Book ReviewsThe Book of Psalms: Three millennia of continuity

The Book of Psalms: Three millennia of continuity

The Book of Psalms: Three millennia of continuity

between hymnals for two temples to liturgy for modern synagogues

Secondary Research by David B. Brooks, Adath Shalom Congregation



This presentation on the Book of Psalms is intended to explore the history and authorship of the book and its use in the Biblical era and in modern times, as well as some special features, such as the five non-Biblical psalms of David. What interests me more than any detail of meaning is the direct, personal approach to God by the psalmists, plus the multiple linkages over the millennia as the book goes from hymnal for priests through multiple rabbinic commentaries (and disputes) and today as liturgy in modern synagogues.

The adjective “secondary” for my research means that my review is built on the work of earlier scholars, and in fact scholars who have published in English since 1975, not on original sources.  That is, the sources are mainly from the past century, not Biblical or rabbinical. My principal sources appear below, and at the end of the text is a full annotated bibliography of sources.

My review is not intended to discuss the acknowledged beauty of the poetry of individual psalms nor the cantillation of the music that often accompanied the psalms.  The poetry can be read without my help and, even though many psalms do need interpretation, such a review is beyond my capability and your patience. As for music, my ability at singing has been judged sufficient to frighten away any possible messiah. Nahum Sarna presents brief introductions to “Music and Worship” on pages 6 to 10 and to “The Musical Guilds” on 20 to 22 of his book (see below). For a beautifully written guide to the psalms, with “their pathos, their power, their joyous exuberance, their vivid imagery, and their spiritual beauty,” I could not do better than recommend Miriyam Glazer’s new book, Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to their Beauty, Power, and Meaning, which is cited in the bibliography.

The source for the bulk of my comments is from the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’ 2018 book,The Steinsaltz Tehillim backed up by Dr. Abraham Cohen’s 1985 edition of The Psalms: The Soncino Books of the Bible. In addition to important introductory material, each book presents a psalm-by-psalm review in English and Hebrew. My commentary is certainly not psalm-by-psalm, but their comments are critical for clarifying or suggesting meaning, so I use them throughout my review. Supplementary information was gleaned from the following:

  • Nahum M. Sarna (1993), On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel. Despite its title, instead of a psalm-by-psalm, Sarna elects to review just 10 psalms (two in one chapter) with extensive reviews of their meanings and implications. Good for him!
  • Reuven Hammer (1994), Entering Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service.
  • Geoffrey Wigoder, ed. (1989). The Encyclopedia of Judaica.

Each siddur is a bit different from others, so all quotations are taken from Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat and Festivals, which is used in many Conservative Congregations. Because there are two numbering systems for the Book of Psalms—see further in Chapter 9—all numbers will refer to the 150-psalm version in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Generally, I avoid the ambiguous word “psalter,” but there is no way of avoiding it when it appears in quotations. Similarly, I apologize for the sexism in many of the quotations—typically referring to men when the implication is men and women—but there it is!

Illustrations at their best are found in The Illuminated Book of Psalms: The Illustrated Text of all 150 Psalms and Hymns (2015)1 Many more can be found in stock lists.  However, as Steinsaltz mentions in the section entitled “Digression” below, by comparison with the beauty of the poetry, most artistic work to illustrate the psalms is boring—rather as if it were intended for a greeting card rather than a work of art.

As a final comment in this Introduction, should you wonder why I think you may be interested in my presentation, Steinsaltz writes in the Introduction to his eponymous book (p. xiv): “What emerges from most of the psalms is not the voice of a specific historical figure but rather that of Everyman.”



Deemed Likely Irrelevant

  • Psalm 117 is the shortest chapter in the Bible (2 verses), and Psalm 119 is the longest 176 (verses).
  • The Book of Psalms is divided into five sections, just as the Torah is divided into five books. However, the Torah’s books are distinctly different from one another, but no difference is evident among the five sections of the Book of Psalms though many commentators have sought to find one. Given that absence of logic, a number of scholars suggest that the five-part structure was imposed on the Book after it was compiled.  That could also be true for Sarna who notes (15-16) that each of five sections ends with ”a doxology (a  formula expressing praise of God) and that the last psalm, number 150, “most likely is meant to serve as the doxology for the entire Book of Psalms.”
  • According to The Encyclopedia of Judaism (574), “The first two psalms function as a general introduction to the entire collection and the final psalm serves as a conclusion.”
  • A few psalms are constructed fully or partially as an alphabetical acrostic, something that makes translation even more difficult than usual, but in some cases is intended to aid memorization or just to amuse the author and the reader.
  • The origin of the English word “psalm” is the Greek word “psalein” pronounced with a silent “p” and meaning “to pluck,” as with a stringed instrument.
  • According to the Soncino book (xviii to xiv), western and Arabic poetry is distinguished from prose by being “contained within a framework of metre—and (sometimes) rhyme. In Biblical Hebrew rhyme is hardly ever found and metre, in the defined sense, is unknown.”
  • Sarna is clear that (206), “the psalmists were acutely aware of the dangers of hypocrisy and the perils it holds for true religiosity. They warn the would-be worshiper that God . . . discerns the contrast between profession and deed, promise and performance.”
  • No one should be surprised that a prayer is to be said before reciting psalms, and the following excerpt from Psalm 95 is commonly cited:

Come let us sing to the Lord, let us make a joyful sound to the rock of our salvation. Let us greet Him with thanksgiving; let us cry out to Him joyfully with song. For the Lord is a great God, a great King above all gods.

Some sources, among them Steinsaltz, also propose reading a longer kavanah (contemplative text intended to make us more open to absorbing the wording and meaning of the psalms).

Deemed Relevant, But Not Entirely Sure How

  • There are very few references to women in the Book of Psalms. Perhaps some of the authors were female, but, with one possible exception, nothing indicates this.  The exception refers to Psalm 55, which according to a few scholars may be written by an anguished woman after she was raped by someone she knew.2  More generally, it suggests to me that either nothing in the book was relevant to women, which is clearly not the case, or that everything in the book is relevant to them, which must therefore be true, or at least closer to the truth. See further in Chapter 9.
  • According to Steinsaltz (xv), “Despite all the differences between them, the psalms share one outstanding characteristic: truth.  There is no smoothing of rough edges; no attempt to ignore or gloss over difficult issues in order to create a sense of harmony.  Indeed, many of the psalms have a kind of built-in dissonance that results from the psalmist’s refusal to relinquish a point of truth even at the expense of disrupting the overall melody.”
  • Also according to Steinsaltz (xiii), “In the books of the Bible, certainly in the Torah but also in the Prophets, the relationship is primarily portrayed as proceeding from the top down, from God to man.  By contrast, Psalms is the only book of the Bible where the relationship flows in the opposite direction, from man to God.” Polish (2000; 2004) makes the same point and so does Sarna,, who adds (3): “The biblical psalms are essentially a record of the human quest for God.”
  • Sarna adds (4): “The genius of the Book of Psalms lies in this, that while it is time-bound in origin, it is ever fresh and timely, and hence timeless.”
  • Sarna also notes (206-207) that, “despite the frequent expression of basic human concerns, there is a complete absence of personal pleasure for power or wealth. If there ever were any, they have not survived.”
  • Daniel Polish writes (2000; xii), “More than any other part of scripture, we can say that the psalms are not beloved because they are holy, but that they are hoy because they are beloved.”
  • Psalms were not written to be read whether silently or orally, but to be sung or chanted.  Presumably the authors thought in terms of the Temple, not the synagogue and certainly not the living room.



