Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 125

September 2, 2022 (6 Elul 5782)

Why 27?

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope that you are enjoying a relaxing and rejuvenating last few days of summer. Please join us this Shabbat morning for our in-person services which will also be available on our regular zoom prayer link. Additionally, please read upcoming emails that will contain further information regarding the upcoming High Holy Days.

As I mentioned last Shabbat, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah is called Elul. During the weekday morning services, two liturgical additions are made as we conclude the Shacharit service. One of those customs includes the blowing of the shofar and the other custom involves the recitation of Psalm 27. I have often been asked what is the reasoning behind these additions?

For those of you who are shofar blowers, the purpose of including the sounding of the shofar each day is straightforward…. It gives our guys a chance to practice before their big day!

The reasoning behind the recitation of Psalm 27 is however, more tricky to explain. For those of you who are not familiar with the Psalm, it is broken up into three sections. In the first section (verses 1-3) the Psalmist describes his absolute trust in God; in the second section (verses 4-6) he puts forward the famous request: “one thing have I asked of God, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life.”; and in the third section (verses 7-14) he elaborates on that request.

In fact, the custom of including this Psalm during Elul is not mentioned in the Talmud or by the Geonim, nor by Maimonides (12th century), nor in Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s Tur (14th century) nor in the famous code of Jewish law called the Shulhan Arukh. The first appearance of the custom is mentioned in the 18th century prayer books of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady and Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776).

Here are four theories explaining the connection of Psalm 27 to this time of year.

Rabbi Shabtai of Rashkov, a 17th century Hassidic rabbi, gives an involved Kabbalistic explanation. He notes that since Psalm 27 mentions God’s name 13 times, if we recite it, it will protect us from an evil decree when we are judged by the heavenly court at this time of year.

Rabbi Ephrayim Zalman Margaliot and others refer to a Midrash found in Midrash Tehilim that suggest that the opening phrase of “the Lord is my light” hints at the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and the expression “he is my savior” is hinting at Yom Kippur.

A third explanation appears in recent literature about the High Holidays, which notes that the concluding verse of the Psalm reads:

לׅׄוּׅׄלֵׅ֗ׄאׅׄ הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהֹוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים

“Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” The first word of the sentence, spelled backwards, is Elul!

And finally, according to simple logic, Psalm 27 was chosen to be recited at this time of year because it contains words of encouragement during these days of trepidation, when every Jew is fearful about his fate, and prays to God to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice. Do not hide Your face from me…Hope in the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage, hope in the Lord.

Friends, whether through hearing the sounds of the shofar, reciting special psalms, or engaging in your own process of personal spiritual inventory this month, I pray that your preparations for the New Year will bring you strength and comfort. May we all be blessed with a Shannah Tova U’metukah; a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Eric Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
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