Beginning on the first day of Elul, nearly all communities begin reciting
Psalm 27 ("God is my Light and Salvation") twice daily, continuing through
the end of Sukkot. In Eretz Yisra'el, the custom is to continue through
Hosha'na Rabba (21 Tishri) and in the Diaspora the recitation continues
through Sh'mini 'Atzeret (22 Tishri). (Parenthetically, this is the only
custom - of which I'm aware - which binds together the reflective season of
Elul with the festivities of Sukkot). Although all traditions who recite it
exclusively during this season (the Vilna Ga'on did not recite it, due to
his general principle of only reciting one "Psalm of the day" per day; some
eastern communities recite this Psalm every day of the year) include the
recitation during Shaharit (at some point after the Shir Shel Yom), the
second recitation is subject to different customs. Ashkenazim say it after
'Arvit, whereas Hasidim and S'pharadim recite it after Minhah.
Significantly, there is no mention of this custom anywhere in the literature
of the Rishonim (and certainly not in Rabbinic literature); it first appears
in a Siddur published by R. Shabtai of Raskov (1788). Nonetheless, as noted
above, the custom of reciting it during this season is nearly universal and
almost assuredly predates the late-18th century. Generally, the custom is
associated with the Midrash, which appears much earlier than the custom,
which interprets the opening line as a reference to the highlight of the season:
(another interpretation: ) the Rabbis interpret the verse as referring to
Rosh haShanah and Yom haKippurim. [Hashem is] my Light on Rosh haShana,
which is the day of judgment, as it says: And He shall bring forth your
righteousness like the light, and your judgment like the noonday. (T'hillim
37:6). My Salvation on Yom haKippurim, when He saves us and forgives us for
all of our wrongdoings (Midrash T'hillim 27:3).
In this essay, we will address two interrelated issues: The "sense" of the
psalm and its propriety to the season. As will soon be demonstrated,
identifying the coherence of the chapter is no easy matter - it seems, prima
facie, to be two unrelated psalms that were "fused" together. As we review
the text, we will note the point at which "Psalm A" becomes "Psalm B" -
after which, we will demonstrate the literary coherence of the psalm and
then address the thematic integration - which will help us understand the
association with this season of Elul-Tishri.
THE TEXT - TRANSLATION AND COMMENTS
1. Hashem is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Hashem is
the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?
As we pointed out in our analysis of Psalm 47, the "superscription" which
appears as the heading of many of the psalms need not be understood in a
uniform manner. Whereas some superscriptions indicate dedication (e.g. 122,
72) and others may point to composition with a particular group of Levite
musicians in mind (e.g. Sa'adiah's explanation of "T'fillah l'Mosheh" -
#90, as well as one suggestion of the Korahide psalms), the most
conventional and "straightest" explanation is that the superscription
operates as a colophon which identifies the author of the psalm. Further on
(at v. 4), we will assay the likelihood of that approach here.
The psalm opens with a parallelism (light:salvation) within a parallelism
(light/salvation : strength of my life). The tone here is one of confidence
- which will grow as we proceed through the psalm. Note that God is not
being addressed here; rather it is an audience (or a musing) who hears these
praises of God and of the security, enabled by God's Presence, experienced
and extolled by the psalmist.
2. When the wicked, my enemies and my adversaries, came upon me to
eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
Whereas the first verse gave us no direct information as to the context of
the fearlessness, we are now brought into the direct circumstance where this
security is felt. The setting here (explicated yet more overtly in the next
verse) is one of war - which heightens our curiosity as to the propriety of
this psalm to the season of Elul through Sukkot.
This verse utilizes three words for enemies (m're'im, tzarai, oyvai li)
which neatly parallel the three words/terms used to describe the security of
God's Presence in the previous verse (ori, yish'i, ma'oz hayyay).
The final two words - stumble and fall (kash'lu v'naphalu) are utilized in
war contexts throughout T'nakh (e.g. Vayyikra 26:36-37).
3. Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war should rise against me, even then I will be confident.
The casual reader often assumes the second word (tahaneh) to be second
person male singular - to wit: "If you encamp", but it neither makes sense
given the sympathetic audience, nor is it supported by the second stich.
