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Adopting the Psalms

When—and how—did these readings become part of the traditional Jewish liturgy?

A.J. Berkovitz
August 01, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

Amram bar Sheshna received a letter sometime during the ninth century CE. As the head of a prestigious rabbinical academy in Babylonia, he regularly corresponded with Jews far and near about a host of complicated legal and spiritual matters. But this missive contained a simple—and vexing—question: What is the order of prayer?

Amram penned a lengthy response. And, in doing so, he wrote the first-ever Jewish prayer book. Known as Seder Rav Amram Gaon (the Order of Rabbi Amram Gaon), the text influenced subsequent collections of Jewish prayer and rests as the cornerstone of most contemporary versions of organized Jewish worship. Those who have rustled through the pages of the prayer book stationed at a synagogue’s pew will find much of Amram’s text familiar: the Shema, the Eighteen Blessings (Amidah), a Torah reading ceremony, and seemingly countless verses from the Book of Psalms.

Yet hindsight blurs the truth of history. Amram’s prayer book anthologizes over 900 years of tradition and innovation in Jewish liturgy. The Eighteen Blessings developed in tandem with rabbinic Judaism; Jews recited the daily Shema perhaps somewhat before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE; and a Torah reading service belonged to the earliest of synagogues, but the various rituals and readings that frame it came much later. Consider collecting into one volume a selection of poems from Shakespeare to Yeats. And now double the scope of time you cover.

What about the numerous passages from the Book of Psalms? When did they become a regular part of Jewish liturgy? The biblical book seems primed for prayer. And the sounds of some Psalms filled the atmosphere of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during its sacrificial service. One might think they continued to echo in the halls of the synagogue right up until the days of Amram bar Sheshna. Yet our ancient evidence suggests that catastrophe had consequences. When the Romans razed the Second Temple, they silenced the songs the Levitical choir had sung—at least for a while. Even the Levites’ daily Psalm only became a staple of traditional morning prayer after the days of Maimonides.

The rabbinic Judaism that began to rise as the Temple fell—the type of Judaism responsible for the prayer book—did not initially include Psalms as a regular feature of prayer. The Tannaim (circa 70-200 CE), the earliest rabbis whose names and voices appear in the Mishna, the founding document of rabbinic Judaism, legislate at length about the proper modes, moods, and manners for reciting the Shema, reading the Torah, and formulating the Eighteen Blessings. But they are largely silent about singing Psalms within the framework of organized prayer—with two clear exceptions, both of which possibly sprout from popular practices that preceded the advent of the rabbis and both of which include Psalms in prayer on a less-than-daily basis. They are the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), said during the Passover Seder and on certain festivals, and the various Psalms that accompany a day during which the community declares a fast.

The Psalms first became part of daily rabbinic liturgy between the years 200 and 400 CE, and only in an ad hoc manner. The rabbis whose voices and names the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds preserve—the Amoraim—occasionally peppered their own prayers with Psalms. When Rabbi Yohanan (circa 180-270) said the Eighteen Blessings, he would begin with Psalm 51:17 (“O Lord open up my lips and my mouth will tell over your praises”) and conclude with Psalm 19:15 (“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and redeemer”). Rabbi Yudan (circa fourth century), by contrast, said both verses before his Eighteen Blessings.

Flexible customs such as these sedimented into legislated facts over time. The editors of the Babylonian Talmud, who labored after the Amoraim but before Amram, describe Rabbi Yohanan’s habit as something everyone must do, something “established by the Sages,” something that ought not be challenged. The Psalms had arrived. These few hundred years also saw numerous other chapters and verses from the Psalms enter Jewish liturgy.

Why? What happened between 200 and 400 that encouraged Psalms to trickle into organized prayer, and between 400 and 800 that unleashed a torrent of psalmody? The full story appears in my recently published book, A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity. But its outlines may be sketched here.

Myriad intersecting causes compelled Psalms to emerge as a staple of Jewish prayer. The first set hails from within the rabbinic movement. We already saw how the private custom of a few rabbis can slowly morph into a mandate for the many. In a similar vein, rhetoric sometimes transforms into reality. The early rabbis did not include Psalms in Jewish liturgy; but they did regularly cite from the Book of Psalms to establish, justify, and promote their own liturgical novelty: the Eighteen Blessings. Over time, the very words used to underpin Jewish liturgy became part of it. A process hastened toward the end of the Amoraic era, when about one-third of all surviving rabbinic sermons began with a verse from the Psalms.

A second set of causes involves the larger world of ancient Judaism that the rabbis inhabited. Rabbinic Jews included Psalms as a regular part of organized prayer at the same time that Jews in general reimagined the synagogue’s architecture and purpose. We often think of the synagogue, or at least its sanctuary, as a place of prayer. But the most ancient of synagogues tended to contain one room that functioned as an all-purpose space for the community. The synagogues constructed or renovated as psalmody exploded, however, began to emphasize its role as a place dedicated to prayer. For example, synagogues begin to carve out room for a permanent ark. And many also host mosaic floors with images that hark back to the Jerusalem Temple: animal sacrifices, incense pans, and other ritual objects. Ultimately, the analogy between Temple and synagogue, which simmered beneath the surface of Jewish thought in an earlier era, came to a full boil in this period. And liturgical psalmody, the hallmark of worship in the Temple, rose like steam along with it.

Finally, a third set of causes relates to religious competition. Even in this era both Jews and Christians vied for hearts and minds. The earliest Christians seldom used Psalms for organized religious worship. But by the fourth century, psalmody became synonymous with liturgy. Monasticism, which emerged during those years, encouraged its adherents to read the entire book every day. And other Christians encountered a rotating set of Psalms during both their morning and evening liturgies. If we may believe Jerome (circa 342-420), that father of the early Church who lived in Bethlehem and occasionally conversed with rabbis, the Palestinian countryside reverberated with the sounds of Psalms: “All the rustic villages are silent except for psalmody. Wherever you turn, the cultivator holding a plow handle sings Hallelujah, the sweating reaper distracts himself with Psalms, and the vineyard worker trimming grapes with a pruning knife chants something from David.”

Amram, who lived about 400 years after Jerome, included some new and innovative material when he sat down to write the first prayer book. But as its core, he compiled what he found to be traditional: the Shema, the Eighteen Blessings, a Torah service. And, by then, numerous passages from the Book of Psalms.

A.J. Berkovitz is a historian of ancient Jews and Judaism. His first book is A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity, which received a Jordan Schnitzer first book publication award from the Association for Jewish Studies. He currently teaches at HUC-JIR/NY.