Books CCAR Press

What Is the Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day)?

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,”[1] 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.

[1] 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.

Books CCAR Press High Holy Days

Reading ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ during a Pandemic

Read the same psalm every day for fifty days?
The same one we read last year? 
Using the same book and the same practice?
Yes. Yes. Yes and yes.
Get a new notebook or open a new computer file.
Sharpen your pencils or find your new favorite pen.
But yes, return to the psalm, return to the book, return to the practice
(this is after all the psalm for the season of return, t’shuvah).

Because the world has changed.
Because the ways we see or hear,
experience and reflect on the same words have changed.
We know it to be true from our experience,
reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle.
We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way
because of something or someone we encountered or considered.
We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently
because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer,
we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective.
And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19,
we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.

Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:2)
Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3)
How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4)
Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5)
How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6)
Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8)
Who have we abandoned? (27:10)
On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12)
And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11)
When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer?
Protect me, protect my loved ones, my coworkers, the most vulnerable, all of us.(27:7)
Are we ready to affirm the ancient words? Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)

The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to the practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. The Invitation (page xv) will help you get focused and organized (you have until August 21). This year, in response to readers and rabbis, there is a Navigation Chart to help match the Reflections for Focus to specific days of the season, as well as a Study Guide with textual passages and activities to accompany each verse. We have also provided a musical recording of Kavei El Adonai composed by Cantor Richard Cohn. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is available from CCAR Press, and I welcome you to join with my congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, weekly to engage in the practice online. We will be meeting Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. CT starting August 19; details will be available at

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.

Poetry Social Justice

‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire’

As we watch with heavy hearts the events of late May and early June and witness innocent Americans exercising their right to protest fall victim to police violence, we pray for an end to racial injustice and power structures designed to silence, suppress, and kill people of color. We pray for healing, and we remain aligned with Black and Brown communities in the fight to end injustice. In the words of Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who shares a psalm here, “It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate.” 

Encouraged by the teachings of Pirke Avot, which teach us that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” we remain committed to social justice, and we remain committed to teaching and promoting anti-racism. We encourage you to read the CCAR’s statement on racist killings.

Here, we share a poem, written by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, and a psalm, written by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in reaction to these tragic events.

I Can’t Breathe
By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

I can’t breathe,
The knee of oppression
Is on my neck.

I can’t breathe,
The air of my city
Is filled with tear gas.

I can’t breathe,
I am filled with rage
And the smoke of burning buildings.

I can’t breathe
Because the air is filled with contempt for people of different colors.

I can’t breathe
Because my country is suffocating
And the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner.

I can’t breathe
Because I am grieving for America
And praying its dreams aren’t dying
In the streets of our nation tonight.

A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Aflame with the fires of fear
With anger burning ‘bout brazen brutality:
From a kneed neck Floyd’s breath snuffed out over there

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Veering vigorously toward violence and hate
Preventing protests that promote another vision:
Of justice that we all must create

A Psalm for our brothers and sisters
Who fear for their lives, black and brown
When they jog, shop, go to church, or go bird watching
With their hands held up high, or when lying down

A Psalm to remind us ‘bout justice
And the debasement that threatens their lives
Because our silence can no longer silence
The real pain of widowed husbands and wives

So Pray for our cities on fire
And sing out songs of protest ‘gainst hate
But since lives, they are holy and matter
It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Paul Kipnes is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.


Psalm 94:19: Soothe the Soul

Psalm 94:19 is traditionally read on Wednesdays. Whichever day you find yourself reading this in this challenging time, may it bring you comfort.

בְּרֹ֣ב שַׂרְעַפַּ֣י בְּקִרְבִּ֑י תַּ֝נְחוּמֶ֗יךָ יְֽשַׁעַשְׁע֥וּ נַפְשִֽׁי׃
When disquieting thoughts rage inside me, Your comforting brings me joy.

