One Day, One Chapter; Four Recitations and Four Themes in Psalm 24

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Yaakov Jaffe


On the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year, Jews will have the opportunity to recite excerpts from the same chapter of Tehillim, Psalm 24, “Le-David Mizmor,” four times over the course of the day, as this chapter performs four different roles across the tefillah service. These four times are after Maariv, as part of Shaharit, when the Torah is returned to the Ark, and as part of Mussaf.[1] Two of the recitations are unique to Rosh Hashanah, while two of the recitations take place the rest of the year as well.

Despite its brevity, Psalm 24 is thus quite adaptable, with its ten verses used to highlight many different ideas and themes. Some chapters of the Bible might lend themselves only to one central idea or one moment in time, but this Psalm lends itself to many. Still, there are two formal elements which may tie the Psalm’s themes together as one. The Psalm can be divided into four sections: The three sections that follow the introduction all include words with the root n.s.a. (to raise or carry), used six times across the various sections (24:4, 24:5, 24:7, 24:9). The three also use rhetorical questions, four questions in total, where the Psalm asks and then answers about the identity of key personae (twice in 24:3, 24:8, 24:10).[2]

For each recitation to be meaningful, readers should think about which theme of the Psalm emerges at which point in the davening.[3] This essay will walk through the second day of Rosh Hashanah in chronological order, considering how we use Psalm 24 in different ways throughout the holiday.

 Evening: A Prayer for Sustenance/Parnassah

Who shall go up upon the mountain of Hashem (in order to pray), and who shall stand in His holy place? [A person of] clean palms, and clear heart, who did not raise My Soul in vain (in an oath) and did not swear in deceit. He shall carry a blessing from Hashem, and charity from the God of his salvation. (24:3-5)

After Maariv on the evening of both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Psalm 24 is recited as the introduction to a prayer for parnassah, sustenance.[4] While the canonical, original prayers of Rosh Hashanah focus on life and peace, later generations wished to highlight and create opportunities to pray for food and sustenance in the upcoming year. After all, an individual’s sustenance is set every year on Rosh Hashanah (Beitzah 16a), so it is understandable that Jews who faced famine, destitution, or poverty would add prayers for sustenance to the Mahzor. To that end, no fewer than five prayers for sustenance have been added to the Mahzor in recent centuries,[5] and Psalm 24 introduces one of them, recited on the evening of Rosh Hashanah.

In this case, the recitation focuses on one verse or phrase, the words “he shall carry a blessing from Hashem,” focusing on the fact that some human beings are so meritorious that they are the beneficiaries of a blessing that emerges from Hashem. Psalm 24 is the only chapter of Tehillim which uses the noun berakhah, blessing, to refer to a gift a human being receives from God, and so it is a fitting introduction to a prayer for sustenance. Hagigah 12b indeed cites this verse to discuss the storehouses of blessing found in Heaven. The first two verses of this section, with the first two rhetorical questions in the Psalm, stress that only Jews who are clean from sin in their heart, lips, and hands and who do not carry (nasa, from the root n.s.a) God’s name in vain merit to carry (yissa, from the root n.s.a) the blessing. Reading these verses inspires us to live up to that standard and to “go up” to the synagogue, patterned after God’s holy place and Temple, and pray there for blessing.

Morning: The God of Creation

To David, a Song. For Hashem is the land and her filling, inhabited space[6] and those that dwell in it. For He placed her foundation upon the seas, and on rivers established her. (24:1-2)

On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, most communities recite the Song of the Day. The recitation of the Song of the Day is ancient in origin, going back to the time of the Temple.[7] As the second day of Rosh Hashanah falls out on Sunday this year, the song is Psalm 24, as it would be on any Sunday.[8] When recited as the psalm of the day, the prayers focus on God’s role as the creator of the world, which began on the first Sunday, the first day of creation. As Rashi (Rosh Hashanah 31a) puts it: “For He created heaven and earth, in order to give ‘inhabited space to those that dwell in it,’ and ruled over His world alone (since the angels were not created until the second day).”

The Psalm discusses God’s mastery and ownership over the entire inhabited land, and also recalls the miracles of the third day of creation, when dry land was established atop the primordial oceans of the dawn of time. Thus, use of the Psalm as part of the Levite song that accompanies the morning sacrifice focuses on the theme of creation found in the opening verses.[9]

Torah Reading: The entry of the Torah into its Sanctuary

This is the generation of those that seek Him, those who search for Your face, (children of) Yaakov, Selah.[10] Raise, O Gates, your heads,[11] and be raised O Openings of Eternity, and He will come: the King of Honor. Who is this, the King of Honor? Hashem is mighty[12] and heroic, Hashem is the hero of war. (24:6-8)

Psalm 24 is recited whenever the Torah is returned to the Ark, both on weekdays and holidays, with the exception of Shabbat morning. Consequently, when the Torah is returned on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we find our third recitation of Psalm 24. This time, the focus is on the gates of eternity, taken by the liturgy to refer to the gates of the temple or the gates of the inner temple sanctuary. The Midrashic literature in Shabbat 30a and elsewhere relates these verses to the occasion of Solomon bringing the Ark into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim; thus, they are recited when the Torah is returned to the Ark to parallel that moment.[13] It speaks of the generation that sought God, the generation of Solomon’s time who dedicated themselves to build the Temple to house the Ark and create a space in which they could seek God.

