Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is the author of New Each Day: A Spiritual Practice for Reading Psalms, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she examines the history and purpose of the Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day).
I don’t know if the great modern Hebrew Israeli poet Lea Goldberg had a spiritual practice of reading a biblical psalm each day. In one of her poems, she sings like the Psalmist, “Teach my lips . . . a hymn of praise . . . lest routine set my ways,” suggesting that even this inspired writer of poems needed a source to give voice to the world she saw around her in early twentieth century Palestine. It was a world filled with the diverse beauty of fruit trees, the decay of leaves at the turn of the season, the injustices of war, poverty, and suffering of neighbors, yearning for hope and peace. She turned her personal observations and universal feelings into poems, much like the ancient psalmists did, echoing their language in her hymn of praise, as her blessing, to the Holy One who renews our days.
Drawing on the description of a biblical ritual described in the Mishnah, around the second to third century of the Common Era, Jewish tradition developed the custom of Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day), adding a cycle of seven psalms, biblical liturgical poem/songs, to the daily morning liturgy. The rabbis who selected and placed these psalms may or may not have been Lea Goldberg’s teachers, but they certainly have been mine. Reading a different hymn of praise each day helps ensure that we don’t see the new day as the one before. The seven-day cycle propels us forward, inviting us to notice the bright beauty of creation and the darkness that shrouds human systems of justice. This routine allows us to look into ourselves and beyond ourselves—to see others as vulnerable regardless of how vulnerable we may feel—in the community that needs us.
I like routines and have learned from Lea Goldberg that the best ones should not be too routine and completely set our ways. The cycle of Shir Shel Yom offers the ideal balanced practice: the psalms remain constant, but the person reading them and the surrounding world are new each day, making it impossible for “routine to set our ways.” It is always Psalm 24 on Sunday, 48 on Monday, 82 on Tuesday, followed by 94 on Wednesday and then 81 on Thursday. Friday is assigned Psalm 93, and the week culminates on Shabbat/Saturday with Psalm 92. The psalms identified two thousand years ago have amazingly remained the same, but what has not endured beyond the briefest of explanations of the choices is the answer to the question “Why these seven psalms?” I’ll share six possibilities, confident that you, the reader, will provide a seventh as a result of engaging in this practice.
- With 150 psalms to choose from, why not start with Psalm 1 and just keep reading one a day for 150 days and then begin again? A cycle of 150 doesn’t match anything in the natural cycle of Creation, but a cycle of seven matches God’s days of Creation from the Torah and the human creation of the “week” to reflect it.
- Some of the psalms are very long—Psalm 119 has 176 verses—and others are short— Psalm 117 has plenty of power packed into its two verses. The Shir Shel Yom package of seven is well-balanced: the shortest selection is five verses (Psalm 93 for Friday) and the longest only twenty-six (Psalms 94:1–95:3 for Wednesday).
- The content of the 150 psalms is as diverse as human emotions and experiences, and the seven selected are well curated to reflect the possibilities and trajectory of daily and weekly life, keeping the focus on arriving at Shabbat.
- Certainly in biblical times, and at least until Johannes Gutenberg began to print Bibles in 1454, very few individuals owned their own books or could read; in contrast, the singing of psalms—biblical poems set to music—was accessible to all. Mastering a repertoire of seven, in addition to some of the others for special occasions, was a manageable lifetime achievement.
- Another option might have been to allow each person to select their own seven psalms. This (at least for me) is daunting, and I’d likely spend my lifetime simply trying to choose rather than engaging in the practice.
- Most compelling is the connection that comes with the practice. These seven may not be my favorite psalms, but they are the treasures and traditions of my ancestors, like the pearls I wear that belonged to my great-aunt or the recipes I make from my grandmother’s cards on Passover. I feel connected across time to all the generations before me who have offered the same poems—in different languages and using different translations—for more than two thousand years. I feel connected with others in my generation whom I will never know, but with whom I am in relationship as we share the same practice, engaging with the same text every day.
I have come to love these psalms and the steady flow from week to week that comes with their practice. On this Monday I am not the same as I was the Monday before, and the light is not the same and the temperature is not the same; events in the world, in my life, have all shifted in ways large and small. And a Tuesday in November, between Election Day and Thanksgiving, is not the same as the Tuesday in January after Martin Luther King Day, or in August during the Hebrew month of Elul, when our time to prepare for the High Holy Days draws near. Each week and each month is different, but Shir Shel Yom anchors us and gives us a secure mooring as our lips learn, over and over again, to offer blessing.
Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (2019) and New Each Day: A Spiritual Practice for Reading Psalms (2023) from CCAR Press.
 The entirety of this poem by Lea Goldberg (1911–70) can be found in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), p. 145, adapted. Thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Slater for identifying the original publication in Barak Baboker, as part of a three-part collection Shirei Sof HaDerech, published around 1955. This poem has been set to music by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller.