For a little over 200 years, Psalm 27 has been associated with the season of repentance: Some have the custom of reciting this psalm during Days of Awe (10 days), some for the whole month of Elul as well (40 days), and some beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (51 days). There are several explanations for this association. Most focus on the psalm’s themes; also noted: the expression “were it not” — לוּלֵא — in verse 13 spells Elul — אלול — backward.
Many siddurim include the full psalm somewhere in Psukei D’zimrah (verses of song, in the morning service). Mishkan T’filah includes the single verse, 27:4, for which there are a number of popular tunes (p.662 in “songs and hymns”).
Here are a few of the many translations and poetic interpretations available:
- 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation (public domain)
- R. Simcha Weintraub (focus on healing)
- “A New Psalm” by R. Benjamin Segal (translation with literary analysis) [UPDATE 2017: The overall on-line resource is available only through the WayBack Machine; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.]
- R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (interpretive translation)
- R. Patty Haskell’s “Poem for Elul: Psalm 27” (a poetic extension of the psalm with new requests)
A variety of dwelling words, variously translated but all speaking of protection, are used:
- בְּבֵית-יְהוָה [beit YHVH — house of God]
- בְּהֵיכָלו [b’heichalo — in His Temple]
- בְּסֻכֹּה [b’sukkah — in His “pavillion”]
- בְאָהֳלוֹ [b’oheilo — in His tent]
God is called by several names/endearments — “my light,” “my salvation,” “fortress of my life” — and the four-letter name, YHVH, appears 13 times.
A number of words are repeated in the psalm. Some repetitions carry a similar images, some seem mirrored: For example, in verses 4 and 8, the psalmist “avakesh [will seek”]” God’s presence. But “conceal” appears first in a protective image: God “will conceal me [yastireini] under the cover of Hist tent” (27:5); later, the same verb is used in the desperate “don’t conceal [al-tasteir] Your presence” (27:9). Segal (“A New Psalm,” above) notes that many words or roots in the first half of the psalm echo in the second.
Something to notice
The first half of verse 8 begins in the psalmist’s heart — amar livi [my heart said] — directed “to You” [lecha]. But what the heart says is a first-person expression from God, “Seek My face”:
לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי–בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי
אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ
In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face’;
Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
— 27:8, JPS translation
Are these first-person words arising FROM WITHIN the psalmist’s heart? If so, why is the psalmist expressing such desperation and fear about losing God’s presence?
Look for more notes on Psalm 27 as Elul progresses. Add your own thoughts in the comments.