I need, we need, our world needs this psalm,
this verse, on this Wednesday morning [1], on any day.
“When I am tangled within, unsettled,
You comfort me, you soothe my soul.” [2]

שַׂרְעַפַּ֣י sar-ah-pie.
A unique word in the Bible, a favorite of the troubled Job. [3]
Perhaps a portmanteau of two words next to each other in the dictionary.
Sar-ah-pie is like saraf, with the letters sin, resh and peh—to burn.
My angst, my concerns burn within me, threaten to consume me like a fire.
Sar-ah-pie is like s’ra-ah, with the letters sin, resh and ayin extend or stretch.
My worries expand,
spreading out like flames fueled with dry timber until they rage,
filling my head, my heart, with fear and dread,
in the dark of the night and as the day dawns.
Tangled in the sheets and in my mind,
I wake. I rise.
I am unbalanced, again, like the world just yesterday. [4]

תַּ֝נְחוּמֶ֗יךָ Ta-n’chum-echah.
Buried within prefix and suffix, nun, chet and mem, nechum, Comfort.
You, God, You comfort me—
like a Parent can sooth a child after a nightmare,
like a Teacher can nourish a mind,
like a listening Friend can calm a raging one,
like a Leader can steady a country or community,
like a Shepherd can shelter the flock,
like a Rock can give shade a stifling day,
like a deep Breath can slow a pounding heart.

And finally, a Hebrew tongue twister,
worth practice, memorization, repetition.
Hold it in the mouth, release it from the lips,
know it, in the heart, by heart.
Two words:
three shins, two silent ayins, a yod at the beginning and at the end.
It’s onomatopoeia: Shshshsh…

נַפְשִֽׁי Y’sha-a-sh’u nafshi.
You, God, You soothe, You soothe my soul.
Gentle, calm, intimate.
This isn’t about the whole world,
it’s about my world, my essence, my breath.
I, the parent, the friend, the student, the leader,
a shepherd, a rock,
I am comforted by my Breath Within.
Each breath exhaled, like wind scattering clouds,
releases a bit of pain, some worry, a flash of anger,
cools the raging fires of fear,
opens space for hope, and joy and gratitude.
These words, this Breath, soothes souls.

[1] Psalm 94 is the psalm identified in Jewish tradition to be read every Wednesday.
[2] Thanks to my student and teacher Tammy Cancela for this thoughtful insight on being “tangled”.
[3] This word appears only here and in Psalm 139:13. The BDB dictionary associates it with the root letters sin, ayin pay as in Job 4:23 and 20:2.
[4] From the Psalm read on Tuesdays: “They do not know, they do not understand, in deep darkness they stumble to and fro—all the foundations of the earth are tottering.” (Psalm 82:5)

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas and author of the recently published book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press 2019, also available as an ebook.


Clean Hands Carry Blessings

Our Jewish tradition has long guided us to turn to the Book of Psalms at times of challenge and at the same time to engage with these heartfelt human words on a daily basis. Each day of the week is assigned a Psalm for reading and reflection (the holy days and seasons are assigned psalms as well). 

I recommend this practice—Sit quietly, take a few deep breaths, read Psalm 24 (if you have a Bible handy), read the “Reflection for Focus (Clean Hands Carry Blessings),” write for just five minutes—ask yourself, what experiences or emotions do these words evoke for me? And then sit still with just your breath or maybe repeating a few of the Hebrew words or the English phrase, “clean hands carry blessings” for five more minutes. Show yourself some compassion, and then give thanks for your hands that can carry more than you realized and these moments for reflection at a difficult time.

Psalm 24:4-5
Clean Hands Carry Blessings

נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּֽבַר־לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר ׀ לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה׃

יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ׃

The clean of hands and the clear of heart, those who do not say, “By my life” when they do not mean it,
who do not swear to that which is a lie.
Such ones will carry with them a blessing from God,
a blessing of justice from the God of salvation.

(Pamela Greenberg translation)

A Sunday psalm, an any-day psalm, an everyday psalm,
an all-day psalm during a pandemic.
Instruction, encouragement, inspiration,
from an ancient world to a modern time.
The earth and all its continents, the seas and all their shores,
all of us everywhere,
and each disease,
God made it all.
A miraculous universe to share,
where we are blessed
to live and learn, care and cure, to do no harm,
to do what’s right and just and fair, and prudent,
with strength and patience and dignity.
Partners with our Creator
we battle against a relentless foe,
unseen but deeply felt, both microscopic and global.
A feared enemy at the gates,
of our homes and schools and stores,
synagogues, mosques and churches–
like God it knows no borders, sees no differences.
We fight together with heads raised–not hunkered down.
Feet grounded by gravity, rooted in the enduring facts of nature,
with clean hands to carry blessings.
We wash our hands and inspect our hearts–
an opportunity, over and again, to breathe,
and recite these words, taped above the sink:

