Steinsaltz’s Book of Psalms

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s brief English introduction sets the tone for the entire book. In just four pages, he explains why the Psalms hold a universal appeal for mankind.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz meets with two students in his office (photo credit: THE STEINSALTZ CENTER)
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz meets with two students in his office
Compact, elegant and eminently readable, the Steinsaltz Tehillim (Psalms) is the latest eponymous addition to the English-language library of Jewish classics published by the Steinsaltz Center and Koren Publishers. Smaller in size than volumes of the Steinsaltz Hebrew-English Talmud and Humash, the Steinsaltz Tehillim is light enough to be carried easily, but large enough to be read comfortably. While aficionados of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s previous books will undoubtedly snap up this book, will it appeal to the average reader who may not be familiar with Rabbi Steinsaltz’s works but is interested in understanding the Psalms on a basic level?
In a word, yes. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s brief English introduction sets the tone for the entire book. In just four pages, he explains why the Psalms hold a universal appeal for mankind. Throughout much of the Bible, he notes, the relationship between man and the Divine proceeds from God to man. Psalms, he writes, is unique among the books of the Bible, in that the relationship flows from man to God. The Hebrew title of the book “Tehillim” means “praises,” he explains – yet the Psalms are much more than a collection of praises of God. Ultimately, it is a type of conversation and dialogue between man and God.
Tehillim contain almost any thought or feeling a person might wish to express to God, writes Rabbi Steinsaltz. And while the chapters of Psalms differ from one another in structure, style, content, and length, the Psalms all share the characteristic of truth and honesty. There is no attempt to gloss over difficulties. Rabbi Steinsaltz notes that while most of the Psalms are attributed to David, the rabbis of the Talmud attributed various psalms to others as well.
Though Rabbi Steinsaltz remains unable to speak due to the aftereffects of a stroke suffered more than two years ago, he remains deeply involved in his life’s work. He manages to communicate in non-verbal ways and remains an integral part of the editing process for every volume being released by the Steinsaltz Center. The English translation and commentary included in the Steinsaltz Tehillim is based on an oral commentary that Rabbi Steinsaltz gave specifically for this book several years ago. It was then transcribed and edited.
As with other Koren translations, the English appears on the right side of the page, and the Hebrew text of the Psalms, in Koren’s lovely typeface, appears on the left side. It may seem counterintuitive, but it works well. Each Psalm includes a brief introduction of one or two sentences summarizing its content. The English commentary, based on Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Hebrew commentary, appears below the Hebrew text and English translation. The literal translation of the verses appears in boldface in the commentary section, while brief explanations and comments are set in a standard weight. The translation, explanations, and summaries are clearly and concisely written, and do not overburden the reader with unnecessarily weighty details.
Unlike other Steinsaltz English works, there are no full-color images, maps or diagrams. Clearly, the publishers wanted to produce a compact book, easily carried, rather than a weighty coffee-book tome, and in this case, less is indeed more.
The English translation is modern, clear and readable, and the commentary frequently serves to clarify difficult concepts and words in the Psalms. The word “Selah,” for example, which frequently appears in the Psalms, explains Steinsaltz, is frequently translated as “forever, eternally.” Yet, he adds, there are others who believe that the term is a musical notation signifying a type of crescendo, or an instruction to prolong the recitation of the preceding word in order to maintain the cadence of the psalm.
Other explanations serve to illustrate different meanings and interpretations of groups of Psalms. For example, in the introduction to the “Songs of Ascents,” 15 psalms (120-134) that begin with those words, a brief introduction explains possible meanings of the ‘ascents’ referred to by the Psalmist. One point of view holds that these correspond to the fifteen stairs used to ascend from the outer courtyard of the Temple to the inner courtyard, where the Levites would stand with their instruments and sing these Psalms. According to another interpretation, ‘ascents’ refers to the journeys to the Temple for the three pilgrimage festivals. Still another opinion is that the term refers to a specific kind of musical style used for the singing of these Psalms.
Echoing the supplicatory nature of the Psalms, the Steinsaltz Tehillim contains a section of special prayers in Hebrew and English, including the traveler’s prayer, the prayers recited before bedtime, prayers for recovery from illness, prayers recited at the cemetery, as well as a selection of Psalms appropriate for recitation at the graveside, including a useful listing of Psalm 119, an alphabetical acrostic which contains eight verses allotted to each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and which is frequently used to recite Psalms matching the letters of the Hebrew name of the deceased.
Most people, one would suspect, will open a book of Psalms during a special time of need, or occasion of thanksgiving. For these circumstances, the Steinsaltz Tehillim is especially helpful, as a one-page index entitled ‘Psalms for Special Occasions’ is provided, which lists psalms appropriate for specific times, including illness, thanksgiving, guidance, success and many more. Also useful is a separate listing of Psalms by theme, including Zion and Jerusalem, songs of praise, requests for healing, faith and trust in God, reflection and contemplation, and others. Rounding out the index is a list of Psalms by chapter, with a subject heading for each.
While the Psalms can be read in any order and at any time, some have a custom of dividing the book into thirty portions and completing the reading each month. Though the Steinsaltz Tehillim lists and divides the Psalms according to this method, it omits any direct explanation of the practice, and the heading at the top of each page indicating which Psalms are said on the specific day of the month, may serve to confuse readers who are not aware of this practice.
“No book of the Bible,” writes Rabbi Steinsaltz in the introduction, “has evoked more tears or more words of gratitude and joy.” The Steinsaltz Tehillim, with its modest size, spare commentary, and elegant layout, succeeds in enabling the casual reader to gain an understanding and appreciation of the significance and meaning of the Psalms, and may whet the appetites of those who are interested in a deeper understanding of the Psalms to investigate additional books and commentaries. Most important, though, it will enable those who seek solace through the words of the Psalms to find comfort, meaning, and consolation.