What is the essence of Sefer Tehilim – a book of prophecies, or prayers G-d sanctified and taught us through King David’s Divine Inspiration? ow should Tehilim be recited? Were all of King David’s requests answered? When can we assume they were? When is Tehilim preferable over Torah study? How do we determine the correct balance between Torah study and prayer? Can a mourner recite Tehilim? Is Tehilim recited on Tisha’a B’Av? Can Tehilim be recited before Birkos HaTorah? Of this and more, in the coming article.
Tehilim and Tzora’as
Tzora’as, the spiritual malady that strikes when a person speaks Lashon Hara, is a reason for cutting off its speaker from G-dliness, as mentioned in Tehilim: “May the Lord cut off all smooth lips, the tongue that speaks great things” (12:4). The Gemara (Erchin 15a) asserts this as a fact. This assertion lead to a halachic debate that took place nearly 200 years ago and which is the topic of this week’s article: is Sefer Tehilim a book of prophecies, or perhaps prayers and entreaties to G-d which were written with divine inspiration and inscribed as the Jewish eternal prayerbook? The debate has several implications which will be detailed further on.
Connecting with G-d
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachaim 4:2) and the Mesillas Yeshorim before him state that our ultimate mission in the world is to connect to G-d. The most profound method for connecting with G-d is through studying of His Torah, especially in the form of Torah lishma (Torah learned for the purpose of connecting Hashem with the world).
If the purpose of Torah study is to achieve the feeling of spiritual awareness, reciting Tehilim would seem to be a more appropriate method since spiritual inspiration and emotional connection with G-d is achieved by reciting and understanding the words of Tehilim, whereas study of the myriad intricate details and logical discussions of seemingly mundane financial topics doen’t really seem to bring about spiritual awareness and connection. So what’s the answer? Torah, or Tehilim?
Torah or Tehilim
The Midrash writes (Shocher Tov, Tehilim 1:8) that David Hamelech appealed to G-d to see reciting Tehilim as equal to studying of the laws of Tzora’as and purity.
This Midrash indicates that the spiritual awareness reached through reciting Tehilim is lesser than that reached by studying the Torah laws. And while King David asked for his prayers to be equal to Torah study, nowhere do we find that his request was answered or accepted. Thus, explains Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, studying Torah is of greater importance than reciting Tehilim, despite Tehilim’s spiritual qualities.
Tehilim — Equal to Torah
There are other opinions that disagree with Reb Chaim’s approach, and see Tehilim as equal to Torah study. This approach was expressed in a question presented to Rabbi Moshe Tzvi of Savran:
Two Torah scholars asked if they were permitted to join a group of people who recite Tehilim during their regular Torah study hours. On the one hand, they claimed that Rabbi Chaim Volozhin saw Tehilim as a lesser occupation than study of Torah, but Rabbi Moshe of Savran pointed out that if the pasuk “May the Lord cut off all smooth lips, the tongue that speaks great things” serves the Gemara as proof for an accepted fact, King David’s requests and prayers were accepted and Tehilim is equal to Torah study.
Even without this proof we know that the book of Tehilim was codified as one of the twenty-four books of the Tanach and many halachos are learned from its holy words. The Anshei Knesses Hagedola (“Men of Great Assembly”) inserted psukim from Tehilim in the prayers, referring to them as “Your holy words” in the text of Kedusha.
Rav Chaim’s Proof
In Nefesh Hachaim, Rav Chaim touches upon this claim and refutes it with a counterclaim of his own: in his opinion, the psukim of Tehilim are prayers and supplications. He proves it from the Gemara (Bave Basra 17a) which mentions seven people who were not eaten by worms after death. While some say the eighth was King David based on the pasuk in Tehilim (16:9) “…Even my flesh shall dwell in safety”, since the first Tana didn’t mention him, his prayer was not accepted.
This, explains Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, proves that the psukim of Tehilim are prayers, supplications, and praises which King David directed to G-d, not prophecies or facts, and perhaps even King David’s request for the Tehilim to be accepted as equal to Torah study was not accepted and realized.
Tehilim – The Written Law
How could Tehilim not be consider Torah study if it was inserted and counted as part of the Bible? Are not all 24 books of the Bible considered as Torah?
