Torah scroll 300.
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
The Talmud says that when a person comes home from work in the evening, before
he sits down to dinner he should read the Bible or study the Oral Law (B.T.
Brachot 4a). Indeed, nighttime is considered the perfect time to study, and
whoever does not complete his daily study routine during daylight hours should
catch up at night (Shulhan Aruch OH 238:1-2).
According to kabbalistic
tradition, however, weeknights are not a recommended time for reading the Bible.
The exception is Thursday night, when the mercies of Shabbat begin to be
awakened. But does this apply to the entire Bible? Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman
of Buczacz (1771-1840), in his commentary to the Shulhan Aruch suggested that
Psalms should be an exception to this rule.
He cited the Midrash which
describes King David as requesting from the Almighty that his Psalms be granted
unique status. People should not read Psalms as they read other works of
literature. Rather, Psalms should be read and pondered. Moreover, readers of
Psalms should receive reward as if they were studying difficult passages of the
Oral Law that deal with ritual purity (Midrash Shoher Tov 1:8).
Avraham David explained: given King David’s request that reading Psalms be
considered like studying the Oral Tradition, Psalms should be considered part of
the Oral Law, not part of the Bible. Hence, Psalms can be read at night! This
position, however, was not accepted by all. Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapiro of
Munkacs (1871-1937) was aware of what Rabbi Avraham David of Buczacz had
written, but he saw the extrapolation from the Midrash as
Noting common practice, the Munkatcher Rebbe wrote: “On the
contrary, those who are careful have the custom to be stringent about this. And
we never heard of people saying Psalms (even as a congregation, where merit
abounds) in the first half of the night.”
Besides the question of
nighttime Psalms, the timing of morning Psalms was also discussed in the hasidic
milieu. Traditionally, reading Psalms is considered a salve for many woes. The
Polish authority Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (Levush, 1530-1621) noted the custom to
recite Psalms in the morning before the prayer service. He explained that the
Psalms were designed to chase away spiritual forces that might disrupt our
Thus it was imperative to read Psalms before the service. Rabbi
Mordechai Yaffe went further, noting that it was a mistaken custom to read
Psalms after the prayers: “What does it help them to chase away [spiritual
disruptions] after people have prayed, for the prosecutors – Heaven forfend –
have already harmed the prayers. It appears to me that chasing away afterwards
does not help at all.”
In a work associated with the nascent hassidic
movement, Tzava’at Harivash, printed in 1794, a contrary position was advocated:
“A person should not say a lot of Psalms before prayer, in order not to weaken
his body such that he will not be able afterwards to say the main [prayers] with
great devotion, meaning the obligation of the day, that is the introductory
prayers, Shema and Amida.”
Psalms are a welcome but not required addition
to the service. Out of concern, lest a person expend all his energy on this
optional addition, Tzava’at Harivash advocated beginning with the obligatory
prayers. If a person had the strength to focus on additional prayers, Psalms
should be appended to the end of the service.
A middle position was
expressed in the earliest hassidic work, Toldot Ya’acov Yosef, written by Rabbi
Ya’acov Yosef of Polnnoye (1695-1782) and printed in 1780. In addition to
hassidic explanations, the author records statements that he heard from the
Besht (ca.1700-1760); in Toldot Ya’acov Yosef the phrase “I heard from my
teacher, of blessed memory” appears 249 times. One of those instances relates to
the time for morning Psalms.
The Toldot acknowledged that there are
different types of people: There are those who need a lift before the prayer
service so that they will be in a state of mind to pray without intruding
thoughts. Such people should recite Psalms or study Torah before the prayer
service. There are other people who are not able to focus on prayers if they
have already spent time reciting Psalms or studying Torah. The Toldot recognized
both options as legitimate, with the proviso that the intent is for the sake of
Heaven, meaning that they strive to focus in prayer.
The writer is on the
faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.
He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.