These "verses of praise" seek to reorient us away from egocentrism.
Pesukei d’Zimra — literally “verses of praise” — is the first section of daily morning prayer services. Composed of lengthy recitations from the end of the Book of Psalms and other poetic verses, it is commonly understood to be a mere introductory section to the more exciting prayers to come — the Shema and the Amidah, filled as they are with statements of core Jewish theology and human requests of God.
Pesukei d’Zimra is much less exciting. These are verses intended to put us in the mood for prayer, but they are not the prayer itself. It’s not uncommon for regular attendees at morning services to time their arrival so as to miss some or all of this beginning material and be there for only the more exciting stuff.
Many commentators find the source for these preparatory prayers in a teaching from the Talmud: “One should always set forth praise of the Holy One, blessed be He, and then pray for his own needs.” (Berachot 32a) This principle is derived from Moses, who provided the template for prayer by first praising God and only then proceeding to his personal request. Deuteronomy 3:24-25
It seems logical that we ought to be hesitant and cautious before directly asking God for our needs. Only after praising God’s kindnesses and acknowledging His prior gifts to us have we earned the right to ask for more. This is appropriate even when dealing with human benefactors.
But Pesukei d’Zimra has something more vital to impart as we begin not only our daily prayers, but the day itself. This can be seen by the careful selection of verses which we recite as part of this preparatory section.
We begin: “Blessed be He who spoke, and the world came into being; blessed be He.”
The next paragraph begins: “Praise the Lord, call out in His name; let it be known amongst nations His actions.”
Later on: “The Lord has set up his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.”
“From the rising of the sun to its setting let the Lord’s name be praised. High above all nations is the Lord; above the heavens is His glory,” we recite.
And on it goes.
Compared to the heights Jewish liturgy can reach, this kind of language can seem quite banal. The codifiers of the prayers could easily have chosen more stirring prayers, but they didn’t. And that was intentional.
The verses recited in Pesukei d’Zimra reinforce an important idea: We are small and God is vast. They provide perspective on our desires. Our needs may seem all-important and the challenges we face overwhelming, but we are not the center of the world.
This is the default human attitude, to see ourselves at the center of everything, but Pesukei d’Zimra quickly reorients us. Our first prayers of the day bring us to back the reality that however great our problems appear to us, they don’t amount to much in the larger scheme of things. Pesukei d’Zimra is a daily reminder of our own relative insignificance.
“You give it open-handedly, feeding every creature to its heart’s content,” reads a famous passage from the Ashrei prayer, composed mostly of excerpts from Psalm 145. This reminds us that every creature seeks to survive and sustain itself from God’s bounty — not just us.
“He is the healer of the broken-hearted,” we say. Our problems, large though they may loom, do not last forever.
Later in the service, we come to the Amidah, filled with its series of stirring requests of God. The Amidah prayer seeks to change the world around us — asking for peace, for health, for rain in its time. Our own needs occupy center stage.
Pesukei d’Zimra is different. It seeks not to change the world, but to change us, inviting us to see the world, ourselves, and our needs and wants from the vantage point of the transcendent. Reciting it enables us to pray properly by placing our own needs in the proper context.
Only with that perspective are we prepared to beseech God with our many requests. By the time we’re done with the Pesukei d’Zimra, we are ready to face God, to face a new day, and to face ourselves.
Rabbi Elisha Friedman was ordained at Yeshiva University and serves as the rabbi of Congregation Kesher Israel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.