According to Rav Chaim of Volozhin reciting Tehilim does, indeed, have the same level of the Written Torah. However study of Gemara, the Oral Law, is greater than studying the Written Law. Nefesh Hachaim refers to a Midrash (Mishlei Rabata 10) that describes how after death, one who studied Tanach and didn’t study Mishna will have to undergo a process in Gehenom before being able to access his eternal reward. While Tehilim is a way to achieve connection with G-d, it is not the ultimate method for reaching it.
Therefore, Nefesh Hachaim explains, even if King David’s request was accepted awarding those who recite Tehilim with a reward that is similar to the reward of those who study Torah, the reward is only “like” that received for learning the intricate laws of purity and tzora’as. Like, or “as if” is similar, a likeness, not the real thing. Because the real thing is certainly greater than its close relative, even if we assume King David’s request was accepted, Torah study is greater.
He proves an additional point from the Gemara in Bave Basra – the book of Tehilim is not a book of prophesies but rather a guidebook for prayer written with Divine inspiration and accepted as part of the Bible, meant to instruct man on the way to connect with his Creator.
Tehilim Instead of Torah
Several sources prove that contrary to Rabbi Chaim’s understanding, reciting Tehilim has equal value to that of studying Torah. The Shela writes that on Yom Kippur night reciting Tehilim is even preferable over other prayers since it has the above-mentioned extra quality.
The Shevus Yaakov writes (volume II, chapter 44) that the public should not be called to pray more than the 3 prayers instituted by the Anshei Knesses Hagedola, with exception of troubled times. In addition, prayers written by the Shela or Shaari Tzion should not be recited in public. These prayers may only be recited privately, but not by a Talmid Chacham for whom reciting them consists of Bitul Torah. When a Talmid Chacham needs to pray, he should recite Tehilim.
Before reciting Tehilim Rabbi Aryeh Leib Epstein (Or Hahsanim, in the Gra’s approbation, p. 25) would say: “I hereby ready myself to perform a positive mitzva of Torah study, and may it be considered as if I learned negaim and ohalos, as you promised Your servant King David and to us by Chazal.”
Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (Tzidkas Hatzadik, 208) explains that Dovid Hamelech asked for Tehilim to serve as an antidote for the Yetzer Hara just like Torah.
The Kalusenberger Rebbe (Dvar Yatziv, YD 136:2) explains that Dovid Hamelech asked that while all study of the Oral Torah arouses the aspect of Judgement, study of Tehilim should arouse the attribute of Kindness and Mercy.
Divine Inspiration or Prayer
To settle the different approaches, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank explains the two above mentioned Gemaras (Har Tzvi OC 117:2): while on the one hand the Tehilim is a book of prayers, some of them were accepted and others were not. According to the Gemara the pasuk “May the Lord cut off all smooth lips, the tongue that speaks great things” must be a fact known to King David through prophecy, not a request since it is improper to ask for the wicked to be “cut off” or obliterated. The rest of Tehilim may certainly be prayers and appeals, not necessarily prophecies.
What is Chasidus?
Hassidim are a social religious group who share societal norms and religious customs. But true chassidus as a trait is a level of Divine service which should be every Jew’s goal. How is real chassidus achieved?
When compiling a list of the mistakes people make in their attempts to reach the level of chassidus, Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim includes reciting many chapters of Tehilim. However, in his directions to how one can achieve true chassidus he again refers to reciting Tehilim. How does one achieve chassidus – through reciting Tehilim, or not?
In chapter 21 of Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal explains that reciting Tehilim is not enough to acquire chassidus. In order to acquire chassidus one must concentrate and internalize the messages in the psukim. One who speeds through the chapters, even if he managed to “finish the Sefer” has gained very little. Only understanding the words and internalizing helps to make a person a true chassid.
Stopping Torah Study to Recite Tehilim
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was asked (Mirpasim Igrin p. 197): The Beis Efraim (OC 68) rules that one who stops his Torah study to read Tanach transgresses the prohibition of Bitul Torah. In that case, why would King David have stopped his learning at midnight to recite Tehilim? Similarly, we learn (Bereshis Raba 68:11) that Yaakov Avinu would complete Sefer Tehilim every night that he spent in Lavan’s house. How could they have transgressed this prohibition?