Seventy-three psalms are attributed in one way or another to be the work of King David.  The best modern guess is that he reigned over Israel from about 1000 to 962 BCE, and assuming that he was probably extra busy during the early part of his reign, we might guess that the bulk of those psalms were written during the latter 20 years.  Using those references as evidence, and often complementing the with Hannah’s prayer in the sanctuary in Shiloh, the bulk of Jewish literature printed before about 1975 accepts that most of the psalms were composed after 1000 BCE. Certainly, that is the case for Nahum Sarna and Rabbi Avrohum Chaim Fever (1998). However, the attribution to King David stems most often from the words, “l’David” at the start of the psalm, and, as many scholars have explained, that expression has numerous possible meanings, only one of which is “by David.”3 As indicated in Chapter 4, scholars have become increasingly skeptical as to whether David wrote any of the psalms and certainly not a large number of them.

Today, the bulk of scholars who are not writing from an Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox perspective now believe that the psalms were written over many hundred of years, certainly including the times when the two Temples were operating and then well into the period of exile in Babylon and the later return to Jerusalem.  Though language varied somewhat between the completion of the First Temple (about 920 BCE) and the destruction of the Second Temple in (70 CE), and that difference allows some scholars to suggest dates for specific psalms, their character and their meaning do not depend to any extent on the date of composition. Thanks to advice from Rabbi Benjamin Segal from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, I learned that, for example, the word “Halleluja” emerged rather late in the Biblical era, and that the specific words used for God changed over time.   He also emphasized that the psalms “were carefully composed to be applicable to situations other than those of the immediate author.” The implication is that there is little specific evidence for dating individual psalms prior to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, which is when the Hebrew Bible as we know it was being compiled. (I am deliberately avoiding any reference as to when or whether the Hebrew Bible was divinely composed or revealed to the Israelites.) Also, from a general perspective, we know that this was an era characterized by what American scholar James Charlesworth, who compiled the modern English language versions of the Pseudepigrapha, calls “voluminous and varied literature.” The result of all these hypotheses is the conclusion that most if not all psalms in the Book of Psalms were written sometime between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE. 

Indeed, that gap in our knowledge alerts us to an even bigger gap in our knowledge. When and by whom was the Book—as distinct from the individual psalms—put together?  And why did that individual or group of “editors” stop at 150 psalms when it is reasonable to assume that there were many more available?  Had I been born in that era and had I been the author of some psalms, how would I have found the office of the editor-in-chief?  Perhaps that office never existed, and the book was compiled over time.  As Rabbi Segal of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem put it: “The book of Psalms is essentially an anthology of anthologies, which more than once was re-anthologized.”4

In sum, with respect to timing for the Book of Psalms, which is probably the single best-know portion of the Hebrew Bible by non-Jewish readers, all we can really say is that it emerged in the middle of the first millennium BCE, and that “The book became frozen as it now is sometime in the second Temple period, probably as many Psalms moved from poetic literary creations to sections within the liturgy” (Ibid.).



The great bulk of individuals who contributed to the Book of Psalms do not tell us their names.  A few do, and rather more have their names attached to the psalms.  However, any discussion about authorship must begin with King David, the man who seems to have been skilled with the harp and who came to be called “the sweet singer (psalmist) of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1).

Many sources allege that King David wrote 73 psalms, just under one half of the 150 psalms that appear in the Book of Psalms.  Some older and many modern commen-tators challenge that number, and I agree with them.  From the Biblical era to today there has existed an ideological effort to whitewash King David’s character. (For example, Rabbi Shmuel Yerushelmi’s introduction to his three-volume work writes that (xi), King David composed the Book of Psalms after he had so perfected himself that the holy spirit rested upon him.”)  And given the evidence as to his musical abilities, the psalms were a good place to start the whitewashing.  As Steinsaltz writes (xiv), none of the psalms is autobiographical, nor does any depict his private or his public life. “Yet what is most striking in the psalms of supplication attributed to David” is the perspective they convey.  “The image is that of a man who feels alone even in the midst of a crowd.”  That could be David, but it could also be many other individuals. Further question comes from Psalm 72 itself, which is largely a tribute to Solomon, and which ends with the words, “Here end the prayers of David son of Yishai.”

Ten other people are given the credit for composing one or a few psalms.  I have not been able to identify all of them, but the names mentioned in most sources are well-known from the Torah even if they are just referred to as elders: Moses (one psalm), King Solomon (2), Aseph (12), Heiman (1), Ethan (1), Adam (?), Melchizedek (?), Jeduthun (?), and the sons of Korach (9).  There is no evidence to support their claims to authorship, but neither is there any to dispute them.

In summary, most of the psalms not only are anonymous, but they were intended to be so. I can only guess at their rationale, but they must have felt the need to be humble in comparison with the enormity of the issues they were confronting.



Introduction to Classification

It seems as if everyone who writes more substantively on the structure or origin of the psalms, especially those contained in the Book of Psalms cannot resist the urge to classify the 150 psalms by their main themes.  (In many cases, one psalm will incorporate more than one theme, but generally a single overriding one can be identified.)  The division is commonly into three to six types, as will be described below, but those scholars that are really interested in classification can come up with 20 to 30 categories.

As one example, I will cite the Soncino publication of the Book of Psalms with its careful Introduction by Dr. Abraham Cohen, who was also editor of the Soncino Books of the Hebrew Bible.  He starts by stating (page x), “In subject matter the Psalms may be classified into three main heads:” Praise; Elegy, and Ethics.

