Off the Shelf: Psalms and Jewish life in antiquity

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What role have the psalms played in Jewish life? The answer to that question depends on the time period under discussion. In “A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity” (University of Pennsylvania Press), A. J. Berkovitz, assistant professor of ancient Judaism at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, explores the different roles these poems/songs played in Jewish life during late antiquity in what he calls a “literary biography.” His purpose is to tell “the story of how the Hebrew Psalter shaped the Judaism of Late Antiquity and was, in turn, shaped by its Jewish users.”

Berkovitz notes that the first known religious use of the psalms was during the sacrifices performed at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, there is no record of what the Levites actually sang; their songbook, if one ever existed, has long gone missing. Berkovitz focuses on late antiquity, the Greco-Roman period, because physical evidence is easier to discover. Plus, it is also the time when the canonization of the Hebrew Bible took place.

To understand the relationship people in that time period had with the psalms, Berkovitz explains that the physical objects people encountered were very different from those produced in contemporary times. The biblical writings appeared on scrolls, which were handwritten and expensive to produce. Only the rich were able to afford their purchase, which also made owning them a matter of status. Evidence shows that most scrolls were different from each other; that included how many psalms appeared and the division of those psalms. There were debates on whether the psalms were written by one writer or if there were five distinct authors. Since there was generally a limit as to how large a scroll could be, a person might own only one section of the psalms or, if richer, own a complete set written on a number of scrolls.

These psalms were used in different ways, although the usage was not mutually exclusive:
Psalms as liturgy. Although, according to Berkovitz, there is no mention of the psalms being used as liturgy in the Mishnah, a discussion on the topic appears in the Talmud. The psalms began to be quoted in prayers and used within the service in their full form. The author posits that this began when the synagogue developed into a house of worship and became equated with the Temple. Plus, psalms were being used in Christian and non-rabbinic Jewish forms of worship, which might have influenced rabbinic Jews.

Psalms used in sermons or in scholastic situations. The ancient sages began quoting from the psalms in their talks to their students and in legal discussions. The quotes served as proof texts to explain a particular point. The psalms also served as an area of study in their own right, with a teacher reading the text and expounding on its meaning. 

Psalms used by individuals for piety and/or magic. Berkovitz notes that it can be difficult to separate these usages because there was a great deal of overlap. He writes, “To the degree that we can extricate these categories from each other successfully in an ancient context, we may say that they differ from one another in their purpose. Although imperfect, it may be fair to say that the primary (although not exclusive) function of socially sanctioned psalm-based magic was to shape one’s external reality: to receive healing, secure lost items, banish demonic foes, and so on. The purpose of Psalm piety, by contrast, was primarily (but not exclusively) to inculcate a particular set of internal reverential dispositions, attitudes, and or feelings (often of solace and hope) through reading, reciting, touching, and speaking the verses from the Psalter.” Verses from the psalms have also been found on magic bowls or amulets that were meant to protect people and their homes. 

Berkovitz notes that these uses are not mutually exclusive, but rather offer ways to discover how the psalms became part of Jewish life, personally and socially. That means that the psalms could serve particular functions in rabbinic discussions and prayers, while still leaving space for individuals to use them for personal purposes.

One thing that Berkovitz emphasizes is that his project should only be the beginning of this line of study. He believes that similar explorations should be done for other books of the Bible. He also notes the limitations within his own work: he depends on the small amount of physical evidence available, namely that which survived over the centuries, and writings about the topic from antiquity. However, even within these limitations, “A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity” offers readers a thought-provoking look at a part of the Bible and prayer service that they may have taken for granted.