Monday, June 11, 2018

How to Learn Tehilim (Psalms)

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Artwork: Urza's Tome, by Aaron Miller

How to Learn Tehilim (Psalms)


There are books of Tanach (the Bible) with which I am familiar. I know how to learn and teach Sefer Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs). I've had ample experience learning and teaching Sefer Koheles (The Book of Ecclesiastes) and Sefer Iyov (The Book of Job). I have attained a measure of proficiency in parts of Chumash (the Five Books of Moses).

The purpose of this disclaimer is to make it clear that I do NOT claim any expertise in Sefer Tehilim (The Book of Psalms).

Tehilim is the longest book in Tanach. It contains over 2,500 pesukim (verses) in 150 perakim (chapters). Of those 150 perakim, I have only learned a handful in depth. Unlike Mishlei, which I've learned on a weekly basis for the past 17 years, I've only occasionally dabbled in Tehilim. Unlike books such as Koheles, Iyov, and Bereishis (Genesis), which I've taught annually for 5-7 years, I've only really taught Tehilim for one semester. 

So how am I qualified to write a post entitled "How to Learn Tehilim"? Because even though I'm not an expert, and even though I don't necessarily know what I'm doing, I do have an approach

My goal in this post is to provide a basic foundation for someone who wishes to begin learning Tehilim. I will present all of tools, strategies, and tips that I, myself, have used in my own learning and teaching of Tehilim. In the next couple of posts I will walk you through two perakim using these methods. 

What Tehilim is About

Tehilim is about Hashem and His relationship with His creation, including - and especially - His relationship with man.

By "man" I mean human beings in general, Bnei Yisrael (the Jewish People) in particular, and the yachid (individual) as well - whether David ha'Melech (King David) in specific, or those who aspire to follow in David's path.

By "relationship between God and His creation" I am referring to both hashgachah pratis (individual divine providence) and hashgachah klalis (the laws of nature). By "His relationship with man" I am referring to how He relates to man, and how man ought to relate to Him - in his thoughts, his emotions, and his actions.

How Tehilim Works

But when I say that Tehilim is "about" God's relationship to His creation etc., I do not mean that it should be treated as a textbook of philosophy, metaphysics, or science. Although Tehilim does contain deep concepts and profound insights about Hashem and His ways, the purpose of the sefer is not merely to convey knowledge to the mind, but to affect the emotions as well. This, in turn, will change the way a person experiences and lives his life, and will ultimately change the manner in which Hashem relates to him. 

I wrote another post entitled How to Say Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha, in which I cited the Sefer ha'Chinuch's [1] explanation of how the recitation of Tehilim can protect a person from harm. His view reflects the approach described above:
... these psalms contain words that inspire the soul that knows them to shelter in Hashem, to take security in Him, to establish a reverent fear of Him firmly in his heart, and to rely on His kindness and goodness; as a result of this inspiration, he will be protected from every harm, without a doubt. 
The phrase "inspires the soul that knows them" perfectly encapsulates how Tehilim is supposed to work. But isn't just any inspiration, but "this inspiration" - the inspiration of "the soul that knows [the meaning of the psalms]." Inspiration divorced from knowledge is insufficient, and knowledge devoid of inspiration also falls short of the mark. The goal of Tehilim is to inspire the soul by means of knowledge, which will strengthen our relationship with Hashem, and bring us under the purview of His providence.

Practically speaking, this means that it is not enough for a person to stop learning after reaching the point where he can say "I understand what this perek (chapter) of Tehilim is teaching." One must go further than that and ask: "How is this supposed to affect me?" "How is this intended to alter my view of reality?" "How can I make these ideas real to my mind and my emotions?"

In this sense, learning Tehilim is less like the study of Gemara or mathematics, and is more like psychotherapy, in which one seeks knowledge that has an impact on the entire psyche, rather than purely theoretical knowledge whose effect is confined to the intellect alone.

