A Guide Through Pesukei D’Zimra: An Introduction

Ramban (Shemos 14:15) distinguishes between two types of prayer: “צעקה” and “שאלה.” Ramban describes צעקה as begging God for salvation in the midst of a hopeless situation. To illustrate, Ramban references Tehillim, in which Dovid cries out to HaShem:

Tehillim 25:12:

יוֹרֶנּוּ, בְּדֶרֶךְ יִבְחָר

Him will He instruct in the way that he should choose.

Dovid, in this kapitel Tehillim, is at a total loss for what to do; he worries about his sins and his enemies overtaking him. His hope lies not in his own efforts, but in HaShem’s salvation. If HaShem will not “instruct in the way that he should choose,” Dovid will be left abandoned and helpless.

Dovid responds with צעקה: a cry of desperation and despair. By its very nature, צעקה is not calculated — it is primal and instinctive, frightful and panicked. Someone is צעוק, in the words of Ramban, when “לא ידע מה יעשה והוא לא היה יודע איך יתנהג.”

On the other hand, שאלה is effectively the opposite. If you have a good sense of what to do in order to succeed, but are asking for סיעתא דשמיא, your tefillah is definitionally less desperate. By its nature, שאלה does not come as naturally as צעקה — it is not reactive and uninhibited, but contemplative and calm. Consequently, we can’t simply be שואל; we need to build up to it. This is what פסוקי דזימרא is for: meditating on our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu so that we achieve the proper concentration to be שואל.

I was once told an illustrative story on this topic. Apparently, someone once asked R. Hershel Schachter what to do if he came so late to davening that he couldn’t say any of Pesukei D’Zimra. Although the halachos are relatively straightforward, R. Schachter was unable to fathom how it would be possible to daven without first starting off with Pesukei D’Zimra. Whether this story is accurate or not, it touches upon this exact point: Pesukei D’Zimra is a preparation for שאלה.

In this series I hope to analyze major sections of Pesukei D’Zimra in light of this Ramban, and explain how they help contribute to achieving a mentality of שאלה.

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