The Psalms of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scripture) are among the most beautiful, inspiring, emotional pieces poetry ever written. Many are songs praising the majesty, magnificence, and redemptive powers of God. Others are elegies on the themes of suffering, confession, and pleas for pardon. Yet others sing of ethics and the how one ought to live, serving a didactic function for the listener. While the Psalms are not the only songs preserved in the Tanakh (for example, Shirat HaYam in Exodus 15 and Deborah's Song in Judges 5) the Psalms have proven their power to move people time and time again over the ages and in a myriad translations. Perhaps this is because unlike the rest of the Tanakh, in which God commands and reaches toward humanity to teach, prod, reward, punish, and generally mold to God's ways, the Tehillim come entirely from the human heart and reach toward God, glorifying, pleading, expressing gratitude, praising. While the rest of the Tanakh speaks of the experience of a nation in its covenant with God, the Psalms speak from the depths of individual souls searching for the Divine in their individual lives. Commenting on Psalm 18, Midrash Tehillim tells us: "Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Judah: Whatever David says in his Book [of Psalms] pertains to himself, to all Israel, and to all times." Herein lies the magic of the Psalms: they speak to the individual soul, to an entire people, indeed to all souls in all times and places. While time and situation may change, human nature does not and the Psalms speak from and to the essence of being human and in search of God in our lives.

The Psalms constitute the first prayerbook of Israel. They were sung by the Levites in the Temples in Jerusalem when the sacrifices were made. They continue to figure prominently in Jewish prayer services, especially Pesukei d'Zimra (preliminary morning prayers) and Kabbalat Shabbat (prelude to the Friday evening Ma'ariv service). They are contained in the third section of the Tanakh, which is composed of Torah, Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). However, they are often published in pocket-sized books by themselves, which one can carry with one throughout the day. Anatoly Sharansky reported that such a book was instrumental in sustaining his spirit throughout nine years of horrific suffering and deprivation in Soviet prisons and labor camps when he was incarcerated as a Prisoner of Zion. The Psalms gave him strength, courage, and hope. When he finally arrived in Israel, he brought his copy of the Book of Psalms to the Kotel (the Western Wall), a tangible symbol of the Land of Israel.

Sefer Tehillim contains 150 psalms. Tradition attributes Sefer Tehillim to King David, whose power of song and facility with both musical instruments and words is legendary. However, we know that not all the psalms were composed by David. The Talmud (Baba Batra 14b) acknowledges composite authorship, stating it this way: "David wrote the Book of Psalms, including in it the work of the elders Adam, Malchitzedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korach." Torah commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and David Kimchi all agree that not all the psalms preserved for us in Sefer Tehillim were completed during the reign of David; some are connected with the Babylonian Exile. On the basis of superscriptions (headings given in the psalms themselves), we might attribute 73 to David, 1 to Moses, 2 to Solomon, 12 to Asaph, 1 to Heman, and 1 to Ethan. Printed copies of the Hebrew Bible often divide the Book of Psalms into five books, each ending with its own short hymn expressing praise of God which are not integral to the composition of the psalm they succeed:

(1) Psalm 141:14 Blessed is the Lord, God of Israel, from eternity to eternity. Amen and Amen.

(2) Psalm 72:18-20: Blessed is the Lord God, God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things; Blessed is God's glorious Name forever; God's glory fills the entire world. Amen and Amen.

(3) Psalm 89:53: Blessed is the Lord forever. Amen and Amen.

(4) Psalm 106:48: Blessed is the Lord, God of Israel, from eternity to eternity. Let all the people say, "Amen." Hallelujah.

(5) We might suggest that the last verse of Psalm 150 serves as the final short hymn of praise ("Let all the breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah.") but is more likely that the entire Psalm 150 serves as a doxology for the Book of Psalms. Why were the psalms divided into five "books" when the entire collection is not especially long, requiring such a division for any practical reason? Midrash Tehillim records that David gave five books of psalms, corresponding to the Five Books of the Torah given to Moses. It would appear that the divisions are part of a large parallel being drawn between David and Moses. We are told in II Chronicles 23:18 that the priest Jehoiada put the officers of the Temple in charge of the Levitical priests whom David had assigned over the Temple precinct to make offerings as was prescribed by Moses and accompanied by the songs written by David. In II Chronicles 8:12-16 we read that Solomon established the liturgical traditions of the Temple according to the plan devised by his father David in accordance with the commandment of Moses. The Talmudic tractate Pirke Avot records the lineage of the greatest Sages through Hillel (a direct descendant of King David) all the way back to Moses, through a combination of genealogy and discipleship. There is further evidence that the Sefer Tehillim was divided not only into "books" corresponding to those of the Torah, but into sidrot (portions) as is the Torah, but we know of no institution of public reading.

Scholars tells us that the body of the Book of Psalms was most likely edited during the time of the Scribes who succeeded Ezra and Nehemiah. Scholars identify four groups which evidence a unity: (1) The Songs of Ascents 120-134; the Korahite Psalms 42-49 and 84-88 (the sons of Korach were descendants of the Levite clan that rebelled again Moses and Aaron in the wilderness); The Asaph Psalms 73-83 (Asaph was a Levite whom David appointed to be his choirmaster); and Hallel Psalms 61-68.

The connection between liturgy and instrumental music in ancient Israel is reflected in the psalms, which mention many instruments and which, themselves were sung to the accompaniment of a variety of stringed instruments. Tradition holds that David, a great lover and composer of music himself, instituted guilds of singers and musicians in Jerusalem when he made the city his capital and brought the Ark of the Covenant to rest there. The Tanakh recounts that three individuals, in particular, were assigned to organize and lead various aspects of the musical liturgy: Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, who came from the Levitical clans of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari, respectively.

Today, the psalms constitute important components of Jewish liturgy and are recited additionally for healing. By healing, we do NOT mean curing. Healing is the spiritual acceptance and understanding of one's condition, and the desire to derive strength from God to cope with the reality of one's life and rise above the vissitudes to find peace. In particular, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav used Psalms 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150 which are said to correspond to Ten Attributes of God delineated in the Kabbalah. Others have added Psalms 6. 13, 20, 22, 23, 30, 38, 51, 86, 88, 91, 102, 103, 130, 142, and 143. Another custom is to spell out a person's name by reciting the verses from the alphabetic acrostic Psalm 119 which correspond to the letters of the name, followed by "Kra Satan" which means that the heavenly decree of illness which is carried out by Satan will be torn up. The tradition of "Kra Satan" goes farther than I can imagine going, but the idea of spelling out people's names with verses from the Psalms is a charming one which can be employed not only for healing, but in celebration of a simchah (baby's covenant ceremony, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, wedding, anniversary) as well.

More than any other biblical literature, the Psalm reflects the beauty and music of our relationship with God.

Praise God in the Sanctuary;
praise God in God's firmament of power.
Praise God for mighty acts;
praise God as befits God's exceeding greatness.
Praise God with blasts of the shofar;
praise God with lyre and harp.
Praise God with timbrel and dance;
praise God with lute and pipe.
Praise God with resounding cymbals;
praise God with clashing cymbals.
Let all that breathes praise the Lord, Hallelujah! (Psalm 150)