The Three Modes of Tehilim

According to the traditional meforshim (commentators), it would seem that there are three possible "modes" (or "interpretive frameworks") for every perek of Tehilim:
  1. Biographical: some chapters of Tehilim were written at specific points in David's life, and reflect his thoughts and prayers at these times, such as Chapter 34 ("By David, When he disguised his sanity before Avimelech, who drove him out and he left"), Chapter 51 ("For the conductor, a song by David, when Noson the Prophet came to him, when he came to Bas-sheva"), and Chapter 56 ("For the conductor ... by David, a michtam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath")
  2. National: other chapters are about the nation of Israel as a whole - in the past, the present or the future - such as Chapter 78 (which summarizes Bnei Yisrael's journey from Egypt through the Wilderness and into Israel), Chapter 114 ("When Israel went out of Egypt, Jacob's household from a people of foreign tongue"), and Chapter 137 ("By the rivers of Bavel, there we sat and also wept when we remembered Tzion").
  3. Universal: other chapters deal with universal topics, without reference to specific people, times, or events, such as Chapter 1 (about the persona of the tzadik), Chapter 119 (about the Torah and its practitioners), and Chapter 150 (about praising God with music). 
The aforementioned examples fall squarely into one of these three modes. The tricky thing about Tehilim is how ambiguous most of the other perakim are. In the majority of cases, the meforshim debate which mode a given perek is in, and it will not always be clear how the meforshim arrived at their conclusions. Some will insist that a perek is about Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People) at the Messianic era, even though it contains no mention of the nation and is written from the perspective of an individual. Others will say that a perek which appears to be universal is really about David at a particular time in his life. There are certain meforshim (e.g. Radak, Meiri, Rashi) who will even interpret a perek in multiple modes, giving a dual or triple commentary on each pasuk

Since it is unclear which mode most perakim are in, the important thing is to take a firm stance and follow through with it in your analysis. If you're going to treat the perek as being about David, do so for the entire thing; if it's about Klal Yisrael, then it's entirely about Klal Yisrael. And if you're going to use meforshim, make sure you identify which mode they're learning in, since not all of them make this clear.

Personally, I prefer to default to the universal mode, unless I'm forced into one of the other two. I find the universal mode to be the most accessible, since it allows me to learn ideas from the pesukim and apply them directly to my life. The perakim in the biographical or national modes are more difficult, since they often necessitate the circuitous route of researching those episodes in David's life or in the life of the nation, then analyzing the pesukim in light of that background information, and only afterwards applying those insights to one's own life.

I also prefer the universal mode as a default because I believe that it is the ultimate goal of the other two modes. In other words, even if a perek is written from the perspective of David at a specific juncture in his life, or even if it's written about the condition of the Jewish People in the future, the goal of learning these ideas should be to arrive at universal truths which apply to every Jew in every generation.

How to Learn Tehilim 

My methodology for learning Tehilim is based on a technique taken straight out of Mortimer J. Adler's How to Read a Book. [2] He refers to it as "The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks." Here is the technique in his words:
The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks 
(1) What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.

(2) What is being said in detail and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

(3) Is the book true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.

