Sefer Tehillim – the Book of Psalms – is the first book in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Tanach. According to the Babylonian Talmud, David wrote Sefer Tehillim, “including in it the work of the elders, namely, Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Yeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah.” (Babylonian Talmud – Bava Batra 14b-15a)1
Sefer Tehillim consists of 150 psalms that are divided into five books.
Book 1: Chapters 1-41
Book 2: Chapters 42-72
Book 3: Chapters 73-89
Book 4: Chapters 90-106
Book 5: Chapter 107-150
Each division between these books is marked by doxologies – song of praise to God.2
Book one contains 41 tehillim. Forty of these tehillim are ascribed to David3 and one tehillah (39) is ascribed to Yeduthun.4
Book two contains 31 tehillim. Eighteen of the tehillim in book two are ascribed to David,3 eight to the sons of Korah (42-49),4 one of the tehillim is ascribed to Asaph (50),4 and one is ascribed to Yeduthun (62).4
Book three contains of 17 tehillim. Eleven tehillim are ascribed to Asaph (73-83), one to Yeduthun (77), four to the sons of Korah (84, 85, 87),4 one tehillah is ascribed to David (86), one tehillah to Heman the Ezrahite (88)3, one tehillah to Ethan the Ezrahite – who is identified as Abraham (89), and one to Abraham (90).1
Book four contains 17 tehillim. One tehillah is ascribed to Moses (90), and two are ascribed to David (101, 103).3
Book five contains 44 tehillim. Sixteen of the tehillim in book five are ascribed to David and one is ascribed to Melchizedek (110).3
Tehillim 113-118 constitute the Hallel of Egypt5 and are recited on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.3
Tehillah 136 is called the Great Hallel and is recited at the Pesach Seder.6
Tehillim 120-134 are referred to as the Songs of Ascents. The fifteen Songs of Ascents correspond to the fifteen steps leading from the lower courtyard of the Temple to the upper courtyard of the Temple.7
On Sukkot, “as a procession brought water to the Temple for us in the service, the Levite singers and musicians would perform one of these [tehillim] on each of the steps as the procession advanced upward.”7
All 150 of the tehillim can be placed into one of three categories: 1) Hymns of praise; 2) Elegies; or 3) Didactic tehillim. The hymns of praise glorify God and are comprised of tehillim of gratitude and thankfulness. Elegies are tehillim that lend voice to feelings of grief and suffering. This category includes tehillim of supplication, redemption, and repentance. Didactic tehillim are concerned with righteous conduct and speech. In this category are tehillim of censorship and denunciation.2
According to Talmudic tradition, [tehillim] were sung by the Levites immediately after the daily libation of wine; and every liturgical [tehillah] was sung in three parts (Suk. iv. 5). During the intervals between the parts the sons of Aaron blew three different blasts on the trumpet (Tamid vii. 3).2
Tehillim are used throughout traditional Jewish worship. There are a number of tehillim recited during the Shacharit (morning) service. Tehillah 145 – known as Ashrei – is recited during all three daily prayers.8 Multiple tehillim comprise parts of the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers recited on Friday nights to usher in Shabbat.9
Traditionally a different tehillim for the day is read as part of the daily prayers. According to the Talmud, this practice began with the tehillim being recited by the Levites in the Temple.
The following are the [tehillim] that were chanted in the Temple. On the first day they use to say, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein [Tehilla 24].” On the second day they used to say, “Great is the Lord and highly to be praised in the city of our God, His holy mountain [Tehilla 48].” On the third day they used to say, “God stand in the congregation of God, in the midst of the judges he judges [Tehilla 82]. On the fourth day they used to say, “O Lord, God to whom vengeance belongs, God to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth [Tehillah 94].” On the fifth day they used to say, “Sing aloud unto God our strength, shout unto the God of Jacob [Tehillah 81].” On the sixth day they used to say, “The Lord reigns, He is clothed in majesty, the Lord is clothed, He has girded Himself with strength [Tehillah 93].” On Shabbat they used to say, “A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day. A psalm, a song for the time to come, for the day that will be all Sabbath and rest for everlasting life [Tehilla 92].”10
Tehillim are also used during the funerary rituals of Judaism. From the time of death until the preparation of the body (taharah) and from the preparation until the funeral a shomer stays with the deceased reciting Tehillim (Psalms) as a sign of respect.
Book 1 (Chapters 1-41)
Chapter 1: The key to good fortune is to shun negative influences and study Torah.
Chapter 2: Nothing can thwart God’s will.
Chapter 3: Trust in God will bring peace and security.
Chapter 4: Repentance and happiness comes from sinners recognizing the truth.
Chapter 5: When enemies surround you, pray to God for deliverance and the ability to freely worship God.
