Sunday 7 November 2021

357) Tehillim as a Rebellion against the Monarchy

                                       Political and Theological tensions in the Siddur


In this article, I propose that the early to central section of the Shacharit (morning prayer) service, known as Pesukei Dezimra - incorporated into the Siddur (prayer book)  only at around the 10th to 11th centuries - was related to the decline and eventual demise of the office of the Reish Galuta (Exilarch), occurring at that time. The Reish Galuta had overwhelming religious, political and social powers, indeed mirroring the status of a Jewish king. The general tenor of the Pesukei Dezimra (essentially comprising the last six psalms of Sefer Tehillim) is one of rebellion against, and minimising the role of, the monarchy and drawing focus, instead, towards a divine Kingship. In other words, it was a reaction against human intervention and intercession in a theology that was supposed to be monotheistic.

Simply put, this is an attempt at answering why it was that specifically the last six psalms of Sefer Tehillim were chosen to be inserted into an already well-established Siddur, at that late juncture in history. Was it a “re-enactment” of why those types of psalms were instituted in the first place when the parallel and original biblical monarchy was also in decline?

Although I do draw on previous scholarship (in Part I), this hypothesis (in Part II) is my own and any shortcomings or inaccuracies are entirely my own.


Part I:

Sefer Tehillim (Psalms) as a subtle reaction to the institution of the monarchy


Although the monarchy of Davidic kings certainly appears to be a key subject matter of the Tehillim, there is a quiet and subversive element that is discernible within the overall or final shape of the Psalms as we have them today. The order[1] of the five books of Tehillim, when read synchronically[2], seems to move from early veneration or glorification of the king to later proclamations of his redundancy as more room is slowly made for G-d, presented as the King of kings.[3]

There is also a general movement from lament to praise of G-d as one moves through the books. Thus, in terms of numbers of psalms in each genre of lament and praise, the following patterns emerge:


   Book I :       59% lament      =        24  of  41 psalms         to       20% praise

   Book II:       65% lament      =        20  of  31 psalms         to       19% praise

   Book III:      47% lament      =        8    of  17 psalms         to       35% praise

   Book IV:      24% lament      =        4    of  17 psalms         to       29% praise

   Book V:       23% lament      =        10  of  44 psalms         to       52% praise


And as one moves systematically from lament to praise of G-d, simultaneously one moves from a lofty presentation of the monarchy to a less than glorious depiction, and more of a focus on G-d as the King.[4]

[Note: Bear in mind as we go through the texts, that a characteristic of the psalms (and biblical poetry, and in fact biblical Hebrew in general) is the flexible meaning of the verb tenses. Thus, as an example from Psalm 30:11: שְׁמַע־יְהֹוָ֥ה וְחׇנֵּ֑נִי יְ֝הֹוָ֗ה הֱֽיֵה־עֹזֵ֥ר לִֽי׃ - “Hear, Lord, and have mercy on me; Lord, be my help!” This sentence has a dual meaning in that it could refer to a request for help in the future or it could be an expression of gratitude for the past, blurring the difference between supplication and thanksgiving.[5]]

Psalm 2 - Messiah and 'son of G-d'

As early as in Psalm 2, the tone is set for framing the Tehillim along royal lines, with emphasis on the idea that: a) G-d appointed the king; and b) the king is G-d’s “messiah” or anointed one:

לָ֭מָּה רָגְשׁ֣וּ גוֹיִ֑ם...עַל־הֹ וְעַל־מְשִׁיחֽוֹ׃

Why do the nations assemble (with evil intent)…against God and His anointed?

And in the same psalm, this king is described as referred to by G-d as מַלְכִּ֑י (My king) who rules over צִ֝יּ֗וֹן הַר־קׇדְשִֽׁי (Zion and My holy mountain). G-d and king seem inextricably bound together. The Sovereign King is shown to endorse His earthly king. This is a very strong inter-relationship:

ה אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיך׃ שְׁאַ֤ל מִמֶּ֗נִּי וְאֶתְּנָ֣ה ג֭וֹיִם נַחֲלָתֶ֑ךָ וַ֝אֲחֻזָּתְךָ֗ אַפְסֵי־אָֽרֶץ׃

The Lord said to me, “You are My son, I have fathered you this day. Ask it of Me, and I will make the nations your domain; your estate, the limits of the earth.

The king proclaims that G-d has called him His “son”, and whatever the king needs, G-d will give him, even land to the ends of the earth. The institution, credentials and power of the Davidic monarchy are thus firmly presented as divinely sanctioned and ordained.