(4) What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know about these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested. 
Here is my adaptation Adler's "The Four Questions a Reader Asks" to Sefer Tehilim:
The Four Basic Questions to Ask When Learning Tehilim 
(1) What is the perek about as a whole? You must try to discover the main idea of the perek. What major insight is this teaching us about Hashem, about man, or about the relationship between them? I say "main idea" rather than "main theme" because a "theme" can be stated in a word or a phrase, whereas your goal in this is step should be to clearly articulate the main idea in 1-4 complete sentences. 
(2) What is being said in detail and how? You must try to understand what each pasuk is saying and how it contributes to or develops the main idea. This is not an all or nothing deal. The more complete your understanding, the better, but if there are specific words, phrases, or even entire pesukim that you don't understand, then it doesn't mean your answer to Question #1 is invalid - unless, of course, these pesukim contradict or undermine your main idea.
(3) Is the perek true, in whole or in part? Even though we accept Tehilim as true insofar as it is part of Torah she'bi'Chsav (the Written Torah), this doesn't mean that we will automatically be convinced that what David says is actually true. As Adler would say: "Knowing David's mind is not enough. You must make up your own mind." 
(4) What of it? What "inspiration via knowledge" is this perek written to bring about? How is the main idea in this perek supposed to affect your life, your view of reality, and your relationship with God? What else follows - what is further implied or suggested by the insights? What else can you do to internalize and be moved by these ideas? 
I feel obliged to point out a rookie mistake: starting with Question #2. All of my first attempts at learning Tehilim failed because I got bogged down in the particulars. I thought it made sense to approach Tehilim using the same method I use to approach Mishlei. I started by raising ALL of the questions and difficulties on ALL of the pesukim, and then I turned to the meforshim for answers. Since I had so many questions, I would feel obligated to read the entire commentary of multiple meforshim, for fear of missing out on an important detail. Typically this would result in me being overwhelmed by the sheer number of questions and problems, which would be compounded by reading the meforshim. The web of complexity would be too difficult to navigate, and I'd give up. 

Eventually I tried going to the opposite extreme: ignoring all of the particulars and attempting to grasp the whole - and it worked! I found that starting with Question #1 would naturally lead to a sort of back-and-forth "dance" between Questions #1 and 2: I'd come up with an approach for the main idea, and then I'd "test" it by seeing how this idea was developed through each of the pesukim. Whenever I'd encounter a question or a difficulty, then I would turn to the meforshim for assistance. This "macro" approach was far more manageable, and guided my "micro" analysis of the individual pesukim

I would even go so far as to recommend intentionally not attempting to do a comprehensive job in answering Question #2. Focus on Questions #1 and 4, and only address Questions #2 and 3 as your analysis and interest dictate. As long as you walk away with a clear grasp of the main idea and the intended purpose of the perek, then your learning of Tehilim was a success, even if you haven't explained every pasuk or verified every idea.

And it's as simple as that! Just work on these questions one at a time, putting the most emphasis on Question #1, and Tehilim will soon become more approachable than ever before. But there is one more critical tool you'll want to add to your Tehilim-learning arsenal before you get started.

The Pivot Point 

Over a decade ago, when my chavrusa (learning partner) and I first started trying to learn Tehilim, we observed a common structural phenomenon that appeared throughout the sefer. We noticed that in many cases, the perek of Tehilim will be moving along with a discernible thematic, structural, or stylistic flow, and then suddenly - seemingly out of nowhere - there will be a dramatic shift to a different theme, structure, or style. My chavrusa dubbed this "The Pivot Point." 

The best way to illustrate this is to point out some clear examples. As you read through each example, see if you can spot the pivot point before reading my answer:
Tehilim 92 
(1) A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day. (2) It is good to thank Hashem and to sing to Your Name, O Exalted One; (3) to recount Your kindness in the morning, and Your faithfulness in the nights. (4) Upon a ten-stringed instrument and upon lyre, with singing [accompanied] by harp. (5) For You have gladdened me, Hashem, with Your actions; about Your handiwork I will sing joyously. (6) How great are Your works, Hashem; [how] very deep are Your thoughts - (7) a boorish man doesn’t know, and a fool doesn’t understand this - (8) when the wicked bloom like grass, and all the doers of iniquity blossom, it is to destroy them forever and ever. (9) But You [remain] exalted forever, Hashem. (10) For behold Your enemies, Hashem, for behold – Your enemies shall perish; dispersed shall be all doers of iniquity. (11) You raised like a re’eim my pride; I was saturated with fresh oil. (12) My eyes have seen my foes; when those who would harm me rise up my ears have heard. (13) A righteous person will flourish like a date palm, and like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall. (14) Planted in the house of Hashem, in the courtyards of our God they will flourish. (15) They will still be fruitful in old age, vigorous and fresh they will be, (16) to tell that Hashem is upright, my Rock in Whom there is no injustice.
Did you see it? It's verse 7. The first half of the perek, up until verse 7, is about David praising the handiwork of Hashem (i.e. the laws of nature). The second half of the perek after 7 is about the destruction of the wicked and the flourishing of the righteous. 

