The Tisch: A Time for Psalms

Posted by Levi Cooper on May 23, 2013
Topics: Psalms, Hasidut, Jewish Prayer, Hasidic Lore Series

The Talmud says that when a person comes home from work in the evening, before he sits down to dinner he should read the Bible or study the Oral Law

The Talmud says that when a person comes home from work in the evening, before he sits down to dinner he should read the Bible or study the Oral Law (B.T. Brachot 4a). Indeed, nighttime is considered the perfect time to study, and whoever does not complete his daily study routine during daylight hours should catch up at night (Shulhan Aruch OH 238:1-2).

According to kabbalistic tradition, however, weeknights are not a recommended time for reading the Bible. The exception is Thursday night, when the mercies of Shabbat begin to be awakened. But does this apply to the entire Bible? Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman of Buczacz (1771-1840), in his commentary to the Shulhan Aruch suggested that Psalms should be an exception to this rule.

He cited the Midrash which describes King David as requesting from the Almighty that his Psalms be granted unique status. People should not read Psalms as they read other works of literature. Rather, Psalms should be read and pondered. Moreover, readers of Psalms should receive reward as if they were studying difficult passages of the Oral Law that deal with ritual purity (Midrash Shoher Tov 1:8).

Rabbi Avraham David explained: given King David’s request that reading Psalms be considered like studying the Oral Tradition, Psalms should be considered part of the Oral Law, not part of the Bible. Hence, Psalms can be read at night! This position, however, was not accepted by all. Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapiro of Munkacs (1871-1937) was aware of what Rabbi Avraham David of Buczacz had written, but he saw the extrapolation from the Midrash as problematic.

Noting common practice, the Munkatcher Rebbe wrote: “On the contrary, those who are careful have the custom to be stringent about this. And we never heard of people saying Psalms (even as a congregation, where merit abounds) in the first half of the night.”

Besides the question of nighttime Psalms, the timing of morning Psalms was also discussed in the hasidic milieu. Traditionally, reading Psalms is considered a salve for many woes. The Polish authority Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (Levush, 1530-1621) noted the custom to recite Psalms in the morning before the prayer service. He explained that the Psalms were designed to chase away spiritual forces that might disrupt our prayers.

Thus it was imperative to read Psalms before the service. Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe went further, noting that it was a mistaken custom to read Psalms after the prayers: “What does it help them to chase away [spiritual disruptions] after people have prayed, for the prosecutors – Heaven forfend – have already harmed the prayers. It appears to me that chasing away afterwards does not help at all.”

In a work associated with the nascent hassidic movement, Tzava’at Harivash, printed in 1794, a contrary position was advocated: “A person should not say a lot of Psalms before prayer, in order not to weaken his body such that he will not be able afterwards to say the main [prayers] with great devotion, meaning the obligation of the day, that is the introductory prayers, Shema and Amida.”

Psalms are a welcome but not required addition to the service. Out of concern, lest a person expend all his energy on this optional addition, Tzava’at Harivash advocated beginning with the obligatory prayers. If a person had the strength to focus on additional prayers, Psalms should be appended to the end of the service.

A middle position was expressed in the earliest hassidic work, Toldot Ya’acov Yosef, written by Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef of Polnnoye (1695-1782) and printed in 1780. In addition to hassidic explanations, the author records statements that he heard from the Besht (ca.1700-1760); in Toldot Ya’acov Yosef the phrase “I heard from my teacher, of blessed memory” appears 249 times. One of those instances relates to the time for morning Psalms.

The Toldot acknowledged that there are different types of people: There are those who need a lift before the prayer service so that they will be in a state of mind to pray without intruding thoughts. Such people should recite Psalms or study Torah before the prayer service. There are other people who are not able to focus on prayers if they have already spent time reciting Psalms or studying Torah. The Toldot recognized both options as legitimate, with the proviso that the intent is for the sake of Heaven, meaning that they strive to focus in prayer.

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