The Tefilla Colloquium -- by R. Kimelman (Unit 1)
We are beginning our study of the liturgy with Psalm 145 since it is the most
oft-recited Psalm in the liturgy and the most prominent in the contemporary
synagogue. Many Jews know it all by heart, whereas in those synagogues where is
it is said responsively at least every other line is known by heart. What I
intend to do here and in the next session is to disclose the underlying literary
structure of Psalm 145 in order to account for both its significance and its
popularity. The nature of these communications do not allow for the easy
transfer of footnotes. For those looking for the documentation, much of it may
be found in my article, "Psalm 145: Theme, Structure, and Impact," The Journal
of Biblical Literature 113 (1994) pp. 23-44.
Besides its structure, we will inquire as to how Psalm 145 functioned as
liturgy in the biblical period and subsequently part of the Qumran and rabbinic
liturgy. As we shall see, the analysis of its contents and structure accounts
for its function as a prelude to the Shema liturgy as well as its role in the
formulation of the rabbinic blessing formulary. As you peruse the following,
please be thinking of ways we can make Ashre more comprehensible to our
congregants and ways we could enhance their appreciation of it in order to
contribute to its prayerability. These are the type of issues we look forward to
sharing in our rabbinic chat room on liturgy.
Ashre - Psalm 145 and the Liturgy
No Psalm is better known or recited more frequently than Psalm 145, known
by its liturgical title Ashre. Since Gaonic times it has been recited thrice
daily -- twice in the morning service introducing sections of the service, and
once as a prelude to the afternoon service. Despite its frequency, its meaning
has eluded most readers for failing to understand its rhetorical structure. By
laying bare the relationship between form and content, theme and structure, we
are able to see how its rhetorical structure advances its program for the
extension of divine sovereignty.
As noted throughout, the techniques of rhetorical criticism can show us how
the structure informs and frames the message. In this case, we shall be
concerned with the psalm's movement, its overall thought, the interaction of its
parts, and how its holds together. In identifying the form or structural
profile of the psalm, we shall specifically focus on recurrent expressions and
highlight positional features such as chiasm, juxtaposition, and inclusions, all
of which will be explained below. Through such a presentation of the poetics of
the psalm, we shall show how it works as liturgy.
The whole liturgical piece is presented below in a manner that renders
transparent its internal dynamic. The added psalm verses, which are prefixed
and suffixed to Psalm 145, are designated prologue and epilogue. Psalm 145
itself is designated the body. Comprised of twenty one bicola, the psalm
consists of four stanzas, introduced by a prelude, intersected by an interlude,
and concluded with a postlude which may be diagrammed as follows --
Prelude: vv. 1-2
I: vv. 3-6
II: vv. 7-9
Interlude: v. 10
III: vv. 11-13
IV: vv. 14-20
Postlude: v. 21
The following translation reflects its structure as well as its internal
connections while adhering closely to the Hebrew order and choice of terms.
A. Ashre [Fortunate are] those who dwell in Your house;
continually they praise You (Psalms 84:6)
B. Ashre the people who have it so;
Ashre the people for whom the Lord is their God (Psalms 144:15)
Body (Psalm 145)
THE PRAISE OF DAVID:
l. I extol You, my God, the king,
and bless Your name forever and ever.
2. Every day I bless You
and praise Your name forever and ever [saying]:
STANZA I- GOD'S GREATNESS
3. "Great is the Lord and exceedingly praised,
and to His greatness there is no limit."
4. Generation to generation lauds Your works,
and Your mighty acts power they declare.
5. The glorious majesty of Your splendor,
and Your wondrous things I narrate.
6. Of the power of Your awesome deeds they talk,
and Your greatness I recount.
STANZA II - GOD'S GOODNESS
7. Recitation of Your abundant goodness they declaim
and Your beneficence they sing aloud [saying]:
8. "Gracious and merciful is the Lord
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
9. Good is the Lord to all,
and [= for] His mercies are upon all His
10. All Your creatures shall praise You, O Lord,
and Your faithful bless You.