Indeed, verse 7 itself can be read in accordance with either half. If read with the first half, David is saying: "a boorish or foolish man cannot understand the greatness of Hashem's works and the depth of His thoughts as reflected in nature." If read with the second half, David is saying: "a boorish or foolish man cannot understand that although the wicked may bloom and the doers of iniquity may blossom, they will ultimately be destroyed." 

I believe that verse 7 was deliberately written to be ambiguous (which is why I tried as best as I could to retain the ambiguity in my English translation, through my use of poor punctuation). Verse 7 can be read as part of either half of the perek, but no matter how you read it, it is clearly the pivot point - and I believe that this is the key understanding the main idea of the perek (as I will write about in the sequel to this post).

Here's another straightforward example:
Tehilim 19 
(1) For the Conductor, a psalm of David. (2) The heavens declare the glory of God, and His handiwork is declared by the firmament. (3) Day following day expresses speech, and night following night speaks knowledge. (4) There is no speaker and there are no words; their voice is unheard. (5) Throughout the earth their measuring-line goes forth, and their words reach the ends of society. For the sun He set up a tent, in their midst. (6) And it (i.e. the sun) is like a groom coming forth from his wedding canopy, rejoicing like a warrior to run the course. (7) The ends of the heavens is its source, and its circuit is to their other end, and nothing is hidden from its heat. (8) The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making wise the simpleton. (9) The ordinances of Hashem are upright, causing the heart to rejoice; the commandment of Hashem is clear, illuminating the eyes. (10) Fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever; the judgments of Hashem are true, and are universally righteous. (11) They are more desirable than gold, than even much fine gold, and they are sweeter than honey, and the drippings of honeycombs. (12) At first Your servant was warned by them, [but] when he kept them, there was reward. (13) Errors –who can discern them? Cleanse me from hidden [faults]. (14) Also from wanton ones keep back Your servant, so they do not rule over me then when I am weak; [then] I will keep myself clean from great transgression. (15) May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock, and my Redeemer.
The pivot point should be obvious: it's at the end of verse 7 and the beginning of verse 8. The first half of the perek (1-7) is about the perfection and precision of the heavens in their obedience of God's will, with a focus on the individual entity of the sun; the second half of the perek (8-15) is about the perfection of the Torah, with a focus on the individual person of David, who beseeches Hashem to help him to fulfill His will with complete obedience in his actions, his speech, and the thoughts of his heart.

Here's another example, which is slightly less obvious than the other two:
Tehilim 23 
(1) A psalm by David. Hashem is my Shepherd; I shall not lack. (2) In lush meadows he lays me down, beside tranquil waters He leads me. (3) He restores my soul. He leads me on level paths for His Name's sake. (4) Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no harm, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff - they comfort me. (5) You will prepare a table before me in view of my tormentors. You anointed my head with oil, my cup overflows. (6) Only goodness and kindness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the House of Hashem for long days.
Did you catch it? It's at the end of verse 4 and the beginning of verse 5. In the first four verses of the psalm, David is a sheep; after verse 4, he's a human. 

