Sunday 17 October 2021

354) Rav Saadia Gaon: The Psalms are not prayers





Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) was a philosopher and biblical exegete born in Egypt and died in Baghdad during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate. He had some rather interesting views about the origins of the psalms in that he adopted a fundamentalist approach claiming that the five books of psalms served as a ‘second Torah’ revealed to David.

This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Uriel Simon[1].

Psalms as a parallel or ‘second’ Torah


Simon (1990:1) states that this extreme view of Rav Saadia that the psalms were a ‘second Torah’ was “not based on any rabbinic sources”.  However, there is a reference to a similar concept found in Midrash Tehillim (on Psalm 78), although this work was only written sometime after Rav Saadia, in Narbonne between c.1050 - c.1450 CE:

שלא יאמר אדם שאין המזמורות תורה אלא תורה הם ואף הנביאים תורה.

One should not say that the psalms are not Torah, for they are Torah, and so are the [books of the] prophets Torah.

It is possible that this later Midrash was based on Rav Saadia’s conception of the psalms. Rav Saadia writes in his (short[2]) introduction to the psalms that the reader should not discriminate between the various sections of biblical literature (particularly the psalms) and wrongly conclude that some were said and narrated by human characters while other sections were ‘purer’ having been spoken by God. Instead:

[w]e must realize that all of these were phrased by the Lord in the various forms of speech employed by his creatures.[3]

In other words, in Rav Saadia’s view, all the words expressed throughout the psalms, even when they appear to have originated from human speakers, are indeed the work of the “Master and not the servant”.

Rav Saadia takes his model from Moses’ song (Haazinu) in Deuteronomy 32:1-43, where it seems that Moses is writing but it also incorporates God’s speech such as in verse 39 where it states “See then that I am He”. The smooth interchange between the speech of the ‘servant’ and the ‘Master’ (in the Torah and the psalms) indicate for Rav Saadia that:

all is the word of the Lord and nothing is human discourse, as the faithful transmitters of our tradition have attested.[4]

Again, Rav Saadia does not specify which rabbinic tradition he is basing himself upon. On the contrary, earlier Talmudic sources (such as b. Pesachim 117a) suggest that according to the rabbis, David himself, and not God spoke the words of the psalms:

The sages taught: all the songs and praises which David said in the Book of Psalms…


Rav Saadia’s argument against the Karaites


Rav Saadia, in his (long) introduction to the psalms goes on to criticise:

a few of our nation who imagine…that this book was uttered by David the prophet on his own… It seems to me that the cause of this delusion…is that they find many prayers in it [and thus conclude that the words must have emanated from a human rather than a divine source].[5]

Simon (1990:5) questions just whom Rav Saadia is referring to by “a few of our nation” who believe the psalms was an independent work of David and not revealed from Above? While it may refer to the rabbis (as we saw above in b. Pesachim 117a), Simon maintains that these words were directed specifically against the Karaites.   

The Karaites were a sect of Jews who disregarded the rabbinic or oral tradition, particularly the Talmud. Some historians trace them to the Sadducees from the end of the second Temple era, but most consider their origins later at around the time of Anan ben David (c. 715 – 795 or 811). While there is some uncertainty as to the actual numbers of Karaites, at one stage the Karaites may have comprised almost half of the total Jewish population and they were regarded as a significant threat to Rabbanite Judaism. Rav Saadiah was known for his fierce anti-Karaite views. “The dispute of the rabbanite Gaon Saadiah and the Karaites helped to consolidate the split between them”[6]. 


The Karaites used the psalms as their official prayer book

The point is that the Karaites used the psalms as their prayer book as they rejected the Rabbanite (rabbinical) prayer book known as the Siddur, whose foundations were laid by Ezra at the time of the Great Assembly.

