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Singing the Psalms

            The part-time musical director/rabbinical student at our synagogue decided to do something different for our monthly musical services this year. Usually we would have a Shabbat band, made up of professionals and congregants, set up next to the Cantor, and making the service feel like a rousing concert. But this year, the sanctuary has been set up in concentric circles, with the congregant singers and musicians in the middle and the rest of the congregation spreading out from there. It’s more intimate without the professional musicians, and there’s more of a focus on meditation and silence between the songs. And, maybe most important, the new songs we learned for these services were from the Book of Psalms, excerpted and used like chants, with lots of repetition and rhythm.

            It’s been an interesting experiment, especially for me as one of the singers, because it’s made me feel more like a participant in making the music, instead of an observer on the sidelines. And it feels really good to sing again, even though I’m still struggling with my breathing. It feels good to be a part of a whole group making music together.

“But we want to sing too!”

            The Psalms have always been a part of the traditional Friday night service, but we haven’t always sung them at my synagogue, and certainly not all six of the Psalms that are included in the prayer book as part of Kabbalat Shabbat (the Welcoming of Shabbat, or the warm up before the official evening service).

We studied the book of Psalms a few years ago in Bible Study, but I don’t think I paid a lot of attention. I was probably still in graduate school for social work at that point, and struggling to pay attention to anything other than school, but I do remember the Rabbi saying that many of the Psalms are “macaroni songs,” or songs that can easily be sung to different tunes, and that opens them up to many different musical interpretations that can give a whole new energy to familiar words.

“I like macaroni!”

            The Psalms, as opposed to most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, were created to be sung by the Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the Psalms even tell you which instruments you should play to accompany them. The Greek word Psalmos means “a song accompanied by a stringed instrument,” and the Hebrew word for the Book of Psalms is Tehillim, which means “songs of praise,” though not all of the Psalms are about praising God. There are one hundred and fifty individual Psalms, and some are communal laments, and others express individual grief and anger at God, and some are thanksgiving and praise songs, but the value of the Psalms is that they give voice to a range of emotions, like joy and fear and rage and gratitude, and they appear in daily and weekly Jewish services, and holidays and funerals, because they can help us to express things when we have no words of our own.

            The Psalms used for Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night are Psalms 95-99, plus Psalm 29, and there are a few versions that I really like:

            (From Psalm 96) Shiru L’Adonai by Nigunim Ensemble

       (Also from Psalm 96) Ya'aloz Sadai by Nava Tehilla
       (From Psalm 98) Zamru L’Adonai by Nava Tehila -

            One of the Psalms we sang all the time, without realizing it was a Psalm, was By the Waters of Babylon. I think we first learned it to sing at a school concert, or maybe at camp, but I knew an English version and a Hebrew version and only in my research for this essay did I realize it came from Psalm 137: By the waters of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we remembered Zion. It’s a communal lament at the loss of home after the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Israelites were exiled to Babylon. We always sang the first lines, but the Psalm goes on to another saying we learned in school: If I forget you, or Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. It always sounded so strange to me, especially on it’s own, because I was clearly an American kid, not longing to go anywhere else, and yet I was supposed to feel so guilty at not longing for Jerusalem that I would lose my right hand. And I’m a righty, so it bothered me a lot. The Psalm also includes a revenge fantasy against the enemies of Israel, and we can read it as literal – that we want to kill those who wronged us or took things from us, or we can read it as a moment of catharsis, to get our yayas out, that is not meant to be acted upon. I guess we get to choose how we read it, like a choose-your-own-adventure story. But the song I learned as a child focused only on the grief, not on the guilt or the desire for revenge, and I wonder if we excerpt these Psalms as a way to avoid the more complicated parts of who we are and how we feel, or the more complicated parts of peoplehood, so that we can just focus on the joy for a little while.

            But the Psalms are everywhere, not just in the Friday night service, and I never really noticed them before. I don’t think we studied the book of Psalms, either in elementary school or high school, probably because we were saying them daily in our prayers and our teachers assumed we knew them and understood them already. But we didn’t. Or, I didn’t.

               Psalm 137- Waters of Babylon by Don McLean -
               Psalm 137 - By the Waters of Babylon by Joey Weisenberg

            The Psalms can also be downright hopeless at times, like Psalm 90 – We spend our years like a sigh; the span of our life is seventy years, or given the strength, eighty years, but the best of them are trouble and sorrow, they pass by speedily and we are in darkness. It’s depressing, sure, but it’s also a chance to acknowledge the dark places in our lives, and in our world, and show them to God, and ask God to care that we are suffering, and, most importantly, to give ourselves permission to care that we are suffering.

“Hey! I suffer too!”