  • Psalms of Praise are most common and cite God’s “goodness and mercy to Israel and all His creatures, His vindication of the righteous when persecuted by the wicked, His Kingship over all mankind, and His might as the Creator and Ruler of the universe.”  This category also includes the Torah and everything else related to Zion and Israel.
  • Psalms of Elegy tell us first about the sufferings of individuals and of the Israelite people, but quickly turn to base the suffering on individual and/or national sins.  With but few exceptions, they continue with a request for pardon along with feelings of supplication.
  • Psalms of Ethics, which are the smallest category, are typically didactic or instructive in character, and they “proclaim the joy which ensues from loyalty to God’s will.”  Some scholars refer to this category as the Didactic Psalms as they typically comment on Israel’s history or examine the problem of evil.

Cohen goes on to write (xi) that the psalms “reflect life in its varied aspects as it was experienced by members of the Israelite community. . . . They echo the thought and feeling, the aspiration and the yearning, of countless men and women in every era”—one of the few references to women from any of the traditional commentaries on the Book of Psalms.

Cohen has created a straightforward and easily understood triple classification that will cover the great majority of psalms.  (He makes no claim to it being universally applicable.)  One is therefore surprised to find near the end of the book (483) a new section entitled “Psalms Classified for Reading and Meditation,” which offers 17 categories ranging from Problem of Good and Evil, Meditation on Human Life, Revelation to God in History, and God in Nature.  (With regard to the last, see my comments in the next subsection.)  Clearly, these categories are for a very different purpose than the triple categorization above, and they show the author’s recognition that the Book of Psalms will have a varied readership that is reading for varied purposes.

The remainder of this section on classification will describe other examples of classification of the psalms.  In my opinion, none of the intermediate level of psalms is particularly useful.  However, the very general three-fold classification for most psalms is adequate if not complete for descriptive purposes; the much longer theme-based classifications are useful for readers or researchers with purpose in their review.

Other Examples of (Read “Suggestions for”) Classifying the Psalms

Given that The Steinsaltz Tehillim is the source of so much of my information on the Book of Psalms, I must talk about his approach to classification of the psalms.  For general commentary, nothing is presented that is much different from the Introduction by Abraham Cohen in the Soncino book.  However, when one turns to the end of the book, it is apparent that Steinsaltz quite exceeds the example found in the Soncino book.  First, though not presented as a classification, Steinsaltz lists prayers appropriate for special occasions, such as weddings, birth of a child, and so on.  They show how widely the psalms are now used throughout a person’s life cycle, including the almost universal practice for psalms to be recited psalms when someone is close to death, and to continue afterwards until burial.

Second, and comparable to what appears in the Soncino book, is “List of Psalms by Theme,” which also contains 17 categories, just as in the Soncino book, but about half of which are quite different choices as theme.  Finally, though a rather different classification, Steinsaltz gives each of the 150 psalms a descriptive name so one can search for the appropriate psalm or psalms for the problem at hand.

In the literature on the psalms, one finds numerous similar examples of proposed classification, mainly from Christian websites. One set proposes seven categories, as follows:

  • Lament Psalms (prayers for God's deliverance in moments of despair)
  • Thanksgiving Psalms (praise to God for His gracious acts)
  • Enthronement Psalms (describe God's sovereign rule)
  • Pilgrimage Psalms
  • Royal Psalms
  • Wisdom Psalms
  • Imprecatory Psalms (curses)

Another restricts it to five classes:

  • General Praise (Largest Category 74 of 150)
  • Laments. Typically begins with a cry
  • Enthronement & Royal Psalms
  • Wisdom Psalms
  • Psalms of Imprecation

Palms of “imprecation” or curses are mentioned in these lists but are ignored in many other lists.  There is no fixed list of psalms dealing with enemies; everyone’s list is different from that of the next scholar.  Some people refer to them as Psalms of Revenge, with 55 and 59 most often listed, sometimes also 58 and 139. I would add 137 (see the section on physical violence in Chapter 9). They certainly reflect anger, but uniformly they leave vengeance to God, and they carefully identify those who deserve God’s reactions to restore equilibrium.5

A German “Old Testament” scholar named Hermann Gunkel pioneered what was called “form-critical” work on the psalms with the goal of achieving a more meaningful context to interpret individual psalms. The method ignores the literary context of the psalms in favour reviewing three alternative criteria: 1) psalms had to have a similar setting in life; 2) a common basis in worship; and 3) a common cultural setting. He identified six major types-- hymns, enthronement psalms, communal complaints, royal psalms, individual complaints, and individual thanksgiving psalms--and some smaller genres and mixed types. The results were not much better than what literary classifications provided based on little more than observation.

My Own Partial Classification of the Psalms

When I first got my own copy of The Steinsaltz Tehillim, I read it from cover to cover two times.  The first time was partly for pleasure and partly for getting an overall view of the book. The second was a back and forth reading to identify those psalms that were close to my own love for the natural world and happily close to my professional work on water research and policy.  Anyone who has read even lightly in the Book of Psalms is aware of how often the natural world is mentioned.  However, I am aware of only one book that emphasizes Finding God in Nature, and that is Polish (2004). He highlights Psalm 98 for talking about God “in the context of nature” and at the same time showing how “the physical world bears witness to God” (8).  For somewhat the same reasons Psalm 98 is typically classified as an enthronement psalm and makes up part of the liturgy for Shabbat.  Polish also cites Psalm 29 as religious poetry on nature at its best, and Psalm 148 for using nature as a gateway to God.  Finally, just as do I (see below), Polish is fascinated with Psalm 104, which is recited every Rosh Hodesh (21): “No other verses in Scripture express with such force and clarity the idea of finding God through God’s handiwork.  Psalm 104 serves almost as a poetic repetition of the events we find in the Book of Genesis.”

In his earlier book, Polish also mentions a dozen psalms that could be read to promote rainfall, but he correctly discusses them in a section on magical use of psalms, which isa outside the scope of my review.  As Polish writes (19), magical use of the psalms is an “extreme manifestation” of our relationship with them.  “We do not simply study them; we make use of them.”

Despite Polish’s enthusiastic linking of the psalms to nature, I had no intention of doing a complete classification; I only wanted a partial list to identify those psalms that fit my interests, as follows:6

  • Fresh water, lakes, and rivers (11 psalms)
  • Rain for fields and harvest (12)
  • General references to Nature but not specific to water (30)
  • Those psalms for which nature was the theme (7).

Of course, for all Jewish naturalists or environmentalists Psalm 104 (one of the seven in the last category just above) is the consummate nature psalm, with such phrases as, “He sends forth springs through the valleys; between the mountains they flow. / They give drink to all the beasts of the field; wild asses quench their thirst. / Birds of the sky dwell alongside them, giving voice among the branches.” As number of scholars and rabbis have remarked, “Psalm 104 celebrates the works of God, who regularly renews the miracle of creation.”7

In making those lists, the number of psalms indicated means at least one reference for the specific list; some psalms were general with several references, but they still got only a single mention in my lists.  I also had to define what would not be counted in my classification, as with simple comparisons, such as bark like a dog, or roar like a lion, as well as such Biblical expressions as pillars of the earth, and such Biblical events as splitting the Reed Sea.

