Commentary Magazine

The Midrash on Psalms, translated by William G. Braude

Commentary on the Psalms
The Midrash on Psalms.
by William G. Braude. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic.
Yale University Press (Yale Judaica Series XIII: 1 & 2). Vol. 1, 563 pp; Vol. 2, 630 pp. $15.00 each.


The daily reading of the psalms has been traditional in the liturgy of the synagogue for centuries, and long ago its poetic phrases invited intellectual exposition and commentary. In the period when the triennial cycle of reading the Pentateuch was in vogue, equivalent psalms were read in sequence on Sabbath afternoons; thus, the five books of one hundred and fifty psalms were completed in three years. The text of the psalms often served as the starting point for homiletical disquisitions on theology, law, ethical conduct, and Israel’s history. These midrashim, first presented orally by the preacher, were later noted down and ultimately collected.

We can well visualize the homilist on a Sabbath afternoon expounding these psalms and seeking to demonstrate, through them, that “history is the manifestation of the will of God working in the lives of those whom He selects to do His will”; and we can sense, too, how the congregation, looking back to the heroes of old and the sainted teachers, as dusk was falling on the Sabbath, gained renewed courage and could await the eternal future of bliss, as taught by the midrash.

According to Leopold Zunz, the Midrash Tehillim, or commentary on the psalms, was finally compiled in southern Italy in the second half of the 9th century; Solomon Buber, on the other hand, maintains that this took place much earlier, during the Talmudic period in Palestine. To round out the extant Hebrew text, Buber added selections from Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of homilies on the whole Bible as culled from Talmudic texts; he did so because in the Constantinople edition of the Midrash, prepared in 1512, there was no exposition of psalms 119-150. As Rabbi William Braude, the translator, points out in this new edition prepared for the Yale Judaica series: “Over a period of perhaps a thousand years—from the 3rd century to the 13th—Midrash Tehillim has grown by accretion, at the hands of readers who inserted marginal notes as well as editors who added bits of commentary from parallel writings or comments of their own.”

The Midrash, as we find it now, is a inélange of many things. It includes views on theosophy, Torah, the people of Israel, sin, “time to come,” the “way of the world” and countless other matters—some of these views commonplace, others quite distinctive, all emerging from the analysis of the various verses in the psalms. Thus one learns, for example, that the 123 responses of Hillel correspond to the number of Aaron’s years (Psalm 22, verse 19); that God’s names—El, Elohim, Adonai—stand for the three attributes of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge by which the world was created (50, 1); that the Torah, which existed before Creation, was meant for all mankind (72, 6); that chastisements are often evidences of God’s love (12, 5); that evil impulse is necessary, since without it no man would take a wife or beget children (9, 1).

The subjects discussed in the Midrash are as far-flung as personal curiosity. One learns that “dice players reckon with the left hand but add up with the right” (26, 7), and one may read a theoretical discussion of the possibilities of sexual intercourse in the Messianic Age (146, 4). A homespun philosophy emerges from such midrashic proverbs as “We notice life only when we are losing it” (90, 19), and “One is not what one’s mother says, but what one’s neighbors say” (48, 2). Parables and stories likewise abound, such as the tradition that the nephew of Titus boasted, at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, that he had slain God himself (121, 3). And one pauses before the Hebraic reference to Romulus and Remus nursed by a she-wolf in milk which God had prepared for them (17, 12), wondering how this legend seeped into Judaic lore.

Taken in its entirety, the Midrash attempts to guide the observant Jew in the “paths of life.” Among the lessons gleaned from the midrashic study of the psalms are that God is afflicted in the affliction of man, that appetites and passions are essential parts of human nature but must be disciplined, that there is punishment for the oppression of the poor, and that mutual aid is of prime importance in life. In contrast to the teachings of more other-worldly faiths, the homilies in the Midrash seek constantly to make the Jew aware of communal responsibilities. Where there is economic scarcity, there is trouble, the Midrash teaches; and the leaders of a community are answerable for its conditions. Even more than other books of the Jewish faith, the Midrash emphasizes that the higher principles of life and social justice must be upheld at all times. Thus, for example, though tradition stressed the coming of the Messianic Age, the Midrash boldly taught that the Messianic Age was but a continuance of the present age; hence, it stressed more immediate concerns, such as the blessings of work. (The text even outlines rules fixing wages and hours for laborers.) The Midrash seeks to make man conscious not only that he is created in the image of God, but that his every action and thought should be directed toward living ethically. Thus, the book is like a handy manual, throbbing with life designs fitting for every occasion.



Rabbi Braude’s two volumes, covering close to 1,200 pages, contain a most readable translation of this storehouse of Judaic lore. Taking Buber’s text as the basis, the translator did not seek mere paraphrase but fidelity to the original text, a goal he has largely fulfilled. With the aid of Professors Lieberman, Wolfson, and Nemoy, whose suggestions and emendations Braude records often in his notes, the translator has produced two volumes of genuine scholarly merit. Nevertheless, the Notes do not seem to me to contain nearly enough cross references, tracing back many of the homilies to their original Talmudic sources. For example, the reference to Greek respect for Simon the Just (Psalm 18, p. 240, Notes II, 446) should have recalled the Talmudic story of Alexander the Great in Yoma 69a.

Also, despite the great care which has gone into this work, there axe some glaring errors. Thus, referring to Psalm I (1,24) where the Shema and its benedictions are mentioned, the Notes record (II, 402): “The Shema of the morning service consisted of four sections, namely, ‘Hear O Israel,’ ‘And Thou Shalt Love the Lord,’ ‘It Shall Come to Pass,’ and ‘The Lord Spake Unto Moses.’” Speaking of four sections of the Shema is contrary to the traditional concept of—“the three sections in Shema” (see Mishnah Berakhot 2, 2); also, in the Biblical text of Deuteronomy 6:4,5, “Hear, O Israel” and “And thou shalt love the Lord” follow as verses without any break. Furthermore, this Note is inconsistent with the definition of Shema given in the Glossary (II, 532): “A prayer so called from the first word, ‘Hear!’ The prayer consists of three passages from Pentateuch: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41.” This simple error is not so trivial as it might appear to the uninitiated reader. For it necessitated interpretations which run contrary to the explanation of the text of the Midrash Tehillim as found in its original source (Yerushalmi Berakhot 3d.)

Though such interpretation mars the “accuracy and precision” that the editors seek in the series, it does not mitigate the tremendous value of the Midrash, now revealed to those who cannot read it in the original. Much simpler and more attractive than the other classics issued by the Yale Judaica Series—Saadiah’s Belief and Maimonides’ Code—this work can well become the basis for formal study in the synagogue. Such study will give the searching Jew a fuller comprehension of the traditions, thought, and teachings of Judaism.



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