Rather, since Mahaneh (camp) is a feminine noun, the word Tahaneh is to be
understood as third person feminine singular (as translated above). Thus,
the (army) camp (in the first stich) and its parallel "war" (in the second
stich) are both treated as active.
4. One thing have I desired of Hashem, that I will seek after; that I
may dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life, to behold the
beauty of Hashem, and l'vaqer in His temple.
Given the doubled stress ("One thing…that I will seek" - Ahat sha'alti…otah
avaqesh), it is proper to understand the word "only" in translation: There
is only one thing that I ask of God, that is what I will seek after…
While the sentiment of this verse is, to say the least, both noble and
inspiring (and the source of many beautiful songs), it seems to border on
religious "over-confidence" (arrogance?). The psalmist is so assured of his
physical safety as ensured by God's Presence, that he seems to take that for
granted - and can turn his attention to his one true desire. We will yet
address this mercurial expression of emotion.
Although the psalmist stresses that he has only one request - note that
there are six components to the request (dwell in the house, behold the
beauty, l'vaqer, hide me, protect me, set me upon a rock). This is not
unusual, since all six are aspects of the one basic request - to maintain
this level of intense cleaving to God, as expressed both in physical
security and spiritual enlightenment.
As we mentioned in the comments on the superscription, this verse has much
to tell us about the authorship of the psalm - or does it? At first glance,
one might argue that any mention of Beit Hashem and Heikhalo militate
strongly against Davidic composition, since the Bayit (and Heikhal) were not
built until after his death. This proof, however, may be used against
itself. Since the psalmist experiences such intrepidity in the face of
danger, conquering the only obstacle with which he is challenged, the only
thing left to desire is the one thing withheld from him (see II Sh'mu'el
chapter 7). As such, l'David is most easily rendered "of David", i.e.
authored by David.
Notice that I haven't translated the word l'vaqer; it is not only difficult
to translate, but what is the most likely translation gives us an
opportunity to expand our awareness of the beauty of Hebrew.
The various times of day are not depicted by arbitrary words; rather, they
relate to the opportunities afforded by that time. Since the central utility
which shifts during the hours of the day is visual acuity, that is the
central emphasis in the Hebrew words used to define this time.
Ramban (Sh'mot 12:6) maintains that the three terms 'erev, boker, tzohorayim
cover all times of the day (based on Psalms 55:18).
As R. Avraham ibn Ezra (B'resheet 1:5) explains, the word Erev (evening) is
anchored in the same root - 'RB, which means "to mix, to combine" (hence -
'Eruv, a mixing of ownership of property; the verb 'arev, to mix its
homophonic noun 'arev - a co-signer, who has admixed his responsibilities
with that of the borrower.). This is a time of day when it becomes hard to
distinguish various items from each other (e.g. a pole and a man); the lack
of visual acuity leads to a "mixture" of sensory input as it is translated
by the brain. As ibn Ezra himself states: yit'arvu bo hatzurot - various
forms become intermingled at this time.
The middle of the day, tzohorayim, comes from the root TzHR, (and its
variant ZHR), meaning "gleam" - that is the time when the light is strongest
and clearest. According to Ramban (ibid.), the paired form (tzohorayim) is
used because there are two hours at the middle of the day which most
properly take this name.
The root BQR means "investigate" (cf. Vayyikra 19:20). The first time of day
when visual investigation becomes possible is after sunrise - hence, the
morning is called Boqer.
As a result of various stages of this philology, some commentators (Rashi,
Ibn Ezra) read the phrase l'vaqer b'Heikhalo as "to visit His Sanctuary
every morning" (taking the applied meaning of bqr); however, others (Radak,
Me'iri) understand it as "to cogitate" - i.e. to contemplate the various
aspects of Godliness. This explanation, favored by modern commentators as
well, fits more comfortably with the use of the root as a verb (using the
verb as connected with "morning" is unattested in T'nakh). In addition, it
fits contextually, as the single request increases in intensity:
1) to sit in God's House
2) to gaze at the beauty of God
3) to contemplate His Presence (or His teachings - see the elliptic
comment of Me'iri).
5. For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in Sukkoh (His
pavilion); under the cover of His tent shall He hide me; He shall set me up
upon a rock.
