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    Psalm 23 in the siddur – Ask the rabbi

    Q. I am surprised that the beautiful Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) is not part of our daily prayers. Surely it should have been included?

    A. Though not statutorily required, Psalm 23 is often said, for obvious reasons, on occasions of sickness or bereavement.

    It is also often sung on Shabbat at Se’udah Sh’lishit, the third meal, which is usually eaten late on Shabbat afternoon. At this moment Shabbat is ebbing away and the psalm offers a comforting assurance of Divine protection, even when we leave the serenity of Shabbat and turn back to the stresses and strains of the workday week.

    The traditional translation of the psalm is deservedly famous, but not entirely accurate. The phrase tzalmavet, for instance, probably does not mean “the shadow of death” but “dark gloom” – not that this changes the meaning long associated with the word; the late Rabbi Israel Porush said that its message was, “Even when I find myself in the depth of darkness and despair I trust in God and am not afraid.”

    This and other psalms are not only for the synagogue. In our own individual lives the Tehillim ought to be an invaluable companion. Life requires us to articulate both agony and ecstasy, and the Psalmist has the uncanny ability to assist us to frame the words.

    This is what is behind a comment on the opening sentence of the sidra of Sh’mot. The first five words are V’eleh sh’mot b’nai Yisrael haba’im – “And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came (to Egypt)”. The final letters of these Hebrew words make up the word Tehillim, Psalms, indicating that wherever one may be, Tehillim are a precious guide.

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