Simon (1990:8) explains that Rav Saadia felt that the Karaites had erred in using the “words of the Master” (i.e., the psalms) for their prayers. Rav Saadia wrote in his introduction to the Siddur:

the speech of servant to his Master must be different from the speech of the Master to his servant.[7]

Simon explains that only once we understand the Karaite and Rabbanite polemics on prayer, can we comprehend Rav Saadia’s radical position on the divine origins of the Book of Psalms. The Karaites were just as willing to enter into the polemical fray as they accused the Rabbanites, particularly on the Day of Atonement, of having

[p]laced in their mouths many words, liturgies in which there is no delight, instead of songs from Psalms.[8]

The Karaite writer, Yakov al-Kirkisani, was Rav Saadia’s polemical contemporary and he puts the Karaite position on the psalms and his criticism of the Rabbanites quite bluntly:

One [of the rabbis’ mistakes] is that they stopped praying from the Book of Psalms and made [their prayers] from what they themselves composed. This contradicts Scripture: “To give praise to the Lord as David had ordained” (Ezra 3:10).[9]


Rav Saadia’s notion that psalms are not prayers


Rav Saadia’s response to the Karaite attack was swift and forthright. He defended the Rabbanite position by claiming, rather radically, that the psalms were never originally intended to serve as a prayer book, and that the Rabbinic prayer book is of ancient provenance ordained so by the prophets themselves. The function of the psalms was not for prayer, but for moral and theological edification instead, just like the Torah! (Simon 1990:11).


The idea of ‘perfect numbers’

Rav Saadia had to develop a complicated theory of the psalms in order to explain away their obvious sensus literalis or plain meaning. To this end, Rav Saadia tried to explain that the Five Books of the Psalms paralleled the Five Books of the Torah. The psalms were revealed at the precise moment in history when the nation of Israel had attained its ‘perfect number’ with its sustainable expanse of knowledge, prosperity and heroes.[10] This, he claimed, precisely paralleled the revelation of the Torah during the time of Moses, when mankind had also attained its ‘perfect number’, in term of population growth, stability and sustainability. (This fascinating idea of a “perfect number” of population growth, developed as early as the ninth century, is worthy of further study.)


The psalms parallel the Torah


As to the problem of biographical and geographical details found dispersed throughout the psalms and their apparent connection to specific events in the lifetime of the writer, Rav Saadia claimed they simply resembled the journeys of the Children of Israel which were also recoded (by God) in the Pentateuch and served to unite and equate the two texts (Simon 1990:12-13).

Rav Saadia was even able to explain away anachronisms (which seem to refer to another time and place) like Psalm 90 which begins with “A Prayer of Moses”. This too, he claims, was written by David because (just like 1 Chronicles 6:34 refers to priests in David’s time as “Aaron and his sons”) the later generations are sometimes referred to by their important ancestors’ names. This way, the entire Book of Psalms was a revelation to David equating and paralleling the revelation of the Torah to Moses!


The difference between ‘ritual’ and ‘liturgy


Both the Five Books of Psalms and the Five Books of the Torah were the “Master’s” word to the “servant” and not the other way round. The psalms, therefore could not be used as liturgy, but they could be used as part of ritual. This is why, on Rav Saadia’s view, the psalms contained headings, superscriptions and instructions to guide the practitioner through the process of the ritual which could only take place in the Temple (Simon 1990:15).


Complicating the ritual


Rav Saadia, however, goes so far as to restrict and complicate that ritual, so that:

every psalm that is designated to [specific] Levites, they are obligated to recite it; all others are forbidden to recite it except for reading.[11]

Rav Saadia, a page later, further restricts one Levite familial group from reciting a psalm which was the proclivity of another group. He found support for this notion from 2 Chronicles 35:15 where it states that “The Asaphite singers were at their stations”.

Additionally, Rav Saadia specifies that certain Tehillim may only be recited at certain places within the Temple and they “should be said in that place and no other[12] (Simon 1990:22).


Melodies and music


Furthermore, Rav Saadia insists that the melodies (he used the Arabic term “lahn[13]) may not be changed or substituted either, unless the psalm used the expression “bineginot” (with melodies) in the plural (Simon 1990:16).

Rav Saadia also is of the view that any musical performance of the psalms outside of the Temple precincts, is strictly forbidden (Simon 1990:21). His proof text for this is Isaiah 38:20 where it sates “we will offer up music all the days of our lives at the House of the Lord”. Even singing the (entire) psalms outside the Temple (without musical accompaniment) is forbidden as the psalms may only be read not sung outside the Temple (Simon 1990:23).