In thirty-seven[6] of the forty-one psalms of Book I, David is mentioned in every superscription or title, setting the initial tone of the Tehillim as one of royal rule and Divine sanction in their full glory and splendour.

Psalm 18 - Righteous king

Psalm 18:21 speaks of the king describing his own righteousness:

יִגְמְלֵ֣נִי ה כְּצִדְקִ֑י כְּבֹ֥ר יָ֝דַ֗י יָשִׁ֥יב לִֽי׃

The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; He rewarded the cleanness of my hands.

The king is thus described as being rewarded for his righteousness and therefore, because of the cleanness of his hands, the realm prospers. Right now, all is well in the land because ‘as goes the king so goes the people’.

Psalms 20 and 21 -  Difficult war

But this idyllic picture of perfect king and perfect nation slowly begins to unravel as Sefer Tehillim progresses and unfolds. Psalms 20 and 21 are seen as connected to each other and speaking of ‘before and after’ a victorious battle. However, the glory was hard-won:

יַֽעַנְךָ֣ ה בְּי֣וֹם צָרָ֑ה...יִשְׁלַֽח־עֶזְרְךָ֥ מִקֹּ֑דֶשׁ...יִזְכֹּ֥ר כׇּל־מִנְחֹתֶ֑ךָ...יִֽתֶּן־לְךָ֥ כִלְבָבֶ֑ךָ...עַתָּ֤ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּ֤י הוֹשִׁ֥יעַ ׀ ֗ה מְשִׁ֫יח֥וֹ

May the Lord answer you in time of trouble…May He send you help from the sanctuary…May He remember all your offerings…May He grant you your desire…Now I know that the Lord will give victory to His anointed.

There is victory and the king is still “meshicho” (the anointed), but the victory did not come easy. Cracks are beginning to show in the infallibility of the king who now requires some additional assistance.

Psalm 45 - Weddings

Psalm 45 describes a royal wedding and networking, with the creating of diplomatic ties and foreign marriages with rich nations which are needed to boost the dwindling power of the king:

וּבַֽת־צֹ֨ר ׀ בְּ֭מִנְחָה פָּנַ֥יִךְ יְחַלּ֗וּ עֲשִׁ֣ירֵי עָֽם...לִרְקָמוֹת֮ תּוּבַ֪ל לַ֫מֶּ֥לֶךְ בְּתוּל֣וֹת אַ֭חֲרֶיהָ רֵעוֹתֶ֑יהָ מ֖וּבָא֣וֹת לָֽךְ׃

And [even] the daughter of Tyre, the richest of the nations, will court your favor [with tribute and gift]…In embroidered [garments] she will be brought [as a gift] to the King; virgins in her train [of the gentile nations] shall be brought to You.

Psalm 72 - Hope for Tzedek and Mishpat

Psalm 72 is a prayer in the hope that the king will rule justly:

יָדִ֣ין עַמְּךָ֣ בְצֶ֑דֶק וַעֲנִיֶּ֥יךָ בְמִשְׁפָּֽט׃

That he may judge Your people rightly, Your lowly ones, justly.

This is a far cry from Psalm 18 where the king declared his righteousness. It is now evident that the earlier mood of glorious monarchy is slowly being corroded as the psalms progress.

Psalm 89 - The 'pivot'

In Psalm 89, the institution of the monarchy reaches rock bottom. The Psalm begins by reminding us that the Davidic line was originally supposed to be perpetual:

כָּרַ֣תִּי בְ֭רִית לִבְחִירִ֑י נִ֝שְׁבַּ֗עְתִּי לְדָוִ֥ד עַבְדִּֽי׃ עַד־ע֭וֹלָם אָכִ֣ין זַרְעֶ֑ךָ וּבָנִ֨יתִי לְדֹר־וָד֖וֹר כִּסְאֲךָ֣ סֶֽלָה׃

I have made a covenant with My chosen one; I have sworn to My servant David: I will establish your offspring forever, I will confirm your throne for all generations. Selah.

But then, dramatically, the monarchy is depicted as unravelling and as having been rejected:

וְאַתָּ֣ה זָ֭נַחְתָּ וַתִּמְאָ֑ס הִ֝תְעַבַּ֗רְתָּ עִם־מְשִׁיחֶֽךָ׃ נֵ֭אַרְתָּה בְּרִ֣ית עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ חִלַּ֖לְתָּ לָאָ֣רֶץ נִזְרֽוֹ...הִשְׁבַּ֥תָּ מִטְּהָר֑וֹ וְ֝כִסְא֗וֹ לָאָ֥רֶץ מִגַּֽרְתָּה׃

Yet You have rejected, spurned, and become enraged at Your anointed. You have repudiated the covenant with Your servant; You have dragged his dignity in the dust…You have brought his splendour (or sceptre) to an end and have hurled his throne to the ground.