This is the continuation of the "one request" introduced in the previous
verse. Parallel to the three aspects of nearness to God expressed in v. 4,
this verse highlights three forms of protection from enemies which the
psalmist expects God to employ on his behalf. The first of the three
protections (his pavilion) serves as the hook on which to hang the extension
of the recitation through Sukkot.
The "rock" mentioned here likely refers to a cropping of rocks which forms a
natural fortress and protection from the enemy. This is also known as a
M'tzad (see Shoftim 6:2).
6. And now shall my head be lifted up above my enemies around me;
therefore I will offer in His tent sacrifices of joy; I will sing, I will
make music to Hashem.
The reasonable conclusion of all of this praise is to offer thanksgiving to
God. The mention of the tent (as opposed to "the House") serves as added
support for Davdic composition, as the Ark was housed in a tent during his
At this point, we have reached the conclusion of "Psalm A". The first and
final words in this section are God's Name - and the entire piece is of one
tone (confident) and one address (an audience of supporters or allies).
Observe how dramatically and suddenly everything shifts as we begin "Psalm B":
7.Hear, Hashem, when I cry with my voice; be gracious to me, and
The psalmist turns to God, turning his back on an audience (if it exists at
all) and is begging for Divine grace. Not only is the tone one of
supplication, but the psalmist is even unsure of God's readiness to hear his
8.Of You my heart said, "Seek My face"; Your face, Hashem, will I
He continues to introduce his prayer with this justification - he is, to
wit, impelled to seek out God and to pray to Him as it is the incessant
urging of his heart which has driven him so.
9. Hide not Your face from me; put not Your servant away in anger;
You have been my help; do not abandon me, nor forsake me, O God of my
Note how drastically the tone varies from the earlier exaltation - the
psalmist has angered God and faces the worst possible consequence: The
hiding of the Divine Countenance (see D'varim 31:17-18). The fear of
experiencing a manifestation of deus abscondum is explicated as God
abandoning & forsaking the psalmist.
10. For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but Hashem will
take me up.
It is unclear whether this verse is part of the prayer or an aside,
reflecting the psalmist's hope that it will be answered. In any case, the
sense of desperation and isolation is intensified here, as all "safety nets"
have been removed and the psalmist has only one hope left to him - "we can
only turn to our Father in Heaven".
11. Teach me Your way, Hashem, and lead me on a level path, because
of my enemies.
It is curious that the psalmist, in his return to the direct-address prayer,
pleads for God's direction (certainly a noble request) with less than noble
motivations. Instead of asking that God lead him on the proper path for its
own sake, or to become closer to God, his focus is utilitarian and
defensive. He hopes that his enemies will wither away when they sense God's
Presence in his life due to the instruction he receives. His motivation
highlights the desperation he feels, that even proximity to God is chiefly
viewed as a vehicle to safety.
12. Do not give me up to the will of my enemies; for false witnesses
have risen up against me, and they breathe out violence.
Some render Nephesh ("will") as "throat", claiming that the imagery utilized
here is one of the enemy swallowing up his prey; although an unnecessary
extravagance, this picturesque approach is poetically attractive. The final
phrase viY'fe'ach Hamas is often rendered "breath violence" (as here),
understanding the penultimate word as associated with the root NPhCh. The
form belies this, and the suggestion has been raised, both based on the
parallelism within the verse and a common use in Ugaritic, that we
understand the meaning of Y'fe'ach as "witness". This meaning is possibly
attested to in Mishlei 14:25.
13. Were it not that I believe I should see the goodness of Hashem
in the land of the living.
This verse is awkward any way it may be read. [Those who suggest an
emendation of the first word Lulei do so unnecessarily; a brief foray into
the various forms of speech in T'nakh will clarify the strange construction
here.] The conditional clause is present, to wit: If I hadn't held my
faith… but the consequence is missing. What would have happened had the
psalmist wavered in his belief? The next verse does nothing to satisfy our
discomfort - at no point is the conditional resolved.
It is, however, not all that strange to find similarly elliptical statements
in T'nakh. The usual form of an oath, taken by the challenged party (as
opposed to administered by an officiant), includes an oath-formula
introduction (usually invoking a reference to God), the word Im (if) and the
opposite of the truth statement to which he is attesting. For example, when
Ya'akov and Lavan formalize their separation pact at Gal-Ed, Lavan states:
If you shall afflict my daughters, or if you shall take other wives
beside my daughters, although no man is with us, God is witness between me
and you. (B'resheet 31:50).
