David dictating the PsalmsIn the Law and the Prophets, God reaches out to man. The initiative is His. The message is His. He communicates, we receive. Our God-given free will allows us to be receptive, to be accepting, to turn a deaf ear, to reject. In the Psalms, human beings reach out to God. The initiative is human. The language is human. We make an effort to communicate. He receives; He chooses to respond or not, according to His inscrutable wisdom. He gives his assent or withholds it.

In the Psalms, the human soul extends itself beyond its confining, sheltering, impermanent house of clay. It strives for contact with the Ultimate Source of all life. It gropes for an experience of the divine Presence. The biblical psalms are essentially a record of the human quest for God. Hence, the variety of forms in which the ancient psalmists expressed themselves, reflective of the diverse and changing moods that possessed them as they do all human beings. In short, the psalms constitute a revealing portrayal of the human condition. No wonder that they infuse and inform the basic patterns of both Jewish and Christian worship, give character and essence to their respective liturgies, and govern the life of prayer and spiritual activity of the individual and the congregation.

* * *

“Said Rabbi Yudan in the name of Rabbi Judah, ‘Whatever David says in his book pertains to himself, to all Israel, and to all times.’”1

What this astute observation about the Psalter conveys is that each psalm is multifaceted; it yields several levels of interpretation. It may be understood as a personal statement, as a manifestation of the soul-life of an individual, or it may be construed as an expression of the concerns and the life of faith of the entire community. Its composition, grounded in a radically different era, is a product of a social and cultural milieu wholly at variance with our own; nevertheless, the message and teachings it communicates are always meaningful and relevant. The genius of the Book of Psalms lies in this, that while it is time-bound in origin, it is ever fresh and timely, and hence timeless. It speaks to each reader in a great variety of moods.

There is another aspect of the psalms which evoked a subtle rabbinic comment, even if, at first glance, it appears to be somewhat artlessly formulated. Accepting the notion that a dream experience can be reflective of the inner life of the dreamer, the rabbis of the talmudic period said, “He who sees the Book of Psalms in a dream may hope for piety.”2 The plain implication is that the psalms possess intrinsic value, in that they fulfill a didactic function. They are meant to be internalized. Diligent recitation and study of them is propaedeutic to a higher level of spirituality and piety; and piety, in the biblical view, is not solely individualistic, certainly not egotistical, self-righteous, or sanctimonious. Importantly, it finds expression in the quality of interpersonal relationships.

It is a sad state of affairs that our twentieth century secularized society–to its own deprivation–no longer relates to those vast spiritual, moral, and intellectual treasures of the Psalter that our ancestors so reverently and fondly cherished. It hardly knows how to pray anymore. This situation is particularly distressing and disturbingly paradoxical when it arises among the descendants of the people that gave the world the Book of Psalms.

A Jew from Yemen once told me how he celebrated his bar mitzvah back in the land of his birth. The family was desperately poor; there were no parties, no gifts, no excitement, no speeches. The boy simply went to the synagogue on the designated Sabbath morning and read the appropriate portion of the Torah with the traditional blessings before and after. But what left an indelible impression on him, the experience that continues to move him deeply even forty years later, was staying up all the previous night with his grandfather, and together reciting the entire Book of Psalms.

Anatoly Sharansky spent nearly nine terrible years of deprivation and suffering as a “prisoner of Zion” in Soviet prisons and labor camps. His “crime” consisted of wanting to leave the hell of the “workers’ paradise” in order to migrate to the land of Israel. By his own testimony, during all the years of enforced isolation, oppressive loneliness, appalling misery, agonizing suffering, and unutterable anguish, it was the copy of the Hebrew Psalter that he kept with him that sustained his spirit, gave him the strength to endure his bitter fate, and imparted the courage to persevere in hope.

While he was incarcerated, his wife, Avital, accepted on his behalf an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Yeshiva University in New York. On that occasion, she told the audience, “Anatoly has been educated to his Jewishness in a lonely cell in Chistopol prison where, locked alone with the Psalms of David, he found expression for his innermost feelings in the outpourings of the king of Israel thousands of years ago.” When he was finally released, and arrived in Jerusalem, he was carried to the Western Wall by his friends and admirers still clasping in his hands his beloved Book of Psalms.3

A sorry contrast is presented by the following incident reported in the Israeli press.4 Zalman Aranne, who twice served as Israel’s Minister of Education, once told that during World War I, he was wounded by cannon fire and lay helpless and unattended on the battlefield, drenched in blood. Believing that his life was ebbing away, and true to the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes, he felt a strong urge to pray or recite a psalm. In his youth in the Ukraine he had received a traditional Jewish education, and he still remembered what he had learned in the formative period of his life. Yet, he could not bring himself to utter the words because, he said, he had for many years abandoned the practice of Judaism, and he thought that praying in those circumstances would be hypocritical. When he recounted this experience to Mordecai Bar-On, then Chief Education Officer in Israel’s Defense Forces, the latter responded with an experience of his own. He had found himself in a similar situation when he served during one of the wars forced upon Israel by Arab aggression. He, too, had wanted to pray, but he needed no effort to suppress the urge, because he had not the slightest idea what to say.

Now let me tell of an experience of my own. For three months in 1989, I was privileged to serve as Scholar-in-Residence in the Greater Washington, D.C. area, sponsored by the local Foundation for Jewish Studies. Among the many courses I taught was one on the Book of Psalms. This was attended largely by people in government service. At the final session, a participant approached me and said, “I have not stepped into a synagogue these past thirty years. I have always regarded this religious stuff as mumbo jumbo. Having attended your weekly classes in the psalms, I have come to realize that the material does, indeed, contain profound ideas of lasting worth. Thank you.”