Chapter 6: A prayer for a community and individuals who are suffering.
Chapter 7: The righteous are comforted in knowing that they will prevail over the wicked. Their enemies will fall victim to their own schemes.
Chapter 8: One with clarity can realize that God’s handiwork is everywhere and all man’s accomplishments are God’s gifts.
Chapter 9: The wicked person’s success will fade and the righteous will prevail.
Chapter 10: God punishes the wicked and champions the oppressed.
Chapter 11: The righteous suffer as atonement for sin but will be rewarded in the World to Come. However, evildoers are rewarded only in this world.
Chapter 12: God’s friendship and loyalty are pure and enduring unlike human’s friendship and loyalty.
Chapter 13: Exile is comparable to a long, lonely night.
Chapter 14: God will redeem B’nei Yisrael and Israel will rejoice.
Chapter 15: By being generous and honest to one’s fellow man, one becomes closer to God.
Chapter 16: Talent and external forces are God’s tools in guiding history.
Chapter 17: The righteous person asks God to examine his deeds, protect him, and permit him to enjoy God’s glory.
Chapter 18: David’s song of praise to God for delivering him from his enemies and from Saul.
Chapter 19: Relating to God and attaining spiritual fulfillment requires the study of Torah and the contemplation of God’s creation.
Chapter 20: God responds to you in times of stress.
Chapter 21: Kings and powerful people need to lead by example and acknowledge God’s kindness.
Chapter 22: A prayer for the redemption of Israel and her return to the Land and Temple.
Chapter 23: No matter where one is, God will provide for one’s needs.
Chapter 24: The personal qualities of the worshippers are more important than the physical objects needed to build the Temple.
Chapter 25: The righteous seek God and His salvation by repenting and telling of God’s kindness to those who seek God.
Chapter 26: A righteous person walks in purity and with vigilance and prays for God’s help to avoid life’s pitfalls.
Chapter 27: God’s house is the only place of constancy in life and to dwell in it is David’s constant goal.
Chapter 28: God assists man in staying on the correct path when man favors the righteous and rejects the wicked.
Chapter 29: God’s power and glory pervade all creation which functions solely based upon God’s will.
Chapter 30: Travail is a prerequisite to success just as darkness precedes dawn.
Chapter 31: Man should trust in God’s mercy just as David did while being pursued by his enemies.
Chapter 32: God sends suffering and misfortune to man so man can learn true repentance and its accompanying joy.
Chapter 33: God’s moral demands are as constant and inviolable as the laws of His physical world.
Chapter 34: Man’s every faculty should be dedicated to God.
Chapter 35: Just as David appeals for help against his friends who turned into enemies, B’nei Yisrael appeals for help against the nations who oppress them.
Chapter 36: Sin entices man through illusion but the light of truth can dispel sin.
Chapter 37: Do not be lured by the wicked person’s prosperity for only the righteous will inherit the earth.
Chapter 38: Suffering is chastisement for sin and one must repent and look to God for salvation.
Chapter 39: Suffering makes one aware of the frailty and transience of humanity. One must pray for the ability to devote oneself to Torah and mitzvot.
Chapter 40: A righteous person shows gratitude to God by following Torah and teaching others about God’s wonders.
Chapter 41: Contemplating upon the experiences of the poor and sick, one becomes aware of God’s closeness to man even in hopeless circumstances.
Book 2 (Chapters 42-72)
Chapter 42: The individual and the Nation implore to be brought home.
Chapter 43: When God sends for His redemption, the exiles will return to the Land.
Chapter 44: Israel pleads for strength to endure the oppressions of the Nations until the time of redemption.
Chapter 45: A song of praise describing the splendor of the future Moshiach.
Chapter 46: During the Messianic era’s upheavals Israel and those who seek God will be shielded by God.
Chapter 47: God’s sovereignty will ultimately be recognized and accepted by all mankind.
Chapter 48: Jerusalem is eternally glorious because God chose it as His abode.
Chapter 49: Man should use his time on earth to enhance his spiritual development and prepare for the World to Come.
Chapter 50: God demands external adherence to His mitzvot and also a purity of spirit.
Chapter 51: A prayer that teaches the principles of repentance.
Chapter 52: Doeg’s fate exemplifies the tragedy that befalls one who uses one’s talents for evil works.
Chapter 53: An allusion to the destruction of Eretz Yisrael and the Temple and also to the eventual redemption.
Chapter 54: One must pray for God’s salvation when pursued by enemies.
Chapter 55: David shows his unwavering faith that God will allow him to prevail against his enemies.
Chapter 56: David’s trust in God remained unshaken even in hopeless situations. This is an attitude that should be emulated by everyone.
