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Why do we Recite Psalm 27 from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah? Responsa for Today: Volume 4, Issue No. 1, October 2009

High Holidays
Prayer and Liturgy
Responsa by David Golinkin
Sukkot/Simchat Torah
Synagogue Life

Question: From Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, Ashkenazic Jews recite Psalm 27, The Penitential Psalm, every morning and every evening for 51 days. What is the origin of this custom? Why do we recite this particular psalm at this particular season? And what is its message to us today?

Psalm 27: David says, The Lord is my light and my salvation—He desires to dwell in the house of the Lord forever—He counsels, Wait on the Lord and be of good courage.

Full Psalm of David in English at the end of the article.

Responsum:

  1. I) The Origin of the Custom (For discussions of this custom other than those quoted in this teshuvah, see Rabbi Yitzhak Lipitz of Shedlitz, Sefer Mat’amim, Warsaw, 1889, p. 44; Rabbi Ya’akov Ze’ev Wendrovsky, Minhagey Beit Ya’akov, second edition, New York, 1911, p. 72; Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirschowitz, Otzar Kol Minhagey Yeshurun, second edition, Lvov, 1930, pp. 183-184; Rabbi Y. D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, p. 16; Israel Abrahams, Companion to the Authorised Daily Prayer Book, London, 1922, p. 99; Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gordon, Otzar Hatefillot, Nussah Sfard, Vilna, 1928, p. 444; Rabbi Barukh Halevi Epstein, Barukh She’amar, Tel Aviv, 1979, pp. 201-202; Rabbi Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy, New York etc., 1963, pp. 36-37; Rabbi Wayne Allen, Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues, Jerusalem, 2009, No. 34 (at press)).

This custom is not mentioned in the Talmud or by the Geonim, Maimonides (12th century), Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s Tur (14th century) and the Shulhan Arukh by Rabbis Yosef Karo and Moshe Isserles (16th century). It is also missing from many late
codes of Jewish law, such as Shulhan Arukh Harav by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1813; but it is mentioned in his siddur), Hayye Adam by Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1748-1820), Derekh Hahayyim by Rabbi Ya’akov of Lissa (1760-1832), Arukh Hashulhan by Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908), and Kaf Hahayyim by Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer (1870-1939).

It is first mentioned by Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776)  in his Siddur Bet Yaakov published in 1745 (Lemberg edition, 1904, p. 89) and by Rabbi Shabtai Rashkov (1655-1745), a pupil of the Baal Shem Tov, in his Seder Tefillah Mikol Hashanah which was published posthumously in Koretz, 1794 (Lemberg edition, 1866, fol. 44a). It is then mentioned by Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulay in his Moreh Ba’etzbah first published in Livorno in 1782 (quoted by Rabbi Moshe Yair Weinstock, Siddur Hageonim etc., Vol. 2, Part 3, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 752); Rabbi Ephrayim Zalman Margaliot (1760-1828) in his Mateh Efrayim 581:6; Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886) in his Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 128:2; and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen (1839-1933) in his Mishnah Berurah (to Orah Hayyim 581, subparagraph 2).

So we now know that sometime around the year 1745 Ashkenazic Jews began to recite Psalm 27 morning and evening from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah.

  1. II) Why was this psalm chosen for this time of year?
  1. Rabbi Shabtai Rashkov gives an involved Kabbalistic explanation – since Psalm 27 mentions God’s name 13 times, if we recite it, it will protect us from an evil decree when we are judged by the heavenly court at this time of year.
  1. Rabbi Ephrayim Zalman Margaliot and others refer to a midrash found inMidrash Tehilim on this psalm (27:4, ed. Buber, p. 224; and cf. parallels inVayikra Rabbah 21:4, ed. Margaliot, p. 478; Pesikta D’rav KahanaAharey Mot, ed. Buber, fols. 175b-176a; and Pesikta Rabbati, Parashah 8, ed. Ish-Shalom, fols. 30b-31a):

The Rabbis explain this chapter as referring to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

“The Lord is my light” on Rosh Hashanah …

“And my salvation” on Yom Kippur…

In other words, the midrash connects this psalm to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Margaliot (in Elef Lamateh to Mateh Ephrayim 581, subparagraph 6) quotes this midrash and then adds a connection to Sukkot: “and afterwards [the psalm says]: ‘He will shelter me in his Sukkah’ ”.

  1. A third explanation appears in recent literature about the High Holidays, such as The High Holy Days by Rabbi Hayyim Kieval (second edition, Jerusalem, 2004, p. 54) and Ziv Haminhagim by Rabbi Yehudah Dov Zinger (Jerusalem, 1965, p. 143). The last verse of the psalm says “lule he’emanti lirot b’tuv hashem b’eretz hahayyim” – “Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” – and the word luleis dotted in the Masoretic text. This provides a hint that lule in reverse spells Elul!
  1. Of course, according to simple logic, Psalm 27 was chosen to be recited at this time of year because it contains words of encouragement during the Days of Awe, when every Jew is fearful about his fate, and a supplication to God for salvation.

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?

Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice.

Do not hide Your face from me…

Hope in the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage,

hope in the Lord.