Lavan never states what will happen if Ya'akov violates the pact. That is
the form of oaths - to leave the punishment unstated. This may be done to
increase the anxiety relating to a violation or merely to avoid stating such
a terrible consequence; either way, an undesirable and terrifying result of
a presently hypothetical situation (e.g. violating an oath, losing faith)
need not be explicated. The ellipses serve a greater purpose, leaving the
unstated punishment looming over the head of the speaker.
In our case, the psalmist is averring that if he were to lose his faith in
ultimately seeing God (or however we understand the end of the verse),
something awful would have befallen him (most likely, he would have been
14. Wait on Hashem; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your
heart; and wait on Hashem.
This final verse is hard to assimilate into either "Psalm B" or "Psalm A".
It doesn't reflect a prayerful stance, as in "B", addressed to God; neither
is it exuberant and confident as in "A". It is, rather, exhortative to the
(probably) receptive audience. This leaves us with two questions regarding
this verse - to which section of the psalm does it belong and what are we
to make of the doubled phrase Kaveh el Hashem? However we might translate
Kaveh (hope, wait, pray, long for, anticipate etc.), it is the only repeated
phrase in the psalm; a phenomenon which deserves our attention.
LITERARY CLUES TOWARDS TEXTUAL INTEGRATION
All of the information presented so far points us towards the "two-psalm"
approach; two independent psalms, one a petition and the other an
exaltation, were merged into one unit. In spite of the evidence presented
thus far, this approach is hard to maintain even without the literary clues
we will utilize further on. Why would anyone combine two psalms which are so
different in tone and address, creating one confusing hybrid? The vast
difference between "Psalm A" and "Psalm B", ironically, lends support to
Beyond that, however, here are some significant observations regarding the
literary structure and deliberate use of words which serve to clearly tie
the two sections together.
1) As the attached chart shows, even though the two halves are
imbalanced in number of verses, they have the identical amount of phrases (I
am using the schema suggested by Rav Elhanan Samet, whose observations form
the core of this shiur.)
2) God's Name appears six times in each half - thus increasing the
sense of deliberate balance between the sections.
3) Perhaps most telling, there are a significant number of words which
are repeated in both halves - including some words which are relatively
uncommon in T'nakh. What makes the textual unity at once clearer while
increasing our confusion is the dialectic method in which the same word is
used in each half. For instance, in v. 1, the psalmist declares that God is
"my salvation" - as part of trumpeting his confidence in his virtual
invulnerability. In v. 9, in contradistinction, God who is "the God of my
salvation" is beseeched not to turn away and expose the psalmists
vulnerability. The same tzarai who "bite the dust" in v. 2 are the tzarai
who threaten to eat the psalmist alive in v. 12. A most convincing example
of this method of ironic repetition is the use of the root STR. In v. 5,
the psalmist is confident that God will hide him in the folds of His tent;
in v. 9, the psalmist begs God not to hide His countenance from him.
We have, so far, demonstrated that this psalm should be treated, after all,
as one textual unit, made up of three sections; vv. 1-6, 7-13 and v. 14.
That raises the bar significantly, for we now have to explain the vast
difference in tone (and address) between the two halves and the purpose and
meaning of the epilogue.
The relationship between God and Man, while multi-faceted and constantly
shifting, admits of two poles - "God seeking Man" and "Man seeking God".
There are times in the life of the individual - and of the nation - when God
addresses Man, seeking him out and making His Presence felt in all of its
immanent power. The model for this overpowering meeting is the Stand at
Sinai, when God "descended" on Mount Sinai, which was then covered with a
thick cloud as smoke, fire, lightning and the sound of the Shofar were felt
by the entire nation at the foot of the mountain. (see Sh'mot 19, 20:15,
24:16-17 and Mekhilta at 20:15). This is similar to the experience of a
coronation, when the king, in all of his splendor and glory, is presented to
the people with fanfare, pomp and circumstance.
