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The Vilna Gaon’s Psalms for Special Days

April 29, 2014

Question: On Rosh Chodesh and during Chol Hamoed, the gabbai of our shul usually announces that we are going to say a perek of tehillim that is not the one normally said. Someone told me that on days when there were extra korbanos in the beis hamikdash, the Leviyim first sang the perek for the day of the week, and then a perek for the special occasion. If that is true, shouldn’t the minhag be to say both perakim on Rosh Chodesh or Chol Hamoed?

Answer: First, I would like to apologize for not getting to your question earlier. I would have very much enjoyed addressing this particular issue during hol hamoed, but as Rosh Hodesh is going to be this week, it can still be fun.

We have to understand that our sages did not institute that the psalm or psalms that the Levites recited each day in the Temple be part of our daily service. For centuries they were not part of our prayer services, and therefore they are not a required segment of the prayers. The custom dates back to the medieval period, and gained popularity because it helped our people maintain the memory of our past glory, glory that we hope to re-atttain soon. Many scholars, including the Vilna Gaon, heartily encouraged the observance of practices that actively taught the masses about what things were supposed to be like in the Temple. Keep in mind that the Vilna Gaon would usually avoid the performance of “minhagim” that were not related to the performance of the commandments. This practice has had obvious educational benefits. Thank God, most of our people are at least familiar with this particular aspect of the daily Temple service. If only we had more such practices which would further familairise us with that which was and will be, instead of practices that encourage superstitious behavior.

Since there were special psalms sung in the Temple on special occasions in addition to the regular weekday psalms, as mentioned in the Talmud and described by Maimonides and Massecheth Sof’rim, the Vilna Gaon sought to reconstruct the exact order of those psalms, and felt that they should be recited during our prayers on those occasions. The educational value in such a practice is also obvious. However, the Vilna Gaon was faced with a conflict. Like Maimonides, he believed that the public prayers officially ended with the reader’s full qaddish, what we call qaddish tithqabbal, and that ideally there should be no additions thereafter. Any who wish to add to the prayers at that pioint should keep their piety to themselves and not impose on those who have to go and take care of their livelihoods and families. The Vilna Gaon himself would study for hours after the prayers, but he did not demand this of others. As is evident from his other writings, the Vilna Gaon was opposed to the recitation of any psalms after any of the prayers, but he did approve of the practice of reciting the Psalm of the Day because of its educational benefits. Thus, although it would make sense for us this coming Thursday to recite the psalms for both Thursday and the New Moon, the Vilna Gaon limited the recitation to the psalm that would have the greatest impression on the populace. Thus, the holiday psalms have precedence over the weekday psalms, because they anounce the holiness of the day, i.e. the prohibition of the m’lachoth, labors, but the psalm of the Sabbath precedes that of the holidays, as more m’lachoth are forbidden on the Sabbath, even if also a festival. Further, since Temple times the sages assumed that the psalm for the New Moon precedes all the other psalms, even that of the Sabbath, because it would anounce the beginning of the new month, as the beginning of the month was something only determtined that very day. (It is a matter of dispute if it merely preceded the psalm for the Sabbath or actually replaced it during the Temple service) As such, the psalm for the New Moon would be the psalm of choice if we could only recite one during our prayers, whether Sabbath or weekday. Of course, the special Psalm for New Year would precede the psalm for the New Moon for the reasons we have just stated.

The Vilna Gaon, like the sages and Maimonides, was opposed to many of the additions we have made to the prayers; he would likewise be opposed to many of those additions that have only been invented since his passing. I find it ironic that many congregations claim to follow the Vilna Goan’s practice in this regard, yet they regularly add Ein Keiiloheinu and the order of the incense, Pslam 27 from Elul until the end of Sukkoth, and numerous additional qaddishim for mourners and the like to the daily prayers, all practices that the Vilna Gaon specifically opposed. Therefore, if a congregation really does not follow the Vilna Gaon’s rules, it can not hurt that they recite both, for example, the psalm for Thursday and the psalm for New Moon. This indeeed is the practice in most Ashkenazic congregations in America, for example.

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