I thought I would share some of these worthwhile ideas with a wider audience in this present-day biblically deprived generation.


Music, vocal and instrumental, played a significant role in the organized institutionalized worship of ancient Israel. It was an accepted constituent of religious self-expression. Nevertheless, Israel differed from other cultures of the ancient world in that biblical traditions did not ascribe a divine origin to music. The traditions of the Book of Genesis view musical instruments as a purely human and secular innovation. They look upon music as one of the pillars of civilized society.

In the seventh natural-born generation on earth, the children of Lamech are said to have pioneered three major advances in human culture- these are pastoral nomadism, musical instruments–stringed and wind, and the metalworking arts.5 These three pursuits seem to have been characteristic of Semitic tribes, for they are vividly portrayed in splendid wall paintings at a site called Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. (See illustration below.) Here, on the east bank of the Nile, about 150 miles (240 km.) south of Cairo, are tombs cut into rock cliffs. On the walls of one of them, belonging to a nobleman named Khnumhotep III, ruler of one of the nomes, or provinces, into which ancient Egypt was divided, is depicted a group of thirty-seven west Semitic nomadic tribesmen from central Transjordan, led by their chief, named Absha. They had come down to Egypt around the year 1890 b.c.e. to trade their wares. What interests us is that two of the donkeys in the pictures carry skin bellows, a sure indication of metalworking, and one of the tribesmen holds a stringed lyre.6 This scene calls to mind the aforementioned biblical narrative. That text also records the birth of a daughter, named Naamah, to Lamech. No accomplishment is ascribed to her, but since it is rare for daughters to be mentioned in the genealogies of the Book of Genesis, it may be assumed that she was the subject of some well-known legend. An ancient Jewish tradition fills in the gap; it holds her to have been a professional singer of religious music.7 This is of interest for two reasons- the underlying root of the name Naamah, in Arabic and Syriac and in some Hebrew texts,8 means “to sing”; and the account recognizes the great antiquity and high prestige of vocal and instrumental music, which it regards as one of the most noteworthy achievements of the human race.

Instrumental and vocal music were common in the temples and palaces of Mesopotamia. Fine examples of harps and lyres have been excavated in the Sumerian city of Ur dating from the middle of the third millennium b.c.e. From Assyrian and Egyptian sources it has become known that in pre-Israelite times Canaan was famed as a center of music. The Canaanite-Hebrew term for the lyre–kinnor–passed into Egyptian and other languages. In Cyprus, the name of the god of the zither, “Cinyras,” was derived from the name of the instrument. The Greeks revered him as a musician.9 At Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra on the Syrian coast, a tablet turned up on which is inscribed a hymn to a goddess. It is equipped with a notational system which has now been deciphered, and which reveals a musical scale consisting of seven notes.10 Another tablet from the same site lists temple personnel, among whom are “singers” and “cymbalists.”11

By the time the Israelites settled in Canaan, a well-established tradition of vocal and instrumental music as an important mode of religious expression had long existed there and everywhere else in the Near East. The same was true of sacrificial practices as a major element of worship. Israel adopted both entities, but the two were carefully separated.

Another item worth noting is that, according to the narratives of the Book of Genesis, the urge to worship God is something innate in human beings, for the very first such act is ascribed to the first natural-born human beings on earth, Cain and Abel.12 Theirs is a spontaneous, unprescribed, unlearned exercise, and it consists solely of ritual acts performed in total silence. The vocal aspect of worship is attributed to another generation, that of Enosh- “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord by name.”13 It may be coincidental that this development is said to have occurred in the days of Enosh, whose name in Hebrew carries with it intimations of human frailty. The uncertainty and insecurity of life, its fleeting nature, the sense of utter dependence upon a Higher Being–it is such that stir the human instinct to reach out to God, that kindle the desire to offer petition or to express gratitude.

What is so significant about these Genesis narratives is the total separation of sacrifice from prayer; that is, the ritual act is differentiated from the ritual word. This is in line with later developments in the religion of Israel, in which sacrifice and prayer continued to be two distinct and discrete domains. The elaborate rules and regulations for the sacrificial rituals as laid down in the Torah are all but silent about accompanying prayer or music, while the headings to the psalms have nothing to say about any sacrificial association. The sacrificial ritual is the responsibility and prerogative of the priesthood; the recitative and musical components of the official worship are a Levitical franchise.14

This extraordinary dissociation of sacrifice from prayer is in striking contrast to the practice of Israel’s contemporaries in the ancient Near East, where the two institutions were inextricably linked. There,

Ritual activities and accompanying prayers are of like importance and constitute the religious act; to interpret the prayers without regard to the rituals in order to obtain insight into the religious concepts they may reflect distorts the testimony.15

Those rituals are carefully described in a section at the end of the Mesopotamian prayer. The biblical psalms never feature such information. Furthermore, whereas sacrifice is traced back to the Mosaic period, the institution of Psalmody is ascribed to David in post-exilic biblical literature, those Scriptures that derive from after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon. This careful and consistent separation of the two components of worship, the assigning of diverse histories to the sacrifices and liturgical components,16 may be explained as a conscious effort to distinguish Israel’s mode of worship from contemporary pagan patterns.17