This is where Book III ends and it signifies a pivot around which a new theology begins to emerge. Books IV and V are a response to the demise of the monarchy as depicted in Psalm 89. In Books III and IV David is hardly mentioned. And at the end of Book II, we read that “the prayers of David ben Yishai have ended”. 

Psalm 90 - Moshe

Then, at the beginning of Book IV, Psalm 90, opens with a rare reference to Moshe. This is where the new theology begins as the people now had to return to pre-monarchy Judaism:

תְּפִלָּה֮ לְמֹשֶׁ֢ה אִֽישׁ־הָאֱלֹ֫קים אֲֽדֹני מָע֣וֹן אַ֭תָּה הָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֗נוּ בְּדֹ֣ר וָדֹֽר׃

A prayer of Moses, the man of God. O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.

G-d is described as מָע֣וֹן אַ֭תָּה the refuge to whom the poor and needy turn to, as the royal institution which was tasked in the past with taking care of the people, is no more.

Reference is made to Moshe (and it is the only psalm bearing his name in the superscription) and to G-d, reminding the people of their original relationship with G-d before the monarchy. Moshe’s name is mentioned six times in Book IV within the body of other psalms.

Psalms 93 to 99  - Malchiyot

A dominating theme of Book IV is the seven psalms (93-99) of “Malchiot” (Enthronement) where G-d is described as the King. The human king is no more the representation of heavenly “Malchut” (Sovereignty) but it is G-d alone who is the Sovereign.

Psalm 107 - G-d over king

Book V begins with Psalm 107:

הֹד֣וּ לַה כִּי־ט֑וֹב כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃ יֹ֭אמְרוּ גְּאוּלֵ֣י ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר גְּ֝אָלָ֗ם מִיַּד־צָֽר׃

Praise the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love is eternal. Thus let the redeemed of the Lord say, those He redeemed from adversity.

Redemption is now seen as coming solely from G-d without the agency of the king. 

Psalms 113 to 118 - Egyptian Hallel

In Book V there is also a collection of Six psalms (113-118), known as the Egyptian Hallel. Again, a throwback to earlier pre-monarchical times where G-d played a more dominant role without the intercession of a king. 

Psalm 119 - Torah

Psalm 119 with its 176 verses dominates book V. It is a Torah related psalm which mentions Torah twenty-five times. This also can be seen as alluding to a Torah-centeredness after the monarchy. The people could now turn to and focus more on the Torah and G-d instead of primarliy on the monarchy.

Psalm 144 - David reappears

Book V does contain 14 psalms with reference to David. There were tensions within the community with some happy to see the end of the monarchy while others were holding out with hope for its return. Either way, the monarchical tone is more subdued than in the earlier sections of the Psalms.

Thus Psalm 144 depicts a weaker David, beleaguered in battle and appealing to G-d for help. Gone are the monarchical glory days. 

אֱֽלֹקים שִׁ֣יר חָ֭דָשׁ אָשִׁ֣ירָה לָּ֑ךְ...הַנּוֹתֵ֥ן תְּשׁוּעָ֗ה לַמְּלָ֫כִ֥ים הַ֭פּוֹצֶה אֶת־דָּוִ֥ד עַבְדּ֗וֹ מֵחֶ֥רֶב רָעָֽה׃

God, I will sing You a new song… to You who give victory to kings, who rescue His servant David from the deadly sword.

And it ends with a reference to crops: (Remember the verb tenses in Tehillim are neutral)

מְזָוֵ֣ינוּ מְלֵאִים֮ מְפִיקִ֥ים מִזַּ֗ן אֶ֫ל־זַ֥ן צֹאונֵ֣נוּ מַ֭אֲלִיפוֹת מְרֻבָּב֗וֹת בְּחוּצוֹתֵֽינוּ׃

Our storehouses are full, supplying produce of all kinds; our flocks number thousands, even myriads, in our fields.