In this case, the recitation no longer focuses on the introductory setting and its review of creation, nor on the material blessing that emanates from the Temple. Instead, the Psalm is read to focus on God’s honor and glory, manifested in the Ark which symbolizes God’s throne and honor, returning to its exalted and private location. Creation is of the past and human blessing is immaterial as our attention focuses on the King of Honor and His glory.

Mussaf: Monarchy and Royalty at the end of days

Raise, O Gates, your heads, and raise,[14] O openings of eternity, [your heads], and He will come: the King of Honor. Who is Him, the King of Honor? Hashem, Master of Legions is the King of Honor. Selah. (24:9-10)

The fourth time the Psalm is not recited in full. Rather, only the last four verses are recited, as part of the verses of Kingship in Mussaf. These verses have been associated and recommended for the verses of Kingship since the time of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32b), and consequently, these verses as a unit constitute the final citation from Ketuvim in the Kingship verses.

The final two verses of the Psalm resemble the two verses that preceded them, as the gates and openings are again directed to raise themselves so the King of Honor, later identified as Hashem, may come. These verses feature the final two of the rhetorical questions in the Psalm; in a shocking but yet inspiring twist, the first two rhetorical questions referred to righteous individuals while the last two refer to God.

Hashem is referred to in two different ways in the two sections. First, in the earlier verses, He is referred to as hero of war, and then in the later verses He is referred to as Hashem, Master of Legions, without reference to war. Commentators explain the difference by applying the different, similar verses to two different times. Ibn Ezra understands the final two verses to refer to the Messianic era, when swords are beaten to plowshares and God is no longer extolled for His role in war but solely for His glory, in and of itself. In the Messianic era, with war banished, God is no longer seen for His mighty strength and military power; instead we honor Him for His essential nature and royalty alone. The use of the word “teivel” in the opening verse of the Psalm supports this eschatological reading, as the word “teivel” appears often in eschatological and Messianic Psalms.[15] The reader’s attention is no longer focused on the past tense moment of the building of the temple; the reader’s attention is now focused on the far future and the recognition of God’s rule that comes at that time.

Though a small number of the verses of God’s kingship refer to the present tense, the frame for those prayers (the paragraph “Al Kein” that introduces the verses of Kingship and the concluding blessing which follows them) orients the blessing towards a Messianic moment in the future when all of humanity will recognize God’s kingship. The final two verses of kingship from Navi (Ovadiah 1:21 and Zechariah 14:9) surely refer to the Messianic future, as might the other verses from Psalms (22:29 and 93:1). Instead of looking to the past, the Psalm now looks to the future, when God will be truly recognized as the only real king of Honor.

From Creation to Temple to Redemption
The thematic line from Creation to the Temple to Redemption is easy to sketch, and indeed Jews connect these three themes each day in the liturgical blessings that precede and follow the Shema. The moment of Creation creates a paradigm and proof for the honor that becomes later manifested on this Earth in the temple, and which will achieve its full fulfillment at the moment of Redemption. For that reason, we do not need to resolve which theme of the chapter is primary; there is one overarching argument about how the glory of God’s creation is later realized in the Temple and further still in redemption.

The Psalm may have one central idea, but that idea is still built out of different sub-arguments, and so readers will focus on different parts of its arguments on different parts of the day. A reader should not mumble the same words each time, but should intend to imbue each recitation with its unique significance by focusing on the sentences that are most germane to that moment in the service. Rosh Hashanah is a day to pray for blessings, a day to reflect on Creation, a day to study Torah, and a day to hope and imagine the time of Redemption. Each of these four themes is part of this one special day, and each time the Psalm is recited a different theme is brought to the fore.

[1] I discussed an example of a prayer being used three times regarding the recitation of Psalm 29 on Succot in Yaakov Jaffe, “Do The Liturgical Uses Of Psalm 29 Suggest Different Interpretations Of The Psalm?Jewish Bible Quarterly 51.1 (2023), 46-53.

[2] Rav Yoel Bin Nun has suggested that there is implied rhetorical question that should lead 24:5 as well. In that case, one can read the entire Psalm as being a responsive reading where the lead singer would ask a question to be answered by the chorus. 24:2 answers 24:1, 24:4 answers the question of 24:3, 24:6 answers the implied question of 24:5, and then 24:8 and 24:10 include both a question and its answer.

