By: Menachem Posner
- Tehillim Is Also Known as Psalms
Tehillim, a book slim in size but towering in importance, has a special place in the Jewish library. Its Hebrew name, Tehillim (תהילים), means “praises,” and it contains many praises and supplications to G d. In English it is known as “Psalms,” from the Greek ψαλµοί, which means “instrumental music.”
- It Was Compiled By King David
Much of the book was composed by King David, referred to as the “sweet singer of Israel.”1 Indeed, nearly half of its chapters are preceded with “Mizmor Ledavid” (“A Song to David”)2 or another opening line ascribing it to David. Some are unattributed, while some have the names of others such as Asaph,3 the Sons of Korach,4 Solomon,5 and Moses.6 The Talmud tells us that David composed it using the output of 10 Elders, only some of whom are named in the Book of Psalms.7
- It Is Divided Into 5 Sub-Books
The Book of Psalms is divided into five smaller sections (“books”). Our sages compare it to the Torah, which also contains five books (hence the name, Five Books of Moses). The Torah was transmitted by Moses, “the greatest of the prophets,” and we received the Psalms via David, “the greatest of the kings.”8
- It Was Sung in the Holy Temple
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Levites would sing and play music. What would they sing? Psalms. There were special chapters for each day of the week,9 as well as Psalms reserved for when the First Fruit (bikkurim) were brought,10 and other special occasions. And of course there is the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), which was sung when the Passover sacrifice was brought.11
- It Gave Us the Word Hallelujah
The Psalms of Hallel (which means “praise”) often contain the word הללוי-ה, which means “praise G d” and has been mangled into “hallelujah” in English. The word appears a total of 24 times in Psalms, all of them in the final third of the book, and never in any other books of Scripture.
Note that since this word contains the name of G d, Jews do not use it in casual conversation.
- It Has 150 Chapters
Open any book of Psalms and you can easily count that there are 150 individual Psalms. Interestingly enough, however, the Talmud tells us that there are 147 Psalms, corresponding to the years of the life of Jacob, the common ancestor of all Jews.12 This discrepancy is because there are certain Psalms (such as Psalms 1 and Psalms 2) which were originally considered a single chapter.
- It Is the First Book in “Writings”
The Hebrew Scriptures contain 24 books, which are divided into three parts: Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Prophets (Neviim) and Writings (Ketuvim). In the standard editions, Tehillim is the 14th of the bunch and is the first in the section of Writings.
- The Shortest Psalm is 117
The shortest chapter of Psalms, #117, reads as follows:
Praise the L rd, all nations, laud Him, all peoples.
For His kindness has overwhelmed us, and the truth of the L rd is eternal. Hallelujah!
- The Longest Psalm is 119
The average length of a chapter of Psalms is 17 verses. Psalm 119 is by far the longest, with a whopping 176 verses. Following the Hebrew Alphabet, it has 8 verses starting with each of the 22 letters (22×8=176). This giant Psalm speaks of the sweetness of Torah, and how it lifts a person up no matter what difficulties he or she may experience.
- Several Other Psalms Are Alphabetical
Three times every day, Jewish people say Psalm 145 (known as Ashrei, since it is often preceded by a line from Psalm 84:5, which begins with this word). Along with Psalms 25, it has one verse for every letter. According to the Sages, saying it regularly guarantees a person’s place in Paradise since it (a) praises G d with every letter of the alphabet, and (b) has the super important request:
Open Your hand and satisfy every living thing [with] its desire.
Fun fact: Psalm 145 is missing a verse for the letter nun, because that is the first letter of the word nofel, “fall.”13
- It Is Divided Into 7 and 30
A standard edition of Psalms is also divided into 7 parts, one for each day of the week, as well as 30, one for each day of the month. The daily portion of Psalms, as it is said on the monthly cycle, is part of the Daily Study regimen, which was strongly encouraged by the Rebbes of Chabad.
- You Say Another Chapter Each Year
According to Chassidic tradition,14 when praying for a person you say the Psalm corresponding to the current year of their life. So the chapter for a newborn, who is still in their first year of life, is Psalm 1, and the chapter for a 12-year-old, who is currently in their 13th year of life, is Psalm 13, etc.
- It Was Treasured by the Simple Jews
In times gone by, there were many simple Jews for whom even an elementary Torah class may have been too advanced. Many of them, however, knew how to read. With tears and with love, they would read copious Psalms, expressing their most intimate desires and their sincere wish to come closer to G d.
- It’s for Everyone
The Midrash tells us that when King David compiled the Psalms, he had in mind himself, every Jew, and every circumstance.15 No matter who you are or what the situation, the words of the Psalms speak the words of your heart and are heard on high. The third Chabad Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, wrote that if we only knew the power of verses of Psalms and their effect in the spiritual realms, we would recite them constantly.16
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor at Chabad.org, the world’s largest Jewish informational website. He has been writing, researching, and editing for Chabad.org since 2006, when he received his rabbinic degree from Central Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch. He lives in Chicago, Ill., with his family.