Who will stand in a holy place?
I will.
With clean hands.
With an open heart.
I can carry blessing from God
deliver justice for all people.
Like God I am strong.
With God I can open gates of healing and hope.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ר֣וּחַ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו

וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדַיִם

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu Ruach HaOlam
asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al netilat yadaim.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Breath of the Universe,
for giving us the sacred opportunity to lift up our hands toward blessing.

This heart, these hands, my Breath can open healing gates for Holiness to enter.

Note: 1. In Jewish tradition, Psalm 24 is recited each Sunday as part of the daily liturgy. 2. The blessing for washing hands (adapted) is traditionally recited before eating a meal that includes bread. It originates in the Mishna (Yadaim), and the rabbis crafted the practice and the blessing by expanding on Exodus 40:30-32 and Leviticus 15:11.

For a full version of Psalm 24 and other Psalms, see Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms in a New Translation, by Rabbi Richard Levy, CCAR Press, 2017, also available as an ebook.)

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas Texas and author of the recently published book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press 2019, also available as an ebook.


Written in “Just Five Minutes”

A reflection by Rabbi Barry H. Block on working through Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, by Rabbi Debra Robbins, CCAR Press, 2019.

Debbie Robbins says:
“Just five minutes.”
Set aside five minutes,
No more,
To write my Elul reflections each day.
Much to my surprise,
I’ve disciplined myself to do it,
Just five minutes,
Every day.
Some days, I really need it,
Like the day that a traumatic pastoral need
Led me to extreme anxiety,
And I needed to figure out why.
Every day, I really need it.
As a rabbi,
My Elul preparation
Is all about writing sermons,
Musical cues,
Selecting reading,
Doling out honors,
All “work.”
I’m liable to ignore the inner, spiritual work of Elul;
There’s so much “rabbi work” to do.
And so I’ve resolved:
Take those five minutes a day,
And actually prepare my soul
For 5780.
Psalm 27 has opened my heart.
Funny thing:
For the first time,
Ever in my 29th year,
And that’s only since ordination,
All of my sermons are drafted—
Not “finished,” but fully drafted—
More than two weeks before Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Can that be a coincidence?

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is now available from CCAR Press.

Books Prayer

Sacred Practices with Psalm 27

These 50 days from the first of Elul to the end of Sukkot and the celebration of Simchat Torah can be overwhelming for clergy, with so many details and demands.  It’s easy to lose focus or be too focused; to help others and forget to open our own hearts.  The spiritual tradition of reading Psalm 27 every day is an antidote to these tendencies with its imagery of the season (temple, sukkah, shofar) and its words that evoke a range of emotions (loneliness and fear, joy and courage, the need for patience).  It coaches us in the sacred practices we need to do our work (professional and personal) throughout the season: sit still, stand tall, sing, cry, listen, walk in God’s paths, see Goodness, hope.  And it reminds us that little by little we make our way into the New Year, with Light.

This Reflection for Focus is one of fifty-two pieces (one for each day of Elul, plus a bonus for Simchat Torah and the day after) included in my book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (pages 82–83).  It invites focus on the phrase, ori b’yishi, in Psalm 27:1

Of David.
Adonai is my light and my victory—
From whom should I feel fright?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life—
From whom should I feel terror?

Really?! I ask myself,
read the same poem, Psalm 27, every day
for the entire month of Elul,
for the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur,
for the four days until Sukkot begins and on every day of it as well
until the season concludes with joy at Simchat Torah?
Start each day with a relentless recitation of the same words?
My Light
My Salvation (a more common translation than “victory”)
My God . . . ?


“You are my Light, on Rosh HaShanah,
and my Salvation, on Yom Kippur,
forgiving my sins, redeeming me from the narrow place of my life.”

Little by little, day by day, starting in Elul,
the Light starts to glow,
and I begin the work.
Little by little, day by day, on Rosh HaShanah
the rays peek above the horizon.