In the three examples mentioned above, the perek is divided neatly in half. However, there are other types of pivot points as well. See if you can figure out this one:
Tehilim 136 
(1) Give thanks to Hashem for He is good, for His kindness endures forever.(2) Give thanks to the God of the heavenly powers, for His kindness endures forever.(3) Give thanks to the Lord of the lords, for His kindness endures forever.(4) To Him Who alone performs great wonders, for His kindness endures forever.(5) To Him Who makes the heavens with understanding, for His kindness endures forever.(6) To Him Who spread out the earth upon the waters, for His kindness endures forever.(7) To Him who makes great lights, for His kindness endures forever.(8) The sun for the reign of the day, for His kindness endures forever.(9) The moon and the stars for the reign of the night, for His kindness endures forever.(10) To Him Who smote Mitzrayim through their firstborn, for His kindness endures forever.(11) And brought Israel forth from their midst, for His kindness endures forever.(12) With strong hand and outstretched arm, for His kindness endures forever.(13) To Him Who divided the Sea of Reeds into parts, for His kindness endures forever.(14) And caused Israel to pass through it, for His kindness endures forever.(15) And threw Paroh and his army into the Sea of Reeds, for His kindness endures forever.(16) To Him Who led His people through the wilderness, for His kindness endures forever.(17) To Him Who smote great kings, for His kindness endures forever.(18) And slew mighty kings, for His kindness endures forever.(19) Sichon, king of the Emorites, for His kindness endures forever.(20) And Og, king of Bashan, for His kindness endures forever.(21) And presented their land as a heritage, for His kindness endures forever.(22) A heritage for Israel, His servant, for His kindness endures forever.(23) In our lowliness He remembered us, for His kindness endures forever.(24) And released us from our tormentors, for His kindness endures forever.(25) He gives nourishment to all flesh, for His kindness endures forever.(26) Give thanks to God of the heavens, for His kindness endures forever.
Did you see what he did? That's right: this perek involves a double-pivot! Verses 1-9 are about Hashem's kindnesses in nature. In verses 10-24 David pivots to Hashem's kindnesses to the Jewish people. But at the very end, in verses 25-26, he pivots back to the original theme of Hashem's kindnesses in nature. 

And here's a short one:
Tehilim 134 
(1) A song of ascents. Behold, bless Hashem, all you servants of Hashem, who stand in the House of Hashem in the nights. (2) Lift your hands in the Sanctuary and bless Hashem. (3) May Hashem bless you from Tzion, Maker of heaven and earth.
This pivot point is at the end of verse 2, and hinges on the switch from the imperative to the subjunctive mood. In verses 1-2 the author is commanding the servants of Hashem to bless Him; in verse 3 he is expressing his hope that Hashem will bless them in return.

Sometimes you'll run into a perek where the pivot point is debatable. Take another look at Tehilim 19 above. The most obvious pivot point is between verses 7 and 8, with the first half of the perek being about the heavenly bodies following the perfect laws of nature and the second half of the perek being about human beings striving to follow the perfect laws of Torah. However, it can be argued that the pivot point is between verses 11 and 12, with the first half of the perek (1-11) being about the perfection of Hashem's creations (i.e. the universe and the Torah), and the second half of the perek (12-15) being about the imperfect human being struggling to use his free will to align himself with God's will. Depending on where you place the pivot point, you might arrive at a different understanding of what the perek is about. 

Similarly, one of my students was convinced that the pivot point in Tehilim 23 was between verses 3 and 4. In verses 1-3 David refers to Hashem in the third person voice, but in verses 4-6 he refers to Hashem in the second person, implying an increased sense of closeness. We had a lively debate about this in class, which led to some nice insights. 

