David Walk
David Walk

Ultimate Praise: Psalm 150

Psalm 150 is the last Psalm of both the book as a whole and our daily P’SUKEI D’ZIMRA service. It is ultimate in both roles. For King David’s book of praises for God, the poem ends this extended homage to our Lord. For P’SUKEI D’ZIMRA, it culminates the progression of HALEL, from personal praise (Psalm 146), to a demand that all humanity join the praise (147), to all Creation acclaiming the greatness of God (148), to a ‘new song’ that must be sung for post-Biblical miracles (149), to our final Psalm. What is the nature of this concluding Hallel to God? 

I believe strongly that this Psalm is the Singer’s beautiful effort to compose the ode for the eventual GEULA SHLEIMA (total redemption). There are numerous elements in our Psalm that point to this poem describing the crowning era of humanity. The first is the use of the number ten, which often signifies totality in Jewish thinking. We have the verb HALELU ten times. 

On the other hand, if we count the first and last words in the poem, HALELU-KAH, then we get twelve times that the root HALEL is used in our Psalm. We Jews also like the number twelve, as in 12 months, 12 tribes, 12 requests in SHMONE ESREH. Twelve seems to be the number which describes the totality of basic human needs. But what happens when things go wrong? Well, then we require thirteen, as in a thirteenth month, a thirteenth tribe or a thirteenth request added to SHMONE ESREH. We do the same thing in our Psalm. By repeating the last verse (because we often repeat the final verse in a Biblical text) we get the thirteenth HALEL, so similar to God’s 13 MIDOT of compassion and forgiveness. 

The next ten in our song is the list of musical instruments which will compose this impressive orchestra meant to celebrate God in this awesome scene. I’m not going to try to identify the string, wind and percussion instruments listed. I’ll leave that for archeologists. However, I do maintain that the cymbals (timbrels?) listed in verse 5 are two different instruments rather than the same instrument being played in different modes, as suggested by many commentaries. This gives us nine. Where is the tenth? Why the NESHAMA (human soul or, perhaps in this case, voice) in verse 6. 

Many authorities maintain that the final verse in our hymn is telling us that the greatest music to adulate our Creator is the breath (NASHIMA) of human being glorifying our Maker. Rav Soloveitchik added to this idyllic scene by commenting: Were we not led astray by sin, we would sense God in every breath, in the very rhythm of life. In the absence of sin, God’s presence would be evident in every natural encounter. The whisper of the Master of the universe would be heard in the bubbling of every crystal spring, His immanence perceived in every sunrise and sunset (Before Hashem, p. 4). 

On the other hand, not every commentary agrees that the word NESHAMA refers to an individual’s spiritual soul. Many maintain that the verse should be translated, ‘Let every human soul praise God.’ In other words, we’re not describing the entirety of one single person’s soul. Instead, we are demanding that every single human being must laud our Creator. This blending of every human soul would be the most sublime music in the universe. Perhaps, we repeat this final verse to emphasize both approaches, both every soul and the entirety of each soul. 

There is a custom in many Jewish circles to see the Book of Tehillim as, in reality, five books, just like the Chumash. When viewed this way, we see that each book (Psalms 41, 72, 89, 106, ignoring one extra verse at the end of Book 2) ends with a verse beginning with BARUCH and ending with AMEN. A few of these verses are actually recited daily after P’SUKEI D’ZIMRA. Why not end Psalm 150 with such a formula? Why do we seemingly depart from an established custom of reciting a ‘BRACHA’ at the end of each Psalm book? 

I think that the difference is based upon the fact that our final song in Psalms is meant for a future time when our praises will be total and unequivocal, as opposed to our praises in this world. I suggest this because there’s a basic difference between a BRACHA and a HALEL. This is also the reason that I’m disappointed to see BEIRACH translated as ‘praised’, which occurs often in English versions of Psalms.  

A BRACHA to God does include a certain amount of praise. However, the very term really means a request. When we bless our children or request a BRACHA, we want or need something. Many authorities believe that the basic meaning of the term is ‘increase’. In other words, when I say a BRACHA on an item, I’m not only thanking God for that foodstuff, I’m also begging the Provider of all to make sure there will be another such item in the future. 

The word HALEL, on the other hand, implies pure praise. There is no hidden agenda or implied request. HALEL denotes total satisfaction with the present reality. This is, for me, a strong indication that this poem is about the final stage of human history, when we will observe that our praise for God will be perfect and unadulterated, it is only in this blissful stage of human destiny that we will no longer have any unrequited needs.   

This beautiful paean to God is the purest praise ever offered to our Creator. It’s a fitting conclusion to this glorious book, and makes us thirst that much more for the time when we will all share its exalted message. May we merit to see that scenario speedily, in our days. 

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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