With all our hearts
The compelling call of Tehillim in every age
By: Paula Levin
“What is the power of Tehillim, that it has captured hearts across the world?”
Shavuot commemorates the most significant event in human history, the moment G-d Himself told us why He created this world, and how He wants us to live. At Mount Sinai, we received the Torah, which through millennia of exile has been our ‘portable homeland’. And yet, while most Jews have heard about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach, Shavuot is virtually unknown amongst more secular Jewry – not even as the cheesecake holiday! But on Shavuot 837 BCE, King David passed away and left a legacy that even the most unaffiliated Jews (and indeed billions of people of all faiths and none) are aware of: his Sefer Tehillim, or Book of Psalms. The Tehillim are part of the Tanach (the five books of Moses, writings of the Prophets, and other Divinely inspired writings), and consist of five books with 150 Psalms. Midrash Shocher Tov states: “Moshe gave Israel the five books of the Torah, and David gave Israel the five books of Tehillim.” Tehillim is a part of Torah that speaks to everyone. The question is why?
David was a highly successful king who reigned over Israel for 40 years. It was he who conquered the very last piece of Canaan 440 years after Joshua’s initial conquests. This Jebusite stronghold had been impenetrable until David’s reign, and with its integration into Eretz Yisrael, Jewish settlement of the land was complete. The city, now called Jerusalem, became the political and spiritual capital, and centre of Jewish life and aspiration to this very day. But while Jerusalem and Israel have exchanged hands countless times over the millennia, David’s heartfelt prayers to Hashem have proved eternal. What is the power of Tehillim, that it has captured hearts across the world?
“Tehillim is as much a part of Judaism as Shabbos or kosher,” says Israel-based Torah teacher Leah Friedman. “But why is this? We have so many incredible writings – why this book of all seforim? I think it’s because no matter who you are, and what you’re going through, you can find yourself in the words of Tehillim. Dovid Hamelech channelled his every emotion to connecting with Hashem, from hope and despair, to pain and anguish, to fear and joy. Every circumstance you find yourself in is in Tehillim. We may not be fighting physical battles, but who isn’t fighting some kind of battle in themselves or in their lives? For me, Tehillim is my daily vitamin.”
Tehillim 34 starts with the words “Of David, when he disguised his sanity before Avimelech, after which he drove him out and he left.” This was written when David was on the run for his life, hunted by King Saul who thought he wanted to usurp the throne. Having fled to a Philistine city for refuge, he feigned madness so that he would not be turned in to the authorities. Despite this terrifying and degrading experience, his very next words are. “I will bless the L-rd at all times; His praise is always in my mouth…Declare the greatness of the L-rd with me, and let us exalt His name together.”
But this ability to trust in G-d and be filled with hope and gratitude in the most trying of circumstances was not a once off moment. David’s life was filled with challenges – he lost his best friend Yonatan to battle, and his first baby with Batsheva died soon after birth. His son Avshalom tried to overthrow him in the most brutal way, and another son, Amnon, violated his sister Tamar and was then executed by another son. ‘Tzorres’ on another level! Yet each challenge, battle, and tragedy is channelled into unconditional love of G-d, hope for His imminent rescue, and faith in the justness of his circumstances!
Six Tehillim (16, 56-60) have the title ‘Michtam’. Rashi suggests that the word Michtam refers to a valuable item that a person carries with him at all times, and these Tehillim contain concepts or ideas that are pertinent at every stage and setting throughout life. They are essential to our spiritual awareness. Leah teaches that in his book on Tehillim, Harav Gamliel Rabinovich points out that what is remarkable about David’s Tehillim is his ability to sing praises to Hashem in times of Hashem’s judgement and times of mercy. When we recite the songs and praises of Tehillim, we can come to the same conclusion that King David had: that everything is for the best. This transforms judgements into mercy, giving us the merit to be redeemed and saved.
David was renowned for his humility. In Shachris we include a description from Divrei Hayamim (chronicles) describing him addressing an adoring nation in full royal regalia, at the height of his powers, with multiple military victories under his belt. “And David blessed G-d in the eyes of the people saying, ‘Yours, O L-rd, are the greatness, and the might, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and on the earth [is Yours]; Yours is the kingdom and [You are He] Who is exalted over everything as the Leader.” Can this astounding capacity for humility fail to touch the very core of our being?
David’s relationship with G-d always serves as a model of walking humbly with Hashem for all people. His greatest spiritual achievement was his persistent yearning for closeness to Hashem, and in his Sefer Tehillim, we find his life’s spiritual achievements. The Shelah Hakadosh says, “One who longs to connect with Hashem and His praises should connect to Sefer Tehillim.”
Of course, many people who recite Tehillim (myself included) may not even be aware of the specific context in which they were composed, and often their translation doesn’t shed much light on their meaning either! But even this is no barrier. Jewish people, from the most learned to the most simple, have turned to Tehillim in times of distress for generations and have seen countless miracles as a result.