This is significant because the success of crops was, in earlier monarchical times, considered to be totally dependent upon the king finding favour in G-d’s eyes. The king and the law were often equated in the culture of the Ancient Near East. Perhaps this conflation of king and law was alluded to in the first two psalms. Psalm 1 is a Torah oriented psalm, while Psalm 2 is a Royal Psalm. The two entities of Torah and king might overlap (the king had to have his own copy of the Torah which he carried with him at all times) but they were still supposed to remain two distinct entities. For this reason, it was important that the Torah was given outside of the land and thereby not be linked to any king, so as to differentiate it from the practices of the Ancient Near East where laws were often related to specific kings. The boundaries between law, king and god in the Ancient Near East were not that clear. It is, therefore, quite feasible that even in ancient Israel the conflation between king and G-d might not always have been entirely uncommon (such as in the case of the crops relying on the righteousness of the king). But now, as we move to the close of the Sefer Tehillim, crops are said to rely only upon G-d and do not need intercession or merit from a monarch.

Psalm 145 - 'Ashrei' and 'Pesukei Dezimra'

Psalm 145 (known today as “Ashrei”) shows how David the king acknowledges G-d as the King:

תְּהִלָּ֗ה לְדָ֫וִ֥ד אֲרוֹמִמְךָ֣ אֱלוֹקי הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַאֲבָרְכָ֥ה שִׁ֝מְךָ֗ לְעוֹלָ֥ם וָעֶֽד׃

A song of praise. Of David. I will extol You, my G-d and king, and bless Your name forever and ever.

No longer do we wait for the monarch to bestow mercy upon the weak in the realm, because “G-d is good to all” (־ה לַכֹּ֑לטוֹב), and “G-d supports all who stumble” (כׇל־הַנֹּפְלִ֑יםסומך ה ל). And “The eyes of all look to You expectantly” (עֵֽינֵי־כֹ֭ל אֵלֶ֣יךָ יְשַׂבֵּ֑רוּ). The people now look only to G-d expectantly, not the king. And “You give them their food when it is due” (אֶת־אׇכְלָ֣ם בְּעִתּֽוֹוְאַתָּ֤ה נֽוֹתֵן־לָהֶ֖ם) emphasising that it is G-d who gives, not the king. Before, in Psalm 2, the abundant harvest was said to have been a result of the king’s righteousness or simply through the king asking of G-d שְׁאַ֤ל מִמֶּ֗נִּי וְאֶתְּנָ֣ה (Ask and I shall give).

Psalm 146 - From 'son of G-d' to 'son of man'

Psalm 146 expresses all the ideas of the new theology in one sentence:

 בְּבֶן־אָדָ֓ם ׀ שֶׁ֤אֵ֖ין ל֥וֹ תְשׁוּעָֽה׃אַל־תִּבְטְח֥וּ בִנְדִיבִ֑ים

Put not your trust in princes, in the son of man who cannot save.

This latter psalm referring now to the king as the “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָ֓ם) has come a long way from Psalm 2 which deemed the king as the “son of G-d” (בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה).

Now the king is rendered redundant and described as:

תֵּצֵ֣א ר֭וּחוֹ יָשֻׁ֣ב לְאַדְמָת֑וֹ

His breath departs; he returns to the dust.

The psalm continues with a description of G-d as:

עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט ׀ לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗ים נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים יְ֝הֹוָ֗ה מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים׃

Who secures justice for those who are wronged, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free.

These functions were earlier seen as noblesse oblige and the proclivity of the monarch. The earlier Psalm 72 spoke about how the king “saves the needy” (כִּֽי־יַ֭צִּיל אֶבְי֣וֹן) and “cares about the poor needy” (יָ֭חֹס עַל־דַּ֣ל וְאֶבְי֑וֹן). However, towards the end of the Book of Psalms that societal obligation had moved from the mortal king to G-d who now becomes the “guardian of the stranger, orphan and widow” (שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה). Now it is G-d who provides these functions.

Psalm 149 - A better approach

Psalm 149 suggests that without dependency on a mortal king we enter a new and purer phase of religion, by “singing a new song” (שִׁ֣ירוּ לַֽ֭ה שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ) and the Jewish people are called upon to “rejoice in their King”, (בְּנֵֽי־צִ֝יּ֗וֹן יָגִ֥ילוּ בְמַלְכָּֽם). And even G-d is depicted as relishing His new relationship with Israel and “wanting His people” (כִּֽי־רוֹצֶ֣ה ה בְּעַמּ֑וֹ).

Psalm 150 - Praise of G-d not praise of monarchy

The final Psalm 150 is simply an outpouring of praise, usually reserved for the office of the king but now directed solely to G-d with thirteen Hallelu-yas in just 6 sentences.