Periodically when working on a d’var for Shabbat services or commenting on some proposal for water use in Israel, I do look through my categories to see if I can find an appropriate psalm to cite.



It should come as no surprise that there are hundreds, probably thousands, of illustrations that have been created to complement the written and chanted words found in the Book of Psalms. I was initially excited by finding references to The Illuminated Book of Psalms: The Illustrated Text of all 150 Psalms and Hymns (2015).8  It is truly a remarkable book, and I was able to copy its two front covers for the first page in this review and the one just below (both presumably pictures of King David), but the book is not otherwise available on the web.  Even Amazon laments that it has no copies on hand, and I have no explanation for why there are two front covers.

What is remarkable is that so few of the other illustrations that I found on various stock lists come even close to what reviewers say about the above book. They are commonly mundane, repetitive from one to the next, and, with a few exceptions, lack imagination.  The bulk of those on the web just contain flowers, either wild or a bouquet, with or without some words quoted from the psalms.  Second, in number are landscapes, almost all with a quotation overlaying the scene, and third are images of angels singing and/or playing instruments.

Skipping those that are just images of flowers, the following seven types are in the order they will appear below.

  • The more common images
    • Angels
    • Landscape
    • Copy of the book
  • Some of the less common and more imaginative images
    • A pilgrim presumably composing a psalm as he walks
    • A Zionist image with the word for “psalm” in Hebrew
    • Clapping and dancing to songs of praise
  • My favorite is musical image which has a pilgrim origin in the ceiling of a Christian church in Milan, but which by itself can be taken quite independently.



Today across the Jewish world, psalms are a significant part of the liturgy for congre-gations attending daily, Shabbat, and festival services. It was very different when there was an active Jewish priesthood and the First and Temple dominated Jewish religious services—roughly from 957 BCE when the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) is said to have been completed to 70 CE when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. In those days whatever psalms were available served as the hymnal for the priesthood and for guilds of singers, along with accompaniment of string and wind instruments. As stated by the Soncino Book of Psalms (x), “Many of the Psalms present evidence of this liturgical use and were associated with the days of the week9 or festival occasions . . . But even poems, originally of a secular type, have traces of later adaptation for use in the liturgy.”

The history of the guilds is more complex. According to the text in The Chronicles (the final two books in the Hebrew Bible10), after David made Jerusalem into a holy city by bringing the ark of the Covenant, he appointed three Levites to lead in promoting vocal and instrumental aspects of the service. That story may not be literally accurate, but, according to Sarna, it is consistent with what we know about earlier practices and what has been learned from archaeological discoveries.  Both Karahites and Asaphites were active in Temple management (and Temple politics!).

Quoting Sarna (22): “In sum, there is no reason to doubt the existence of musical guilds in Israel during the period of the first Temple, although not all of them operated in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Some of them were attached to the provincial shrines that existed in Judah and Israel. Several of these cult sites enjoyed a great prestige, and certainly must have maintained a cadre of professional personnel.” I would add that, if musical guilds were active in the First Temple, certainly they were also active in the Second, though not necessarily the same guilds.

Turning to services in the Temple, Evelyn Garfiel writes (24-25), “The evidence seems clear that even in the days of the First Temple, prayers as well as sacrifice were part of the regular Temple service. However, as Hammer makes clear (49),11 “we have no evidence of a fixed order of service in the First Temple aside from the silent offerings.” No doubt the Levites sang and probably composed many of the Psalms, and Hammer elaborates on how that may have been organized.  Among other things (59), “From the very beginning, prayer was divorced from sacrifice. . . . For all the difference between the psalms and later rabbinic prayers, they nevertheless contained the basic elements of Jewish prayer.”  (Apparently, separation of sacrifice from worship was not typical elsewhere in the ancient Middle East.  On the other hand, maybe the word “divorce” is too strong for the separation in Jerusalem. According to one source, Rabbi Yose (presumably Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, a second-century Tanna) could not imagine that sacrifice would occur without psalms.12 There are of course other examples of individual prayers in the Bible, but of all the personal prayers recorded. the most important are the Psalms.

Garfiel also notes that, “It is no accident that the Psalter constitutes the backbone of the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church and the prayer books and hymnals of every Protestant Christian sect.” Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church had earlier incorporated the Book of Psalms, when in the 4th century CE, Jerome produced the “Vulgate” as the standard for all Catholic groups and it included the whole Hebrew Bible.13 Garfiel also states that (32), “It is reasonably certain that by the early days of the Second Temple, about 400 BCE, some form of group prayer service existed among the Jews” and that that service included recitation of Psalms.  In other words, the informal recitation of psalms in the liturgy was getting ready to replace the formal singing by the priest in the Temple.



“No book has had more influence on the liturgy than the psalms.14

It would take more than a short presentation to detail all the places in the three daily services that depend upon psalms. Indeed, from rabbinic times through the late 1800s, more and more psalms were added to the daily liturgy (Encyclopedia 575-576). Siddur Lev Shalem needs two-thirds of a page just to list all the times Psalms are used in the services (460). Hammer is notably extensive in showing how different psalms appear in various parts of the service (111-120).15 In some synagogues an old ritual of reciting a specific psalm for each day of the week is followed, but most only follow the practice of reciting Psalm 92 on Shabbat. A review of the use of psalms in various services can be found at

Partly to save time, and partly because most of us are most familiar with Shabbat services, I will focus on them rather than daily services.  Holiday services and Rosh Chodesh services are covered in the third section below.

Before proceeding to those services, Sarna’s introduction (18) contains the intriguing suggestion—his word is “proof”—that during some time periods the Book of Psalms was divided into regular weekly readings, just as the Torah is divided into parashiyot for weekly reading. However, he qualifies his statement by saying that it is not clear whether those divisions were for public reading or private recitation, nor is any time period suggested for regular attention that over a year covers all 150 psalms. Today, some women’s groups meet periodically to read the Book of Psalms, and a few synagogues in Israel, mostly those following Sephardic traditions, read the whole book at the conclusion of Shabbat morning services. A more broadly followed tradition is reading Psalm 27, a psalm that Steinsaltz describes as combing “gratitude for the past and supplication for the future; essentially a hymn of closeness to God,” every morning from the beginning of the month of Elul just before the High Holy Days through Shemini Atzeret after them.