The difference between ‘praying’ and ‘reading


Rav Saadia, in his commentary on the Siddur (128), similarly makes the distinction between praying the regular standing prayer in the Siddur known as the “Amidah”, and reading the “Hallel” (a collection of psalms inserted into the prayers during the festivals).


Rav Saadia’s double argument


All these details coalesce around Rav Saadia’s understanding of the use of psalms only for ritual as opposed to liturgical purposes, and the highest wall had to be erected between these two forms of worship. Tehillim was a “book of guidance” to be studied like the Torah, and was only used as a “book of praise” within the Temple (or whilst encouraging the builders of the Temple).

Thus, one must conclude that Rav Saadia’s unusual interpretation of the purpose for the psalms was directed both against the Karaites who used it as their official liturgy, and also was in keeping with the custom of not replicating Temple practices during post-Temple times. Nevertheless, Simon (1990:39) concludes that Rav Saadia took a “maximalist” approach when it came to his polemics with the Karaites over the use of the Book of Psalms as liturgy.


On a technical note


The Tehillim were sometimes known as Tefilot, as it says in Psalm 72:20:

כָּלּ֥וּ תְפִלּ֑וֹת דָּ֝וִ֗ד בֶּן־יִשָֽׁי׃

End of the prayers (tefilot) of David son of Jesse.

However, Hakham (2003:vi)[14] mentions that it was the Masoretes who preferred the title Tehillim over Tefillot perhaps so that it not be confused with the official ‘prayer book’. Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles refer to the Levites who would “sing and praise (מהללים) with the praises (הלל) of David in their hand[15]. These may indeed be supports for Rav Saadia’s position.

Hakham also points out that some early commentators used the term “Tehillot” instead of “Tehillim” and that even where the title “Tehillim” was originally used, it was referred to as “Tillim” (since in rabbinic Hebrew the letter ה is elided). “Tillim” is not a corruption of later generations (or a lazy pronunciation as is common today) but is an accurate and ancient pronunciation dating back to the rabbinic period. In rabbinic Aramaic the Book of Psalms is referred to as “Tillin” (תִּילִּין) and “Tillei” (תִּילֵּי). The Midrash Tehillim (as we saw) uses the term Mizmorim.

So, technically, we can refer to psalms as Tehillim, Tefilot, Tehillot, Mizmorim, Tillim, Tillin, or Tillei.




Today we live in an era where “there is a psalm for everything” and the simple recitation of Tehillim is widely practiced and encouraged. Regarding Rav Saadia’s restriction on singing Tehillim outside of the Temple, this is all the more interesting considering how we today certainly do put the Tehillim to music and consider it meritorious to sing them wherever we are. And we certainly do regard the Tehillim as a form of prayer or divine communion (notwithstanding the possible Karaite connection).

I even noticed someone reciting Tehillim from a book while driving, obviously of the view that the psalms would protect him on the way.

These practices are good (bar the last one) and should perhaps even be encouraged. However, in so doing one should not lose sight of the broader framework and background such as the one presented by Rav Saadia Gaon. One could also add the view of the Kotzker Rebbe who referred to the “fools who spend their time at the back of the synagogues mindlessly reciting Tehillim.”

One should, of course, feel free to practice the Judaism one chooses, but we are poorer if we remain locked within a vacuum, without a wider halachic, hashkafic and historical perspective.

Further thoughts

There are some further possible sources for Rav Saadia's unusual interpretation of the role and purpose of Tehillim as Torah:

1) In Psalm 1, which is sometimes called a Torah psalm, the word Torah occurs twice (in verse 2). It is often considered that the first two paslms are 'introductions' to the Book of Psalms. This emphasis on Torah in the introduction, might be an attempt at reframing the psalms as a work of Torah instruction instead of prayers. This is also perhaps reflected in the change of the name of the book from Sefer Tefilot (prayers) to Sefer Tehillim, drawing attention away from its perceived status as prayers.

