For over three thousand years, Dovid HaMelech’s Sefer Tehillim has been a traditional source of inspiration, clarity, chizuk, and comfort in times of distress for Jews of all walks of life. Throughout the 150 chapters, there are supplications, praises, and declarations spanning the full range of human emotion: joy, fear, confidence, yearning, awe, hope, despair, excitement, disappointment, and peace… to name a few. In fact, there is an appropriate chapter for every possible situation, feeling, and experience a person can have. Any Jew, at any moment can open a Sefer Tehillim and find him or herself in it.
But more than this, Sefer Tehillim also taps into and draws out the deep, complex yearning of the spirit to cleave to its Creator. Among Chasidim, the belief is that even a simple, erliche yid, can reach the loftiest of spiritual heights by reciting the words of Tehillim with sincerity and passion.
The exceptional power and and affect of Tehillim stems from Dovid HaMelech’s own Divinely inspired struggles, awakenings, and revelations. According to the Zohar, all the chapters of Sefer Tehillim were composed with ruach hakodesh. Though the gemara (Bava Batra 14b) relates that other great men, such as Adam HaRishon and Moshe Rebeinu, have contributed to Tehillim, only Dovid HaMelech had the wisdom, understanding, and insight to bring it all together.
The vast range of emotions, experiences, and Divine Wisdom, the Great Light hidden within the possukim of Tehillim, were all revealed on account of the incredible challenges, ecstatic heights, and persistent yearning for HaShem’s closeness that encompassed Dovid HaMelech’s life. In his Sefer Tehillim, we find his life’s spiritual achievements. If we learn from them, we walk away with the answers to our most pressing questions. It is arguably Dovid HaMelech’s most precious gift to us.
But, in order to make the most of this precious gift, we need to know how to use it. Reciting the words of Sefer Tehillim and learning the lessons contained within them is good- whether on a regular basis or during times of distress. But the reality is this only scratches the surface… By striving to find ourselves in the words and actually live them, we are able to tap into the true power of Tehillim and in turn, reach extraordinary heights never thought possible.
Why We Should All Be Saying Tehillim
There are many amazing things brought down to us from Chazal about the power and effect of saying Tehillim. Here are just a few of them:
“Come see how these songs and praises that Dovid recited contain secrets and sublime concepts involving mysteries of wisdom – because they were all recited with ruach hakodesh” (Zohar, Vayishlah).
“One who recites Tehillim each day is considered as though he fulfilled the entire Torah and merits a place beneath the Throne of Glory… One who is accustomed to [reciting] Tehillim repels all kinds of calamities and several harmful plagues from him, his household, his family members, and his entire generation” (The Chida, Yosef Tehilot).
“There is a tradition from holy, renowned men that one who confronts any hardship or distress, or who travels by road, at sea or in a river, should read the entire Tehillim each day without interruption, with concentration and submission, and he will experience wonders. This has been verified and proven …One who regularly recites Tehillim eliminates all types of misfortunes and terrible tragedies from himself, his household, his family and his whole generation, and brings upon them every form of shefa, good blessings and successes” (Pele Yoetz).
For any need one might have, one should recite the whole Sefer Tehilim, from beginning to end, without any interruption. Reb Pinchas Koritzer says that one shouldn’t even say the Yehi Rotzon that is often said between the five books of Tehilim” (Pele Yoetz).
“If you only knew the power that lies in the verses of Tehillim and their effects in the celestial heights, you would recite them all the time. Know that the chapters of Tehillim break through all barriers and soar aloft from level to level unimpeded. They intercede before the Master of the Universe and secure their effect with kindness and mercy” (Tzemach Tzedek).
“Through the Tehilim we bring closer the redemption” (Midrash Tehilim, Shir HaShirim).
“One whose soul longs to attach itself to HaShem with praises, should attach himself to Sefer Tehilim. Our Sages have already said that Dovid HaMelech prayed that his songs should be recited in Batei Kenisios and Batei Midroshos… Blessed is the man that says Tehilim with shira, zimra, simcha and kavonas halev” (Shlah HaKadosh).
“The word תהלים is the same loshon as the words תָּהֶל אוֹר, “flash forth light” (Iyov 41: 10), because in תהלים there is only a Great Light. There is no power for din to be mekatreg, there is pure rachamim and it sweetens everything. Therefore, the Songs of Dovid HaMelech are called תהלים, through which it’s possible to work wonders, and there is found no Satan and no bad mishap” (Noam Elimelech, Likutei Shoshana).
“Dovid HaMelech put together Tehilim in five books, corresponding to the five books of the Torah. We find that the whole Torah is included and hidden in Tehilim. When Dovid HaMelech would suffer, he would look in the letters and words of that tzarah in the Torah and compose a chapter of Tehilim, which was revealed to him through the light of the Torah. And each chapter of Tehilim certainly corresponds to a chapter in the Torah” (Degel Machane Ephraim: Chaye Sarah).
“Golus Mitzraim includes in it every other golus, and “Mitzraim” is related to the word צר [which means narrow]. Through Torah and teshuvah we can be redeemed from golus. Now, everyone is capable of doing teshuvah, however, it is hard for one who is not a talmid chochom to learn Torah. Therefore, HaShem assured Dovid HaMelech that Sefer Tehilim will be considered like learning Negaim and Oholos [which are very difficult subjects]. This, that one can do teshuva through Tehilim, is alluded to in the last letters of each word of the first possuk of Shemos:
וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ
“תהלים ותשובה” (Igra D’Kala, Shemos)
Everyone should find themselves inside the words of Tehilim. That’s why it says at the end of Ashrei: וִיבָרֵךְ כָּל–בָּשָׂר, שֵׁם קָדְשׁוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד all flesh will bless You, in any situation we may be in” (Yismach Yisroel, Ekev).
