The Steinsaltz Tehillim: Understanding the Book of Psalms

A review of a translation with commentary that makes the ancient and immortal biblical text easy to read and understand.

Rochel Sylvetsky, | updated: 11:59

Judaism תהילים
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

Did the Jews of Shushan say Tehillim (psalms) when they fasted for three days at Queen Esther's request? Did Daniel? Did Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?

The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 29) attributes Psalm 22, which begins: "To the chief musician on the morning star: My G-d, my G-d, why have You forsaken me?" to Queen Esther, likened to the morning star, the last star of the night. We don't really know about Daniel and the three men thrown into a furnace in Babylon, although we do know that a psalm was sung daily by the Levites in the Holy Temple, destroyed before the Book of Esther and that of Daniel took place - so perhaps they all did find comfort and courage in reciting psalms, as do their descendants to this day.

Jews have recited the chapters of psalms through the ages, often from memory, always able to find a psalm that expresses their feelings, be they faith, wonder, hope, joy, grief, worry, gratitude or any reaction to the vicissitudes of life.

Although there are 10 other writers mentioned at the beginning of some of the psalms, it is generally accepted that the King David, known as the   "sweet singer of Israel" wrote almost all of them. The courageous warrior-musician who had to flee King Saul, hide in the Judean desert, and find refuge under the Philistine enemy, understood injustice and longing first hand, and there are psalms clearly attributed to that period.

Psalms talk about the search for G-d, about loneliness, defeat, tranquility, fear, revenge on one's enemies, gratitude to the Creator. Some decry man's propensity for slander, evildoing and lack of appreciation.  Some trace Jewish history, thanking G-d for His beneficence, others provide moral instruction.

The uniqueness of this devotional poetry's place in the Tanach is incisively explained In the forward to the new Hebrew-English edition of Psalms with commentary in English by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, published by the Steinsaltz Center, Koren Books Jerusalem.

He writes: "Psalms is the only book of the Bible where the relationship flows from man to G-d, where an individual turns to G-d and communicates with him." It is characterized by "human perspective, with all its complexity and limitations."

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes that the psalms tell King David's own feelings, the prayers emanating from his soul and written from an individual perspective - therefore able to speak to Everyman.

"It is as if the psalmist has left every reader to insert his own poetry" and while there are hints at "existential doubts, unbearable pain and unbridled joy," they are not felt as waves disturbing the surface.  

The chapters, with their varied emotions and themes, are also not arranged in any kind of logical order – perhaps  because real life is not logical, can never be fully organized.

There is, however, an underlying characteristic, continues Rabbi Steinsaltz, and it is truth.

A vast number of insights await the reader now that the renowned rabbi's prodigious scholarship and powers of discernment illuminate the inspiring psalms recited by Jews since biblical times – now with an English translation.

Psalms play a central role in Jewish life. The 150 chapters in the Book of Psalms are traditionally divided into five books, and there are also divisions for each day of the week – many of my friends do not miss saying an entire section each day. Some psalms are long, some epic, one is a mere two verses.

Psalm 119 is made up of 8 verses beginning with the same letter and then another 8 verses with the next letter, going through every letter of the alphabet. Amazingly,  each of the 8 verses has its own specific word symbolizing Torah, and those appear in the same order in the verses that start with the each and every letter. This, naturally, is what is read to spell the deceased's name at burials or yahrzeit services.

Psalms are a major part of the Friday night and daily morning services, with additional chapters added on the Sabbath and holidays. They make up the Hallel service, are to be found in the Haggadah, and more.

If you are familiar with the Book of Psalms, the introductions to chapters and the commentary with the biblical words in boldface and explanations in non-boldface, both joined in seamless prose, will deepen your understanding immensely. (sources are at the end of the volume).

For example, one of my most beloved chapters is 63, a psalm filled with longing and devotion, written while fleeing from Saul to the Judean Desert and translated clearly here: "my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a parched and thirsty land without water." Rabbi Steinsaltz introduces the chapter spiritually, writing: "In the desert the psalmist discovers that there is a yearning more powerful than thirst for water; namely a thirst for closeness to G-d."  

Talmudic references like the one above about Queen Esther and the attributing of psalm 92 to Adam are not found in the commentary, nor the fact that psalm 30 is read each day of Hanukkah.  Clearly, this is not a compendium of commentaries, but aims to provide the reader with textual insights, thereby enriching the actual reading experience.

In addition, the Steinsaltz Tehillim has added useful features at the end of the slim volume, including: the psalms traditionally said at the cemetery, for the ill and for thankfulness at recovery from illness. There is a list of psalms for special occasions, a list of the main idea of each psalm by chapter and another list of chapters connected by shared themes.

If you are unfamiliar with the Book of Psalms or parts of it, the book's carefully executed translation by Jason Rappaport is extremely reader friendly.

Psalm 62, 12, a somewhat abstruse verse, is, for example, translated clearly: "G-d has spoken once, I have heard it twice" while the commentary explains just what the word "twice" refers to. The commentary on Psalm 126 describing the return of Zion elucidates the phrase translated simply as "we are like dreamers," following an earlier exposition of the various meanings suggested for the 15 chapters headed a "Song of Ascents."  

Psalm 79, among others, is said in Israel nowadays when praying for those hurt in terror attacks. The uncomplicated, straightforward translation in this edition makes the immortal words even more relevant and heartbreaking than before: 

"The nations have invaded Your inherited land…they have fed the corpses of Your servants to birds of the sky..We have become a disgrace to our neighbors, an object of scorn and mockery…pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge You…for they have devoured Jacob… Why should the nations say where is their G-d?  Let us witness when there becomes known among the nations vengeance for the spilled blood of Your servants."

Rabbi Steinsaltz aptly introduces it as "a prayer of entreaty…ending with a prayer for redemption.."

Psalm 83, is introduced as "A psalm of supplication that appears to have been written at a time when all the nations surrounding Israel went on the attack." It could have been written today:

 "G-d do not be silent, do not hold your peace."

Perhaps our heartfelt recitation of the psalms from this new volume will bring the day of Redemption closer.