Such is the trajectory of the royal institution - from ultimate human supremacy to dust - as portrayed by the general tenor of the psalms as one moves through the books. The role of the monarch is gradually replaced with G-d as King. While the movement of Tehillim from the beginning to the end of the book, is from lament to praise of G-d - there is simultaneous movement in the opposite direction, from the glorious king to the loss of human kingship and a shifting of the focus onto G-d as the book ends with the six Hellelu-ya psalms, which later went on to make up the Pesukei Dezimra. The movement towards praise of G-d coincides with the movement away from the king and towards G-d as King.


Part II:

Pesukei Dezimra as a reaction to the demise of the institution of the Reish Galuta

After looking at the Psalms as a reaction to the institution of the monarchy and as a restoration of a theology of G-d without the need of a monarchy (as would have well-served the communities of the post-Temple period), we examine another form of monarchy that flourished well into post-Talmudic times the office of the Reish Galuta.

History of the office of the Reish Galuta

Reish Galuta (Exilarch or Head of the Exile) was the title conferred upon the leader of Babylonian Jewry from the time of the Babylonian Exile (587 BCE). This office was recognised not only by the Jews but also by the Babylonian and then Persian empires. The leaders who filled these positions claimed descendance from the royal Davidic line. According to Seder Olam Zuta, an anonymous chronicle from the ninth century, the very first Reish Galuta was King Yehoyakim (or Jehoiakim, 609-598 BCE) the son of Yoshiyahu (or Josiah) and the eighteenth king of Judah. This means that the institution of the Reish Galuta began while the Temple was still standing. Seder Olam Zuta deals with thirty-nine generations of Rashei Galuyot.

The Talmud[7] mentions that the Jewish authority in Babylonia was called the Reish Galuta, while the authority in Eretz Yisrael was called the Nasi (Prince). The Reish Galuta, however, is depicted as ruling with force and having far more power than the Nasi.

In post-Talmudic times, between about 715 and 795, there was a dispute between two candidates, the brothers Anan and Chanania ben David, for the position of Reish Galuta. Anan was not successful and he declared himself the anti-Exilarch. He was imprisoned and perhaps as revenge, founded Karaite Judaism (which disregarded the entire Talmud and oral tradition, relying instead solely upon Biblical Scriptures). This created a split in the hereditary chain of the Reish Galuta with Rabbanites and Karaites each claiming their leaders were the authentic royal bloodline.

Within the Rabbanite line of succession, when Rav Hai Gaon died in 1038, there was no longer a successful candidate for the role of Reish Galuta so Chizkiyahu was appointed to fill the role of both Gaon and Reish Gaulta. This compromise lasted only two years until Chizkiyahu was imprisoned. Thus, while there are some scattered references to a Reish Galuta at various later points in Jewish history, 1040 marked the official end of the royal office of the Reish Galuta.

The people’s perception of the Reish Galuta

The office of the Reish Galuta was not always viewed favourably. The fact that the non-Jewish authorities accepted, interacted with, and sometimes even put pressure on the process of the appointment of the Reish Galuta, did not help matters either. The Reish Galuta was elevated above the populace and, according to the Talmud[8] wore distinctive badges on his clothing. In another source[9] a woman complained that the Reish Galuta and the scholars in his entourage had stolen her sukkah and celebrated in it. In another incident[10] a Reish Galuta is recorded as having a large banqueting pavilion in his orchard and it created certain challenges with regard to carrying outside of an eiruv (Shabbat boundary). Another Reish Galuta is said to have had music playing in his house throughout the day and night[11] and yet another, Nechemia, is said to have dressed entirely in silk.[12] Often the Reish Galuta also served as chief tax collector for the Jewish population in the realm and in one instance he had collected so much grain as to fill “40 square ells”.

One of the most important tasks of the Reish Gaulta was to appoint a judge. The Talmud[13] speaks of the immunity of the judge who gives an erroneous judgement, by virtue of the fact that he was appointed by the Reish Galuta. Sometimes, the Reish Galuta even ruled, not according to Jewish law, but according to Persian law[14]. Avraham Zacuto in his Yuchasin, describes elaborate ceremonies marking, in detail, the installation of the Reish Galuta (see Appendix).

Around the sixth century, the Babylonian Reish Galuta, Mar Zutra II, rebelled against king Kavadh I and established an independent Jewish city-state in Mahoza. However, a short while later, the king captured Mar Zutra and crucified him.

Yekum Purkan

To this day, in Ashkenazi synagogues, a prayer known as Yehum Purkan, is still recited for the Reish Guluta, just after Torah Reading. This prayer, however, is not recited by Sefaradim.