STANZA III - GOD'S KINGSHIP
11. The majesty of Your kingship they intone
and of Your might they speak --
12. to make known to humanity His mighty acts
and the majestic glory of His kingship.--
13. "Your kingship is a kingship for all ages,
and Your dominion is for generation and
STANZA IV - GOD'S BENEVOLENCE
14. The Lord supports all who stumble,
and straightens all who are bent.
15. The eyes of all look to You expectantly,
and [= for] You give them their food on time.
16. (You) open Your hand,
and satisfy the desire of all living.
17. Beneficent is the Lord in all His ways,
and faithful in all His deeds.
18. Close is the Lord to all who call Him -
to all who call upon Him in truth.
19. The desire of those who revere Him He does,
and their outcry He hears and delivers them.
20. The Lord preserves all who love Him,
and all the wicked He destroys.
21. THE PRAISE OF THE LORD shall my mouth speak,
and all flesh shall bless His holy name forever
A. And as for us, we bless the Lord now and forever. Hallelujah! (Psalms 115:18)
The Psalm's theme of divine sovereignty is announced in the first
line in the words, "my God the king." Although there are other psalms that
proclaim "my king and my God," only Ps 145:1 uses the definite article for the
apparent purpose of underscoring the exclusivity of divine rule. The opening
with "my God the king" serves as a royal acclamation. It is the awareness
such sovereignty, according to the psalmist, that engenders the desire to extend
divine sovereignty and share it with others. This desire is particularly
pronounced in psalms that present God as king as do Psalms 47, 93, 96, and 99.
Psalm 145 has its message of divine sovereignty broadcast in three stages
to successively broader circles. Each stage is marked by the word "bless,"
which crops up strategically in the second colon of lines 1, 10, and 21, the
three lines that serve as prelude, interlude, and postlude. The prelude starts:
"I bless Your name forever," the interlude continues: "Your faithful ones
you," whereas the postlude climaxes: "all flesh shall bless His holy name
forever and ever." The correspondence between the psalmist's "I"
name forever at the outset and the expectation of all in the end doing likewise
so animates the whole psalm that it frames it from initial tone to final
cadence. At midpoint, in the interlude, the psalmist involves the faithful
(hasidekha) as the intermediate step to involving all. The drive toward
inclusiveness is reinforced by the envelope structure. By having the end
formally echo the beginning, the psalm paves the way from the "I bless" of the
prelude to the "all flesh shall bless" of the postlude; both "forever and
Stanzas I (lines 3-6) and II (lines 7-9) are also formally framed by an
inclusion marking out their thematic fields. Stanza I forms a quatrain on the
subject of God's greatness. Line 3 opens with great/greatness as line 6
concludes with greatness. Stanza II forms a triad on God's goodness. Line 7
celebrates God's abundant goodness as line 9 proclaims that God is good to all.
By opening and closing with "great" and "good" the two stanzas
converge to make
the point that praise is generated by appreciating the link between divine
greatness and goodness. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the two intimates what is
made explicit in the next stanza, namely, that God's goodness is an expression
of His greatness.
Stanzas III (lines 11-13) and IV (lines 14-20) serve to advance the thesis of
stanzas I and II through specification and concretization as in much of biblical
parallelism., What is implicit in stanzas I and II becomes explicit in III and
Thus the theme of sovereignty, intimated in stanza I through expressions of
divine grandeur, is made graphic in stanza III. All the salient terms indicate
divine strength and majesty such as "great", "might,"
"power." This indication is intensified by the compounding of the
terms for such greatness:
1."His greatness" (u-gedulato),
2. "and Your might acts", (u-gevuratekha),
3."and Your wondrous things", (ve-divre nifla'otekha),
4. "and of the power of your awesome deeds" (ve-azuz norotekha),
5. "and your greatness[es]" (u-gedulotekha).