III)    What is the central message of Psalm 27 and what is its relevance today?
According to Talmudic tradition, the Book of Psalms was written by King David (Bava Batra 14b) and King David devoted most of his life to war. In this psalm, he requests that God grant him physical and spiritual refuge from his warfare (For other interpretations of Psalm 27, see Avraham Zalkin in Maayanot, Vol. 9: Yamim Noraim, Part I, Jerusalem, 1968, pp. 208-222 and Rabbis Benjamin Segal and Reuven Hammer in Conservative Judaism 54/4 (Summer 2002), pp. 49-62).

As Rabbi David Kimhi (Provence, 1160-1235) explained in his commentary to the Psalms (Darom edition, p. 66):

to let us know that with all his heart, King David asked to give him respite from wars. Even though he has faith that God will save him from all harm, even so, his heart is troubled by the wars and he is occupied by his physical needs, and he has no free time to be occupied by his spiritual needs. And he asked God … to dwell in the house of the Lord…”
Indeed, this is the central verse of Psalm 27:

Ahat sha’alti mei’eit hashem otah avakesh
shivti b’vet hashem kol yemei hayay
lahazot b’noam hashem u’l’vaker b’heikhalo.
One thing have I asked of the Lord, this I request,
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze at the graciousness of God and to visit in His sanctuary (For other interpretations of this verse, see Amos Hakham in Da’at Mikra to Sefer Tehilim, pp. 146-147 and Mitchell Dahood in the The Anchor Bible to Psalms, Volume I, ad loc).

Therefore, this psalm was appropriate for King David in light of his turbulent life.

This indeed is an old dispute which appears in many places in Rabbinic literature. In those sources, there is tension between Torah study and a profession or between Torah study and action (Regarding the tension between studying Torah and action/earning a living, see Bialik and Ravnitzki, Sefer Ha’agadah, Tel Aviv, 1947, pp. 353-355; C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology, New York, 1974, Chapter VI; E. E. Urbach, Hazal: Pirkei Emunot V’deot, Jerusalem, 1969, pp. 539-557 and the literature cited on p. 543, note 56; David Golinkin, Responsa in a Moment, Jerusalem 2000, pp. 43-49 also available at www.responsafortoday.com).

The question is:  is this psalm appropriate for us?  Do we reallywant to sit in the synagogue and the Bet Midrash/House of Study our entire lives – to gaze at the sweetness of God and to visit His sanctuary, like many yeshivah students today?  Or perhaps the best way to serve God is on the street, at work, within society?

Thus, for example, we learn in Berakhot 35b: Rabbi Yishamel said that we must combine Torah Study with a profession, but Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said that if a person works as a farmer, he will have no time to study Torah. Abaye, who lived 200 years later in Babylon, concludes the discussion as follows: “Many followed Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded; Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and did not.”

In other words, Abaye ruled like Rabbi Yishmael that we must combine Torah study with earning a living; i.e. we must not dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.

Similarly, there is a famous dispute in the tractate of Kiddushin 40b:

Talmud gadol o ma’aseh gadol?
Is study greater or is action greater?
Rabbi Tarfon answered: action is greater.
Rabbi Akiva answered: study is greater.
They all concluded: study is greater because study leads to action.

Thus, once again, we must not dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.

But if the verse “one thing I have asked of the Lord” is not the ideal, why should we recite it every day for 51 days from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Hoshanah Rabbah!?

I would like to reply with a homiletic explanation that I heard from my father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l, which I later found in the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) to Psalms (quoted by Rabbi Yissakhar Ya’akovson, Netiv Binah, Vol. 5, Tel Aviv, 1983, pp. 24-25). Rabbi Hirsch says that the psalm does not mean that we should actually dwell in the house of God all the days of our lives.  Even the Kohanim, the Priests, were not in the Temple permanently!

This expression, therefore, comes to say that if we sanctify our lives,then every single place becomes a Beit Hashem, a house of the Lord…  In every place where God’s Torah is observed with strength and purity, then our earthly life becomes a chariot for God’s presence, and God has a place to dwell on this earth.

This is a beautiful idea which is worth stressing during the High Holy Days and worth doing throughout the year: we must turn our homes and our places of work and our communities into Beit Hashem – the house of the Lord – by sanctifying each of these places via mitzvot.

We can turn our homes into Beit Hashem by observing commandments such as netilat yadayim before we eat bread, hamotzibirkat hamazon, studying Torah with our families, making Kiddush on Shabbat and Festivals, observing Shabbat with our families, making havdalah at the end of Shabbat and building a sukkah and waving the lulav and etrog on Sukkot.

We can turn our workplaces into Beit Hashem by observing commandments such as ona’ah (not overcharging), eifat tzedek (accurate weights and measures), hassagat gvul (not trespassing), and keeping far from falsehood.

We can turn our communities into Beit Hashem by observing commandments such as tzedakahbikur holim (visiting the sick), halvayat hamet (attending funerals), nihum aveilim (comforting the mourners), gemilut hassadim(deeds of lovingkindness) and “love your neighbor as yourself”.

In conclusion, Psalm 27 presents us with a wonderful ideal both for the Days of Awe from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah and throughout the year:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, this I request,

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

to gaze at the graciousness of God and to visit in his sanctuary.

David Golinkin

Jerusalem

Hol Hamoed Sukkot 5770

Psalm 27 A Psalm of David.

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
3 Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.
4 One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
5 For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock.
6 And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord.
7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me.
8 When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.
9 Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.
10 When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.
11 Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies.
12 Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.
13 I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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