Unlike many biblical works, the Psalter itself contains no general title or introductory phrase by which it would become known. Nor is it called after its initial word or words, as are the books of the Pentateuch in Hebrew. Our English title “Psalms” came to us via the Latin Liber Psalmorum, which, in turn, was derived from the Greek word for “a song sung to a stringed instrument.” Another name by which the book is known is the Psalter. This too was received from the Latin, which inherited it from psalterion, the Greek word for “a stringed instrument.” Both words were Greek renderings of the Hebrew mizmor, which occurs in the headings of many psalms. This term never recurs in the Bible outside of Psalms and it came to be used for liturgical singing accompanied by a musician. In the course of time, the Hebrew term took on an extended meaning and was used for each of the compositions of the book irrespective of whether or not the word mizmor appears in its heading.18 It is this term that underlies the Greek, Latin, and English titles of the book. These titles reflect musical terminology, and pertain to a technical detail, to an externality.19 The title preserved and popularized among Jews ever since rabbinic times relates to content, to the emotion of the worshiper, to the devotional function. The Hebrew designation Sefer Tehillim, often shortened to Tehillim, means, “The Book of Songs of Praise.”20 True, many psalms cannot be so categorized. Yet the fact that the root hll, “to praise,” both in verbal and nominal forms, appears predominantly in the Book of Psalms and that “Hallelujah” occurs nowhere else in the Bible, must have been decisive in calling the book Tehillim.21 That title also recognizes that the disinterested praise of God expresses the very essence of the act of worship, and its highest expression.


A measure of the seminal importance that the Book of Psalms held in the religious consciousness of Israel is indicated by some citations from early texts. The Hebrew Bible is composed of three parts- the Law (torah), the Prophets (nevi’im), and the Writings (ketuvim). The third section comprises diverse genres of literature and carries no specific name that might identify its contents. For this reason, it is particularly significant that ancient sources that mention the tripartite division specify the Psalter. The oldest so far is one of the very important texts from Qumran entitled Miktsat Ma’aseh Ha-Torah (4QMMT), deriving from about 152 b.c.e.22 This is a letter from the founders of the sect that settled at that site and is apparently addressed to the Temple establishment. It refers to “the Book of Moses, the books of the Prophets, and David, and the deeds of each generation.” The Second Book of Maccabees 2-13, composed sometime between 78 and 63 b.c.e., tells that Nehemiah, who was governor of Judea in the days of Persian hegemony, “founded a library and collected the books about the kings and the prophets and the books of David . . .”23 The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, who died around the year 50 c.e., mentions “the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms . . .”24 Although Josephus, the Jewish historian of the Second Temple, who died not long after 100 c.e., had a different arrangement of the books of the Holy Scriptures, he also singles out “hymns of God,” which undoubtedly means the Book of Psalms.25 The same distinctive prominence appears in the late first century c.e. New Testament Book of Luke (24-44), which speaks of “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”

All this provides eloquent and incontrovertible testimony to the extraordinary status and high prestige that the Psalter acquired in the course of the Second Temple period, which came to an end around the year 70 c.e. Thereafter, when the sacrificial ritual could no longer be observed and became defunct, prayer and the study of the Torah took its place as the highest forms of spiritual activity. The psalms came to enjoy a position of the foremost rank in private prayer and public worship.


How did the psalms come to survive? No, I do not mean the canonized collection known as the Book of Psalms–I mean the one hundred and fifty individual compositions that make up the collection. The question is not as strange as it sounds. Given the fate of the bulk of the literary productions of the ancient world, it is indeed remarkable how much of the writings of Israel during the biblical period managed to defeat the ravages of time.

Consider this- The Greeks enjoyed a vast and enthusiastic constituency throughout east and west. By the fifth century b.c.e., Greek culture had already begun to expand the territorial confines of the Greek people. In the fourth century b.c.e., the extensive conquests of Alexander the Great accelerated their penetration of the Mediterranean coastlands and the lands of the east as far as Persia and India. The Greek colonies and the spread of the Greek language ensured the wide diffusion of Greek civilization. Greek books were in great demand everywhere. The immense library of Alexandria, Egypt, was founded; there, resident scholars collected the manuscripts of the Greek classics, and carefully edited and preserved them. Later, when imperial Rome succeeded Greece as the intellectual center of the world, Greek language and literature continued to enjoy the greatest prestige. The appreciation and promotion of Greek culture was a mark of status.

But what fate did history have in store for the works of the great dramatists of fifth century b.c.e. Athens, that brilliant era characterized by a remarkable intellectual awakening which many scholars regard as having inaugurated a new era in the history of human culture?26 Aeschylus, the first of the three greatest Attic tragedians, is said to have composed ninety plays; yet only seven have survived intact, and mere fragments of just over seventy more remain. Sophocles, the favorite dramatist of Athens, wrote over one hundred tragedies. Again, only seven have come down to us in complete form. Euripides, whose popularity on the stage was sustained for the next six hundred years, was reputed to have written at least seventy-five plays or, according to some, as many as ninety-two. The scholars of ancient Alexandria had access to sixty-seven, but only eighteen dramas certainly composed by him are extant in full.

Comedy fared no better than tragedy. Only eleven of a known corpus of at least forty-four comedies written by Aristophanes, the greatest of the writers of Greek Old Comedy, are still available. Menander, regarded as the outstanding dramatist of Greek New Comedy, composed more than one hundred plays, the titles of some eighty of which are currently known. His only surviving complete drama was first published in 1959.

