Tefillah Tuesday: Remnants of Song

Pesukei d’Zimra is bracketed with two post-Talmudic blessings [first attested in the early Medieveal prayer books of R. Saadia Gaon and R. Amram Gaon]: Barukh She’amar which opens the section and we have now reached Yishtabah, which concludes it.

Although Yishtabah reached the siddur later, this blessing has a couple of unusual features – especially the absence of the standard Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam in the concluding blessing – which suggest that it might actually be older, and repurposed for this liturgy.

Also odd is its long multi-phrase signature: Bless God who is “grand in praise, the Lord of thanksgiving, master of wonders, the One who desires songs of praise, unique King, eternal life.” Here too, this blessing violates rabbinic liturgical norms, which typically favor terseness [e.g. “who creates the fruit of the tree,” see Berakhot 49a].

My favorite phrase here is that God is הבוחר בשירי זמרה, haboher be’shirei zimra, “the One who desires, or loves, songs of praise.” This phrase resonates beautifully in this spot in the liturgy: we’ve been singing and God is smiling approvingly in response.

This phrase prompted a beloved and oft-cited interpretation from a 19th century Polish Hasidic master, R. Simcha Bunem of Pershis’cha. He creatively misinterpreted shirei zimra [songs of praise], as shi’arei zimra, or the remnants of praise, or perhaps shirayei zimrah or the crumbs of praise. In Hasidic tradition it is considered a special honor for the faithful to eat the shirayim [crumbs or leftovers] from the Rebbe’s table. R. Simcha Bunem puns on this term, or on the closely related word remnant, to push us beyond the words we have just completed reciting to the awareness of unexpressed feelings beneath.

“God loves the crumbs of praise,” he said, “which remain within us, which we have not yet expressed in words. After all the words, we still have more prayers on our fluttering lips.” What Hashem truly loves, then, are the deepest inchoate feelings of the spiritual heart, which “remain” within after we recite the psalms and the prayers on the page.

When I daven this phrase, I try to linger, even for a moment, reflecting on what I have and have not yet expressed. I try to become aware that even if I davened the whole prayer book every day it would not exhaust all the worship within me.