            The most famous Psalm I know of is Psalm 23 – The lord is my shepherd I shall not want. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. I like to think of it as an aspirational Psalm, a Psalm describing how we want life to be and to feel. It’s phrased in the present tense, as if all of these good things are already here, and I am already comforted, and I already feel safe, and will only experience goodness and love from now on. But I think the idea of a prayer like this is to help us hold onto a vision of a better world, even when that’s not how things are for us right now, which is why it’s often said at funerals. I found a really beautiful version of this one, in Hebrew and English, by one of the Jewish-male-acapella groups who usually sing silly holiday songs to the tunes of popular American music.

            Psalm 23 – Gam Ki Elech – Six13 –

            But along with the pain, the Psalms can also teach us how to celebrate when things go right, and how to express our gratitude for answered prayers – not because we’re ungrateful creeps who wouldn’t thinking to say thank you on our own, but because celebration and expressing gratitude is just as cathartic as expressing doubt and pain and anger. These Psalms allow us to feel like what we feel and say and do in the world has inherent value, not just to us but to God, who is our clearest personification of the world at large.

            The last of the one hundred and fifty Psalms is Hallelujah and it’s all about praising God, here and there, for his acts and greatness, with horn and lyre and dance and lute and pipe and cymbals. There are a lot of beautiful versions of this one, but I picked two of my favorites.

            Psalm 150 – Halleluya – by Nava Tehilla -
            Psalm 150 – Halleluya – by Nigunim Ensemble -

            Some people learn best through reading, or doing; I learn best through music. So getting the chance to hear the Psalms, and feel them, through music, finally made them seem like more than just words on a page. My hope is that even when we go back to the rowdier version of musical services at my synagogue next year, we can keep the new takes on the Psalms, and add more as they are created, because each new variation seems to capture another feeling that I didn’t notice before, adding more joy and insight and space without ever taking anything away.

Some more songs I love that are taken from the Psalms:

Psalm 92 - Tov L'Hodot by Joey Weisenberg -

Psalm 118 – Min Hameitzar by Deborah Sacks Mintz –

Psalm 121 – Esa Einai by Nefesh Mountain –

“Can you please turn the music down? We’re trying to sleep over here.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

33 responses »

  1. Thank you for this! I really enjoyed reading about how to turn the way I think about Psalms around for a more personal experience.

  2. Loved the second rendition of the Babylon song. It’s so nice your synagogue has the “song-fest” with the psalms once a month. I miss the synagogue where I worked, but was so hurt by what they did that I try to just put it out of my mind.

  3. Thank you for including the music links. I plan to listen to all of them. I did listen to Don McLean’s song first because I’m already familiar with it. I’m especially enjoying the Nave Tahilla cuts.

  4. Interesting to read your thoughts about the Psalms, Rachel. Here in the Philippines, the Psalms are often recited during Masses. The first verse is often repeated as a response by the congregation, while the lector reads the rest. Occasional pauses are done after two verses, so that the people can recite the response. Some parishes, however, opt to sing it whilst accompanied by music.

    Also, let me share two additional tunes based on Psalm 137:

    * “Rivers of Babylon” (1970) by The Melodians, and its subsequent cover by Boney M (1978) — though this version uses “by the rivers” instead of “by the waters.”

    * “Jerusalem” (2006) by Matisyahu, from his “Youth” album — “Jerusalem, if I forget you…” figures in the song’s chorus. There are two versions of this tune: The slower one from “Youth” and the faster “Out Of Darkness Comes Light” version.

  5. Fantastic post, Rachel—”Shiru L’Adonai” by the Nigunim Ensemble is amazing!

  6. Extremely happy to read this. It sounds like an amazing time!

  7. In Christian churches, standing up to sing is common. I think it originate as a way to wake congregants up after long sermons. LOL! Some songs are sung versions of Bible verses or prayers, most are traditional hymns, though something called “praise songs” have taken over. Paise songs are simplistic tunes with lyrics that are slight from that standpoint of theology. I personally dislike them. I think singing the Psalms would be a very enriching exploration of faith for any people of the book.

  8. I’m so glad you’ve been lured back to singing. Great news.

  9. So much wonderfulness in this post! Thank-you.

  10. Psalm 139 is my favorite for personal prayer, especially when I am on retreat. We pray the Psalms in the Catholic Church every day (as part of the Liturgy of the Hours and during Mass). I begin my morning prayer with Psalm 100. Thanks for the links.

  11. Silence and meditation during the service sound kind of wonderful!

  12. As a Catholic I sing parts of the Psalms each worship service. They are bits set to music with the people singing refrains as the cantor sings the verse. I love the Psalms since there seems to always be one for how I am feeling. Especially the grumpy and angry ones!

  13. Yes, Psalm 23 is perhaps the best known of the Psalms. However, my favourite Psalm is and always has been, Psalm 121 : I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

  14. Singing, and singing with others, seems to me to be a most life-affirming, uplifting endeavor. Glad you’re enjoying it!


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