“Redemption doesn’t happen all at once.”
Like the sun that rises,
little by little,
until the dawn breaks
and Light floods the world with warmth and hope,
so, too, t’shuvah.
Little by little, day by day.
A tiny shift
a spark of awareness,
a single apology,
and then another.
No excuses,
no caveats,
no ifs.
And one response when asked for forgiveness: “Yes.”
With God as my Light I begin to see on Rosh HaShanah.
With God as my Salvation, and little by little, day by day,
I might experience at-One-ment on Yom Kippur.


You are my Light, on Rosh HaShanah: William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), p. 370 (Psalm 27:4).

Redemption doesn’t happen all at once: From Mishkan Hanefesh, vol. 1, Rosh HaShanah (New York: CCAR Press, 2015), p. 165, based on imagery from Jerusalem Talmud, B’rachot 1:1.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.


How We Struggle to Translate the Hebrew of the Psalms

Songs Ascending may be the high point in Richard Levy’s career—a career filled with high points. Whether in his more Olympian organizational roles  (CCAR President), or on a lofty project like the Reform platform,  or the more intense restoration of a prayer, Richard Levy has been leading us for more than five decades.  Countless of his projects in Los Angeles lack his name and contain no reference to their provenance. There are Levy contributions in our prayerbooks where his identity is buried on some back page, and complete Machzorim and Siddurim with his name more boldly attached.  The sun never sets on Richard Levy’s projects; and now it has arisen on Songs Ascending—a new translation of the Book of Psalms.

But this is more than translation, as work with Psalms most often is.  We must be intrigued by the recent quantity of work on Psalms from people like Arnold and Deborah Band and Robert Alter, and the enduring work of folks like Marcia Falk, Sheldon Marder, and Lawrence Hoffman.  And then there are acts of public performance, as in Lincoln Center’s offerings of new musical settings for Psalms. Now, we also have Richard Levy’s meeting of spirit with literature, molded by enormous respect for language and inspired by his deep personal attachment to these ancient tropes.

Read these Psalms, he seems to be saying, for the expressions of how humans feel when confronting fright, or when imagining how another’s imagination has sought the divine (all right, that is shared by all editors and translators of Psalms).  But here is a guide (in the postscript of every chapter) for how YOU might use Psalms in your lives.  Understanding the core problem with gendered language in today’s day and age, Rabbi Levy has provided acceptable translations of problematic Hebrew words; and because he realizes that some are lulled into lack of attention by familiarity with passages that open our daily prayers or close our meals, he shocks us with imaginative translations of those familiar words.  Sometimes he abandons cohortatives like “let us…” and favors such common phrases as “Let’s… .”He has founded metaphors with which not all readers will agree, but which—we all must agree—make us think of what a Psalm line is getting at, and (perhaps most importantly) why this Psalm found its way into our liturgy. 

How we struggle to translate the Hebrew of the Psalms and sometimes even to care about them —even though they fill our liturgy, and occupy stage center when someone dies!  Many of us struggle simply to READ the Psalms, too identified with archaic pieties, holding back when we think of all the darkly dressed Jewish people getting through the turbulence of a flight across America.  Will reading t’hillim really help us get over the Rockies?  Or, if I read them with enough serenity, might they rock me to sleep?  There is more than meets the eye when our eye meets a reader immersed in these vivid lines.  It’s such a large collection of ancient poems, that most of us think only of its “greatest hits” – The Hallelujahs, the psalms of longing, the songs where a shelter is promised to the fragile, the cry of those who feel surrounded.  As with opera arias, we don’t need to struggle when the lyrics are familiar, but that familiarity often works against intensity.  And then those Psalms which many of us don’t think about at all, like the Asaph Psalms (#s 73ff) which elude us entirely.

Richard Levy struggled for us—reading and translating, and transmitting—with a boldness that belies his modest countenance, and a sureness that warns us not to be too casual in our familiarity.

Yes, he has in this volume made some bold choices—choices which might not please everyone.  In efforts to capture rhythm and alliterations, he has come up with clever collocations like: Chamber of Cheaters” when a roomful of scoffers is called for, and where “moshav letzim” approaches becoming a Yiddish witticism.  But even where Rabbi Levy is more imaginative than accurate, his similes and metaphors pressure us into asking “how is THIS like THAT?”  And, in almost every instance, he sheds new light—Levy light and ascending light on this ancient text.  A compliment is due, here, to David Stein, an extraordinary linguistic editor whose task it has been to pass Rabbi Levy’s imagination through a scholarly filter.

