June 10, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
June 10, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Le-David Hashem Ori: The Origin of Our Elul Recital Custom

The Mishnah Berurah (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, d. 1933) records its recital at the end of every morning and evening prayer in the High Holiday season. First he states that “in our countries” we recite it from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur. Then he adds that “anu nohagin” to recite it through Shemini Atzeret. (His specific locale recited it for longer than “our countries” did.) See Orach Chayim 581.

But where does the practice of reciting Le-David (Psalm 27) during this period come from? It is not in the Talmud or the Rishonim. It is not in the Shulchan Aruch (16th cent.). Scholars such as Shnayer Leiman and Eliezer Brodt have spent much time tracking down the origin of this custom.

There is a work called Chemdat Yamim, published in the 1730s, that is an early source for many of our customs. (The author of this work is unknown.) The recital of Le-David is mentioned in this work. (The precise practice mentioned here is to recite it “be-ashmoret ha-boker be-selichot.”)

But scholars have tracked down earlier sources. The earliest source is a work called “Shem Tov Katan,” from 1706.The author writes: “I would like to tell you a great secret. Whoever recites this Psalm from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Simchat Torah, even if an evil decree has been inscribed from heaven against a person, he can annul it. He will annul from himself all evil and harsh decrees, and go free, and be meritorious in his judgment. One must be very, very careful to say this Psalm evening and morning, every day, from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Simchat Torah. Then one will be assured that one will live his years and days in goodness and it will be pleasant for him, and through this, he will subdue all kinds of accusers.”

The author even gives the reason for the recital. Le-David has the four-letter Divine Name 13 times (including Divine Names with prefixes) and this corresponds to the 13 Middot. As we know, the 13 Middot are much recited in our prayers during the High Holiday period.

But as my very knowledgeable friend Efraim Palvanov reminds me, Le-David includes the words סכה (be-sukoh) and תרועה. (And the chapter’s themes are not inconsistent with the High Holiday season.) Thus, even though the author stressed only the reason of correspondence to the 13 Middot, perhaps he only meant this as an added kabbalistic reason.

The author of Shem Tov Katan was a kabbalist: Rabbi Binyamin Beinisch ha-Kohen. He was from Krotoszyn (Poland).

In the Shem Tov Katan, R. Binyamin did not provide the specific time in the evening and morning prayers that Le-David should be recited. But he published a different work ten years later, Amtachat Binyamin. There he specified that the time for its recital was after the Amidah of Shacharit. (Presumably he meant that it should be recited after the Amidah of Maariv as well.)

The remaining issue is whether R. Binyamin was the one who first introduced the custom or whether he was just recording an earlier custom. He does not clearly state that he is introducing a new custom. But there is a work “Shirei Ha-Leviim,” published about 30 years earlier in Lublin, that attempted to record all of the yearly daily Tehillim recital customs. Extensive research went into this work. Here there is no mention of any Elul-High Holiday Le-David recital custom. This is evidence that R. Binyamin was the one who introduced the custom.

R. Binyamin’s Shem Tov Katan was very popular and came out in many editions. Also, the practice he mentioned was cited by others after him. R. Binyamin is mentioned by R. Yonatan Eybeschuetz as the greatest of his teachers. So we can understand how the custom spread thereafter, after being first proposed by R. Binyamin.

***

But there is a story that claims an earlier origin of the custom. The story is found at pp. 147-48 in a recent work called Nezer Ha-Kodesh that presents the customs of the hasidim of Ropshitz. This work tells a story in the name of R. Israel Baal Shem Tov (18th cent.) that attributes the introduction of the Le-David Elul-High Holiday recital to a Rabbi Eliyahu Baal Shem, who lived several centuries before R. Binyamin.

The story reportedly told by R. Israel Baal Shem Tov is very unusual. In this story, R. Eliyahu Baal Shem makes a pact with the satan to enable the wife of a gentile ruler to get pregnant! (This will prevent the expulsion of the Jews in the area.) I am not going to summarize the story here. (It can be found online at the site strangeside.com, see below.) But there is an issue as to which R. Eliyahu Baal Shem was being referred to in the story. One passed away in the late 15th century, and the other passed away in the early 16th century.

One has to be very mystical to give credence to the above story, but it is possible that elements of the story are true, such as the detail about who introduced the Le-David recital. (But the lack of reference to the custom in Shirei Ha-Leviim is still a problem for anyone who takes this approach.)

***

A few other observations:

1. There are other Psalms with 13 mentions of the Divine Name. For example, Psalm 33: “Rannenu Tzadikim.” Chemdat Yamim had also suggested its recital together with Psalm 27. (This is further evidence that the content of Psalm 27 was a factor in motivating R. Binyamin to propose its recital, as he did not suggest Psalm 33.)

2. Until recent decades, it was believed by many that Chemdat Yamim was the earliest source for the Le-David custom. This work was viewed by many as having been authored by a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi. (Most likely, this is not true.) But the belief that this work had a Shabbatean origin discouraged many communities from reciting Le-David.

3. One figure who did not endorse the recital of Le-David was the Vilna Gaon (d. 1797). See Maaseh Rav, sec. 53, which rejects the practice of saying it between Elul and Yom Kippur.

Leiman’s lecture on this topic from 2009 can be found at YUTorah.org. An article in Hebrew by Brodt is at seforim.blogspot.com from Sept. 2009. A good summary of all material is at strangeside.com, July 1 2016: “Le-Dovid Prayer.”

***

As to the meaning of “Baal Shem,” I had always thought it referred to someone who had a “good name.” But I learned from writing this column that this is wrong. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (8:5-7) it refers to “one who possessed the secret knowledge of the Tetragrammaton and the other ‘Holy Names,’ and who knew how to work miracles by the power of these names.” (There is evidence that this term already existed with this meaning in the Geonic period.) Even with the addition “Tov,” the term seems to have the same meaning.

***

Unrelated to anything above, here are two comments from Jackie Mason who served as a shul rabbi in his early years. He said: “I had gentiles coming to hear the sermons, that’s how funny I was.” In later years he told his audiences: “Yitzchak Shamir wants to give the West Bank back to the Palestinians. But he can’t; it’s in his wife’s name!”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He has not made any pacts with the satan (so far).

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles