Sign In Forgot Password

Commentary on Tanakh Discussion January 4, 2021: The Nature of Psalms and Prayer

Don Perlmutter

We continued our exploration of psalms, examining their nature and how they relate to prayer. In the process, we analyzed several specific examples. 

What do we say when we pray? 
Some of us pray to give thanks to God with the Shema, while others merely express gratitude for waking up another day to “smell the coffee." Prayer can be communal (about “us”) and scripted as in services, or personal (about “me”) and spontaneous. Psalms are personal and provide a vehicle for both praise and complaint. They represent the full range of emotions in human experience and may therefore be negative as well as positive in tone. A psalm says what is in the heart of its author at the time of composition and as such may be much more elemental than an expression of values or ideals. Because psalms are typically lyrical poems, they are often set to music which provides a direct pathway to the emotions. 

The music and poetry of psalms
The word psalm is derived from the Greek psalmoi, meaning “instrumental music,” and by extension, “the words accompanying the music." Through this discussion of the intimate relationship between prayer and music, we examined the nature of Jewish music. The melodies of the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe convey pain and suffering, while those of the Sephardim are joyous. In the traditional mode, all prayers are chanted, as opposed to more modern formats, which often have readings separate from the music.

The typical poetic structure of a psalm is illustrated in Psalm 8 (from David, to be accompanied by the Gitit, a lyre-like instrument,). It gives thanks to God for creation and comments on the hierarchy in which man ranks just below God and above all else. The verse places responsibility on man as caretaker of creation. The opening line: “How majestic is your name in all the earth” is echoed in the closing.

Psalm 109 is an unveiled curse which reads as a cathartic venting of negative emotion. “Let his days be few and let another take office” has been used (or misused) in modern times for political advocacy. 

Some, such as Psalm 101, are composed for special occasions. This example glorifies the coronation of David. It reads as a pledge to discharge the dual obligations of leadership: show compassion to the blameless, while dealing severely with the wrong doer: “I will sing of mercy and judgement." This psalm led us to a discussion of the difference between Eastern and Jewish philosophy. Eastern religions urge us to be non-judgmental, while Jewish ethics require us to choose between good and evil, thus requiring judgement.     

“Psalms are a container for our fears and hopes, a catalyst for the freeing up, and offering up, of our profound and deep-set wishes, prayers, desires, and insights.”  
(Taken from Psalms as the Ultimate Self-Help Tool,

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784