Elokeinu Melech haOlam

Rambam rules that the Reish Galuta has the absolute power of a king and he can rule over the people whether they like it or not:

רָאשֵׁי גָּלֻיּוֹת שֶׁבְּבָבֶל בִּמְקוֹם מֶלֶךְ הֵן עוֹמְדִים. וְיֵשׁ לָהֶן לִרְדּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל מָקוֹם וְלָדוּן עֲלֵיהֶן בֵּין רָצוּ בֵּין לֹא רָצוּ

Having established that the Reish Galuta is regarded as a king, it is not unreasonable to assume that the reaction to his office would have been no different from the reaction to the office of the original Davidic kings of Judah, as we saw expressed in the Tehillim.

When the era of original kingship had concluded after the fall of Jerusalem in 587, the shift in focus moved away from the king and was directed towards G-d as King. It is no coincidence that in the time of Ezra and his Anshei Kenesset haGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), prayers began to be formalised along the line of the siddur as we know it today. As part of the new liturgy, following the destruction of the Temple, berachot (blessings) were established with the very specific formula:

ברוך אתה ה׳ אלקינו מלך העולם

As we saw in the trajectory of the Tehillim, the personage of the monarch is gradually reduced to make way for G-d - so too do the berachot reflect an emphasis on the kingship of G-d, who is “King of the universe”.

For those who were distraught over the loss of the monarchy, the Tehillim and berachot would have brought solace because there still was a king, a greater King of the universe. And for those who were not upset with the passing of the monarchy (as many Judean kings were indeed not worthy of their office), this would have signalled a return to an original Mosaic monotheism untainted by the need for royal intercession where the king was depicted as the “son of G-dבְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה (Psalm 2).

The language of Pesukei Dezimra

The inclusion of the Pesukei Dezimra into the siddur, at precisely the end of the Geonic period, when the office of the Reish Galuta was disbanded, would have performed a similar function: There was no longer a mortal king, but there was still G-d the King. And the same section of Tehillim marking the original “transfer” from king to King, was used to mark the transition from Reish Galuta also to G-d as King.

Each of the six psalms (145-150) of Pesukei Dezimra (which are also the last six psalms in Sefer Tehillim as we saw earlier) contain numerous references to G-d fulfilling the function of what was once the proclivity of the king.

It is significant to note that Rambam refers to these six psalms as the essence of Pesukei Dezimra.[15]


Pesukei Dezimra is often referred to as “trimming” or “pruning” (“zmr”). This is usually didactically interpreted as spiritually “preparing” (by trimming out foreign thoughts) for the important sections of Shema and Shemonei Esrei which follow next. Moshe Ibn Gigatila (eleventh century) had a different interpretation, he saw them as being carefully selected or “cut” by an “editor”. Perhaps we can add another interpretation. The “trimming” is simply and literally the “severing” of the institution of the monarchy and a restoration of classical pre-monarchical Judaism sans the need for royal intercession. Perhaps it is these verses (=Pesukei) that reflect that severing (=Dezimra).

The interesting question for today’s time is whether the notions of corresponding models of modern “monarchical” Judaism, in its various forms of extreme veneration of rabbinical figures, would infringe upon these same boundaries?


[1] On the matter of the exact order of the Tehillim, the Midrash Tehillim writes:

...זה שאמר הכתוב (איוב כח יג) לא ידע אנוש ערכה. א"ר אלעזר לא נתנו פרשיותיה של תורה על הסדר (שאלמלא) נתנו על הסדר כל מי שהוא קורא בהן מיד היה יכול לבראות עולם ולהחיות מתים ולעשות מופתים לפיכך נתעלם סידורה של תורה וגלוי לפני הקב"ה...רבי יהושע בן לוי ביקש לישב על הספר הזה ולסדרו יצאת בת קול ואמרה לו אל תפיחו את הישן

As to the exact order of David’s Psalms, Scripture says: “Man does not know the order thereof” (Job 28:13). R. Eleazar taught: The sections of Scripture are not arranged in their proper order. Were they to be in their proper order, any person who read them would be able to create the universe, revive the dead and perform other miracles. Therefore, the order is only known to G-d. R. Yehoshua ben Levi once tried to arrange the Book of Psalms in their proper order and a heavenly voice protested, saying: Do not rouse that which slumbers.

Nevertheless, the same Midrash mentions rabbis who did try and expound on the order.

[2] Because this article is based on a synchronic (literary) reading, and not a diachronic (historical) reading, the ideas are based on general “flows”, “themes” and apparent “patterns” present within the final shape of the psalms.