If Greek literature, in the most favorable of circumstances, had to bow to the harsh imperatives of human history, what fate might have been expected for the literary compositions of ancient Israel?27 This people in its day was demographically insignificant and relatively unimportant as compared with the great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The trials and tribulations that commonly visited most ancient literatures were aggravated and augmented in the case of Israel by additional afflictions peculiar to itself. There were the general hazards incurred by the limitations of hand copying, which imposed severe restrictions on the number of copies in circulation, not to mention the perils inherent in the use of perishable organic writing materials such as papyrus, parchment, and leather, as well as fragile potsherds and waxed wooden tablets. Then there was the location of the Land of Israel and its strategic importance and vulnerability. The main international highway of the ancient Near East, which led from Egypt to the other great river valley civilization of Mesopotamia, traversed the land. This meant that it was frequently invaded, with the resultant devastation of its cities and towns. Archives and manuscript collections often succumbed to the periodic barbarities of warring nations.

There were still other factors at work in ancient Israel, more subtle and pacific, though no less powerful, that encouraged the disappearance of literature. One was the change of script. When the Aramaic mode of writing, still basically in use among Jews, eclipsed and displaced the paleo-Hebrew script of earlier times, many works not newly copied and transcribed by scribes would fall into disuse and were doomed to oblivion. Finally, the evolution of a fixed, completed canon of sacred literature indubitably contributed to the demise of many an excluded work. The Hebrew Bible, in fact, has preserved the names of some twenty compositions once well known, and now lost.28

If the chances of survival for ancient literature were so slim, it is legitimate to inquire how it came about that some one hundred and fifty psalms managed to resist the destructive agencies fashioned by nature and history. What counterforces operated to sponsor preservation and ensure immortalization? We shall respond to this question a little later.


We have just mentioned “one hundred and fifty psalms.” Interestingly, the Greek translation made by the Jews of Alexandria, Egypt, perhaps as early as the third century b.c.e., has the same number even though it has different internal divisions in the case of some compositions. For instance, it combines our Psalms 9 and 10 into a single composition and it does the same for Psalms 114 and 115. On the other hand, our Psalms 116 and 147 are each divided into two. Moreover, the Greek Psalter contains an additional psalm not present in the standard Hebrew Bibles. In the important Greek Bible codices, or manuscript books, this extra psalm bears a special caption noting that it is “outside the number.”29 This phenomenon would appear to endow the number one hundred and fifty with some special significance.

However, before we jump to conclusions, we must also note that this number of psalms is by no means a hard and fast rule. We possess plenty of evidence for variant psalm divisions that yielded differing numberings. Thus we know of 146 psalms, of a widespread tradition about 147 psalms “corresponding to the life-span of the patriarch Jacob,” of 149, 151, and even 159 compositions.30

In addition to the number of psalms, we must also consider another phenomenon. Our printed Hebrew Bibles (likewise, the English translations) divide the Psalter into five “books” of unequal length, each sequentially labeled. The closing of these divisions is marked by a doxology, or formula expressing praise of God. Thus, Psalm 41-14 reads,

Blessed is the Lord, God of Israel, from eternity to


Amen and Amen.

Psalm 72-18-20 reads,

Blessed is the Lord God, God of Israel, who alone does

wonderful things.

Blessed is His glorious name for ever; His glory fills the

whole earth.

Amen and Amen.

End of the prayers of David son of Jesse.

Psalm 89-53 reads,

Blessed is the Lord forever.

Amen and Amen.

Psalm 106-48 reads,

Blessed is the Lord, God of Israel, from eternity to


Let all the people say, “Amen and Amen;


Psalm 150, which closes the fifth division, most likely is meant to serve as the doxology for the entire Book of Psalms.

If we examine these formulae in relation to the psalms to which they are attached, we observe at once that they are not really an integral part of the compositions; they give every appearance of being additions.31 Moreover, the term “Amen” is a congregational response in a liturgical context. Certainly, the doxologies are very ancient, for they were already present in the Hebrew text that was used by the Alexandrian Jewish translators of the Psalter into Greek sometime before the second half of the second century b.c.e.32 However, that version does not carry the headings “Book One,” “Book Two,” and so forth.33

That the Psalter comprised several entities is proven by the citation from the Second Book of Maccabees given above, which refers to “the books of David.” The fivefold division itself was known in early Christian circles. The third century scholar Hippolytus of Rome and the Church father and biblical scholar Jerome (c. 347-420 c.e.) both mention it.34 The same appears in Jewish sources. A passage in the Talmud reports that Rabbi Simeon son of Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (early 3rd cent. c.e.) once claimed that he had taught Rabbi Hiyyah “two of the pentateuchal divisions of the Book of Psalms.”35 In the Middle Ages, an eleventh- or twelfth-century c.e. work by Mishael ben Uzziel on the Masoretes, the Palestinian Jewish scholars who specialized in recording the traditional spellings, vowel accents, and idiosyncratic features of the biblical Hebrew text, designates each “book” by the term “scroll” (Hebrew megillah).36

The pentateuchal division of the Psalter is very strange, considering that, unlike the Torah, this work is not so large as to require transcription onto several scrolls for ease of handling and convenience of study.37 The rabbis of talmudic times interpreted the arrangement as corresponding to that of the Torah. As they phrased it, “Moses gave Israel five books of the Torah, and David gave Israel five books of the Psalms.”38 This parallel between the literary legacies of Moses and David is implicit in the Book of Chronicles, which correlates Moses’ institution of the sacrificial system with David’s inauguration of the Temple liturgy.39 It is quite possible, therefore, that the fivefold division of the Psalter was intentionally created with that parallel in mind. Further support for this conclusion may be sought in the special character of the collection of Psalms 90 through 150, which constitute “books” four and five. These compositions are distinguished by certain outstanding features which differentiate them from those of “books” one through three. For instance, they are overwhelmingly psalms of praise and thanksgiving, and lack the variety of genres found in the preceding collections; the term “Hallelujah” only occurs here. There are three times as many psalms without headings as in all the rest of the Psalter; those with headings contain none of the musical type; and the otherwise commonly used technical terms selah and “To the leader”40 are very rare. Moreover, unlike the other instances, part of the doxology at the end of psalm 106 (which marks off “book” four) may well be an integral part of the psalm, as 1 Chronicles 16-36 indicates.

