David Walk

Prelude to Prayer

According to a DERASHA of Rav Simlai, ‘A person should always present praises to God before actually praying’ (Berachot 32a). He bases this observation on the behavior of Moshe Rabbeinu. Before begging to be allowed into Eretz Yisrael, we are told that Moshe said, ‘Please, Lord God! You have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. What deity in heaven or on earth can act as you do or can perform your deeds and powerful acts?’ (Devarim 3:24). Only then did he ask to be allowed into the promised Land. Well, I guess we also learn that you don’t always get what you ask for.  

Based on this precedent, our Sages organized a litany of selected Psalms to be recited daily before actually standing before God with our morning prayer, the Shmone Esre or Amida. We call this section of our prayer service PESUKEI D’ZIMRA, ‘verses of praise’. Actually, the word ZIMRA (related to ZEMIRA, song) probably originally comes from the agricultural term for ‘pruning’. So, what we’ve included is just the choicest material appropriate for the occasion. In other words, it could have been longer. 

Once our Sages have instituted a practice it is common to then require a blessing over this prescribed performance. With PESUKEI D’ZIMRA, we have a blessing at the beginning and another at the end. This week we will endeavor to elucidate the first half of the opening blessing for PESUKEI D’ZIMRA, which is called BARUCH SHEAMAR (Blessed is the One Who Spoke), based on the opening words of the prayer. 

This prayer breaks easily into two quite equal parts. The second, which we’ll take a look at next week, is a quite normal blessing format, and was probably written by the Men of the Great Assembly, perhaps around 400 BCE. However, the first half is a poem. Probably, it was first recited responsively. The Cantor would recite a line and the congregation would respond, BARUCH HU! (Blessed is He). There is evidence that this poem was first used in the ceremony to install the Exilarch or ruler of the Jewish community in Bavel (modern Iraq) during the period of the Geonim (600-1000 CE). 

There is a tradition from the late Middle Ages that the entire prayer was composed by the Men of the Great Assembly based on a PITKA or note which fell from heaven. The text had 87 words, which is the Gematria for PAZ or pure gold. There are many problems with this tale; we’ll mention two. First, the Talmud and Midrash have no record of such an event so clearly worthy of note (please, pardon the pun). Plus, there exist versions, from the Geonic Period, of the blessing without the introductory poem.   

Finally, it’s time to look at the content of this beautiful poem. We are, clearly, praising God, Who is the Creator of everything. The beginning of the poem emphasizes the creative powers of God, ‘the One Who spoke and everything came into being’. Then the poem seems to get repetitive. This same God ‘made the Creation or beginning’ and then ‘spoke and did’. Aren’t both of those ideas included in the original statement? Not according to the Etz Yosef commentary on the prayerbook. He avers that the first statement declares God’s unique capacity to create EX NIHILO, something out of nothing. However, these miraculous creations aren’t necessarily permanent, and, indeed, there are Midrashim which claim that God did create and destroy worlds before this one. 

We are blessing God for making this BREISHIT, beginning, permanent. Then the statement OMER V’OSEH, Who states and does, is making another statement entirely. God is to be trusted to fulfill everything every stated by God. This is also extremely significant for us as we study Torah. Every statement attributed to God will eventually happen. There’s omnipotence and authenticity. We can have total trust in God, because of the Divine absolute power, but also that God’s signet seal is truth. 

After that intro, I’m going to present two approaches to understanding the structure of the poem. The first was given by Rav David Zvi Hoffman in a famous series of lectures about TEFILA in Berlin from 1895, which has been recently translated into Hebrew by Mossad Harav Kook (Yehoshua Anvel, 2017). Rav Hoffman claims that we can understand seven aspects of God from this poem, and all relate specifically to the Tetragramaton (famous four-letter name which we never pronounce). Art Scroll (Complete Art Scroll Siddur, p. 58-9) summarizes them as follows: 

  1. God is the Creator Who brought all into creation and maintains it.
  2. God fulfills all promises made. 3.
  3. The Name refers to God’s infinite compassion.
  4.  God rewards all good deeds.
  5.  God exists forever, the very Name refers to eternity.
  6.  God redeems and rescues, both physically and spiritually.
  7.  This is God’s personal and exact Name. It is the Name by which the angels address God.

On this last point there is some controversy. Art Scroll says, ‘it in no way expresses His true essence…He allows us to glimpse some of His properties and express them in a Name’. Okay, but that’s not what Rav Hoffman says. He declares that this is God’s name, period. It’s fine for anyone to disagree with any given opinion, but I wish Art Scroll would acknowledge that it misrepresented Rav Hoffman. 

I love this exposition, and I think it helps us in our prayer endeavors, but I don’t think it’s the literal meaning of the poem. I believe strongly that seven is not a crucial number in this poem, which has BARUCH eleven times. I think that there’s an introduction with ‘BARUCH is the One Who spoke and the world came into being, BARUCH is He’. Then there are nine lines which I believe strongly express three ideas, which are fundamental to our prayers: 1. God is the Creator, 2. God is full of love and compassion, and 3. God will always be there to guide history and bring about the Final Redemption.  

To make these three fundamental ideas we state them each in three ways or from three slightly different approaches. We like the number three for emphasis. Furthermore, these three ideas are fundamental to our belief system, and are the basis for the three blessings which surround the recitations of SHEMA, which PESUKEI D’ZIMRA introduce. In those blessings God’s love is expressed through the gifting of the Torah to Yisrael, and God’s promise to redeem is exemplified by the Exodus from Egypt. 

Our Sages have taught that we must praise God before we stand in prayer and begin to ask for stuff. That’s fine. Here we are beginning to see how those same Sages directed that we carry out this praising policy. The poem which begins the blessing over this recitation of praise, I believe, helps tremendously in this effort.  

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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