[3] Shut Sheivet Ha-Levi (11:38) discusses the possibility of having multiple kavanot in one recitation. He notes that this is theoretically possible, but seems to frown at the practice.

[4] Though some Mahzorim separate between the prayer for sustenance and Psalm 24, it is clear that Psalm 24 was intended as the introduction to the prayer for sustenance. See Rav Nosson Nota Hannover’s description in Shaarei Tzion, (Prague, 1692), and Yalkut Yosef Kitzur Shulhan Arukh OH 582:29. Arukh Ha-Shulhan (OH 582:8) argues that Ashkenazic custom omits this entire recitation of the Psalm, but Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe OH 2:21) explains the basis of how it also became part of the Ashkenazic service. Rav Moshe Feinstein seems to be unaware of the Psalm’s role as an agent of prayer, however; he calls it praise and specifically notes that it does not constitute any request.

[5] The five include three very similar supplications with much common language recited: after Maariv (Artscroll Mahzor, p. 78), during Avinu Malkeinu (p. 386, 622), and at Tashlikh (p. 634; including a repeat of Psalm 24), along with smaller parts of the two prayers of Rav Nosson Nota Hannover (printed in Shaarei Tzion, Prague, 1692) one for when the Torah is removed from the Aron Kodesh (p. 392) and the other during the priestly blessing (p. 578). Though some Jews recite all five of these supplications, many omit some or all of the five.

[6] Two Hebrew words, aretz and teivel, are used to refer to two different locations. Commentators disagree as to what the two words refer to: Israel and the Diaspora, inhabited land and uninhabited, or perhaps the words are full synonyms referring to the exact same places using different equivalent terms.

[7] This practice appears in the Mishnah (Tamid 33b), and is explained as being connected to the creation of the world, which began on Sunday, in Rosh Hashanah 31a. The Mishnah says that this song was sung on the first day of the week at the time of the Temple, and so its connection to Sunday goes back for millennia. The Septuagint also begins its translation of the chapter with the note that this song is associated with the first day of the week. See also Magen Avraham 132:4 for evidence that the original custom was to recite the actual song for each day on its appropriate day, and not just to recite each day the summary Mishnah from Tamid that lists the titles of the seven Psalms.

[8] For further discussion of what the song of the day for Rosh Hashanah should be, and when it should be recited, see Yaakov Jaffe, “The Psalm of the Day in the Prayer Service of the Vilna Gaon” [Hebrew], Beit Yitzchak 42 (2010), 103-109.

[9] What is the relationship between the section about creation, and the rhetorical question that follows about who may ascend upon God’s holy mountain? Rashi explains that despite God’s control over the entire world, still it is only a small set of those created for whom it is appropriate to visit the Temple to pray. Malbim says that the special nature of the Temple and its holiness is understood within the context that God – who resides there – is the fashioner of all of creation.

[10] The word “Selah,” which often denotes the end of a section, suggests that this verse is the final one of the previous section which focused on who was righteous to receive the blessing of God; see note 2. Still, Ibn Ezra argues this verse begins this section which follows, focusing on the generation who built the Temple, and through that were searching for “ God’s face.” Searching for God’s face is connected to the Temple in Psalms 27:4-8.

[11] The verse does not ask the gates to be opened, and indeed the simple reading of the verse is that the gates are asked to raise their heads in pride and honor (Metzudat David). However, the liturgical use clearly involves the Midrash referenced below which understands the request as asking the gates to open (see Rashi).

[12] As Ibn Ezra notes throughout his commentary on Tehillim, the word “oz,” strength, refers to the Ark when it appears in Tehillim. See Jaffe, “Psalm 29,” 52, note 6, and see also Ibn Ezra 110:2 and 150:1, and Midrash Tehillim 149.

[13] See Reuven Margoliot, Hamikra Ve-Hamesorah, 3rd printing (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1989), 19-20, for further discussion of the origins of this custom. The custom is mentioned in Mishnah Berurah 149:8, but is not mentioned in many of the very early sources.

Psalms 132:8-10 is also recited when the Torah is returned. Shabbat 30a similarly connects these verses to the bringing of the Ark to the sanctuary, on the basis of II Chronicles 6:41-42.

[14] There is a change of but a single word from 24:7 to 24:9, with the root “to raise” changed from the second person plural passive imperative in 24:7 into the second person plural active imperative in 24:9. Malbim explains the grammatical change that in 24:7 the gates are acted upon by the external force of the fear of God, so the passive voice is used. However, by 24:9, the gates act of their own accord, consciously raising themselves out of the awe of God’s greatness.

[15] The word appears 14 other times in Tehillim, with most of the other times in the handful of eschatological Psalms (33:8, 93:1, 96:10, 96:13, 97:4, 98:7, 98:9)

Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.