PRAYING ASHREI *
Writing about Psalm 119, which is an eight-fold alphabetic acrostic, C. S. Lewis notes: “It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.” Psalm 145, too, is an alphabetic acrostic and it, too, is a work of art, a tapestry woven with great skill which requires careful study.
To highlight the intricate, woven quality of this psalm, I have presented it in three ways. In the English (figure 1), wherever a root-word is repeated, I have used a different color for it. Thus, wherever the word “bless” occurs, it is specially indicated. So too “mighty acts (or, deeds).” And so on. Following this signing, the reader can trace the intricacy of the weaving of the text. In the Hebrew text (figure 3), I have also linked words that repeat but I have used colored lines to do so. Both presentations show the subtle craftsmanship of this psalm. Finally, I have supplied an accompanying commentary entitled “Words” which traces the fabric-ation of this great work.
Psalm 145, like many psalms, changes voices often. This rapid change of voice, uncommon in much of western literature, is also part of the art of the tapestry. Some of the verses of this psalm are written in direct address to God while some are composed in a narrative voice which speaks about God. I have tried to capture these two voices in the first English version (figure 2a) where the verses of direct address are on the margin while the verses of narration are inset. (The verses added as a liturgical supplemental — see below — are centered). Also, like many psalms, Psalm 145 alternates the subject of the action or of the adjective. In some places, people are the subject of the verse and they praise God. Elsewhere, God is the subject of the verse and it is God Whose being or actions are described. I have tried to capture these two modes in the second English version (figure 2b) where the verses with human beings as the subject are on the margin while the verses with God as the subject are inset.
Studying a psalm as complex as Ps. 145 generates not only literary, but also spiritual, insight. Often such insight subverts and reverses the “plain” meaning of the text, yet it too is a layer of truth in reading. Like the literary scholarship, the spiritual homilies (Heb., divrei Torah ) on this psalm could fill a small book. I have culled a few of these in the accompanying commentary called “Sparks” to add to the richness of the text-ure of the tapestry.
Even before the rabbis fixed the order of the prayers, Psalm 145 was important liturgically. The Dead Sea Scrolls text of this psalm contains the following refrain for each verse: “Blessed is God and blessed is His Name forever.” This, scholars believe, probably indicates a communal antiphonal reading. It is, however, the rabbis of the early talmudic period who gave Psalm 145 its prominence in normative Jewish liturgy. They did this in three ways: First, they set two verses as a prelude to it. Each of these verses begins with “Happy” (Heb., ashrei ) one being drawn from Ps. 84:5 and the other from Ps. 144:15 (the verse immediately preceding Psalm 145). The reason for this, as specified in the sources, is to encourage a meditative attitude:
A person should meditate for one hour before reciting the liturgy and for one hour after it. “Before it” — from whence do we learn this? It says, “Happy are those who dwell in Your house”…. The rabbis taught, “The early pietists used to meditate one hour and then recite their prayers ….”
Second, the rabbis appended to Psalm 145 a verse drawn from Ps. 115:18. The reason for this is as follows:
Rav Amram wrote [that the purpose of adding this verse was] to connect one halleluyah to another because all the psalms to the end [i. e., Pss. 146-150] have halleluyah at the end and halleluyah at the beginning. The halleluyah at the beginning of the next psalm [Ps. 146:1] is the beginning of that psalm. Therefore, the rabbis added this verse [to put a halleluyah at the end of Ps. 145].
Third, the rabbis made it obligatory to recite this expanded psalm three times daily and pointed to its spiritual importance, as is clarified in the sources:
Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Avina said, “Whoever recites `A psalm of praise by David’ [Psalm 145] three times each day is sure to be one of those who dwell in the world-to-come.” What is the reason for this? If one were to say that it is because of the alphabetic acrostic, then one should really recite Ps. 119 which contains an eight-fold acrostic. Rather, one recites Ps. 145 because it contains the verse, “You open Your hand, giving contentedness sufficiently to all living beings.”
Whoever sings the praises [of God] in this world merits the world-to-come, as it says, `Happy are they who dwell in Your house, they will praise You yet again, Selah.'”
One must have focused intention (kavvana ) when reciting this psalm … And one must have even more focused intention when reciting the verse, “You open Your hand.” For the main reason why the rabbis ordained that this psalm be recited every day is because of this verse which mentions the praise of the Holy One, blessed be He, Who exercises His providence over His creatures and sustains them.
This psalm is important, then, because it contains the verse par excellence which speaks of God’s grace to the world.