[3] On a more technical level, Psalms 2-89 (Books I, II and II) are believed by some scholars to be an earlier collection, and Psalm 1, and Books IV and V are said to be a later collection. Nevertheless, the two collections parallel each other in that both start with high praise of the king (Psalms 2 and 110) and move towards a more negative royal image as the books progress.

[4] As to the references to King David in the superscriptions, the breakdown is as follows:

Book I:    93%  (37  of  41  psalms)

Book II:   58%  (18  of  31  psalms)

Book III:  6%    (1    of  17  psalms)

Book IV:  12%  (2    of  17  psalms)

Book V:   32%  (14  of  44  psalms)

Thus, Books I, II and V have more Davidic superscriptions than Books III and V.

-That the king is gradually portrayed in less glorious terms, however, is based more on content (how the king is depicted) rather than the number of mentions.

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

[6] Considering Psalms 1 and 2 as “introductions,” the only other two psalms in Book I not mentioning David in the superscriptions are Psalms 10 and 33.

[7] b. Sanhedrin 5a.

[8] b. Shabbat 58a.

[9] b. Sukka 31a.

[10] b. Eruvin 25b: 10-11.

[11] y. Megila 74b

[12] b. Shabbat 20b.

[13] b. Sanhedrin 5a.

[14] b. Bava Kama 55a and 58b.

[15] Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 7:12.


The members of the two academies [Sura and Pumbedita], led by the two heads [the geonim] as well as by the leaders of the community, assemble in the house of an especially prominent man before the Sabbath on which the installation of the exilarch is to take place. The first homage is paid on Thursday in the synagogue, the event being announced by trumpets, and every one sends presents to the exilarch according to his means. The leaders of the community and the wealthy send handsome garments, jewelry, and gold and silver vessels. On Thursday and Friday the exilarch gives great banquets. On the morning of the Sabbath the nobles of the community call for him and accompany him to the synagogue. Here a wooden platform covered entirely with costly cloth has been erected, under which a picked choir of sweet-voiced youths well versed in the liturgy has been placed. This choir responds to the leader in prayer, who begins the service with 'Baruk she-amar.' After the morning prayer the exilarch, who until now has been standing in a covered place, appears; the whole congregation rises and remains standing until he has taken his place on the platform, and the two geonim, the one from Sura preceding, have taken seats to his right and left, each making an obeisance.


A costly canopy has been erected over the seat of the exilarch. Then the leader in prayer steps in front of the platform and, in a low voice audible only to those close by, and accompanied by the 'Amen' of the choir, addresses the exilarch with a benediction, prepared long beforehand. Then the exilarch delivers a sermon on the text of the week or commissions the gaon of Sura to do so. After the discourse the leader in prayer recites the Ḳaddish, and when he reaches the words 'during your life and in your days,' he adds the words 'and during the life of our prince, the exilarch.' After the Ḳaddish he blesses the exilarch, the two heads of the schools, and the several provinces that contribute to the support of the academies, as well as the individuals who have been of especial service in this direction. Then the Torah is read. When the 'Kohen' and 'Levi' have finished reading, the leader in prayer carries the Torah roll to the exilarch, the whole congregation rising; the exilarch takes the roll in hishands and reads from it while standing. The two heads of the schools also rise, and the gaon of Sura recites the targum to the passage read by the exilarch. When the reading of the Torah is completed, a blessing is pronounced upon the exilarch. After the 'Musaf' prayer the exilarch leaves the synagogue, and all, singing, accompany him to his house. After that the exilarch rarely goes beyond the gate of his house, where services for the community are held on the Sabbaths and feastdays. When it becomes necessary for him to leave his house, he does so only in a carriage of state, accompanied by a large retinue. If the exilarch desires to pay his respects to the king, he first asks permission to do so. As he enters the palace the king's servants hasten to meet him, among whom he liberally distributes gold coin, for which provision has been made beforehand. When led before the king his seat is assigned to him. The king then asks what he desires. He begins with carefully prepared words of praise and blessing, reminds the king of the customs of his fathers, gains the favor of the king with appropriate words, and receives written consent to his demands; thereupon, rejoiced, he takes leave of the king."

[A. Neubauer: "Mediæval Jewish Chronicles," ii. 83]


  1. Wouldn't it be simpler to say that these psalms entered the liturgy because the Talmud explicitly mentions it, as understood by all commentators to mean all or some subset of these psalms (Shabbat 118b)?