Rabbi Auerbach answers that while stopping in-depth Torah study to recite Tehilim is a transgression due to the lower level of concentration it requires, Yaakov Avinu and Dovid Hamelech doubtlessly studied Tehilim with all their focusing powers, and as that – did not interrupt their studies.
Every human needs time to connect with Hashem through prayer, praises, and supplications, writes the Nefesh Hachaim. The only question is to what extent. The Shulchan Aruch rules (YD 246:4) that one should divide his time to three: one third of his Torah study should be in the written Torah; another third in the Mishna; and one third — in Talmud. However, adds the Shulchan Aruch, one who studies the Babylonian Talmud fulfils all three since it contains all elements in the correct ratio.
Every person, depending upon to his personal life and circumstances, knows how much of his time must be dedicated to the various kinds of spiritual pursuit. While in Lavan’s house, Yaakov Avinu went through difficult challenges and needed more time for prayer than usual. And the same is true for King David, who is listed as one of the forty people who transmitted the Torah in the ongoing chain from Sinai.
(On the other hand, the Yefe Torah [Bereshis Raba 68:11] and Beis Dovid [Vayikra Dshkevi 19a] see Yaakov’s recitation of Tehilim differently: according to the first source, Yaakov recited Tehilim because his duties did not allow him to concentrate properly on his studies, and the second source adds that Yaakov was punished for remaining in Lavan’s home for 20 years because during that time he could not study properly and had to suffice at times with reciting Tehilim.)
Sefer Tehilim has many qualities that help to connect with G-d, and studying it is considered studying the Written Torah. In order for its reward to be equal to study of the Oral Law one must study it in-depth, not recite the verses as prayers.
Saying the whole Tehilim, or finishing a chapter quickly is improper. Rather, it is far better to recite a small number of chapters slowly with deliberate understanding.
Every person must set aside time to connect with G-d. One way to do this is through reciting Tehilim. Every person knows his life’s circumstances and the amount of Tehilim he needs to keep that connection vibrant.
For women who are not obligated to study Torah but must cultivate a relationship with G-d, Tehilim is very important. The same is true for one who does not know how to study Torah. And here, again, it is important to remember — volume is not the goal. Only comprehension and internalizing the message brings the desired results.
There are times in which Tehilim is de rigueur: times of trouble or Yom Kippur night, when praises and prayers are recited, all of which contain Tehilim. In these times, even a talmid chacham who studys Torah all day and all night is called to put aside his studies, and pray.
Rabbi Yaakov Hillel shlita (vayashev Hayam III, 20) writes that the rule of thumb with Tehilim is to say less and contemplate more. Furthermore, saying large volumes of Tehilim causes a lesser level of understanding and many lose out on the value of reciting Tehilim.
Defining Tehilim as a book of prayers or Written Torah has several halachic ramifications.
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 46:9) notes a dispute if reciting psukim of Tehilim before Birkos HaTorah is permitted or not. The Rama notes it is customarily permitted, but the Levush (OC 1:9) restricts the permit only for psukim that contain entreaties. Since a great many psukim in Tehilim are not that, but rather like the Written Torah, a blessing should be recited before pronouncing them. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch shlita adds (Teshuvos V’hanhagos I, 57) that indeed, every time one recites a chapter of Tehilim, even if the words contain a prayer, he should intend the words to also be Torah, and be rewarded for both.
The Mishna Brura rules (554:7) that although Torah study is prohibited on Tisha’a B’Av, reciting Tehilim is permitted after midday since it is considered prayer and not Torah study. He notes, however, that the Derech Chaim forbids it. Rabbi Moshe Sternbau shlita (Teshuvos V’hanhagos V 309:8) cites the Chazon Ish as permitting a mourner to recite Tehilim, as well as on Tisha BAv, provided the intention should be for prayers, not for study which is like Torah study.
Reciting psukim from the Torah by heart is forbidden, with the exception of several chapters mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 49). The Mishna Brura (49:6) records the Chavos Yair’s ruling that Tehilim may be recited by heart because it is recited as a means of arousing Heavenly mercy through prayer and not as Torah study.