It is, then, in this liturgical form that this psalm is known. It is called “Ashrei,” taken from the opening word. It is recited three times daily, twice during the morning liturgy and once at the beginning of the afternoon liturgy. It is also recited at the beginning of the closing prayer on Yom Kippur. It encourages a meditative attitude, symbolically completes the recitation of the whole book of praise (Psalms) and, for the verse “You open Your hand,” requires special kavvana (focused attention) because of its reference to God’s ultimate love and grace to creation. As such, the liturgical recitation of Ashrei serves as an entry into the world-to-come.
Rabbinic tradition distingishes between `iyyun tefilla (the study of the text of the prayers) and tefilla (prayer, itself). The former is a subset of talmud Torah (the study of sacred texs) and it has value in an of itself. The study of sacred texts, including but not limited to those of the liturgy, allows the participant to experience not only the joy of the intellect but also the close presence of God. Hence, talmud Torah, and especially `iyyun tefilla, are mitsvot; that is, they are patterns of behavior that allow participants to experience God as well as to be part of a long tradition and a venerable community. The latter, tefilla (prayer, itself), is a subset of malkhut shamayim (the kingdom of God) for, it is through direct address to God, that one enters God’s domain; it is through talking to God that one accepts God’s reality and sovereignty and one’s own place in creation. These two mitsvot are so central that rabbis throughout the generations have argued over which was “more” central. Indeed, part of the conflict between hasidism and its opponents is exactly over this issue.
Psalm 145 in its liturgical form requires both `iyyun tefilla and tefilla. The previous section is an introduction to the former. This section will offer some suggestions on the latter. One begins with the recognition that this is a psalm that can be prayed many ways.
One way to pray this psalm is to “perform” the words. Envisage God’s “greatness.” Image God’s “wondrous deeds.” Feel God’s “majestic glory.” Experience God’s “caring.” “Bless” God. “Proclaim God’s kingdom.” When you come to “You open Your hand,” open your hands, palms up, and receive God’s grace and love. Don’t rush in order to “keep up” with the congregation. Prayer is not about communal mumbling but about Presence.
Another way to pray this psalm is to recite it slowly and to make the links between the words. Be aware of the connections. Try to associate each root word with its other occurrences as you say it. Envision the colored words — or, draw the colored lines — as in figures 1-3. Also, try to hold the complexity of the whole in your head. This is not easy, but it is a very powerful meditation.
Yet another way to pray this psalm is to weave the verses as you recite them. This can be done as one would weave a carpet, with warp and woof. See the first verse in front of you. Draw it horizontally through your field of vision. See the second verse in front of you. Draw it vertically through your field of vision. See and draw the third verse horizontally, and the fourth vertically; and so on, to the end. You will have a woven carpet, a tapestry as C.S. Lewis suggests. The second Hebrew version of this psalm (figure 4) is a picture of what the final product might look like. It is, however, only a shadow of the inner image in this kind of prayer which I have tried to approximate (animation 1).
Still another way to pray this psalm: Weave these verses into a sphere or ovoid shape around you. See the first verse and draw it horizontally around you. See the second verse and draw it vertically around you. Continue visualizing and drawing the verses until you are inside and enveloped by the woven shape which is the psalm (animation 2).
The psalm itself, as well as its liturgical setting, are an intellectual, esthetic, and spiritual work of awesome beauty. As the text says: “I will discuss the majestic glory of Your beauty.”
[*] This article first appeared, in non-web form, as “Psalm 145: A Liturgical Reading” in Hesed Ve-Emet: Studies in Honor of Ernest S. Frerichs, ed. J. Magness and S. Gitin (Providence, R.I., Brown University Press: 1998) 00-000. This version, however, is specially designed for use on the web.
 Tur, Orah Hayyim 51, citing Rav Amram Gaon. See also Talmud, Shabbat 118b, and Masekhet Sofrim 17:11, that one should symbolically complete the recitation of the book of Psalms each day by praying the psalms incorporated into the liturgy, especially the last six. The Perisha, commenting to the Tur, ad loc, notes that, if the last verse is appended to link Ps. 145 with Pss. 146-150, then one should not say Ps. 115:18 when reciting the afternoon prayer where Ashrei stands alone (i. e., it is not recited together with the Pss. 146-150). This custom is also reported in Seder Avodat Yisrael, ed. Y. Dov [Baer] (Rödelheim, Schocken: 1868; reprinted 1937) 69. The Perisha, however, goes on to cite the Kol Bo that, for us to be among those who dwell in the world-to-come (Talmud, Berakhot 4b), we must say the “we” of the added verse.
 Tur, Orah Hayyim 51. The Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 51:7, prescribes that, if one has not recited this verse with focused intention, one must go back and say it again properly, even though one does not normally repeat sections of the liturgy on these grounds. This seems to be based on a decision of the geonim (see the Perisha to the Tur, ad loc ).