So let us examine one of his Songs of Ascent. Psalm 130 begins with the familiar phrase: “Out of the depths I called to Adonai, listen to my voice, (mimaamakim…) and may your ear incline towards the sound of my plea.” Different translators have found different renderings, and Oscar Wilde’s plea was Latinized into “de profundus.”  Richard Levy is not satisfied with what has become the most standard translation of the next line:  “listen to my voice.”  The opportunity exists to create a picture, so he seizes it, suggesting: “From places deepest down have I called you, Adonai./ Adonai, listen as my voice ascends.”   Rabbi Levy offers a note that explains his departure as an effort to help the reader-worshipper visualize the contrast between high and low:  “I am down in the depths, but I am sending my voice upward.”  Like it or not, you will know where Rabbi Levy stands, as my 20-something son said a generation ago.  And he will grant you the privilege of linguistic accuracy by sharing his thinking in the rich notes in these volumes.  Those notes, by the way, are a compass to any serious reader who wants to understand the difference between the various superscriptions: leDavid, Asaph, Korach(!) and more.

The most recent complete effort at translating the Psalms comes, as I hinted above, from another scholar whose work also has not primarily been related to biblical philology:  Robert Alter.  But Alter adheres more to the compass of the linguistic past—and not always to the benefit of the result.  I believe one line in Alter’s introduction to his brilliant work illuminates an important distinction between his work and Levy’s:  Many of the Psalms…derive some of their poetic force from the literary antecedents on which they draw (p. xv in the introduction to Alter’s translations).

For Richard Levy, and here I make no judgment, the force of the Psalms comes from their spiritual intentions; and he re-enforces this priority with rich commentary and postscripts that help the reader actually USE the Psalms in some meaningful way.

So different motives drive different renderings of this amazing collection of old words.  There are more than liturgical or devotional motives and drivers as well, as witness Debra Band’s (with her father in law, Arnold) remarkable aesthetic achievement, I Will Wake the Dawn. And sometimes one finds a  kind of utility for teaching, as in the simple elegance of expression and structural patterns to which Sheldon Marder exposes the residents of the San Francisco Home for the Aging.

And one area in which I was quite involved: the use of specific Psalms in our new Rabbis’ Manual—especially popular and well known Psalms like #23, in which a mourner seems to be sitting on the edge of her seat, waiting to hear the familiar words.   Try as one might to offer a new liturgical reading, a congregation of mourners might be inclined to “take it away” from any authoritarian translator. Richard Levy knows that his Psalms versions will serve another purpose, and he pursues that purpose with goodness, mercy, and determination.  Songs Ascending is an opportunity to take people inside into the depths towards the reaching, with pictures that make one feel almost as if he or she were lying in that grass:  “Adonai, my shepherd:  I lack for nothing.  In meadows thick with grass you lay me down, Across streams serene you guide me…Leading me serenely in well worn paths of justice… .”

Rabbi Levy points out, through his elegant rendering here, that there are paths we ought to walk in and that those paths have a similitude to the moral paths we should walk.  I will leave it to the reader to decide the proportion between the psalmist’s intention and Rabbi Levy’s promptings. Richard Levy’s “promptings” dot this work with tilei-t’hillim (mounds) of suggestive ideas and even an occasional challenge to our theologies.

The Psalms we sing at Seders, the morning hymns we chant when we pray, niggunim for our post-Shabbat meal table songs, are all enriched beyond their routine familiarity with the intense meanings that arise from modern poetic renderings that force us to hear the words.  Yehuda Amichai wrote whimsically that the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a good place from which to pray, and that is why, he continues poetically, we say:  “I cry out to god from the depths.”  Yes, the depths refer to my personal experience, but a topographical (metaphor?) metonymy won’t hurt!  Who thinks of the REAL meaning of these psalms without the help of the modern poet, the hospital chaplain, the artist, or the contemporary scientific scholar:  those who read Richard Levy’s versions will become well versed and have a shot at owning this amazing ancient material which calls out to us with headings reminding us that David played the harp, Korach was once a leader, that someone must have played a stringed instrument, and superscriptions reminding us of a relatively obscure ritual leader named “Asaph” whose name in Hebrew means “a gathering.”  Gathering, indeed!

