Halleluyah, one repeats the final verse: “Let all that has breath praise the Lord; Halleluyah!” One can imagine here the entire cosmos praising God: a kind of Nishmat or Perek Shirah writ small (the latter is an ancient work recording the songs recited by each creature in praise of God).
This is followed by a conflation of the concluding verses of each of the first four “books” of Psalms (i.e., Pss 41, 72, 89, and 106; the division of the psalms into five books, like those of the Torah, is very ancient). This is in turn followed by a verse from 1 Chronicles 29:11, seen by Kabbalah as the source for the seven lowest sefirot, the “tools” used by God for channeling His infinite abundance within a finite universe (“Lekha Hashem ha-gedulah….”; “To You, O God, pertain greatness, and might,” etc.).
This is in turn followed by an interesting verse from Nehemiah 9:6, too often overlooked: “You alone, O Lord, are God: you made the heavens and the heavens above the heavens and all their hosts; the earth and all that is upon it; the sea and all that lives therein…” We have here a picture of the three divisions of the universe: the earth’s surface, and that which is above and below: the worlds of mammals, birds, and fish; those realms depicted in the first to third, and fourth to sixth, days of creation. But then, “and You provide life to them all.”
If the mystery of Being implied in Barukh She-amar is a quasi-philosophical issue, too abstract to feel in a concrete way, that of Life, pulsing at very instant within ourselves and within all that surrounds us—people, animals, trees, bushes, insects—is a profoundly existential one. God is the force giving life to all. This verse easily elicits thoughts of the Divine life pulsing within us in every heartbeat, in every breath we take. Without His vivifying touch, there would be naught but death and desolation and eternal stillness and silence.