“If one learns Tehilim with kavana it’s a pidyon [redemption] from all types of disasters and tragedies. Perhaps, that’s why Dovid composed 150 chapters equal to the gematria of פדיון. Through the studying of Tehilim with kavanna one can redeem himself from all types of misfortunes” (Magen V’shemesh, citing Emek Hamelech).
The Rebbe, Reb Zusia of Anipoli says that the power of Tehillim to redeem a person is alluded to in posuk 106: 2, מִי–יְמַלֵּל גְּבוּרוֹת יְהוָה יַשְׁמִיעַ כָּל–תְּהִלָּתוֹ. The word יְמַלֵּל is used to mean rubbing in order to pull off, as in Beitzah 12b. The posuk can now be read as: “Who pulls off the gevuros, the harsh judgements, of Hashem? He who makes all His praise heard [By reciting the whole Sefer Tehilim].
There is a minhag to finish the whole Sefer Tehilim at least 2 times before Rosh HaShana, since the gematria of כפר, forgive, is 300, and there are 150 chapters of Tehilim. One should try to finish the sefer a third time before Yom Kippur.
There is a minhag from the Baal Shem Tov that from the first of Elul one should say three chapters of Tehilim every day. Then, on Yom Kippur one should say chapters 115-123 before Kol Nidrei, 124-132 before going to sleep, 133-141 after Mussaf and 142-150 after Neilah. (Tehilim Tehilah L’Dovid)
Unlocking the Power of Tehillim
A deeper understanding of how to unlock the power of Tehillim starts with the explanation of a well-known segula…
In the sefer Shnei Luchos Habris, the Shlah HaKadosh writes that one should say every day a possuk of Tehillim or Torah appropriate for one’s name before the yehi ratzon at the end of shemonei esrei as a segula to not forget one’s name on “Judgment Day.” The appropriate possuk is one that begins and ends with the same letter that begins and ends one’s Hebrew name.
But what is this “Judgment Day,” why do you need to know your name, and how will saying a possuk improve your chances of remembering it?
The Arizal, taught that shortly after a person dies and is laid to rest, an angel comes to the deceased person’s grave and asks him, “What is your name?” The Arizal goes on to explain that a person really has two names: one from the side of kadusha given to him from his father and mother at birth and a second name that stems from the sitra achra, the yetzer hara. The first name refers to his spiritual strengths and ultimate spiritual potential, while the second name refers to his spiritual weaknesses, the taivahs and bad middot that stand in the way of that perfection. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim 23)
Our mission in life is to not only recognize our spiritual strengths and the weakness, but to consistently work to uproot and re-channel the bad, while striving to get closer to and bring out the good within ourselves.
Since the essence of the person is included in his name, it stands to reason that both the person’s spiritual strengths and weaknesses are included there as well. So, when the angel comes to the deceased person and asks for his or her name, what the angel is really asking is: “How well did you recognize your spiritual mission in this world and make an effort to fulfill it?”
The remaining question is, how will saying a possuk of Tehillim help you in this effort? Furthermore, if you can’t remember your name at the time of death, then how are you going to remember a whole possuk- especially since some of them are pretty long?
It could be that this minhag is hinting to something rather profound.
Dovid HaMelech’s greatest quality and strength was his connection to HaShem at all times- even under intense suffering. Time and time again, Dovid HaMelech came out of each experience with a new understanding and awareness of himself and HaShem that he then used to reach greater spiritual heights.
But, that’s not all. Dovid HaMelech’s gift was that he knew how to take the wisdom he acquired and attach the Hebrew letters to it.
“When Dovid HaMelech would suffer, he would look in the letters and words of that tzarah in the Torah and compose a chapter of Tehilim, which was revealed to him through the light of the Torah.” (Degel Machane Ephraim: Chaye Sarah).
In other words, the words of Tehillim contain and conceal all the wisdom and the Light of Torah that Dovid HaMelech was able to reach in his life time. It’s the reason why a Jew can say Tehillim, even without understanding what he is saying, and it will still move things above. By merely saying the words, it creates a spiritual reality. The same is true for learning words of Torah. But, this is just the most basic level of saying Tehillim.
To truly unlock the power of Tehillim, we have to go deeper.
Chazal tell us that an individual’s personality is retained in the World to Come (Eruvin 19a; Rav Dessler, Strive for Truth Vol 1, “The Ways of Heaven”).
That means, if you spent your days sincerely trying to come closer to your spiritual potential and to HaShem, even if you didn’t get so far, then you will retain this longing in the Next World. You will also know what to answer the Angel.
When you are accustomed to saying the possukim associated with your name every day, you are actually creating a spiritual reality. The more you try to find yourself in those possukim and embody them, the more you unlock that Light and wisdom contained within them. This same spiritual light and wisdom becomes an inseparable part of you, guiding you, giving you spiritual strength, and accompanying you throughout your lifetime. It then continues on with you into the Next World.
But it doesn’t have to stop there. The more you try to personally connect to the other possukim and chapters of Tehillim, the greater your spiritual reward… And I’m not talking about the next world; I’m talking about this world. While the concept of a Tehillim Yid may not be so familiar to many of us these days, the reality is that the more connected you are to the Tehillim that you recite, the more clarity, yishuv hadaas, and emunah you will start to see in yourself, and eventually, those around you.
It’s very much worth the effort. In fact, according to the Midrash Tehillim, Dovid MaMelech himself davened that his Tehillim should be preserved for all time, and then added, “But people shall not read them [passively] like they read the works of Miras [a novelist]; they shall rather read them and study them, and receive reward for them…”
May we all be zoche to the great light of Tehillim.