Chapter 57: David affirms his absolute faith in God even during the perils in his life.
Chapter 58: A prayer for the destruction of violent oppressors in order that everyone will know that God is the judge in the land.
Chapter 59: David prays for God to deliver him from Saul so that he may praise God’s Name.
Chapter 60: David expresses his faith that God will allow his reign to be consolidated from within and feared from without.
Chapter 61: David’s experiences while fleeing his enemies parallels B’nei Yisrael’s experiences.
Chapter 62: One must not allow the oppressor’s ill-gotten power and wealth to erode one’s trust in God and faith in God’s justice.
Chapter 63: Throughout his oppression by his enemies, David never waivers from his faith in, and love for, God.
Chapter 64: When the enemy plots evil and lays traps, one should take refuge in God.
Chapter 65: Calamities should spur man to repentance.
Chapter 66: God’s intervention in mankind’s affairs is attested to by history.
Chapter 67: A prayer for the arrival of the Messianic era when everyone will worship God only.
Chapter 68: Israel’s triumph over mighty empires has been played out multiple times throughout history and will be repeated during the redemption.
Chapter 69: A portrayal of Israel’s plight in exile and a plea for a speedy deliverance.
Chapter 70: An appeal to God for rescue from one’s enemies.
Chapter 71: Even in old age, one should continue to turn to God for comfort.
Chapter 72: David turns over his unfinished work to Solomon and prays for his success.
Book 3 (Chapters 73-89)
Chapter 73: Even though it seems as if the wicked prosper and are exempt from Divine punishment, a deeper perspective reveals the futility of their lives.
Chapter 74: A prayer for release from exile thereby causing God’s sovereignty to be acknowledged by everyone.
Chapter 75: A prayer for the ultimate redemption when evil will cease to exist and Israel will be elevated.
Chapter 76: A prayer for the time when people will cease to rebel against God and accept His mastery.
Chapter 77: When the exile has purified B’nei Yisrael, God will again intervene and redeem His people.
Chapter 78: God’s love and concern for B’nei Yisrael is ever present. Remembering this fact brings solace in times of difficulties.
Chapter 79: A prayer that Israel will be restored to her Land so God’s Name will be glorified throughout the world.
Chapter 80: Israel recalls her former relationship with God and pleads for its restoration.
Chapter 81: Regardless of how low one sinks, a firm resolve to heed God’s words will ultimately lead to redemption.
Chapter 82: The maintenance of equity and justice is required for the maintenance of the world.
Chapter 83: The hatred of the Nations toward Israel is based on the Nations hatred for that which Israel stands for – the subordination of all to God.
Chapter 84: Neither persecution nor the illusion of foreign prosperity should lead one away from striving to become close to God.
Chapter 85: A plea for the permanent restoration of Israel and the Temple just as there was a restoration after the First Temple’s destruction.
Chapter 86: Wholehearted dedication and awareness of God’s closeness lift one’s soul and brings it closer to God.
Chapter 87: Greatness and nobility emanate from Jerusalem.
Chapter 88: An impassioned plea for Israel’s deliverance from her long exile.
Chapter 89: Throughout her exile, Israel is confident that God will fulfill His promises to David.
Book 4 (Chapters 90-106)
Chapter 90: A plea to God to help man use his finite time properly.
Chapter 91: By taking refuge in God man does not need to fear those who wish to harm him.
Chapter 92: Shabbat rest permits man to reflect upon God.
Chapter 93: God’s majesty will be recognized by everyone during the Messianic era.
Chapter 94: Goodness will prevail and God will deliver Israel from her enemies.
Chapter 95: Do not stray as your forefathers – recognize God as Creator and the Guiding Force.
Chapter 96: All Nations will recognize God’s sovereignty and join in a new song acknowledging Him.
Chapter 97: During the Messianic era everyone will recognize God who will reign over the entire earth.
Chapter 98: A song of praise for the final redemption.
Chapter 99: The Nations will follow the righteous dictates of God once He is recognized by all.
Chapter 100: A psalm to accompany the thanksgiving offering.
Chapter 101: Purity and truth allow one to utilize one’s abilities for their intended purposes.
Chapter 102: A prayer for those who are beset by misfortune.
Chapter 103: A soul in turmoil is comforted by remembering God’s infinite kindness.
Chapter 104: A tribute to God for the world He has created and maintained.
Chapter 105: God guides the course of history, tying seemingly unrelated events together to bring about a society governed by Torah.
Chapter 106: God’s presence and loving kindness is always near, one just needs an open heart and open eyes to see them.
Book 5 (Chapters 107-150)
Chapter 107: Those who experience God’s deliverance must publicly proclaim their gratitude to God.
