David Walk

Focus – Nishmat Pt. 4

We finally get to the climax of the Nishmat prayer. This wonderful declaration of our love and devotion for God concludes the Psalms of Praise (PESUKEI D’ZIMRA) on Shabbat and Chag, and introduces the YISHTABACH blessing over the recitation of all these Biblical tributes to God. We add this remarkable preface to Yishtabach only on those days when we have more time and spiritual awareness to do this beautiful prayer justice, but not at those weekday minyanim which can be a bit rushed. This prayer must be savored. 

In our survey of this work we’ve reached the line: For every mouth shall offer thanks to You; every tongue shall vow allegiance to You; every knee shall bend to You; every erect spine shall prostrate itself before You. 

This is the first of four ‘foursomes’ which we will encounter. Each quartet will be an ascending grouping of allegiance to God. We begin this grouping with the mouth which represents our presentation to the outside world. Our mouth expresses gratitude and acknowledgment to God. It’s states a simple ‘thanks’. Next, we discuss the tongue, which in polite society stays safely and politely tucked inside the mouth. With this more inward vehicle for expression, we vow or commit to loyally serving God. 

Next, we describe our obedience to God rendered by bending the knee. This act acknowledges servitude to a greater power. Then we speak of the entire spinal column bowing in deference and humility to God. This act represents total submission and obedience, which comes from a place of respect and reverence, rather than from fear or fawning. 

After this tetrad, we mention two other acts of homage to God: all hearts shall revere You; and all innermost (Hebrew: KLOYOT, kidneys) feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name. This duet is fascinating because we observe how the authors viewed human organs symbolically. The awe and reverence came from the seat of reason and thought, namely the LEV, heart. The singing comes from place of emotion, KEREV and K’LAYOT, our innards and kidneys. To the ancients, the heart was the thinking organ, while emotions were in the kidneys. Should one send kidney shaped boxes of candy? 

Now comes, for me, the high point of our prayer. We quote from King David and declare: Every bone in my body will shout: ‘No one is like the Lord!’ You protect the helpless from those in power; you save the poor and needy from those who hurt them. (Tehillim 35:10). Out total being waxes poetic over the power and benevolence of God. There is no greater expression of benevolent power than the protection of those who can’t fend for themselves. 

This powerful declaration is the major source for SHOKLING, or waving back and forth as we pray. We attempt to get our whole body into this effort to glorify our God. But it is an argument, of course. There are those who insist that we are not required to be physically animated during prayer, but as Rebbe Nachman said:

When we pray with such fervor that we put all our strength into the letters of the prayers, the words of the prayer are themselves the words of the Holy One, blessed-be-He… One prays with all his strength, and his whole mind and very essence are concentrated on his devotion. This is true prayer (Likutei Eitzot). 

We, therefore, declare, ‘Who is like unto you? Who is equal to You? Who can be compared to You?’ Nothing in existence can be placed in the same category as God, who is a set of One. 

Now we arrive at the second group of four: We will 1. praise, 2. extol, 3. glorify, and 4. bless your holy Name. These verbs describe an ascending process of ways to show our sincere love and honor for our Creator. The first, HALLEL is a visceral cry of ‘wow’; SHEVACH is a well thought out series of praises; PE’ER is an attempt to influence others to see the wonder of God, and BEIRACH is an effort to increase the Presence of God and Divine action in the realm. 

Originally, in synagogues, the prayer leader or CHAZAN rose to lead the service at the beginning of Nishmat. Some of you may remember that Shlomo Carlebach did that in more recent times. However, nowadays the CHAZAN rises at SHOCHEN AD on Shabbat, at HA’KEL on Chagim and at HAMELECH on the High Holidays. These practices apparently began during the period of the RISHONIM (after the year 1000 CE). Many authorities believe that this practice started with HAMELECH on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, because the theme of those august days is the Kingship of God. 

This grouping of phrases, of course, is our third foursome:

The 1. God in the awesomeness of Your power, the 2. Great One in the glory of You Name, the 3. Mighty One in Your infinite existence, and the 4. Awesome One in Your unfathomable deeds. All those realities, in their ever-ascending greatness, results in us declaring: You are the King enthroned upon a high and lofty throne. 

This address to God results in us declaring to our newly crowned Sovereign: Who dwells forever exalted and holy is His Name. Then we, again, quote from King David: Sing joyously to God, O righteous ones; the praise of the upright is exquisite (33:1). Now, based on that verse, our Sages present the last group of four. This grouping, however, results in a bit of a controversy. 

I will present the Ashkenazic format, because I believe it best presents the format of ascending praise. The first letters of the four personality types praising God spell out the name Yitzchak. That great Zadik went through all of these spiritual levels. However, let it be known that our Sephardic cousins tweak the order so that the verbs describing the praise are no longer in ascending order, so that the first letter of each verbs’ root spells our RIVKA, our Patriarch’s beloved wife. Cool, but I don’t think that effort helps the meaning. Here goes: 

By the mouth of the 1. Upright, You are praised; by the words of the 2. Righteous, You are blessed; by the tongue of the 3. Pious (CHASIDIM), You are exalted; by the inner reality of the 4. Holy Ones, You are sanctified.  

The are authorities who understand that the Holy Ones (KEDOSHIM) are those who are no longer of this physical realm. However, most traditional thinkers believe that the blind can be considered to have already passed on. Yitzchak, of course, spent his last days in total darkness, so he qualified as Holy even here on earth. 

This, finally, brings us to the last section before we actually recite YISHTABACH blessing. We begin by stating ‘And in our congregations’. There are those who say this refers to the fact that throughout much of Jewish history most people only could attend a minyan on Shabbat and Chag, during the business week, many Jews davened alone.  

Finally, we announce, through the use of nine verbs, that our praises of God are all based on the ethereal poetry of King David ben Yishai, the Sweet Singer of Yisrael. The number nine refers to the extra nine Psalms we add to Pesukei D’zimra on Shabbat and Chag. Fortified with the works of our anointed king, we’re ready to stand in prayer before our God.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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