All this suggests that the cluster of psalms numbered 90-150 was originally a single collection and was at some time artificially split in two in a conscious effort to create five “books,” in imitation of the Torah.41

If this conjecture is correct, it points to a likely solution to the varying enumerations of the psalms. They have been influenced by different customs relating to the serialized weekly readings of the Torah in public worship. Dividing the Pentateuch into fifty-four sections called parashiyyot, the Babylonian Jewish communities completed the entire reading in the course of a single year. But the synagogues in Palestine preferred a shorter Sabbath service, and they took three years, and in some cases three and one half years, to complete the cycle of readings.42 The “triennial cycle,” as it is called, persisted for a long time until the Babylonian custom finally became normative everywhere.43 The Palestinian custom was not uniform, and the division of the Torah into weekly lections, called sedarim, varied from community to community.44

We now have proof that just as the Psalter was divided into five “books,” so it was also subdivided into sedarim after the manner of the Torah.45 What is lacking, however, is direct evidence for the public reading of a psalm in conjunction with the weekly Torah and prophetic selections. Perhaps that was reserved for private recitation. In fact, several attempts have been made to uncover connective themes and key terms or phrases linking a particular psalm to a specific weekly prophetic and/or Torah reading. While many of these suggestions are persuasive, they cannot be regarded as decisive.46

To return to the subject of the psalms collections- Whether or not the doxologies actually mark off an original division into books, it is clear that our Psalter is composed of what were once several smaller collections of psalms. Someone must have made a “Davidic” collection that was thought to be complete at the time, because Psalm 72, which closes the second book, plainly states (v. 20)- “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.” Then there must have been an “Asaphite” collection, because a number of contributions are attributed to Asaph, a Levite whom David is said to have appointed to be the choirmaster.47 Another collection, now incorporated into books two and three, is credited to “The sons of Korah,” the descendants of the Levite who rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the course of the wilderness wanderings, and whom “the earth swallowed up.”48 His sons, however, survived and one of their line was appointed by David to be among those in charge of song in the Temple.49 Apart from these there is also a block of psalms, numbers 120-134, each headed by the title, “A Song of Ascents”–or so at least, that is how the English translations usually render the cryptic Hebrew title shir ha-ma’alot.50


We have referred to the “Davidic” collection, the largest in the Psalter. The headings of just fewer than half of all the psalms bear the name of the illustrious King David–seventy-three out of one hundred and fifty, to be exact. (The Greek version omits four of these designations,51 but adds another thirteen.52) This still leaves seventy-seven psalms not attributed to David. Apart from the twelve Asaphite and eleven Korahite compositions, two bear the name of Solomon, and one each is accredited to Moses, Heman, and Ethan.53 Forty-nine psalms are anonymous, or “orphan psalms.”54

Why was the entire Psalter attributed to David? He was an intrepid warrior, a brilliant strategist, an empire builder, founder of Judah’s only royal dynasty, a messianic symbol–but he is best known as the author of the Psalms. A talmudic statement expresses it thus- “David wrote the book of Psalms including in it the work of the elders, namely, Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah.”55 Another passage in the Talmud remarks, “All the praises which are stated in the Book of Psalms, David uttered each one of them.”56 The most all-embracing declaration is that cited above, to the effect that “David gave Israel five books of psalms.” The ultimate expression of the association of David with Psalmody is to be found in the hyperbolic prose insert in the large Psalms scroll from Qumran by the Dead Sea. This says that David wrote 3600 hymns (tehillim) and 450 songs (shir).57

That the entire Psalter should have come to be associated with the person of David is not really so surprising, given the traditions about his involvement in instrumental and choral music, as portrayed in the biblical prose texts. In his youth, he was known as one “skilled at playing the lyre.”58 He also had a mastery of various musical instruments, and is said to have himself invented some.59 He composed dirges, and a song of thanksgiving.60 He was, undeniably, a man of deep spirituality. He had the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem and permanently installed there, and so transformed the city into the religious center of Israel.61 He is credited with having drafted plans to build the Temple,62 and even though he himself was prevented from executing them, he made extensive preparations for his son to do so.63 Further, he is said to have carefully arranged for the future Temple liturgy by organizing and assigning guilds of Temple singers and musicians.64 Admittedly, no biblical text explicitly declares King David to be the author of the Psalter. As we have noted, only seventy-three psalms carry his name–and this in the form of le-david, a term that was interpreted to be an indication of authorship, as the last verse of Psalm 72 shows, although other possibilities exist.65 Furthermore, a few headings directly connect the composition with an incident in the life of David.66