Note that the order of "greatness" ascends in each stage: First, term 2
exceeds 1 by being in the plural form, a form that is applied exclusively to God
in the Bible, and by the fact that in the next stanza, which itself intensifies
the theme of divine grandeur by focusing on divine kingship, term 2 appears
twice (lines 11 and 12) and 1 not at all. Terms 3 and 4, which share the same
construction, continue the process of intensification by exceeding 1 and 2 by
one word and by employing terms used exclusively of God in the Bible - nifla'ot
("wonders") and ezuz ("power"). Within the two terms, 4 exceeds
3 as ezuz
exceeds nifla'ot. ezuz, the intensive form of its homograph oz, appears only
four other times in the Bible. Since ve-ezuzo nifla'otav of Ps 78:4 is the
closest parallel, term 4 can be alluding to this earlier verse delicately making
the point that its nora'otekha exceeds nifla'otekha of term 3 by at least one
notch only to be further heightened by ezuz. This intensified form is most
fitting, for although oz is a term of strength applied to both human and divine
kings, ezuz itself is used exclusively of the divine. Since the idiom of term 4
occurs only here, it may have been minted precisely for the intensification
Finally, by recalling 1, term 5 seals the envelope structure. While that alone
would suffice for 5's presence, the fact that it appears orthographically as
plural, albeit vocalized as singular, serves, as Radak noticed, as a subtle way
of summing it all up, barring, that is, any orthographic irregularity. The
realization that terms 2 to 4 are exclusively applied to God, whereas 1 and 5
when applied to God indicate divine majesty, reinforces the all pervasive theme
of divine sovereignty.
By employing such suggestive terms for sovereignty, the psalmist points to
the boundlessness of the universe to alert his audience to the suggestions of
divine majesty reverberating everywhere. The thematic link between stanza I and
stanza III is furthered by the terminological chiasmus between the two. Line 4,
immediately after the performance line 3 (about which see below) of stanza I
begins to me-dor le-dor (from "generation to generation"), whereas stanza III
(line 13) ends dor ve-dor. The other terminological commonality is found in
lines 5 and 12, both of which are middle lines in their respective stanzas.
Line 5 evolves from the general to the explicit of line 12 in the following
line 5 hadar kevod hodekha
line 12 kevod hadar malkhuto
Similarly, stanza IV adduces cases of the mercies of God mentioned in
stanza II, except that following in the wake of stanza III's emphasis on divine
kingship, these acts of goodness up to and including providing for the righteous
and eliminating the wicked (lines 14-20) now serve to dramatize signs of divine
reign. Hoping that perceiving the divine grandeur as refracted through a caring
kingship will trigger the desire to acclaim God king, the psalmist anticipates
all humanity joining in such an acclamation.
Each of the four stanzas, as we shall see, forms a step in the escalation of
praise. The first stanza (lines 3-6) underscores the inadequacy of only the
psalmist praising every day. Without an unending cross generational symphony,
perpetual praise cannot be sustained. The sheer magnificence and glory of God
elicit a thesaurus of adulation that seeks to be exhaustive. Not only is God,
according to the psalmist, "extolled, blessed, praised, yea exceedingly
praised;" His works are "lauded, declared, narrated, talked of, and
Nonetheless, however much "His greatness, mighty, wondrous, and awesome acts and
deeds" are exalted, divine grandeur remains limitless. Such a compounding of
synonyms, found only here in the whole Psalter, indicates a structure of
intensification, not simply a juggling of semantic equivalents. Through such a
structure, the psalmist would have us believe that the loftiest encomium proves
to be an understatement.
