kosher bookworm

Tehillim: A tribute on yahrzeit of King David


In the introduction to his classic translation of the Psalms, Rabbi Avraham Davis states: “In the Pentateuch and the prophetic writings, G-d speaks to man. In Sefer Tehillim, man addresses G-d. In the other sacred books, G-d reaches out to His people through His prophets, to draw them near to Him. In Sefer Tehillim, man’s soul reaches out to G-d in a constant search for knowledge and nearness to Him... G-d does not speak to man but speaks within man.

“Of all the books of the Holy Scripture, except for the Five Books of Moses, Sefer Tehillim has the greatest influence upon the development of the Jewish mind and spirit. It has truly become the book of the people, many of whom recite its chapters with a frequency and fluency that no other sacred book is accorded. It enjoys this popularity because we identify ourselves with the problems and yearnings portrayed in it. We draw strength, comfort, and security from its words.”

In the approach to Shavuot, the yahrzeit of King Davis, this column is dedicated to the author of the Psalms.

Among the most popular is Ashrei (Psalm 145) of which Rabbi Martin Shmuel Cohen noted, “no other Psalm has more references in it to people speaking. One generation is portrayed as speaking to the next. The poet is portrayed as talking to his listeners. Unidentified others are said to be telling and retelling the glory of G-d. The pious bless G-d in the presence of the less pious. All G-d’s creatures proclaim the goodness of their Maker and speak openly of the divine splendor of divine majesty.”

Continuing the theme set by Rabbi Davis, we see an eloquent dialogue between the worshiper and his Maker in the Ashrei Psalm.

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In “Ashrei: Its Majesty and Significance” (Judaica Press, 2008), Rabbi Asher Baruch Wegbreit utilizes the commentary of the Malbim to present a unified and comprehensive picture of Ashrei as a work of deep devotion and prayer.

Rabbi Wegbreit expands upon the Malbim’s commentary to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of the text. Each verse in this Psalm is treated as a separate chapter that is organized to help explain the literal meaning (the p’shat) and the drash.

This popular Psalm, though frequently recited, is, to the consternation of your columnist, “davened” in a rushed and hurried manner that prevents its true appreciation by most worshipers. The intention of this book to help the worshiper better understand a Psalm that is meant to serve as a major touchstone of the morning and afternoon services.

Rabbi Wegbreit extends the meaning of this verse in the following manner:

“A close relationship with the Master of the universe through prayer is available to all. However, this closeness is only available to all who call upon Him with sincerity. This means that to be close to Hashem, we must pray using an undivided heart. There must be a consistency between the expressed words of our prayers and our inner feelings and intentions.

“A person whose words are not matched by inner feeling is not expressing interest in being close to Whom he prays. It’s only natural that such a person will not experience intimacy with Hashem, because the relationship that Hashem offers to us is reciprocal”.

King David, according to tradition, composed a masterpiece of liturgy in the Psalms, and we pause this Shavuot, his yyhrtzeit, to gain a deeper appreciation of his work.

A version of this column was published in 2009.