The next question is: How do we incorporate the notion of a pivot point into our methodology? The answer involves a four step process:
Step #1: Identify the pivot point. 
Step #2: Define the main idea of each "half" of the perek on its own, without thinking about the other half. Treat the two halves almost as if they are two separate chapters.
Step #3: Attempt to unify the two halves. Figure out the main idea which encompasses both. Abstract a major theme from the sub-themes and formulate the main idea.
Step #4: Ask yourself: "What purpose does this pivot point serve? How is it necessary for the main idea or for the intended purpose of the perek? Why couldn't David have just written a perek about this idea without the pivot?" Sometimes the purpose of the pivot lies in the shift of intellectual frameworks or premises. Sometimes there is a reason for the shift in mood or tone. Sometimes it's even a simple dichotomy like "before/after," "distress/salvation," "metaphor/lesson" - but even in these obvious cases, it pays to ask why the pivot point was needed in the first place.
You might wondering: "Do ALL 150 chapters of Tehilim have a pivot point?" This is where I will (conveniently) plead lack of expertise. Like I said, I haven't been through all 150 chapters. There are even some chapters I read on a daily or weekly basis, and still can't figure out whether I've identified the pivot point, or whether I'm just imagining it. For all I know, it could be that 100% of Tehilim contains pivot points, or maybe 10%, or somewhere in between.

All I can say is this: the search for the pivot point will be beneficial for your analysis in any event. Either you'll find a clear pivot point, which will help you in answering Question #1 (since defining each half and then defining the unity is easier than just trying to define the unity straightaway), or you'll find several candidates for pivot points, which will also help you in answering Question #1 (since you'll have several possible approaches based on where the pivot point is), or you won't find any pivot point, but you'll have already scrutinized the entire perek multiple times looking for unity, which will help you in answering Question #1. However it turns out, the quest for the pivot point will help you!

Other Tips

I have a few more assorted tips and decided to just list them all at the end:
When answering Question #1, begin by using an English translation if English is the language you think in - even if you know Hebrew. When analyzing the intricacies of the text there is no substitute for the original Hebrew, but when trying to get an initial birds-eye impression, I find that it's much more productive to think about the perek in the language that is most natural to your mind. After you have an approach to the main idea, and you start working on Question #2, you can delve into the Hebrew with the meforshim and sort out any translation issues.
Look for literary devices and structural anomalies. Sefer Tehilim is rife with examples of literary devices, such as parallelism, allusion, repetition, chiastic structures, and more, so be on the lookout for them. Although I have yet to find any instance in which these literary devices are essential to the main idea, I have noticed that they are helpful in answering Question #2. 
Think about it on your own first - then consult meforshim as needed. I cannot stress this point enough. If you start your analysis by jumping right into the meforshim, you will quickly become overwhelmed by the questions, problems, and answers they raise. Instead, only look into the meforshim to answer specific questions that naturally occur to you. And if this inquiry leads you to do further research, that's fine. Just don't feel obligated to do a complete survey of what the meforshim say on every pasuk.
Learn with your mind, but read with your emotions. Since Tehilim is designed to convey knowledge and inspire the emotions, it is important to allow yourself to feel what David is trying to make you feel. For example, in Chapter 23, when he describes himself as a lamb being guided through lush meadows and tranquil waters by a benevolent and protective Shepherd, use your imagination evoke those feelings from your own experience being guided by a caring and trustworthy figure. And when he describes Hashem as setting up a table for him in front of his tormentors, bring to mind your own tormentors and contemplate how you would feel if you were face to face with them, sitting at a table set with a feast, drinking wine and being anointed with oil. And if what David says doesn't resonate with your own emotions and experiences, then this is something to think about.  
Concluding Thoughts

I hope that I have succeeded in providing you with enough of a Tehilim methodology to begin learning on your own. I would like to reiterate that I am NOT an expert in Tehilim, and I am still trying to unlock the sefer for myself. My views on Tehilim methodology will continue to evolve, and when that evolution reaches a point where an update of this post is warranted, then I will update it.

In the meantime, let me know if you have any other insights or tips on how to learn Tehilim - and let me know if the guidelines provided here prove to be fruitful.

And stay tuned for my next two posts in this series, where I apply this methodology to Tehilim 92 and Tehilim 23. 

[1] Sefer ha'Chinuch: Mitzvah #512
[2] Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book (1976 edition), pp.46-47

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