There are times when Man has to set out, in quiet solitude and with no
assurances, to seek God. No earthquake, conflagration or tornado highlights
the meeting - Man is listening for the still, small Voice. There are
oft-times in life when it feels as if God's Presence has waned and the
burden falls upon us to seek Him out. The model for this "timid" meeting is,
ironically, atop the same mountain. After the initial giving of the Torah,
with all of the commotion cited above, the B'nei Yisra'el eventually
violated the covenant and built a golden calf, which they idolized. When the
various stages of Mosheh's supplication to God that He spare the nation were
completed, he was told to ascend the mountain again to renew the covenant.
This time, however, there was no shofar blast, no smoke, fire or lightning.
Mosheh was not entering a Divine cloud which had descended; rather, Mosheh
himself had to ascend the mountain, seeking out God and His forgiveness.
Each half of our psalm reflects the station of a person found in either of
these poles of the continuum in this relationship. The first half ("Psalm
A") is sung by someone who is engulfed in God's Presence, hearing the
shofar, surrounded by the Divine cloud, with nary a thought of outside
threats (which cease to exist) and only a deep yearning to make this station
The second half ("Psalm B") is the prayer of a person who feels isolated,
desperate and far from God, seeking Him out at every juncture, terrified by
the possibility of failure and begging God not to turn from him.
Although we have "aligned" the two opposing halves with the poles of the
relationship between God and Man, we have yet to explain why they are
presented in one (deliberately) unified text. The epilogue, in the light of
the questions we asked on that final verse, will be the key to our answer.
The two poles of this relationship - the overwhelming distance and the
overwhelming Presence - share one common feature. Both inhere the danger,
for Man, of losing his bearings in this, the most important relationship in
which he is engaged.
The man who has been met by God, in all of His glory, can fall into the trap
of believing that it can never be different. This total envelopment in God's
Presence, expressed by Haza"l in such statements as "He held the mountain
over them like a pot" (following Mahara"l's explanation), "For every word
uttered by God, their souls fled their bodies" etc. can lead Man to feel
that he never need to worry about suffering from distance. This is always a
source of Man's downfall - as he cannot fathom the possibility of being
pushed away from the Divine.
The man who feels isolated, frightened and desperate can give up hope, again
never believing that his station can ever change.
To the proud marcher in the Independence Day parade of 1968 and to the
mourning relative outside of Sbarro's; to the confident trader on September
10 and to the despairing relative with a picture titled "Missing" on
September 11; to the one and to the other the psalmist turns and exhorts:
Kaveh el Hashem. Never lose your hope and expectation and your awareness
that all of this may not last; and never give up hope, falling into the
despair of accepting your isolation as permanent.Kaveh el Hashem.
As we have discussed in our shiur on the Parashat haMo'adot, Rosh haShanah
is presented in the Torah as a commemoration of the Stand at Sinai - a
commemoration of a shofar-blast. This is, of course, the initial stage of
Mattan Torah, complete with the entire audio-visual experience. Indeed, the
central Mitzvah of the day is one of noise - the same noise as that heard at
According to Rabbinic tradition, the day on which Mosheh finally descended
Sinai for the third and final time, carrying the "second tablets" and the
assurance of God's forgiveness was on Yom haKippurim - and this most
singular of days is understood as a commemoration of that event. Here,
again, there is one central Mitzvah - confession. This Mitzvah, unlike the
shofar, is primarily fulfilled quietly "before God", approximating Mosheh's
lonely ascent to Sinai to achieve God's forgiveness.
The duality of the season cuts much deeper than this; from the onset of
"Elul", we are simultaneously gripped with dread of facing God in Judgment
and excitement at the imminent coronation of the God of Israel. The fear and
joy course throughout the season.
We now understand not only the sense of our integrated psalm - but also the
propriety of reciting it during this season of feeling God's immanence while
seeking Him out form the depths of our loneliness.
It is generally perceived that the "season" ends with the trumpet blast at
the conclusion of Yom haKippurim - but, as many Jewish thinkers have
proposed, the forty days which reach their apex at this point are but a
preparation for the entrance under the "marital canopy" of the Sukkah where
God, having encountered Man and having been found, as it were, by Man,
rejoice together under His protective cloud.
Psalm 27, an elegant composition reflecting the confidence of resting
securely in God's Presence and the fear of distance from Him, is recited as
long as we seek Him, are sought by Him - and as long as we reside together
under His clouds of glory.