Friday Evening Services

Siddur Lev Shalem is clear about the many ways that psalms appear early the Shabbat services, but they are not early in the Friday night service. A short section (page 6) indicates that Kabbalat Shabbat was not introduced into services until the 16th century for Sephardim and the 17th for Ashkenazim.  In the former at least two psalms were introduced: 92 which is called a Song for Sabbath Day, and 93 which in effect starts the more formal parts of worship.  Later, Ashkenazic communities replaced earlier mystical practices with five more psalms to be said just before Psalm 29.  They begin with Psalm 95, with its opening of l’khu n’ran’nah (Let us go and sing), which together with next five psalms symbolize the six days of the week--Sunday Psalm 24; Monday 48; Tuesday 82; Wednesday 94; Thursday 81; and Friday 9316—and thus link directly to Psalm 92, a Song for Shabbat.  What follows is L’kha Dodi (“Come, my beloved”)—words that may correctly remind listeners of Song of Songs, but that have the theme of Jews welcoming the arrival of Shabbat, and therefore is a fitting link to more formal portions of pre-Shabbat services.

Shabbat Morning Services

On Saturday morning, the first part of the service known as Pseukay de Zimra is mostly made up with psalms, including in most congregations at least 145 through 150. Hammer presents an extended discussion of the psalms read during this part of the service (111-120). The index to his book shows that he cites more than a third of the contents of the Book of Psalms at least once, and often several times. Though the order of the Jewish service is halakhically fixed, many parts are open to local or regional adjustment, and psalms can be introduced in almost any part of the service if the congregation or the rabbi so wishes.  In addition, Psalm 92 is generally recited in the first benediction before the Shema, and Psalm 6 is near the end of the morning service as they complement other confessional statements and pleas for God’s mercy.

Incorporation of Psalms into Special Parts of the Service

Several collections of a specific set of psalms were either introduced as a group at the time that the Book of Psalms was being compiled, or were gathered together as the Siddur was, much later, being developed. So far as I know, four groups are now recognized, but there may have been others at times in the past. Strictly speaking, they are not “liturgy” but at least the Hallel Psalms have become so:

  • Songs of Ascents (120 to 134)
  • Hallel Psalms (111 to 118)
  • Korahite Psalms (44 to 49 and 84 to 85 and 87 to 88)
  • Asaph Psalms (50 plus 73 to 83).

The Songs of Ascent consists of 15 psalms, each of which begins with the words Shir Hama’aloth. (For some reason Psalm 121 begins with Shir Lama’aloth.)  Psalm 125 is perhaps the best known of this group of psalms because it has become the first part of the grace after meals, said by many Jews. The group is also known by other names, such as the Pilgrim Songs, or Going Up to Worship. All those names reflect the tradition of Israelites who could possibly do so walking to Jerusalem—uphill for those who know the site—on Shavuot, Pesach, and Sukkoth—for the purpose of making a sacrifice. What is clear is that the 15 psalms are well designed—maybe intentionally by the authors—for communal singing. There is a lot of repetition; they are mostly cheerful; all are hopeful. With the start of the Christian era, there was wide adaptation of the Songs of Ascent for purposes in a range of services and a range of locations.

Hallel is described in a glossary in Siddur Lev Shalem,as follows:

A collection of psalms of celebration (Psalm 113-118) recited on joyous occasions—Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon), Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Hanukah, and Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). On Rosh Hodesh and on the last six days of Pesach, a shorter version of Hallel, called Hatzi Hallel or ”Partial Hallel,” is said.

Hallel as a part of the service goes back at least to the Second Temple, when it seemed to be part of the order of service for all major festivals (Hammer 75). Today, apart from the series of psalms that are recited at the start of morning services, it is Hallel that will be the most familiar use of psalms that synagogue-going readers will recognize.  They are recited by the whole congregation while standing and following the leadership of one of its best singers. Speaking of Hallel (249), Hammer uncharacteristically puts synagogue service far in second place. “The synagogue service cannot rival the color, pageantry, and excitement of the festival celebrations in the Temple, . . .”

The Korahite Songs are a collection of 11 psalms attributed to the “sons” (that is, descendants) of Korah. In chapter 16 of B’midbar (Numbers) Korah, who was Moses’ cousin, led the one serious challenge to Moses’ leadership of the Israelites, a challenge that Moses does not counter very effectively but which God puts down by opening the earth to swallow up Korah and his immediate followers. Very briefly, in my view, Korah was the Woke leader of his day, and his rebellion brings out early evidence of Moses’ declining abilities as leader.  However, none of that has much to do with the 11 psalms. Among other things, the Korahites were singers—hence the modern group with the same name—and though many died in the rebellion, they did not die out (B’midbar 26:11).  The collection of psalms with their name can be seen as an apology for what their ancestors had done. They are filled with the highest praise for God on the one hand and the greatest humility for human beings on the other. I find that it is better to read a few of them at a time; taken together, one feels rather helpless about life.

The Asaph Songs consist of a dozen psalms that are attributed to a man named Asaph, which could mean that he wrote or transcribed them, or that he was in some way instrumental in introducing them to the singers at Solomon’s Temple. The problem is that three men have that name and appear at roughly the same time and place in the Hebrew Bible. One of them was a leading member of one of the guilds of singers as well as a religious official during the reigns of both David and Solomon.  If this is the same man, he is also notable for complaining—see Psalm 73—quite explicitly about corruption after the First Temple was built. Turning to the psalms themselves, we have a very different perspective than with Ascents or Hallel. According to Wikipedia, “Each psalm has a separate meaning, and the psalms cannot be summarized as a whole. Across the twelve psalms exists a theme of the judgment from God and how the people of the Bible must follow the Law of God.” According to the Gunkel classification system (see under Classifications), they are all communal laments. In the end, the Asaph Songs offer interesting glimpses into the history and politics of the First Temple. Perhaps they were gathered as the pessimistic complement to the optimism of the Song of Ascents.



Variant Numbering of the Book of Psalms 

In the Hebrew Bible, there is no question of numbering; the psalms are numbered 1 to 150.  The Greek Septuagint17 and Latin Vulgate versions of the Bible follow the numbering system for the psalms used by the Hebrew Bible through Psalm 8, but combine and divide several psalms after that. I have never found a good reason as to why this change was made, but the inconvenient result is common difference of one number whereby the same psalm will be, say, 33 in Jewish documents and 32 in Christian ones.

Internal Contradictions or Paradoxes in Specific Psalms

Sarna’s focus on and intensive review of specific psalms has raised questions in my mind, first, about human being’s ambiguous relationship to God, as emphasized in Psalm 8, and about God’s ambiguous relationship to evil, as emphasized in Psalm 94. I will deal with Psalm 8 first, and Psalm 94 afterwards.