The second stanza (lines 7-9) celebrates the extension of divine goodness
to all. The theme of divine beneficence envelops the whole section with a
liturgical cast reverberating all the more loudly by capturing echoes of similar
earlier verses. Line 8's cluster of epithets of grace resonates with echoes of
the thirteen attributes of Exod. 34:6 that were to become, if it had not
already, a liturgical staple. This reuse of the divine attribute formulary
rings with a sophisticated play on Numb. 34:19 and Nah. 1:3, highlighting the
theme of divine goodness. Verse 8 reproduces the series of epithets of Exod.
34:6 except that it has u-gadol hesed ("abundant kindness") instead of rav hesed
("abounding in kindness"), as do Pss. 86:15, and 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah
and Numb. 14:18. Deafness to biblical intertextuality would misleadingly
suggest that gadol is employed because rav is already used up by rav tuvkha
("Your abundant goodness") of v. 7. By initially following the standard
of the series of epithets however, the reversal of anticipation draws attention
to itself. The novel expression - erekh apayim u-gedol hased ("[slow to
and abounding in kindness") contains allusions to gedol hasdekha of Numb. 14:19
as well as to erekh apayim u-gadol koach ("slow to anger and
strength") of Nah. 1:3. By substituting hesed for koach the vengeance context
of Nahum is subverted, paving the way for the reintroduction of the forgiveness
context of Numbers only to enhance at the same time the prominence of the divine
hased -- the theme of the stanza.
Although it is often difficult to determine whether "the phrases are
self-conscious references to and quotations of other texts, or the product of a
mind so steeped in searching other texts that they are used in a subliminal way
in composition," the references here have all the hallmarks of compositional
intentionality. Moreover, the lack of allusion to any of the punitive
attributes such as found in Nah. 1:3 reflects the way ancient material was
recast for liturgical recitation. Thus the later liturgical practice of
subverting the import of Exod. 34:6-7 by concluding the recitation with ve-nakeh
("and He will acquit') thereby excluding lo yenakha ("He will not acquit"),
follows the tradition of late biblical practice of quoting the formula partially
in order to appeal exclusively to God's mercy. The interface between divine
power and divine goodness of stanzas I and II was distined to play a dominant
role in later liturgical compositions such as Adon Olam which we shall discuss
in a future exchange.
To return to the structure: the interlude (line 10) performs two functions.
The first colon links up with the end of stanza II, whereas the second colon
continues the theme of blessing of the prelude. The former reflects a kind of
contrapuntal hymning invoked by God's mercies embracing all. Thus, on the heels
of line 9 -- "His mercies are upon all His creatures," -- line 10 states,
your creatures praise You." The latter reflects an extension of the
blessing in the prelude to the community of the faithful. The result is that
both the prelude and the previous stanza are recalled in a manner that makes the
interlude the bridge between the two halves of the psalm.
Stanza III is marked by the theme of kingship. As realizing God's kingship
induced the psalmist to bless God and extend His kingship by pointing out how
His acts are to be praised in stanza I, so in stanza III (lines 11-13), the
faithful bless God, realize His kingship, and seek "to make His mighty acts
known to humanity" (line 12). The universal thrust of the line is thrown into
relief by comparing it with the only other biblical witness of the expression
"to make known His mighty act" (Ps. 106:8), where there is no mention of the
audience "to humanity." What in the earlier psalm was for the sake of
becomes here for the sake of all. Stanza III thus advances toward the end (in
both senses) of the psalm that all flesh join in such blessing. By bringing
about a heightened consciousness of God's presence and work in the world, the
psalmist aims to make all "alive to the awesomeness of God articulated in the
order of the world."
The goal of extending divine sovereignty receives visual support by the
initial letters of lines 11-13 spelling out melekh ("king") in a reverse
acrostic. According to Eleazar of Worms the acrostic literally spells out the
theme of the stanza that God is sovereign, a point made in each of the three
lines and reinforced by the anadiplosis of lines 12 and 13 that links "His
kingship" and "Your Kingship." G. E. Watson adds the observation that,
effect of inverting the root mlk over the three couplets ... is to reverse the
flow of time and so depict eternity." Based on such phenomena in Babylonian
name/sentence acrostics -- which not only identify the poem's author or the
purpose of the composition, but also the one to whom it is addressed -- it can
be surmised that the psalmist is applying this technique for dedicating the
acrostic to God. Thus the opening line addresses God as "my God, the
sole psalm to do so.