    Is it really accurate to say that they didn't enter the prayer book until the 10th or 11th centuries (aside from the fact that the concept of a prayer book in the literal sense didn't exist until around that time)? If Rabbi Yosi says יהא חלקי מגומרי הלל בכל יום, surely in the millenium that this statement was preserved some people made efforts to actually do what he said?

  2. Thanks AW. It is possible and it would be simpler, although there seems to be strong evidence from both historians and Halachic sources that Pesukei Dezimra as we know it, was instituted in Gaonic times (See Peninei Halacha on Pesukei Dezimra for example).

    Also Rashi mentions that R. Yosi only recited two "mizmorim" in his Hallel, Ps 148 and Ps 150, not six psalms.

    And in Gaonic times other material was added in addition to the psalms to form Pesukei Dezimra as we have it today.

  3. Pesukei Dezimra, as we know it, yes - but your article discusses the only part that must date to before that time. Rashi's view notwithstanding, a longer form of Pesukei Dezimra (including a few other additions) is mentioned already in Tractate Soferim 17:11 (explicitly attributing Ps. 145-150 to Rabbi Yosi's opinion). If Wikipedia is right to date it to eighth-century Land of Israel, it would be impossible that this interpretation of Rabbi Yosi was advanced because of the end of the office of the Resh Galuta. It was already the traditional interpretation of Rabbi Yosi's view.

  4. It was 'a' not necessarily 'the' traditional interpretation of R. Yossi's view. On Soferim's view, I would have to agree with you. But not on Rashi's view.

    Either way I would still maintain that people recited tehillim anyway, already for centuries. My point is that at the end of the period of the Gaonim a section of Tehillim was still selected (albeit from pre-existing collections of whatever form - even including your source from Soferim!) and FORMALIZED into the liturgy because it matched the anti-monarchical sentiment of the well-used Tehillim (which, no doubt, had been recited in various well-established collections in the past. Including, possibly amongst others, the collection associated with R. Yosi in Soferim).

    Put another way: even assuming that this 'fuller Hallel' was indeed the practice of R. Yosi - at the end of the Gaonic period, however, it became the official practice of ALL Jewry.

  5. 1) "Book V does contain 14 psalms with reference to David. There were tensions within the community with some happy to see the end of the monarchy while others were holding out with hope for its return. Either way, the monarchical tone is more subdued than in the earlier sections of the Psalms."

    You're just making things up. The שיר המעלות series is uncompromisingly pro-Davidic and messianic, and provides the key texts for later second temple and Rabbinic Davidic-legitimism.

    2) A much more obvious way of understanding how tehilim is arranged is that it is done thematically. Psalms with a particular historical link are put together, psalms that start and end with הללויה are put together etc.

    3) There is no evidence anywhere in Tanach of declining enthusiasm for Davidic monarchy towards the end of the 1st temple period. To the contrary it is very strong in Yeshayahu and in Eichah רוח אפינו משיח השם.

    4) Whatever the meaning of Rabi Yose's statement may have been originally, its interpretation in the gemara is that it refers to psalms that have the word הללויה in them; this is how all mefarshim read it. 146-150 is one obvious reading of this (145 comes from a separate source), though not the only one. The geonic authors of siddurim had to pick one of the options and whatever option they had picked, someone would try to read spurious significance into it. In fact, if memory serves, Sa'adya Gaon has a different version with 135 and 136.

    5) The process by which an optional-commendable practice becomes considered an obligatory practice is one of the most common things in Judaism. It's more a rule than an exception. It requires no special, let alone political, explanation in this case.

    6) Your central assumption is that talking about G-d as מלך is somehow anti-monarchical, at least by implication. It's easy to think this way because we all grow up in a world shaped by English-speaking protestant radicals for whom this was a central belief. But it's just not true. Again, read Yeshayahu, super pro-monarchy and also super pro using monarchical imagery about G-d. Conversely the Torah almost never uses monarchical imagery, which is why we have to stretch things so much when picking pesukim for the davening on RH. This whole premise only exists in your imagination.

    7) There are many obvious reasons why psalms 145-150 are good preparations for davening. Frankly, this attempt to read into them some coded message about the Reish Galuta is what someone who has trouble connecting to davening and has an excessive interest in politics would come up with.

  6. You make some good points. Thank you Gavriel. But remember that Rav Saadia, for example (who wasn't Protestant) and I don't believe had difficulty "connecting to davenning", said that psalms must not be prayed but read (as he equated Tehillim to Torah - both were the words of the "Master to the servant" and were not to be used the other way around). And he was polemical (political) as well, because he formulated this view based on his opposition to the Karaite use of Tehillim as their official prayer book as they rejected the Rabbinic Siddur.