Kol haneshamah tehallel Yah! (All that has breath shall praise God!)
This is the final verse of Psalm 150—the culmination of the book of Psalms. Every day our set liturgy includes the final six psalms (145 through 150), and, to my personal sorrow, the pacing of the so-called “preliminary service” generally allows a couple of minutes (at most) for a rushed recitation of these classic and profound poetic texts. Fortunately, in many communities—at least on Shabbat, and even on weekdays—a little more time is allowed for Psalm 150. We find a glorious array of musical interpretations of the text that exemplify the diverse approaches to religious music of contemporary Jewish life. Some examples will be found at the end of this essay.
The text of the psalm is deceptively simple; it can be seen purely as a list of the musical instruments engaged in ancient ritual celebrations: harp, cymbals, shofar, lute, drums, etc. But it offers and invites far more. Its beginning calls for God to be praised “In God’s holy place, [and] in the highest heavens.” The “holy place” is the Temple in Jerusalem, an entirely corporeal locale, while the “highest heavens” are transcendent, far beyond our world. The musical instruments represent corporeal praise, but the psalm goes further, seeking praise not only originating in fabricated instruments, but from kol haneshamah, the very breath of life itself. The word neshamah has evolved to mean “soul,” but in biblical Hebrew it means “breath,” as in “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7).
Psalm 150 offers parallel and paradoxical understandings of God and the way that we praise God. We have corporeal, tangible places where we seek (or even locate) the divine, our synagogues no less than the ancient Temple; but the “real” location of the divine transcends our structures. We look to praise God with our instruments, our words, our voices—but the truest praise transcends these—looking to the universal, the breath, the soul. In the words of Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet,
“It is not the Jewish People alone who are called upon to praise God, but every soul, every living creature that knows God as the source of its existence.”
(Commentary to Psalm 150 in Forms of Prayer for Jewish Worship (vol. 2), a siddur published by the Reform Movement in the UK, 2008, 150.)