In our last two pieces I discussed the prayer BARUCH SHEAMAR which is the opening prayer to our morning praises of God, PESUKEI D’ZIMRA. This article is about its companion blessing, YISHTABACH, which closes this section of our daily prayers. It’s important to note that this paragraph doesn’t begin with the famous formula Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the universe, because our Sages constructed the service in such a way that this blessing must be considered to be connected to the opening blessing. That was done in an attempt to keep us concentrated on the Psalms and praises for the duration of its recital. It’s hard, especially on Shabbat, but it’s doable with a little focus, or maybe a lot.
In BARUCH SHE’AMAR, we were full of confidence that ‘We will praise You…we will magnify and laud…glorify You’, but by the end of the process we’ve lost some swagger. As Rav Soloveitchik expressed it,
‘As Pesukei D’Z`imra progresses the inadequacy of our words to even begin to express God’s praise becomes more apparent.’ So, this closing blessing states: YISHTABACH. The Rav continued, ‘the very word YISHTABACH implies that God’s true praise can emanate only from God Himself; the word is a passive verb meaning “may Your name be praised”-by itself. He is above the praise of mere mortals.’
Remarkably, Rav Avraham Hacohen Kook, whose Chasidic roots are so different from Rav Soloveitchik’s Lithuanian background, makes an even more dramatic declaration: At the end of the journey, we know that we have failed to accomplish our mission. We are unequal to the task of singing all of God’s praises. There creeps in a feeling of insufficiency, perhaps, even of defeat.
We’ll see Rav Kook’s words of encouragement to the person praying, in spite of one’s spiritual despondency, later in our exploration of our blessing.
Our prayer then identifies God as HA-EL HAMELECH. This phrase, roughly translated as The God, The King, actually appears three times in our short paragraph, although once reversing the order of terms. I believe that the significance of this phrase is crucial to our praise of our Maker. The Hebrew word ALEPH LAMED is the generic term for deity, even the false pagan gods. A god is, by definition, far beyond us, distant and remote. A king, on the other hand, is near enough to affect our daily lives, and, perhaps, to periodically appear publicly to display power and control over our lives.
In our prayer we want to emphasize that the God to Whom we pray is both infinitely distant, and simultaneously imminent. When we pray, it is to an infinite Deity, Who is nevertheless concerned with all aspects of our lives. Both a powerful King on earth and a celestial Deity in heaven is our God to Whom we address ourselves.
Then we say: KI LICHA NA’EH. This is usually translated as either it is correct, right or fitting to address. This is reminiscent of the famous song at the end of our annual Pesach Seder. KI LO NA’EH. There most translations run more to pleasant or delightful. I think we should be following those ideas here. We’re saying that it’s a wonderful feeling to offer up these attempts to praise and extol our Lord. It’s just cool.
At this point, our prayer declares fifteen terms for praising God. Here’s the Wikipedia translation of the list:
song and praise, lauding and hymns, power and dominion, triumph, greatness and strength, praise and splendor, holiness and sovereignty, blessings and thanksgivings
Usually, the attempts to translate all these synonyms for ‘praise’ lead to a trip to the thesaurus. Most authorities believe that the purpose of the list isn’t to squeeze out more ideas about praise, but to achieve the number 15. This magic number of attempts to laud the Lord is based on a few concepts. The most important I think is that the simplest name for God is YOD HEY which equals 15 in gematria.
There are also fifteen Songs of Ascent in Psalms, numbers 120 through 134. There were also 15 steps between the main areas of the Beit HaMikdash. I have a strong feeling that if we could really visualize the ladder in Ya’akov Avinu’s famous dream, there would fifteen steps or rungs. This number has been adopted by many authorities as the symbolic stages between this world and God’s abode.
Just before we conclude this blessing with the BARUCH ATA HASHEM, we state the important reality that we offer these praises MEI’ATA V’AD OLAM, from now and forever. We view this attempt to praise God as an eternal part of our spiritual lives. We will never desist from this endeavor.
The closing BERACHA describes God in three ways: 1. great in praises, 2. God, to Whom all thanksgivings go, and 3. the Master of wonders. In other words, we praise, thank, and are in awe of God. Then we say the sweetest thing of all: God chooses (Koren: delights) in our hymns of song. This phrase needs to be parsed.
What are SHIREI ZIMRA? I think a SHIR is a poem, and ZIMRA is a song. So, I strongly believe that the literal meaning of this phrase is lyrics and score, a poem set to music.
The Pachad Yitzchak has a fascinating approach to this issue. He claims that ZIMRA comes from the Hebrew root meaning to prune. So, he avers that SHIR is an expansive attempt on the part of our ego to feel validated in our efforts to praise God. On the other hand, ZEMIRA evokes a sense of self-negation before the amazing majesty of our God.
Then there’s Rav Kook who uses this phrase to answer his difficulty about our feebleness in praising God. He begins with an idea from Reb Simcha Bunim, that the root SHIR is related to SHIRA’AYIM (leftovers, term for a Chassidic custom to eat from the Rebbe’s food). So, here’s what our phrase means and why we should feel good in spite of our inadequacy to praise God:
If a person praises to their best ability, and one’s heart still burns with love to glorify God. This love is called SHIREI ZIMRA, that is the remainder of the song remains behind in one’s heart. And it is this that God chooses (BOCHER), for this is more essential than the praise itself (Koren Rav Kook Siddur, p. 136).
Finally, we close our blessing and P’SUKEI D’ZIMRA with the words CHAI HaOLAMIM, usually translated ‘Giver of life to the worlds’. We complete this section of our prayers by announcing that all life emanates from God. Not just the vitality of living things comes from God, the very existence of everything is a result of God’s creative power.
There is no greater praise for our God than that our lives and all that we know and love emanates from the Creator and our Lord.