The traditions just cited that make David responsible for the institution of Temple singers and musicians are all post-exilic. They tell us that when the king transformed Jerusalem into a holy city and the spiritual center of Israel by installing there the Ark of the Covenant, he appointed three individuals of the Levitical clans of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari–Heman, Asaph, and Ethan–to be in charge of the vocal and instrumental aspects of the service.67 The question immediately arises as to how much credence can be placed in these reports. Are they inventions of the Chronicler? Do they actually reflect the reality of the Second Temple period retrojected onto Solomon’s Temple?68 In order to resolve these uncertainties, we must trace the histories of the clan-guilds, using that term in the sense of recognizable, cohesive groups of Temple personnel. The following data must be taken into account-

The Book of Ezra-Nehemiah lists the families who returned to the land of Israel from Babylon under the leadership of Zerubbabel following the edict of King Cyrus of Persia in 538 b.c.e. permitting the Jews to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. Only the Asaphite guild–with 147 members–is recorded among them.69 Moreover, that is the only guild to have participated in the ceremony held to mark the laying of the foundation of the Second Temple.70 In fact, no other guild is ever mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah. Had Heman, Ethan, and the Korahites been active in the restoration period, what reason would the contemporary sources have had to suppress the fact? By the same token, why should the Chronicler (? 4th cent. b.c.e.) have invented these guilds if they never existed? It must also be taken into account that Books IV and V of the Psalter are certainly among the latest; yet no compositions therein are ascribed to any of the clan-guilds. We can also point to the discovery of the existence of the Korahites in the days of the First Temple, for they are mentioned on an inscribed bowl found in the excavations at Arad. They were active in the monotheistic Israelite cult center situated there.71

It can also be demonstrated that the data given in Chronicles are totally independent of the information that can be culled from the headings to the Psalms. The Chronicler portrays the Asaphites as the most important and prestigious of the clan-guilds,72 while the Korahites are not included in the list of those appointed by David to participate in the Temple service. They are “guards of the threshold,”73 “preparers of the wafers,”74 and “gatekeepers.”75 Nevertheless, they contribute eleven psalms to the Psalter, to judge from the superscriptions, while the Asaphites can claim only one more. As far as the compiler of the collections of psalms was concerned, there was little to choose between the Korahites and the Asaphites. This shows that the Chronicler’s account was not drawn from the headings to the psalms, nor were the latter influenced by the post-exilic historiography. They are independent of each other. The Chronicler did not invent the data he records. He did not retroject the reality of his day onto the days of the first Temple.

The same conclusion can be deduced in regard to Heman, to whom only one composition in the Psalter is attributed. Strangely, however, the Chronicler awards him great importance. He is said to have been the chief singer at the celebration held on the removal of the Ark to Jerusalem,76 and Asaph was subordinate to him. He bears the official title of “Heman the Singer.”77 The great prestige he enjoyed is demonstrated by the twenty-one-generation genealogy given him by the Chronicler, in contrast to Asaph’s fourteen generations.78 Like Asaph, he is prominently featured in all the reports of public worship from the time of David down to the reign of Josiah. Strikingly, the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah ignores this guild, and, as noted, only a single psalm is attributed to him, and this not exclusively so. Once again, there is a serious discrepancy between the traditions about the first Temple and those about Second Temple times.

In sum, there is no reason to doubt the existence of musical guilds in Israel during the period of the first Temple, although not all of them operated in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of them were attached to the provincial shrines that existed in Judah and Israel. Several of these cult sites enjoyed a great prestige, and certainly must have maintained a cadre of professional personnel.


We are now in a position to respond to the question we raised earlier, how the one hundred and fifty psalms managed to overcome the ravages of time in the face of all odds. Some powerful factors were at work to save them from oblivion. One was the musical guilds. Each had its repertoire, recited, collected, and transmitted from generation to generation. The guilds were highly mobile. Its members could easily move either as a group or individually from one cult center to another when its home base was destroyed, bringing their repertoire with them.

Another determining factor was the liturgical tradition itself. That is to say, individual psalms belonged to or constituted standardized liturgies available for recitation or singing on different occasions. They were used when an Israelite felt the need to commune with God, whether to express adoration and praise; to offer thanksgiving; to confess sin and ask for forgiveness; to resort to petition and supplication in circumstances of peril, in a state of dire illness, or as the victim of false accusation or injustice. The Israelite might repair to the Temple or local shrine and there be given an appropriate psalm to recite or sing, or have recited or sung for him or her. Frequent repetition of these liturgies over the ages would have impressed upon them the stamp of familiarity in the minds of the worshipers. This practice would have been a powerful factor in the preservation of the psalms.


1. Midrash Tehillim to Ps. 18-1, ed. S. Buber, 135.

2. Ber. 57b.

3. M. Gilbert, Shcharansky, Hero of Our Time, 363, 392f., 401f., 412, 416.

4. Rabbi Israel Lau reported this in the Jerusalem Post; it was reprinted by the Wexner Heritage Foundation in its Jewish News Anthology, June-October, 1988.

5. Gen. 4-20-22, on which see N.M. Sarna, JPS Commentary on Genesis, 37-38.

6. On the Beni Hasan paintings, see ANEP, pp. 2-3, No. 3 and p. 249; W.F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 5th ed., 96, 121; CAH 1, 2-503f., 516, 541.

7. So Targ. Jon., ad loc.; cf. Gen. R. 23-4.

8. Cf. 2 Sam. 23-1; Ps. 81-3; 135-3; 147-1; see also UT 2225; Ben Sira 45-9, ed. M.H. Segal, 310, and the note ad loc. p. 314. In rabbinic Hebrew the root is used in the sense of “sing, chant,” and the noun ne’imah means “a tune.”

