Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Is Tehillim Our First Line of Defense?

I had the pleasure to hear a shiur this week about a subject I had just put on the "to blog about" list just last week! 

"Why is Tehillim the first resort when something happens?"

As you may or may not have figured out, when something goes wrong, the first thing Jews do is organize a Tehillim drive. Individuals and groups say Tehillim (Psalms) for the benefit of a sick person, a catastrophe, or some other difficulty. Similarly, in the positive context, a kallah (bride) says Tehillim as she waits for her chosson (groom) to veil her before the chuppah ceremony.

I'm glad that someone else got around to doing the research on this topic so I didn't have to. This is my attempt to convey the ideas this speaker shared. And I'm going to condense an hour into a few minutes. I apologize if I butcher her ideas. 

She gave three possible reasons for why Tehillim have such a power in the Jewish mind and heart:

1) David haMelech experienced such joys and difficulties that he is one of the few people in this world who can share words we can connect to in all situations. (King David is generally credited with composing the Tehillim, but he was more of a compiler.) When people who have had a charmed life offer "advice" on how to survive difficulties, it can be hard to take them seriously. Only someone who has experienced the fullness of life can offer appropriate words when we face both challenges and happiness. 

2) Tehillim is the continuation of the Torah. The Torah teaches the halacha (the practicalities of life), while Tehillim teaches us to be spiritual. The speaker had a great example (paraphrasing): halacha looks at a tree and thinks "How does this affect the placement of the succah?" but Tehillim looks at a tree and says "What a beautiful world Hashem has created!"

3) The words themselves have a power that connects us to the generations before us. Over the generations, the words have gained a power of their own. Even if you don't know the meaning of the Hebrew words, just saying them connects you to the faith of those who suffered in the camps of the Holocaust, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, as well as every family who has faced an illness. You are never alone when you say Tehillim.

Wrapping up, this source provided by the lecturer summed up the class well:
"For, far beyond the confines of the Jewish people, even today, the psalms still serve to life up to G-d the emotions of all those who seek Him, to bring them enlightenment, consolation, and strength, and to inspire them to show self-sacrificing devotion in their conduct on earth."
-Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch


  1. Thank you for writing this up.

  2. Maybe we can add to this...

    Radak says that King David published Psalms to serve, among other things, as an approachable, available collection of prayers. And all this, through the medium of a level of prophecy. Rambam notes that the sages established a formula for prayer because many people often find themselves unable to find 'where to start' or 'the right words' for their prayers. That is true about regular, obligatory prayer. Maybe we can see that King David already did the same for ad hoc prayer. If so, where else should I turn first but to a source that allows me to access the prayers produced by prophetic inspiration? It inspires me with a certain confidence that my prayers are 'correct', meaningful, and suitable.