Justin and Lara Baskin feel there is no other explanation for their three-year-old daughter’s survival. “Nechama was born perfectly healthy but 24 hours later, I felt something wasn’t right and we called the doctor. She came to check on her and whisked her away. It was erev Shabbos, during Covid, so I phoned Justin and told him she had been taken to ICU, and then we went into Shabbos,” says Lara. “I was on a high over Shabbos after naming her in shul,” says Justin. “I knew she wasn’t well but I didn’t think it was anything serious. After Shabbos, Lara called and told me it was meningitis, and she might not make it. For three weeks the whole community said Tehillim, and we were blown away by people around the world saying Tehillim round the clock. When she was discharged, the doctor told us that she was too young to tell if there was damage to her brain and we must take her for regular check-ups to see she was reaching her milestones,” Justin explains. “Meningitis in babies usually has tragic consequences, they could become blind, deaf, disabled, or even die,” adds Lara. “Our paediatrician said it must be thanks to the Tehillim that Nechama is healthy, thank G-d, and thriving. She crawled and walked early and is the brightest, sweetest little girl. We are so grateful for the Tehillim said on her behalf.”
Sometimes, however, the results are not what we hoped for. “A few years ago, a friend’s baby was very ill,” says Chani Ress. “I went to a gathering to say Tehillim with other women, and it was packed. You could barely get in the door. The feeling in that apartment was incredible and holy. Together we stormed the heavens. But Hashem had a different plan. I don’t believe that those Tehillim were wasted. In fact, I think that my friend’s baby fulfilled part of her purpose by bringing so many thousands of people together in complete trust in Hashem and, to this day, I am inspired to say Tehillim because I remember so clearly the power I felt in that room. That’s what prompted me to ask on Facebook if anyone had names for Tehillim that a friend of mine who was getting married could say at her chuppah. Someone in Atlanta, Georgia messaged me privately and told me she was in her first trimester of pregnancy and had been given a poor prognosis. She gave me her name. On the wedding day, she called me up and told me the doctors had given her the all-clear, and that the baby was healthy. I asked her when she had received that news and it was at the same time this kallah was davening for her! I imagine Tehillim pulls light down from the sky.”
Can Tehillim really “change G-d’s mind”, effect miracles, and change destinies? The Rambam cautions us about using Tehillim, or any verses from the Torah as an incantation – condemning those who “make the words of the Torah into a cure for the body when they are really a cure for the soul”. Yet in times of trouble, poverty, disease, or physical danger, in many shuls over centuries, Jews have recited Tehillim. Sefer ha-Chinuch states that this practice is designed not to achieve favour, as such, but rather to inculcate belief in Divine Providence into one’s consciousness.
Sincere prayer – turning to Hashem, with simple faith and our whole heart, using our faculties of thought, speech, and action – can indeed effect salvation. In Chassidic thought, prayer is a vehicle for drawing down blessings that were apportioned on Rosh Hashanah, but whose flow has been impeded for some or other reason. Water may abundantly flow from a spring, or pour down from the heavens, but we need a vessel to be able to collect it for our purposes. This is what it means to bless Hashem – “Borchi nafshi es Hashem” – as David says in so many Tehillim. The word baruch (blessing) shares the same root as breicha – a cistern. Blessing Hashem is how we draw down blessing so that it is revealed in our lives. This is true for blessings that are ‘owed’ to us or merited in some way but which are blocked for some reason – sometimes through our behaviour. But what about blessings we don’t deserve at all, and which have not been signed and sealed?
Mysteriously, prayer even has the power to change G-d’s will. When Korach stages his rebellion against Moshe, Moshe davens for Hashem not to listen to Korach’s prayer. Why would this be necessary – surely Korach’s prayers would be ineffective anyway? Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm teaches that we see from here that we should never underestimate the power of prayer, no matter who it comes from! Even the sincere prayer of an evil person has the power to change reality! This is also proven by the fact that the mother of the High Priest would take gifts of food to cities of refuge where murderers were compelled to live until the death of the Kohen Gadol, when they were allowed to go back to their homes. These mothers brought these gifts, asking these convicted murderers not to pray for the death of their sons. We see from this that the prayer of a murderer can be more effective than that of the Kohen Gadol!
When first written, many of the Tehillim were set to music and sung in the Temple and were considered too holy for the ordinary person to recite – except for the section called Hallel – the beautiful praises we sing at the seder, on Yom Tov, Chanukah, and on Rosh Chodesh. When the siddur was composed by the Men of the Great Assembly, the Tehillim were incorporated into our daily prayers, replacing the sacrifices of old. Since then, Tehillim have taken pride of place in Jewish life. So don’t waste another moment, download a Tehillim app to use while standing in queues (Chabad South Africa has a great one called Tehillim), get one with a beautiful, intelligible translation and commentary (Chabad SA has produced a wonderful edition which was distributed free to every Jewish child in SA) and start talking to Hashem in the magnificent words of Israel’s poet laureate, David Melech Yisrael, chai vekayam.
The general custom is to refrain from reading Tehillim at night, from sundown until halachic midnight (chatzos), except for certain times, such as Leil Shabbos and Leil Yom Tov.
One may say Tehillim before chatzos if they’re said to benefit another person.
If it’s not Shabbat or Yom Tov, combine Tehillim with the power of tzedaka!
Join Tehillim Central, Joburg’s rolling Tehillim group, where you can submit names of people who need prayers – or any other Tehillim group. Join here: https://chat.whatsapp.com/DRsE61KuU3F8Qk0lak7YjS