Sarna presents Psalm 8 as a double paradox. First, God is ultimately transcendent, beyond everything, yet He is simultaneously and always immanent, almost right beside us human beings.  Second, God is ultimately powerful in mental and physical (and we might add psychological) ways, whereas human beings are negligible in all these ways yet granted enormous power over the physical world that surrounds us.  Indeed, the psalmist says that we are “little less than divine (8:8).”  In other words, either despite those paradoxes or because of them, the psalmist feels free to approach God directly and intimately. As well, by the very notion of God asking Adam to name the animals, an implicit grant of authority s given to human beings over the animal world. To be careful, humans were not given control over those greater aspects of the physical world, such as tsunamis or volcanoes or earthquakes. (To add a short note of sarcasm, human engineering later makes efforts to tame those same forces.) The one thing that brings all of this together, was implied from start to end in Psalm 8, and, in Sarna’s view (59), “What fundamentally distinguishes the biblical references from the other near-eastern examples is the Israelite, thoroughly monotheistic atmosphere.” No wonder that Psalm 8 ends with the words (8:10), “O Lord. Our Lord, how majestic is Your Name throughout the earth.”

Steinsaltz introduces Psalm 94 as “A psalm of prayer about coping with the wicked.” Soncino introduces it as, “Plea for Divine Judgment.” Sarna starts by saying that Psalm 94 treats in greater detail the oppressive reality that one finds on earth. Just as with Psalm 8, it is marvellously poetic but nearly 2-1/2 times as long. However, its internal problem is the benevolent and magnanimous qualities of God that stand out so dramatically with what seems to be His divine tolerance of evil and evildoers. In Sarna’s words (195), “God’s ‘people’ are the ordinary common folk,” and “a major and pervasive theme of biblical literature is that God is the redeemer from injustice and oppression.” My problem is that I do not find any answer, none at all, save the psalmst’s “abiding optimism that the moral order that has been disturbed will be set right (by God), and the wicked will be destroyed.”

In the case of Psalm 8 we have a resolution that is as reasonable as human beings can expect; in the case of Psalm 49 we have no resolution that any human being should accept.

Physical Violence in the Book of Psalms

Indications of, and even references to, physical violence against your enemies are rare in the Book of Psalms.  I have found less than 10 psalms that be classified as dealing with violence or revenge--37, 52, 55, 58, 59, 137, and 118; several of these do so only indirectly.  Others, not included in my list, mention enemies only incidentally or for a contrasting example.  See, for example, Harold Kushner’s discussion of verse 5 of Psalm 23.  I should add that almost every book on psalms deals with the fact that evil is found on earth, and most go on to list those psalms that refer to how our enemies make use of the evil. Those lists very widely. My list above is just one example. Chapter 6 in Daniel Polish’s book (2000) is recommended for providing as good discussion as I have read for the urge to ask God to “Fight Against Them That Fight Against Me.”

Psalm 118 is the last psalm recited in the Hallel service, and it reads in some places as if it were a triumphant victory celebration.  Some commentators have even tried to link it to this or that event in King David’s regime, and others point to references to cutting off enemies (verses 10, 11, 12; other translations say “extinguish them”). It is deemed preferable just to accept Psalm 118 as offering a national thank you to God for all that He has done. Psalm 55 is entitled in the Soncino volume as “Treachery Denounced,” and it tells of a man whose friend has joined his enemies. The psalmist now lives in fear as his city succumbs to violence and strife (verses 10 to 12). He clearly calls on God to annihilate those enemies (16), but it is a general request in response to a general situation; nothing specific is advocated.  Psalm 37, which Soncino entitles, “The Problem of Evil,” deplores “the Ascendency of the wicked and the ensuing triumph of evil” (Soncino 111).  However, and in more vivid words than either Psalms 118 and 55, the psalmist is confident that in His own time and own way, God will strike them down (verses 13 to 20) and “those that wait for the Lord / they shall inherit the earth (9).

A rather different perspective is offered by Miriyam Glazer with respect to the numerous times in the Book of Psalms that the word “enemies” is mentioned.  Rather than individuals or communities that are literally attacking us, Glazer suggests that they may be mental images, a “barrage of anxiety, a sense of being overwhelmed” (17), very possibly from our personal demons. At a larger scale the problem may be communal and reflect the “the life-destroying forces that have plagued and still plague our world” (Ibid.).

Returning to the personal, Polish (2000) emphasizes that the closeness of our relationship with God, at least as seen from the perspective of psalms, allows us to challenge God.  Thus, (15): “As we pour out our hearts and our needs to God, we can even chastise God for the pains and difficulties that have befallen us.”  However, at no point do such complaints extend to punishment directed to God.

That leaves Psalm 137 as truly unique among the 150 in the Book of Psalms. Indeed, it is triply unique:18 First, it is the only psalm that can be clearly dated because its text refers to historic events.  Second, it is known by the tragic words of those Jews who were taken to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple: “By the rivers of Babylon / There we sat down, we wept / When we remembered Zion  . . ./ How shall we sing the Lord’s song / In a foreign land (verses 1 and 4).  And then, third, they are unique in pleading with God to destroy Babylon down to its foundations (7), which might be read as a general threat, but which include the horribly clear statements (8 and 9): “O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed / Happy shall be he that repayeth thee / as thou hast served us / Happy shall be he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones / against a rock.” Neither Cohen nor Steinsaltz distinguishes himself with their commentaries; the former says that we might have reacted the same way had we lived through the Babylonian conquest, and the latter that the psalmist does not say that he will take that act but hopes that someone else will do so.  So far as I can find, Sarna ignores the issue in his book even though the index has an entry for “vengeance.”.  None of those scholars deals with the moral perspective of killing children to punish adults or even with the simple fact of killing children for whatever reason. The fact that warfare at that time, and still today, can be conducted in ways that leave many civilians dead or injured is no excuse, nor of course is the violence by which the Israelites waged their war on the Canaanites.

Apocryphal Psalms of David from the Pseudepigrapha19 and the Great Psalm Scroll from the Qumran Caves

At the beginning of / the 20th century, it was generally assumed that the Book of Psalms was the only collection of psalms significant to most Jews during early Judaism. Now we know that the book itself was not set—or canonized—until rather late, probably not until the beginning of the Common Era, and five more psalms—Psalms 151-155; sometimes called the five Apocryphal Psalms of David—were considered by at least some Jews as part of an expanded book. Other collections of psalms or hymns were important at the turn of the millennium from BCE to CE, and many of them lapse over into Christianity. On the other hand, some of those additional psalms were said to have been originally written in Hebrew by King David. As with the original 150 psalms, modern commentators accept that the language was Hebrew but dispute any link to King David. Some suggest that these additional psalms were really composed by Palestinian Jews during the Hellenistic period.