9. See Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1970), 242.

10. A.D. Kilmer, RA 68 (1974)- 69-87; see BARev 6/5 (1980)- 14-25.

11. UT 19-1274, 2164.

12. Gen. 4-3-4.

13. Gen. 4-26.

14. This was pointed out by Y. Kaufmann, Toledot Ha-Emunah Ha-Yisre’elit, 2-476-78; Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, 302-4.

15. A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 175; cf. S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 1-52; W.W. Hallo, “The Cultic Setting of Sumerian Poetry,” Actes de la XVIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, 1969-116-34.

16. Ezra 3-2, 10; Neh. 12-24, 45-46; 2 Chron. 23-18; cf. 2 Chron. 8-12-14.

17. See Kaufinann, Religion of Israel, 302-4.

18. Cf. P. Ber. 4-3(8a); P. Ta’an. 2-2 (65c); P. Shab. 16-1(15a). In Akkadian zamaru is a song or literary composition to be sung with or without instrumental accompaniment; see CAD 21-35-38, which points out that singing for ritual or ceremonial purposes was always done to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Ugaritic text 602.3f., yšr wydmr bknr, “he sings and plays on the lyre,” shows that dmr refers to the musical accompaniment; see C.H. Gordon, Supplement to UT (An. Or. 38)- 55-19-727a. On this text, see S.E. Loewenstamm, “The Lord Is My Strength and Glory,” VT 29 (1969)- 464-70. In biblical Hebrew, mizmor never appears in the plural or with the definite article; “musical instruments” are klei shir (Amos 6-5, Neh. 12-36; 1 Chron. 16-42; 22-19 (18); 2 Chron. 5-13; 7-6; 23-13; 34-12), but never klei zemer; “singers” are sharim (2 Sam. 19-36; 1 Kings 10-12; Ezek. 40-44; Eccl. 2-8; 2 Chron. 35-25) and meshorerim, but never zammarim. The Annals of Sennacherib, ed. D.D. Luckenbill, 70, line 32, designates the male and female singers sent by King Hezekiah of Judah to Nineveh by the terms zammerê and zammerâte. Further, although Hebrew mizmor le-david occurs frequently in Psalms, shir le-david never appears. I have found no explanation for these oddities.

19. Cf. the Syriac title kethaba’ de-mazmurē.

20. BB 14b; Av. Zar. 19a; P. Suk. 3-12 (53d); P. Ket. 12-3 (35a) (shortened).

21. Only Ps. 145 has tehillah in the title.

22. Professor Jonas C. Greenfield kindly made this text available to me. For the date of the letter, see L. Schiffman, “The New Halakhic Letter (4QMMT) and the Origin of the Dead Sea Sect,” BA 53 (1990)-66.

23. See J. Goldstein, II Maccabees, AB 1983- 156; for the date, see pp. 71-83.

24. De Vita Contemplativa 3-25.

25. Contra Apion 1-40.

26. On this topic, see M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, 9. For the statistics given here, see the articles on these authors in The New Century Classical Handbook, ed. C.B. Avery, 162, 698.

27. See N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis, xvii-xix.

28. For a list of such works, see S. Z. Leiman, The Canonization of Scripture, 17-20.

29. The original Hebrew text of this supernumerary psalm turned up in Qumran; see J.A. Sanders, The Psalms Scroll of Qumran Cave 11 (11QPSa), 53-64.

30. On 146 psalms, see A. Berliner, Magazin fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Berlin), vol. 7 (1880)- 112. For 147psalms, cf. P. Shab. 16-1 (15c), Massekhet Soferim, Sof. 16-11, ed. M. Higger, 292f. and n. 60 for other sources; to which add Mid. Tehillim, ed. Buber, 190 to Ps. 22-19 and the editor’s n. ad loc., also 439 to Ps. 104-2; Yal. to Ps. 22-4 (Salonika), 1521-26; Baal Ha-Turim to Gen. 47-28; see also C.D. Ginsberg, Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible, 18 n.1, 777 n.1. For 149 psalms, see “Mishael b. Uzziel’s Treatise on Differences Between Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali,” ed. L. Lipschütz, Textus II (1962)-43. The same number appears in a poem by Samuel Ha-Nagid (993-1056) in H. Schirmann, Ha-Shirah Ha-‘Ivrit Bi-Sefarad U-bi-Provence, 1-92, poem no. 25, line 139; cf. also 101, poem no. 27, line 140; see also I. Joel, Kirjath Sefer 38 (1962)- 125. For 151 and 159 compositions, see Ginsberg, Massoretico-Critical Edition of Hebrew Bible, 584, 536.

31. With Ps. 106-47-48, cf. 1 Chron. 16-36.

32. Noted by H.B. Swete, Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, 254.

33. On the problems of the “five books of Psalms,” see M. Haran, “The Four Blessings and the Five ‘Books’ in the Book of Psalms” [Hebrew], Proceedings of the Israel National Academy of Sciences, 8, 1 (1989)- 1-32.

34. P. Lagard, Analecta Syriaca (1858), 86; Jerome, Prologus Galeatus.

35. Kid. 33a.

36. P. Kahle dates Mishael to ca. 1050, J. Mann to the twelfth century; see L. Lipschütz, “Kitab al-Khilaf. The Book of the Hillufim,” Textus IV (1960)- 1. Mishael refers to each “scroll” by the initial word or phrase of the first psalm of each “book.”

37. See Haran, “Four Blessings.”

38. Mid. Tehillim, ed. Buber, 1[2], p. 3.

39. 2 Chron. 8-13-14; 23-18.