Welcome to this new gathering of poems for a gathering of ancient people, who don’t gather often enough.

Rabbi William Cutter is Emeritus professor of Hebrew Literature and Human Relations at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, where he taught for over 50 years. 

 Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms, A New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary is now available for order from CCAR Press. 


Something for Everyone: Rabbi Richard Levy’s Songs Ascending

“To ask something of God is to praise the Holy One, for it demonstrates the worshiper’s belief that God has the power to grant the prayer”  —  Songs Ascending

The title, Songs Ascending, plays on the idea that prayer is ever upwards, from the human to the Divine. But, as stated in the quote, the Divine responds; humans have God’s ear, so to speak. Coming from a man who marched alongside Heschel and MLK Jr. on the streets of Selma, this commentary offers one vision of prophetic Judaism played out through the words of the Psalmists (or “poets” as Rabbi Levy calls them). In the acknowledgments he notes that this work was a very personal endeavor, and one can see this reflected throughout. Reading this commentary feels as if you were studying with Rabbi Levy and gaining his personal insights and words of wisdom.

The layout of the commentary is as follows: Volume One covers Psalms 1-72 and Volume Two covers Psalms 73-150. Each chapter of the Psalms is treated separately, with the English translation to the right of the Hebrew text. Following text and translation is a verse by verse commentary, after which comes a section titled “spiritual applications.”

Songs of Ascending is set apart from traditional commentaries in two main ways. First and foremost, one notes that the “spiritual application” portion is not something found in most commentaries, much less in a Jewish commentary (e.g. the JPS Torah Commentary series). This section reads almost like a daily devotional, something foreign to most Jews; devotionals have long been relegated to the realm of Christianity. Yet, Rabbi Levy adroitly demonstrates that this need not be the case—the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms in particular offer much for those who yearn for spiritual growth. He proves that “work before the ark” need not be saved for the High Holy Days. In fact, Songs Ascending seems to suggest that such efforts should not be a once-a-year occasion. Noting the tradition of P’sukei D’zimrah (singing select psalms during the morning Shacharit service), the inclusion of other psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service and yet another set in Hallel, Levy explains how the book of Psalms has much to offer us. This spiritual work is not for our own benefit alone, but can bring us in tune with how we act as responsible humans and Jews in society. For example, the “spiritual application” for Psalm 72 calls to task our commitment to social justice and our responsibility to create just leadership in the world.

The commentary also differs in its explication. Many commentaries focus on ancient Near Eastern texts as a means of unlocking difficult passages. For example, Psalm 29 (the psalm for Shabbat), is understood by traditional commentaries to be about the theatrics of the storm god Ba’al as he reveals himself to the world in a theophany of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. Rabbi Levy, on the other hand, begins with the biblical text and then looks to Jewish tradition for illumination. He notes where other biblical passages unlock the meaning of a Psalm, and concentrates on what the Hebrew means in context. Attention is given to 1) exploring the various shorashim (verbal roots) and what they mean and 2) the literary aspects of the poetry, such as alliteration, assonance, and parallelisms. Consider the commentary for Psalm 29. Verse 1 notes the alliteration and assonance in kavod vaoz, stating that the English “resplendence” and “strength” were chosen to mirror the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds. Verse 6 draws the reader’s attention to the fact that “Sirion” is another name for Mt. Hermon (Deut 3:9). Finally, unlike other commentaries, sometimes editorial liberties are taken to make the text comprehensible to the contemporary audience: “The words we have added [in verse 6] are an attempt to make the image more vivid to the reader who may have no idea what Sirion and Hermon refer to . . .” (p. 106).

With its clear and engaging English translation, the insightful commentary, and thought provoking spiritual applications, Songs Ascending offers something for everyone, from lay person, to rabbi, to biblical scholar alike. And for that, I give it a “two thumbs up,” or as we say in Hebrew: kol hakavod!

Kristine Henriksen Garroway was appointed Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in 2011 at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, CA.

Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms, A New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.