Turning to the translation of the Five Apocryphal Psalms of David, my immediate reaction is that they do not compare favourably with those in the 150 already compiled in the Book of Psalms.  They seem uninspired, repetitive, and not all that poetic. Psalms 151, 152, and 153 are mainly descriptive and somewhat boastful; 154 and 155 are better, as the author writes about God more than about King David or perhaps himself.

Of course, other psalms and hymns were becoming available in the several hundred years of very active literary activity at the end of BCE and the first two hundred at the start of CE. Perhaps the most important is what is called the Great Psalm Scroll, which is the most substantial and well preserved of the documents discovered in the Qumran caves.20  The reason why this manuscript is of such great interest to scholars is its major deviance from the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible. It contains several compositions that are not present in that book and therefore raises questions about its history and final canonization.  There are eight new compositions with an additional prose composition that is not formatted like a psalm, including, among others, “The Apostrophe to Zion”, “Plea for Deliverance”, and Psalm 151. The Apostrophe to Zion is, in effect, a love poem to Zion and is complete in the Great Psalm Scroll. The Plea for Deliverance is an entirely new psalm that is a prayer for deliverance from sin and Satan, and that uses typical Biblical vocabulary, style, and form. Psalm 151 is found both in The Great Psalms Scroll and the Septuagint. The version of Psalm 151, discovered at Qumran, adopts a more biographical tone, which makes it seem as if it is a hymn associated with King David. The additional prose composition also refers to many Psalms associated with David, including 364 songs, one for each day of the year, and citing many more works all allegedly written by David. Though research is still ongoing, most scholars now believe that the Book of Psalms had not been entirely fixed at this time and that the material found in the Qumran caves was something of an alternative version of that book.

Women and the Book of Psalms

In Chapter 3, I wrote that little seems to be said in the Book of Psalms that makes specific reference to women, which I suggested meant that women were either implicitly relevant in every psalm or deliberately ignored in most if not all psalms. I tried to find more explicit studies of women and the book, yet found only one such study; happily, it is a gem.  This article was written by Helen Efthimiadis, and is entitled: “Is there a place for women in the theology of the Psalms? Part I: An investigation into the female imagery of the ancient Hebrew Psalter.” It was published in a South African journal more than 20 years ago.”21  I cannot imagine why it has been ignored in most subsequent publications, few of which even have an index reference to “women.”

Dr Efthimiadis introduces her study with comments similar to my own, but with more evidence.  In somewhat edited form, she writes (33-34):

I felt my conscience challenging me as to whether the question itself were not an illegitimate insult to women, bearing/baring as it does nasty portents of 'a woman's place, pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen'. Looking for sources proved equally challenging. Apart from Kathleen Farmer's contribution in 'Met Eigen Ogen' (Farmer 1995:188-196)22, there simply is no available material on this topic--nothing in South Africa that I could trace. That being the case, I began to identify areas within the Psalms which were most likely to provide the information I sought: female imagery (mundane and divine), . . . the poor, cultic participation, and lamentation. I then set out upon my own investigation  .  .  .  into the female imagery of the ancient Hebrew Psalter, . . .  and the possible meaning of the question, “Is there a place for women in the theology of the Psalms?”

Table 1 in Dr Efthimiadis’ study provides a list of mundane and divine female imagery by categories, as follows (but including only the mundane category):

  • Female anatomy: mother's breasts (22:9); the womb (22:9; 58:3); mother's womb (22:10; 71:6; 127:3; 139:13).
  • Traditional female functions/actions: woman in birth-pangs (48:6); give birth and conceive (51:5); birth (58:3; 71:6; 78:6); marriage (78:63); lament (78:64); weaned child (131:2).
  • Traditional female categories: mother (35:14; 51:5; 109:14; 113:9; 131:2); king's daughters, honourable women, queen, royal daughter, virgins (45:9-11, 13-15); stillborn child of a woman (58:8); mother's children (69:8); widow (68:5; 78:64; 94:6; 109:9; 146:9); maidens (78:63; 148:12); maidservant (86:6; 116:16); daughters (106:37, 38; 144:12); wife (128:3); barren woman (113:9); maid (123:2); mistress (123:2).
  • Cultic participation: maidens playing timbrels (68:25); the son of your maidservant (86:16); let maidens praise (148:12); sacrificed their daughters to demons and shed their blood (106:37, 38).

Three additional categories have no entries under Mundane:  Grammatical Gender, Character Traits, and Fauna and Flora. A final category, Fertility, has just one entry for Mundane:  bear fruit (92:14).

Dr. Efthimiadis then engages in a review of each of the categories and of their relevance to women in their daily lives today. What follows is an abbreviated version of her concluding paragraphs:

It would seem then that most of the female imagery detected in the Hebrew Psalter (29 out of a total of 48 images discussed, i e, 60%) may be evaluated positively for modern Western women. Whilst this discovery may leave a sweet taste in the mouths of many women at first, the taste soon becomes bitter-sweet. For, whilst mundane female imagery may relate to the actual life experiences of women and appear sympathetic because of the hardships they may endure, these experiences are mediated and related indirectly through the experiences of an obviously male psalmist . . .  In other words, it is a tool of power and control. When viewed in this way, the ostentatious identification with women's experiences loses its flavour. What at first seemed positive is cancelled by the patriarchal lens through which it is focused: women are 'spoken for' in the Psalms, both in a literal and a figurative sense. . . . Mathematically speaking, the positive imagery associated with YHWH can indeed outweigh the remaining, more negatively evaluated imagery. In other words, the Psalms render a positive evaluation of and for women in the area which would most affect the position of the latter in the theology of the former: the Divine-human (specifically Divine-woman) relationship . . . .  Viewed in this way, we may boldly say that there is a place for women in the theology of the Psalms even though this may not have been in the theological view of those who eventually compiled the Book of Psalms as we have it. Yes, there is a place for women in the theology of the Psalms.



I can think of no better way to conclude my review of the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible than to quote once more from the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who wrote (xv): “Essentially, rather than being a book of poetry expressing the ‘I’ of the poet, Psalms is a book of prayer. To the extent that ‘I’ is present in each psalm, so too, God is always present as the divine ‘you.’ This is the case both when every verse of a given psalm contains some reference to the divine, and when heavenly matters go almost or entirely unmentioned.” Steinsaltz goes on to advise us, you and me (Ibid.), “The spiritual world presented in Psalms is neither mysterious nor complicated. Although some of the psalms sound a note of complaint, there is always a sense that here, unlike in other books of the Bible such as Job or Ecclesiastes, these emotions are kept firmly in check. Moreover, even when they raise questions that are essentially unanswerable, the psalms remain a form of prayer.”

