Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg
March 8, 2004 – Number 5764-20
Prayer VII: Ashrei, An Original CD by the Composer of the Book of Psalms
Whenever we look at a prayer, whenever we want to understand how it works, the first thing we need to do is to examine the text. Even before we read the words, we need to understand the layout and physical characteristics of this part of the Liturgy. Ashrei is the name we give to Psalm 145. The name is taken from the first word of the Psalm. But if we were to go to a Siddur and look at Ashrei, we first notice that the first word of Psalm 145 is not Ashrei, but “Arumimcha”. The two lines at the beginning of the Psalm are not really a part of Psalm 145 at all, they are taken from Psalm 84:5 and Psalm 144:15 which is from the Psalm just before 145.
The same thing happens at the end of Psalm 145. The last words in the Psalm is L’olam Va’ed. The last word in our Siddur is Halleluyah. The last verse is from Psalm 115:18. This leaves us with a rather unusual situation. The Psalm does not start at its beginning and does not end at the end. It is encased in verses from other Psalms. No other Psalm in the Siddur does this.
The most obvious thing we may notice about Psalm 145 is that the verses are arraigned in order of the Hebrew Aleph Bet. This order runs through the Psalm except that one verse is missing. There is no verse for the letter “nun”. Some Sages and commentators have speculated as to why the “nun” verse is missing and what that missing verse might be. As far as I know, there have been no manuscripts of the Psalm that contain this missing verse. As far as we can tell, it never had a verse for “nun”.
Finally there is one more unique feature of this unusual Psalm. Like many Psalms, Psalm 145 has a title. My teacher, Rabbi Eleazar Slomovic, has shown that these titles were never really part of the Psalm but were a kind of Midrash on the Psalm. The titles show how later Sages identified the major components of the Psalms they titled. In the Book of Psalms there are many kinds of titles. Some refer to historical events. Others relate to the agricultural cycle that uses these poems in their celebrations. Other refer to the “composer” of the Psalm, that is, they were added to tell us who the Sages connected to the theme of the Psalm. While King David is considered to be the author of most of the Psalms, the titles that connect him to these poems usually say “Mizmor L’David”: a song of David, Mizmor Shir L’David; A song, a Psalm of David, or just “L’David”; From David. In the entire book of Psalms, covering all 150 poems, there is only one Psalm that is called “Tehilah L’David” THE Psalm of David. It is all the more striking if we remember that the entire Book of Psalms is called, in Hebrew, “Tehillim”.
Anyone in the recording business can tell you that if you have a collection of music, and only one song is named the same, or nearly the same as the name of the collection, that song becomes known as the “title track” of the recording. To this day, many CD’s by famous artists contain one song that shares its name with the title of the CD. It is still called, the title track. If Psalm 145 is called Tehillah, and the book is called, Tehillim, than Ashrei must be the title track for the entire collection of Psalms.
If we look at the entire collection, we see that the very beginning of the book, the first word of Psalm 1 is “Ashrei Ha-ish” and the last word in the collection, the final word of Psalm 150 is “Halleluyah” Now we can better understand what is going on. We have a title track for Psalms, that begins with the first word of the book and ends with the last word and in between has a verse with every letter of the Aleph Bet. (OK so “nun” is missing, but it has all the other letters). What we have here is a miniature summery of the book of Psalms. Each time we recite it (three times a day) we are symbolically reciting all 150 Psalms from Ashrei to Halleluya and every letter in between. This is indeed a very important and central Psalm to Judaism and to the liturgy as well.
Next week: Prayer IX: The Concluding Psalms of the P’suke D’zimra.