Chapter 108: A prophetic psalm about the consolidation of the Moshiach’s reign.
Chapter 109: A plea to God for deliverance from an individual’s enemies as well as enemies of Israel.
Chapter 110: David’s power came through Divine favor for his righteousness.
Chapter 111: God created man with all that he needs to perform God’s will but man must choose this path.
Chapter 112: One who truly fears God will fear no misfortune.
Chapter 113: A psalm to God’s control of creation and his kindness to all creatures.
Chapter 114: Israel was elevated upon leaving Egypt and the entirety of nature was overwhelmed by God’s intervention.
Chapter 115: A plea for God’s intervention so all idolaters would recognize Him and worship only Him.
Chapter 116: Israel declares its love for God and prays for redemption.
Chapter 117: A call to the Nations to praise God.
Chapter 118: Israel expresses gratitude and confidence as it looks forward to the final redemption.
Chapter 119: A psalm extolling the need for ceaselessly striving to faithfully live a Torah-true life.
Chapter 120: A plea for help in keeping from a deceitful tongue.
Chapter 121: A declaration of faith and a prayer for God’s protection.
Chapter 122: A hymn to Jerusalem.
Chapter 123: The exiled Jew yearns for God’s aid.
Chapter 124: Only God’s care and protection has saved Israel from extinction.
Chapter 125: Those who trust in God will be afforded His protection.
Chapter 126: God will return Israel to its Land, rejuvenated in body and spirit.
Chapter 127: When God crowns man’s efforts with success, he can raise his children to serve God.
Chapter 128: Only the righteous experience bliss in both this world and the World to Come.
Chapter 129: Israel’s continued survival attests to God’s providential control of its destiny.
Chapter 130: A person in distress prays to God from the depths of his heart.
Chapter 131: A righteous person is not arrogant.
Chapter 132: If a person cannot complete a task yet faithfully lays the foundations, the task will be completed in the person’s merit.
Chapter 133: The idyllic unity among brothers brings God’s blessings.
Chapter 134: Israel blesses God even in exile.
Chapter 135: God’s continuation in directing history shows mankind that all is futile except serving Him.
Chapter 136: A song of God’s creation and rulership of the world and Israel.
Chapter 137: A prophetic lamentation over the exiles and a charge to never forget Jerusalem.
Chapter 138: Mankind must live with the knowledge that God is omnipotent and intimately close to mankind.
Chapter 139: God’s omniscience and omnipotence are absolute.
Chapter 140: A person who feels powerless against deceit must trust God.
Chapter 141: Even in a crisis one must pray to God not only for physical deliverance, but help avoiding even the smallest sin.
Chapter 142: When one is completely trapped one places himself at God’s mercy.
Chapter 143: During persecution and suffering one can be pulled from trouble by remembering God’s past miracles.
Chapter 144: David attributes all his accomplishments to God alone.
Chapter 145: Man is obligated to praise God’s provision of the needs of all living things.
Chapter 146: Despite our enemies’ perceived power, God is the One who cares for the poor and oppressed.
Chapter 147: God will redeem and rebuild Jerusalem from where Torah emanates.
Chapter 148: The entirety of nature joins in joyous praise of God.
Chapter 149: Lofty praises of God will cut down the wicked and bring forward the glory of the righteous.
Chapter 150: Praise God in every way possible for all the manifestations of His greatness.
1I. Epstein. “Bava Batra.” Soncino Babylonian Talmud. London: Soncino Press, 1949. [http://halakhah.com/bababathra/index.html]
2Emil Hirsch. “Psalms.” jewishencyclopedia.com. Jewish Encyclopedia, n.d. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12409-psalms]
3Wikipedia. “Psalms.” wikipedia.org Wikipedia, n.d. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psalms]
4Walter Drum. “Psalms.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12533a.htm]
5Cyrus Adler, Lewis Dembitz, & Francis Cohen. “Hallel.” Jewish Encylcopedia. Web. 5 Aug. 2011. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7109-hallel]
6Wikipedia. “Hallel.” wikipedia.org Wikipedia, n.d. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallel]
7Nosson Scherman & Meir Zlotowitz (eds). The Stone Edition Tanach. New York: Mesorah Publications, 2007.
8Nosson Scherman (ed). ArtScroll Transliterated Linear Siddur: Weekday. New York: Mesorah Publications, 1998.
9Scherman, Nosson Scherman (ed). ArtScroll Transliterated Linear Siddur: Sabbath and Festival. New York: Mesorah Publications, 1998.
10I Epstein. “Tamid.” Soncino Babylonian Talmud. London: Soncino Press, 1949. [http://halakhah.com/pdf/kodoshim/Tamid.pdf]