And, of course, Sarna has something to say when he laments (4) that much of modern world no longer knows how to pray. “This situation is particularly distressing and disturbingly paradoxical when it arises among the descendants of the people that gave the world the Book or Psalms.

Therefore, as my final word, I will cite Hillel the Elder who, when challenged by a pagan to tell him the Torah while standing one leg, responded “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is explanation. Go and learn.” I would just, with my own sort of chutzpah, revise Hillel’s words to “Go and learn. and perhaps compose your own poem or prayer.”


Several people deserve thanks for their contributions to this essay. Jane Enkin did a top to bottom review covering both theological issues and proofreading, and I am particularly grateful to her.  Carlie McPherson, Senior Librarian at the Solway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, gathered relevant materials for me to review at the library.  Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal, former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and currently co-chair of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, helped with several issues including timing and gender. Paul Adler was as always helpful in looking at my power-point oral presentation and ensuring that it was not too long or too wordy. Finally, several people at Adath Shalom Congregation in Ottawa loaned me books from their personal collections during a period in which the JCC in Ottawa was closed.  


Principal Sources

  • Cohen, Abraham Cohen (1985 edition). The Psalms: The Soncino Books of the Bible. London, UK: Soncino Press
  • Hammer, Reuven (1994), Entering Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service. New York: Schocken Books.
  • Sarna,Nahum M. (1993), On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel. New York: Schocken Books. Despite its title, instead of a psalm-by-psalm, he elects to review just 10 psalms (two in one chapter) with extensive reviews of their meanings and implications.  Good for him
  • Steinsaltz, Adin (2018). The Steinsaltz Tehillim (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers).

Supplementary Sources

  • Garfiel, Evelyn (1975). Service of the Heart: A Guide to the Jewish Prayer Book. North Hollywood, CA, USA: Wiltshire.
  • Glazer, Miriyam (2009). Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy:  A Guide to their Beauty, Power, and Meaning,   “For each of us, the psalms of the liturgy offer a vocabulary for our victories and our failures, a way in which to express the sheer intensity of life itself.”
  • Kushner, Harold S. (2003). The Lord Is My Shepherd:  Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  HK’s book, which goes line by line through the psalm, starts from the proposition that, “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we would not have to do it alone, for He would be with us.
  • Polish, Daniel F. (2004), Keeping Faith with the Psalms: DeepeningYour Relationship with God Using the Book of Psalms. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing. Rather different from Polish’s earlier book (cited below) in that it deals with the way that the Book of Psalms can help with Jewish religious questions, such as Finding God in Torah, The Problem of Evil in our World, and, uniquely so far as I know, Finding God in Nature. (See chapter 4 on classifying the psalms by theme.)
  • Segal, Benjamin J. (2013). A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing. Interesting text with commentary on indications for original dating, or not dating, and on ongoing processes for adoption and compilation.
  • Yerushelmi, Shmuel (1989).  The Torah Anthology: The Book of Tehillim. New York: Meznaim Publishing; three volumes.  Perhaps the most traditional translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms published in the last 50 years. 
  • Wigoder, Geoffrey, ed. (1989). The Encyclopedia of Judaica. New York: Macmillan Publishing

Two Books that Deserve Comparison

Fsuer, Avrohom Chaim (1993). Tehillim Treasury. Brooklyn, NY:Artscroll Mesorah Series, Mesorah Publications. 

Polish, David F. (2000). Bringing the Psalms to Life. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing. 

The two authors write from different parts and nearly opposite poles of the Jewish religious world, Feuer with an Orthodox perspective and Polish with a Reform perspective.  They each start similarly with lines extracted from the Book of Psalms, but they write very differently with Feuer presenting paragraph- to page-long commentary and Polish presenting chapter-long commentary.  My views are much closer to those of Polish.  Feuer lost a good part of my intellectual interest when, in arguing for King David as the author of most of the psalm, he wrote: “Accompanied by the Sweet Singer of Israel, with his symphony of solace, and harmonious life view, one can find a piece of his own heart in the outpourings of King David, the collective heart of Israel.”  That is just not the King David that I find in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, one finds much good sense in Feuer’s short pieces of advice and cryptic words of wisdom.  Polish takes a different approach that is a sharp contrast to the didactics of Feuer (xiv): “Psalms teach us by example, by showing us, ‘I’ve been here, that has happened to me, and this is how I made it through.’”


2. Athalya Brenner, A Feminist Companion to the Bible, second series, article by Ulrike Bail – pages 242-263.

3. Discussion of “l’David” can be found in numerous articles and books.  Perhaps the best source for non-Hebrew speakers is the 2000 book by Daniel Polish (see Bibliography).

4. Personal email to me, 03 February 2022.

6. One editor asked why I did not include material on the oceans.  The answer is simple.  I have only worked on fresh water, mainly for irrigation, so my main concern about oceans was their unwanted intrusion into freshwater aquifers.


9. Sunday Psalm 24; Monday 48; Tuesday 82; Wednesday 94; Thursday 81; Friday 93; and Saturday 92.  See Encyclopedia 576.

10. Among those references in I Chronicles are 6:39 and 6:4-7; and in 2 Chronicles 5:2.

11. In this and the next chapter, I quote frequently from Reuven Hammer (1994). Entering Jewish Prayer. New York: Shocken.

12. Polish (2000), p. 8.

13. Jerome is known to Catholics as Saint Jerome.  He was secretary to Pope Damasus I from late in the fourth century CE, yet worked in Jerusalem and became learned in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, with the result that the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible plus 14 apocryphal chapters--was included in the Vulgate.

15. Reuven Hammer (1994). Entering Jewish Prayer. New York: Schocken.

16. See Encyclopedia 576.

17. The Septuagint is the first accurate translation of the Hebrew Bible in the Greek language.  It appeared just about when BCE was changing to CE, and for some still unknown reason incorporated 14 additional chapters beyond those in Bible.  For better or worse, those 14 included such classics as Tobit and Judith, and much wisdom literature.  Though never canonized for the Bible, the were all included in the Catholic Bible called the Vulgate four centuries later.

18. Quotations in this paragraph are from the Soncino book.

19. The five Apocryphal Psalms of David are found in James E. Charlesworh’s volume 2 (1985)

20. Material on the Great Psalm Scroll is extracted from the Wikipedia article under its name.

21. Old Testament Essays (1999), vol. 12, issue 1, pages 33-56; a South African journal.

22. This study is written in Afrikaans.

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