40. If this is the correct meaning of Hebrew la-menatse’ah.

41. It should also be pointed out that the Psalms scroll from Qumran (11QPsa) contains selections from “Book Four” interspersed with some psalms from “Book Five.” However, this scroll may not be a canonical text, but a liturgy or hymn book.

42. Meg. 29b.

43. The liturgical poet Yannai, composing apparently in the fifth century c.e., based his piyyutim on the sedarim of the triennial cycle. That system was still in vogue in the synagogues of Palestinian Jews in Egypt in the late twelfth century, as attested by the traveler Benjamin of Tudela, Itinerary, ed. A.A. Asher, 98; and by Moses Maimonides, Hilkhot Tefillah 13-1. If the chronicle of Joseph b. Isaac Sambari (1640-1703) is reliable on this point, it would seem that the practice still existed vestigially in his day; see A. Neubauer, Medieval Hebrew Chronicles, 118.

44. J. Heinemann, Tarbiz 33 (1964)- 362-68; I. Joel, Kirjath Sefer, 126-32; B.M. Lewin, Otsar Hilluf Minhagim, 96 n. 5, 98.

45. I. Yeivin, “The Divisions into Sections in the Book of Psalms,” Textus VII (1969)-76-102.

46. E.A. King, “The Influence of the Triennial Cycle upon the Psalter,” JTS V (1904)- 203-13, on which see I. Abrahams, “Critical Notices,” JQR 16 (1904)-579-83; N.H. Snaith, “The Triennial Cycle and the Psalter,” ZAW 51 (1933)- 302-7. Professor John H. Hayes kindly let me read his unpublished manuscript, “The Psalms and the Triennial Cycle,” from which I learned much.

47. 1 Chron. 16-4-5. The psalms that bear his name are 50, 73-83.

48. Num., ch. 16.

49. Num. 26-11; 1 Chron. 16-22. The psalms that bear their name are 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 88.

50. Ps. 121 has shir la-ma’alot.

51. Pss. 122, 124, 131, 133.

52. Codex Vaticanus (GB) also adds Ps. 67, making fourteen more than the Hebrew.

53. Pss. 72, 127; Ps. 90; Ps. 88; Ps. 89.

54. So called in Av. Zar. 24b. Pss. 39, 62, 77 carry “Jeduthun” in the superscription, but the first two also add le-david; Ps. 77 adds le’asaph. The Greek adds “Jeremiah” to Ps. 137, and “Haggai and Zechariah” to Pss. 138, 146, 147-1, 147-12, and 148.

55. BB 14b, referring to Pss. 139-16, 110-1, 89-1 (Ethan is identified with Abraham), 90-1, 88-1, 39-1 et al., 50-1 et al.

56. Pes. 117a.

57. Sanders, Psalms Scroll, 91-93.

58. 1 Sam. 17-16-23; 19-9.

59. Neh. 12-36; 1 Chron. 23-5; 2 Chron. 29-26-2; cf. Amos 6-5. On this last reference, see D.N. Freedman, “But Did David Invent Musical Instruments?” Bible Review I (1965)-49-51.

60. 2 Sam. 1-17-22; 3-33 (dirges); 2 Sam. ch. 22 (thanksgiving).

61. 2 Sam. 12-13; cf. Ps. 51; 2 Sam. 24-10-17; 1 Chron. 21-8, 13-17; 2 Sam. 6-2-17; 1 Chron. 13-1-14; 15-1-15; 16-1.

62. 2 Sam. 7-1-2; 1 Chron. 17-1-2; 28-1-3.

63. 1 Chron. ch. 28; 29-1-9, 16.

64. Ezra 3-2, 10; Neh. 12-14, 25; 1 Chron. 6-16-17; 16-4-7, 37-42; chs. 25-26; 2 Chron. 7-6; 8-14; 23-18; 29-25-27, 30.

65. The preposition le- might also mean “for/dedicated to/concerning”; cf. Jer. 23-9; 46-2; 48-1; 49-1, 7, 23, 28.

66. Pss. 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142. The Greek adds Pss. 27, 71, 143, 144. On this subject, see A. Cooper, “The Life and Times of King David According to the Book of Psalms,” in The Poet and the Historian. Essays in Literary and Historical Criticism, ed. R.E. Friedman, 117-31.

67. 1 Chron. 6-16; 15-16-24; 23-6, 30; 25-1-8.

68. On the subject of the musical guilds and their dating, see N.M. Sarna, “The Psalm Superscriptions and the Guilds,” in Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History Presented to Alexander Altmann, 281-300.

69. Ezra 2-41-Neh. 7-44.

70. Ezra 3-10.

71. Y. Aharoni, “Arad- Its Inscriptions and Temple,” BA 31(1968)-11; Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions [Heb.], 82, no. 49, line 2. Aharoni assigns the inscription to stratum VII, he dates it to the age of Hezekiah (715-687 b.c.e.). This refutes the theory of G. Wanke, “Die Zionstheologie der Korachiten,” BZAW 97 (1966)-23-31, that the Korahites were post-exilic.

72. Their association with the official cult is said to include the entire period from David to Isaiah; see 1 Chron. 6-16f., 24; 15-3, 17f.; 16-5f.; 2 Chron. 5-12; 29-13; 35-15.

73. 1 Chron. 9-19.

74. 1 Chron. 9-31.

75. 1 Chron. 26-1, 19.

76. 1 Chron. 15-17, 19.

77. 1 Chron. 6-18.

78. 1 Chron. 6-18-23, 24-28.

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