The theme of divine sovereignty is further emphasized through the medium of
the chiastic structure of lines 11 and 12. In fact, in the very next line (13)
the three letters of the Hebrew melekh, and only these three, appear six times
throughout the line.
In the fourth stanza (lines 14-20) the shift from divine reign to divine
regard is as dramatic as it is intentional. The cosmic ruler is also the daily
nourisher. Since the giver of life is unconditionally the sustainer of life,
regal power is mobilized in care of the downtrodden. And although, as line 17
proclaims, God is beneficent to all, there remains a correlation between the
order of intimacy and the intensity of divine providence. Progressing on an
axis of increasing closeness, lines 16-20 state:
He feeds - all living (16);
He is close - to all who call Him (18);
He does the desire - of those who revere Him (19);
and preserves - all who love Him (20).
The stanza reaches closure by noting God's special solicitude for his
devotees as well as His elimination of the wicked. This recital of God's
benefactions confirms the faith of hearers in His power and His commitment to
protect those who are loyal to Him.
All four stanzas are marked by a formal frame that begins and ends with a
similar term. This stylistic device of inclusion is employed here fully three
times and partially a fourth.
stanza I - great / greatness
stanza II - good /goodness
stanza III - kingship / kingship
stanza IV - the Lord supports / the Lord preserves vv. 14-20
This structure also uncovers the alternating pattern of l)transcendence,
2)immanence, 3)transcendence, 4) immanence, making the point, according to
Heschel in his book The Prophets, that "the dichotomy of transcendence and
immanence is an oversimplification," for as Heschel continues, "God remains
transcendent in His immanence, and related in His transcendence."
In addition, the stanzas are related by length. stanza I comprises four
verses (3-6), stanza II three verses (7-9), stanza III three verses (11-13),
whereas stanza IV (vv. 14-20) comprises seven verses. By dividing the Psalm at
the interlude, the first two stanzas comprise seven verses and the last two
comprise ten. By dividing them by subject matter, stanzas I and III comprise
seven verses and stanzas II and IV comprise ten. Either way, the ratio remains
seven to ten, confirming the original diagram.
The call of the postlude of line 21 is also the finale. With the
realization that God is a caring king, the praise of God is extended to its
fullest, climaxing in a crescendo resounding throughout humanity everywhere and
forever. This extension is underscored by the contrast between the postlude and
the prelude, which itself is replayed in the postlude except for the two
exceptions shown below:
Prelude: ve-avarkha shimkha le-olam ve`ed.
Postlude: va-yevorekh kol basar shem kodsho le-olam ve`ed
In the postlude, the symphony of "all flesh" joins the soloist of "my
blessing, though the soloist retains his voice; and the "name" of the prelude,
by virtue of its universal acceptance, becomes the "holy name." What began
"the praise to/of David" culminates as "the praise of the Lord."
reversion to the initial praise, the whole composition becomes ringed together,
from beginning to end, by the motif of praise. Unmarred by any precatory
element, only Psalm 145 merited the superscription "Psalm of David."
The following diagram, illustrating the four stanzas along with the prelude,
interlude, and postlude, indicates how the structure of the psalm reflects its
alignment of ideas.
I greatness _______
II goodness ~______
10.__________________________________________ community blessing
III kingship ______
IV (caring) ______
Clearly, the poems construction is the portal to its meaning.
This ends this exchange. In our next session we shall
continue with the Ashre
and deal with the function of its acrostic, the problem of the missing nun
verse, and how Psalm 145 functioned as liturgy in the Tanakh, at Qumran, and
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