The custom of reciting Psalm 27 during the penitential season, variously understood to entail the period from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah, or Shemini Atzeret, is codified in Mishnah Berurah, siman 581: "In our region it is customary to recite [Psalm 27] followed by kaddish at the conclusion of the morning and evening services every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur; we customarily recite it until Shemini Atzeret."
Since the custom is so widespread (though far from universal) and the psalm seems so appropriate for the season, it may be surprising to learn that the practice of reciting it has no basis in the Talmud nor in the early post-Talmudic commentaries and codes.1 In fact, it is not attested with certainty prior to the 18th century.2 The earliest commendation of the practice is in a book entitled Shem Tov Katan by the kabbalist Benjamin Beinish, published in Sulzbach in 1706.3 Beinish writes (9b): "Here is a mystical secret for you: concerning anyone who recites this psalm from Rosh Hodesh Elul until after Simhat Torah, even if there is an evil decree from heaven against that person, it may be annulled." The 13 occurrences of the divine name in the psalm, according to Beinish, correspond to 13 channels of mercy that are "opened" during the penitential season, giving the psalm its power to "annul all harsh and evil decrees."
Although the actual origin of the practice is shrouded in mystery, later commentators generally relate it to a passage in the midrash Leviticus Rabbah.4 The starting point for the midrash is Leviticus 16:3. At the beginning of the priestly ritual for Yom Kippur, the instruction reads, "with this (בזאת) shall Aaron come into the sanctuary." The ambiguous demonstrative pronoun in the phrase "with this" serves as a stimulus for the midrash to identify the "this" that Aaron requires. There is a ready correlation between "with this" in the Leviticus verse and the same word in Psalm 27:3, in the phrase "in this (בזאת) I trust." Whatever accompanies Aaron into the sanctuary on Yom Kippur also induces confidence in the psalmist, even when enemies surround him. Commenting on Psalm 27:1 ("The Lord is my light and my help"), the midrash states, "'my light' on Rosh Hashanah, and 'my help' on Yom Kippur."
The concluding scene of the midrash vividly depicts the Day of Judgment, when the guardian angels of the nations level charges of perfidy against the Jews and God rebuffs the would-be prosecutors. They protest: Jews and non-Jews alike commit the same sorts of sins and immoral acts, so why will the nations be destroyed at the time of judgment while the Jews are spared? God retorts, "'It is they, my foes and enemies, [who stumble and fall]'5 (Ps. 27:2): there are 365 days in the solar year, but the numerical value of 'the Satan' (השטן) is 364. All year, Satan prosecutes; on Yom Kippur, however, Satan does not prosecute." Complete remission of sin apparently is available only to the Jewish people and only on Yom Kippur.
The midrash concludes with the language of Psalm 27:3 embedded in a prayer of thanksgiving (the additions are italicized): "'Should an army of the nations of the world besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should the nations of the world arise against me, in this I trust'—in what you promised me [in saying] 'with this shall Aaron come [into the sanctuary],'" returning at last to the Leviticus text that prompted the midrash.
In the midrash, the "enemies" of the psalmist are external. Later commentators often internalize them, identifying them with the psalmist's own evil inclination—in some ways the most terrifying enemy of all: "the evil inclination and all the forces of uncleanness that are brought into being by transgressions—each one of which is like a warrior attempting to drag him into additional sin, ultimately to destroy his soul."6
In an interpretation of Psalm 27:3 ("should an army besiege me") from his little-known 17th-century Psalms commentary, Hayyim Katz offers a virtuosic elaboration of the ambiguous "this" of the midrash:7
[The "army" is] the army of the evil inclination. Even though it declares war against me—since the evil inclination of a person gains daily in strength . . . —"in 'this' I trust," namely in the holy covenant [i.e., circumcision] that is called "'this' is the sign of the covenant" (Gen. 9:12, 17), and the Torah, which is called "'this' is the Torah" (Deut. 4:44), and the Shekhinah, which is called "this" . . . "The fool does not understand 'this'" (Ps. 92:7), but David said, "with 'this' I know that you have favored me" (Ps. 41:12).
When the psalmist petitions God to "shelter me in his sukkah" (Ps. 27:5), Katz comments, "This means that God should providentially protect me against the evil inclination in this world, which is called a sukkah, since it is a temporary dwelling—the seven days [of Sukkot] corresponding to the seventy years [of a normal lifespan]."
Whether it is by way of a "mystical secret" or through an elaboration of the midrash, Psalm 27 is understood to have powerful apotropaic and protective power. It is appropriate for us to invoke that power during the penitential season at the turning of the year, when we are required to engage in intense self-reflection. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of teshuvah (repentance), we must peel away the mask of confidence and complacency that we present to the world (and to ourselves) in order to scrutinize our flaws and vulnerability. "Doing" teshuvah demands that we focus on those aspects of ourselves most in need of repair and also on our inability to effect that repair without God's help.
The psalm maps out the pathway to genuine teshuvah for us; by reciting and understanding it, we are able to travel that path. The psalmist begins with an expression of complacent self-assurance (Ps. 27:1–3), but that is only the starting point. The tone grows darker, progressing from expressions of yearning for God's presence and protection (Ps. 27:4–6) to petitions conveying insecurity and fear of abandonment (Ps. 27:7–12), and then in verse 13 to the edge of the abyss: "Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living . . . "—the concluding ellipsis expressing the terror inherent in what is left unsaid.
The "normal" movement of biblical penitential prayer is from complaint to confidence by way of petition. The movement of Psalm 27 is precisely the opposite: stripping away the pretense of confidence brings the psalmist to the brink of despair. All that is left is for the psalmist to turn to the praying community with a final exhortation (Ps. 27:14): "Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage! O look to the Lord!" Assuming the role of the psalmist's audience, we recognize that we have only one true hope at the time of judgment, and that is the hope that God's love and mercy will bring about God's forgiveness. In hearing the psalmist's prayer and grasping its import, we will have readied ourselves for the Days of Awe.
1 Much of what I know about the early history of the practice I learned from an informative lecture by my teacher, Professor Shnayer Leiman, posted here. There is a written summary here.
2 In the concluding portion of his lecture, Professor Leiman discusses a Hasidic story that may trace the practice back as far as the 16th century.
3 A digital copy of this rare book has been made available by the Jewish National and University Library here.
4 Leviticus Rabbah 21.4 (ed. Margulies; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1972), 473-480 (quotation on 478). There is a parallel in Midrash Tehillim (ed. Buber), 1:112b (224).
5 That is, the would-be prosecutors ("the nations of the world") will "stumble and fall" instead of the Jews.
6 From Sefer Romemut El by the great 16th-century homilist Moses Alshekh (2 vols.; ed. David Ohayon; Bnei Braq, 1992), 1:217-224.
7 Eretz ha-Hayyim, published in Constantinople in 1750 and reprinted in Ashdod in 2005. Katz is so little known that it is not entirely clear what his name was. Avraham Hayyim Cohen is the name on the title page of the book, and a brief notice in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (2nd edition; vol. 6, p. 686) dubs him Hayyim (Abraham) Ben Samuel Feivush (Phoebus).