The Famous 23rd Psalm

Dear Friends,


In the previous letter, we discussed how the Book of Psalms became a Jewish gift to humanity. In this spirit, we will begin to discuss the 23rd Psalm, which became well-known throughout much of the world. As we shall explain in the “Related Teachings” section at the end of this letter, the 23rd Psalm is also associated with Shabbos, the Sacred Seventh Day. It is therefore especially appropriate to learn more about this psalm as we approach Shabbos, and we will start with the opening verse:


“A Song of David: Hashem is my shepherd, I shall not want.”


The Hebrew word for “song” in this verse is zemer, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the biblical term zemer refers to a song without words – the melody (commentary to Psalm 3:1). The appearance of the word zemer at the beginning of this psalm therefore indicates that David first aroused his soul through melody.


I once read that the word zemer is related to zamar – to prune or to shear. This linguistic relationship reveals that a spiritual melody has the power to shear away the emotional impediments that prevent us from connecting to the depths of our souls. For example, a person may be immersed in negative thoughts and emotions which are not life-giving and uplifting; however, the power of a spiritual melody enables a person to cut through these negative barriers and reach the core of the soul.


David proclaimed, “Hashem is my shepherd, I shall not want” – words which express the theme of this psalm. David felt that Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, was his shepherd. In addition, he understood that Hashem was the shepherd of his people; thus, in another psalm, he addresses Hashem as, “Shepherd of Israel” (Psalm 80:2). In addition, he refers to Israel as, “the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3). A psalm can have several levels of meaning, and the Midrash on Psalm 23 teaches that this psalm is also the song of Israel. Israel is saying, “Hashem is my shepherd,” and the Midrash explains that this is a reference to the way Hashem guided Israel and provided Israel with all its needs during the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.


The allusion in this psalm to the Divine guidance during Israel’s historic journey has universal significance, for the journey of Israel as the nation of Hashem is to lead to the spiritual rebirth of all the nations. As Rabbi Hirsch writes in his introduction to the Book of Psalms:


At the time of His very first intervention in the course of the history of the nations in behalf of Israel, Hashem referred to the latter not as His “only son,” but rather as His “firstborn” son.


Both David’s life and the life of the People of Israel convey universal messages, and with this consciousness, we shall continue our discussion of Psalm 23. In the next verse, David proclaimed:


“He makes me lie down in pleasant green pastures; He leads me beside the peaceful waters.” (Verse 2)


According to Rabbi Hirsch, David is indicating that whether Hashem causes him to lie down and remain in one place or leads him to a new place, it is solely for his welfare.


The Midrash explains that the reference to “pleasant green pastures” alludes to the grass that grew around “Miriam’s Well” – a fresh-water spring that followed us in the arid wilderness on our journey to the Promised Land. Whenever we encamped, this well would miraculously cause the grass to spring up. Why was it called, “Miriam’s Well”? The Talmud explains that this miraculous well was given to us in the merit of Miriam (Taanis 9a). Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, was a prophetess who also taught Torah to the women, and a reference to her leadership role appears in the following Divine message which was conveyed to our people by the Prophet Micah: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.”


After the reference to the green pastures and peaceful waters, David says:


“He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for His Name’s sake.”


“He restores my soul” – As Rabbi Hirsch explains, David is expressing the following idea: The ways in which Hashem guides me in life – both the “resting” and the “changes” – are intended not only for my physical well-being, but also for my spiritual and moral welfare; thus, “He restores my soul.” The Midrash offers another explanation:


“He restores my soul” is referring to Torah study, as David also wrote: “The Torah of Hashem is whole, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19:8). According to the Midrash, the words, “He restores my soul,” are alluding to the Torah that Hashem taught us when we were journeying through the wilderness.


It is known that the Torah emphasizes justice for both the individual and society. It is therefore not surprising that David proclaimed: “He leads me on paths of justice for His Name’s sake.”


The Hebrew word for justice in this verse is tzedek – a word which also refers to righteousness. According to Rabbi Hirsch, tzedek refers to the Divine plan and goal for creation where every creature is justly entitled to receive the nurturing and protection that it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within the creation. (See the commentary of Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 15:6, and Rabbi Hirsch’s essay on tzedek in his work, Horeb.)


David said that Hashem leads him on the paths of tzedek, “for His Name’s sake” – for the sake of the most sacred Divine Name. As we discussed previously, this Divine Name expresses the compassionate, loving, and life-giving Divine attributes. We, the people of the Torah, are to live our lives in the spirit of this Name. According to a leading 18th century sage, the Vilna Gaon, this vision is expressed in the following verses which discusses the mitzvah to walk in the ways of Hashem:


“Hashem will establish you as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you observe the mitzvos of Hashem, your God, and you walk in His ways. Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will revere Hashem – because of you.” (Deuteronomy 28: 9,10 – The translation of verse 10 is according to the Vilna Gaon.)


In his commentary on these verses, the Vilna Gaon explains how “the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you”:


“The Jew is obligated in his world to be attached to the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed Be He; as He is compassionate, so you be compassionate, as He is gracious, so you be gracious. And on the image of the Jew, the names (attributes) of God will be read of themselves; and he shall be an instructor and a teacher to benefit all of the earth’s dwellers – to open the eyes of the blind and to illuminate the world with refined faith in the pure Torah and in desirable character traits.” (Peninim Mi-Shulchan Ha-Gra)


The above teaching therefore helps us to understand that our Shepherd leads us us on the paths of tzedek for the sake of the compassionate, loving, and life-giving attributes associated with His Name.


With the help of Hashem, we shall continue our discussion on Psalm 23 in the next letter.


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


Related Teachings and Comments:


1. Some people say the 23rd Psalm before the morning Shabbos Kiddush – the blessing of sanctification over the wine. In fact, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Siddurim (prayer books) in my library include this psalm among the customary readings before the Shabbos morning Kiddush.


2. Some people have a custom to sing this psalm at each of the Shabbos meals, and others sing it three times during the third Shabbos meal.


3. The supervision of our Shepherd over each individual is known as Hasgacha P’ratis – the Divine providence for the individual. A reference to this Divine providence appears in the following verse from a psalm that we chant on Shabbos morning: “From His dwelling place He oversees all the inhabitants of the earth” (Psalm 33:14 – see the commentary of Malbim). The classical work “Duties of the Heart” states, “He oversees the governance of all human beings” (The Gate of Trust, Chapter 3).


Hazon participant, Ahuvah Gray, is working on a book of stories about Hashgacha P’ratis, and she sent us the following message:


I am in the process of completing my third book (about Hashgacha P’ratis stories). If anyone has a moving inspirational story that they would like to share, I would greatly appreciate it. All names and locations will be changed to protect your privacy. Please send stories to:


The above Torah teachings were sent out by “Hazon – Our Universal Vision”:

Hazon - Our Universal Vision