2) Just a plain reading Deuteronomy 31:19-26 gives the impressiion that Shira (song=psalms) is synonymous with Torah:

וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן תִּהְיֶה־לִּ֜י הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את לְעֵ֖ד בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths... 

וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites.

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כְּכַלּ֣וֹת מֹשֶׁ֗ה לִכְתֹּ֛ב אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את עַל־סֵ֑פֶר עַ֖ד תֻּמָּֽם׃

When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Torah to the very end...

לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙ הַזֶּ֔ה וְשַׂמְתֶּ֣ם אֹת֔וֹ מִצַּ֛ד אֲר֥וֹן בְּרִית־יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָיָה־שָׁ֥ם בְּךָ֖ לְעֵֽד׃

Take this book of Torah and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant...

In this sense the songs or (particularly the didactic) psalms are presented as being one with the Torah, although obviously there is no chronological correspondence. In other words, it is not all that unusual to describe "songs" as Torah.

3) For those interested in literary analysis, there are some chiastic structures (where psalms are repeated in reverse symetrical order), such as that relating to Pslams 15 to 24, and 108 to 145, where the center of the literary structure pivots around a Torah psalm, 19 and 119 respectively. Again, drawing attention, perhaps, to a Torah core behind the psalms.

Psalm 1, the introductory Torah psalm, begins with "ashrei" ( the man who desires Torah). Psalm 119 also begins with "ashrei" (happy... are those who go in the way of God's Torah). And Psalm 19 similarly states "mesamchei lev" (The Torah of God is rejoices the heart). 

There are also allusions to Torah-centeredness in fourteen other psalms (18, 25, 33, 78, 89, 93, 94, 99, 103, 105, 111, 112, 147 and 148). Thus the structure of the psalms could perhaps be seen as frequently alluding to the Torah. All this may reinforce Rav Saadia's notion of the psalms being more Torah than prayer.

[1] Simon, U., 1990, Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms: From Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra, State University of New York Press, Albany.

[2] Rav Saadia has two introductions to the psalms, a short one and a long one. In the 1966 Kafih edition the short introduction is pp. 51-53, and the eleven times longer introduction is pp. 17-50.

[3] Kafih, J., 1966, ed. and tr. into Hebrew, Saadiah Gaon, The Book of Psalms: Tafsir and Arabic Commentary, Jerusalem 1966, 53.

[4] Kafih, J., 1966, 53.

[5] Kafih, J., 1966, 24. Parenthesis mine.

[6] (New World Encyclopedia, online source: Karaite Judaism - New World Encyclopedia. Accessed 05 October 2021).”

[7] Davidson, I., Asaf, S., and Joel B.I., 1970, ed. and tr. into Hebrew, Saadja Gaon, The Siddur, The Obligations of Prayer, Introduction, 9-10.

[8] Mann, I., 1921, "Early Karaite Bible Commentaries," JQR (N.S.) 12 (1921/2), 474.

[9] Scheiber, A., 1948, ‘A Rabbinic Siddur Quoted by Kirkisani,’ in Ignace Goldziher Memorial, vol. I, Budapest, 27-40 (Heb.), 27.

[10] Rav Saadia’s proof text for this is 1 Chronicles 21:5; “All Israel comprised 1,100,000 ready to draw the sword.” Although in 2 Samuel 24:9 the number is given as 800,000.

[11] Kafih, J., 1966, 30.

[12] Kafih, J., 1966, 33.

[13] Thus, for Rav Saadia, Shir haMa’alot (a song of ascents), becomes “a high-pitched lahn” (Simon 1990:17). Also, Al haSheminit (Psalm 6), indicates “that the Levites in the Temple had eight alhan, one assigned to each group of them” (Simon 1990:18). This explanation differs substantially from the usual interpretation of Sheminit as some form of eight stringed instrument.

[14] Hakham, A., 2003, The Bible: Psalms; with the Jerusalem Commentary, vol. 1, The Koschitzky ed., 1st ed., Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem.

[15] See 1 Chronicles 23:5; 2 Chronicles 7:6, 20:21, 29:30, 30:21 and Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah12:24.

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