Reading the Book of Psalms in the Twenty-First Century

A review of Rabby Hayyim Angel’s “Psalms: A Companion Volume”
August 4, 2022

It was with great anticipation that I read Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s latest commentary, “Psalms: A Companion Volume” (Kodesh Press, 2022). Like so many of his other books on biblical text, Rabbi Angel’s newest volume—this time a commentary on the Book of Psalms or Tehillim—does not disappoint. Overall Rabbi Angel has written a relevant and readable commentary that will grow the reader’s appreciation for Psalms.

Tehillim often stands out as one of the most compelling yet enigmatic books in the biblical canon. Its authentic and powerful insight into human experience produces a uniquely penetrating and reflective experience that has endured for centuries. Psalms are often quoted by religious and secular leaders for inspiration and recognized as one of the great literary works of Western Civilization. In recent history leaders ranging from former President Barack Obama to former President Donald Trump have publicly reflected on Psalms (chapters 46 and 34 respectively).

The new commentary is divided into 13 discrete chapters covering a handful of Psalms. Each chapter stands on its own, exploring a different thematic or structural aspect of the Psalms. The subdivision of the book makes for pleasant readings that can be done in short bursts or longer continuous studies. Many classic points are discussed, including the original context, authorship, structure and overall message that helps the reader gain deeper appreciation and insight for these compositions. More in-depth discussions of intentional omissions, imperfect acrostics, difficult phrases, repetitive psalms and superscriptions are also addressed for more advanced readers seeking to engage with deeper biblical scholarship. Despite the complexity and advanced sources shared by the author, the text remains surprisingly approachable and readable.

Understanding Psalms is doubly important for Jewish readers as many chapters and verses are enmeshed in the traditional liturgy. Psalms forms the bedrock of traditional Jewish prayer, encompassing no less than 50 Psalms throughout the weekly and Shabbat prayers. While many chapters of Psalms may be familiar to readers, without context they can remain somewhat opaque in meaning. Having a masterful overview such as the one provided in this new volume gives one a deeper appreciation of these compositions and ultimately can contribute to more significant prayers.

Rabbi Angel quotes widely, citing secular academic, rabbinic, American, Israeli and even Karaite sources. His introduction of many contemporary Jewish scholars to the general reader is of particular interest and a real contribution to the field. High quality insights by the likes of Amnon Bazak, Amos Hakham Yehudah Elitzur, Elhanan Samet and Yakov Medan present the reader with new and sophisticated observations. Equally impressive are the array of traditional rabbinic scholars who are not often quoted in modern analyses such as Rabbis Yosef Albo, Moshe ibn Gikatilla and Yosef Hayyun. Both groups of Jewish scholars, contemporary and medieval, are given the spotlight in this volume to help decipher the intricate meaning of Psalms. That these rabbinic opinions are lesser known today is a lament underscored by the author in this short but powerful book.

The Maimonidean principle of “accepting the truth from whoever speaks it” is loudly reinforced throughout the rabbi’s commentary as he gives equal deference to all textually supported opinions. The volume includes a subtle suggestion that critiques on both ends of the commentary spectrum have forsaken the diversity of high quality rabbinic voices in the exegeses of Psalms. On one hand the ultra-orthodox approach produces an invented homogenous interpretation that this volume demonstrates was never maintained by traditional commentators. On the other hand, an equally extreme secular approach, which the author quotes often, operates on the opposite end of the same echo chamber by ignoring many important opinions from the rabbinic corpus. Rabbi Angel reinforces the idea that many of the modern secular scholarship issues related to biblical study were already addressed centuries ago by the traditional “first rate scholarship” of the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash, leaving the reader with a greater appreciation for both rabbinic commentary and the Psalms.

The volume includes a subtle suggestion that critiques on both ends of the commentary spectrum have forsaken the diversity of high quality rabbinic voices in the exegeses of Psalms.

Interesting forays in the commentary include reading the Psalms “as a midrashic-intertextual window” to understanding the narratives of the Bible. Psalms often references biblical narratives or personalities—such as events in the life of King David, the destruction of Jerusalem, or the crossing of the Red Sea. Rabbi Angel contends that Psalms functions as an early form of commentary that helps elucidate these narratives for the reader.

Most importantly, the commentary focuses on the multiple understandings of the Psalms that can speak to readers on different wavelengths. For example, many familiar chapters of Psalms can simultaneously address issues on a personal, historical and national level. For example, what was once a lament of national proportions for the destruction of Jerusalem, can now be repurposed by an individual seeking to rebuild their personal lives after tragedy. Or a Psalm recounting the celebratory nature of the exodus from Egypt can be utilized for personal thanks and celebration. These “multiple meanings” are what Rabbi Angel contends have made the Psalms “eternally relevant” to generations of readers.

The wide diversity of opinions quoted in this volume demonstrates the complexity of Tehillim while leaving the reader with a sense of appreciation for the biblical text and the excellent arrangement of these sources by the author. Overall the resulting commentary is a very amicable volume rooted in traditional interpretation while fully taking into account modern scholarship. It will leave the reader inspired by timeless messages of Psalms and enthusiastic to further their study.

Dr. Murray Mizrachi is a Business Lecturer at Baruch College. His advisory firm, MM Consulting LLC, is based in New York City where he resides with his family.

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