The Ashrei (Hebrew אשרי) is a prayer that is recited at least three times daily in Jewish prayers, twice during Shacharit and once during Mincha. The prayer is composed primarily of Psalm 145 in its entirety, with a verse each from Psalms 84 and 144 added to the beginning, and a verse from Psalm 115 added to the end. The first two verses that are added both start with the Hebrew word "ashrei" (translating to "happy" or "praiseworthy" or "fortunate"), hence the prayer's name.
Times of recitation
Ashrei is recited three times daily during the full course of Jewish prayers, in accordance with the Talmud, citing Rabbi Eleazar ben Abina of the 4th century, which says that one who thoughtfully recites Ashrei three times daily, particularly the verse פותח, is guaranteed a place in Olam Haba (the World to Come). It is for this reason that not only is Ashrei recited these three times, but many of its verses occur throughout liturgy.
Ashrei is recited twice during Shacharit (once during Pesukei D'Zimrah and once between Tachanun/Torah reading and Psalm 20/Uva Letzion or in this place when any of these are omitted), and once as the introduction to Mincha; it is also recited at the commencement of Selichot services, on Yom Kippur, Ashkenazim recite it during Ne'ila instead of during Mincha, Sefardim recite it during both Mincha and Ne'ila. Such is the practice of the Ashkenaz, Sefardic, and Mizrahi; but the Romaniot and Rome traditions have it only on Mondays and Thursdays, and on holy days on which Supplications are not recited.
The majority of Ashrei is Psalm 145 in full. Psalm 145 is composed of 21 verses, each starting with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet arranged alphabetically. This makes Ashrei easy to memorize. The only Hebrew letter that does not begin a verse of Psalm 145 is nun (נ).
The first two verses are from Psalms 84:4-5 and Psalms 144:15 respectively. The final verse is Psalm 115:18. The Rome liturgy adds to this Psalm 119:1 and the Mahzor Vitry (12th century) adds four (possibly five) other verses beginning with the same word ("Ashrei")(namely Psalms 119:1-2, 84:6, 112:1, and 89:16), and it appears that originally the general practice was to have more introductory verses than the two now used by Ashkenazic and Sefardic Jews.
Introductory verse: Psalm 84:5: It is customary for the congregants to be seated while reciting Ashrei, as the introductory verse, "Happy are the people who dwell in Your house", describes the congregants as part of the household, not strangers or mere visitors, so they sit to demonstrate that connection. The word ישב (yashav), here translated as "dwell"—also means "sit down" (as in Exodus 17:12, First Kings 2:12, and Psalm 122:5), so the Talmud also suggests that this verse describes people sitting (b. Beracoth 32b).
Verse 7 (ז): It has been noticed that, while the majority of Hebrew Bibles spell the first word of this verse with a long vowel - זֵכֶר (zaykher), many prayerbooks print this word with a short vowel - זֶכֶר (zekher) -- the two variants being described as "five dots" and "six dots" respectively. There is no difference in meaning, both variants mean the same thing, a "remembrance" or a "reminder", and both occur elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, although the long vowel form occurs more often. The short vowel (six dots) reading does appear in this verse in several important early editions of the Hebrew Bible, such as the first four editions of the complete Hebrew Bible, and the Complutensian Polyglot and the First Rabbinic Bible (by Pratensis). But the long vowel (five dots) reading is found in virtually all the more recent and more authoritative editions, including the Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex, the Second Rabbinic Bible (by Ben-Hayyim), the Letteris edition, the Ginsburg editions, the Koren edition, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, etc. Siddurim that carry the short vowel reading include, among others, the widely used ArtScroll Siddur (although the ArtScroll editions of the Bible and of the Psalms have here the long vowel reading). It would appear that prayerbook quotations of the Bible are sometimes copied as they appeared in earlier prayerbooks, without doublechecking the Bible itself (a similar effect has been noticed in the 19th and 20th century editions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which perpetuated quotations from the Bishops' Bible instead of using the wording of the King James Version).
Verse 13 (מ ... and נ). Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic, each line beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet—except that there is no line beginning with the letter nun (נ). This is discussed at greater length in the Wikipedia article on Psalm 145. Although the Septuagint and some other non-Massoretic versions of the Bible have such a line, no Jewish prayerbook inserts a line beginning with nun.
Verse 16 (פ). "You open Your hand ..." This is a most important verse and the universal practice is that it must be said with much concentration on its meaning and with sincerity. In the weekday morning services, especially among Ashkenazim, when the worshippers are wearing their tefillin, it is common reverently to touch the arm tefillin during the first half of the verse ("Your hand") and then the head tefillin during the second half ("its desire"). At other times, when tefillin are not worn, in addition to the concentration on the meaning of the verse, it is a custom (primarily Mizrahi but also practiced by others) to lift up one's upturned hands as if to receive God's gifts.
Ashrei is about three concepts. These are:
- People are happy when they are close to God.
- God cares about the poor and oppressed.
- God rewards good behavior and punishes evil.
Significantly, there is no invidious comparison here between Israel and the other nations, nor any mention of the hostility of, or toward, other nations. The Psalm praises God whose justice and mercy applies to all peoples. In verse 9 (ט) we are told "The LORD is good to all and His mercy extends to all He has created." By verse 21 (ת) - "All flesh shall praise Your name ...." - all mankind expresses its gratitude.
Also significantly, this prayer is entirely praise of God, without asking for anything.
Also emphasized in Ashrei is God's kingship over all the universe; in particular, Psalm 145:1 is the Bible's only use of the phrase "God the King" (as distinguished from many occurrences of "my king" or "our king").
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- Talmud Bavli, Tractate Berachot 4b
- 1,001 Questions and Answers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur By Jeffrey M. Cohen, pages 164-65
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Ashray, pages 42-43.
- Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl. transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publ'n Society) page 71.
- Every person's guide to Jewish prayer By Ronald H. Isaacs, page 114
- Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl. transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publ'n Society) pages 75 and 214, and an examination of the Mahzor Vitry.
- E.g., in Mail-Jewish, for 16 March 2007, .
- For example, because of some doubt about the proper vowel points for the same word in Deuteronomy 25:19 (the Parshas Zakhor, recited the Sabbath before Purim), some authorities made a point of reading the verse twice, once each way. Scherman, Nosson, The Chumash: The Stone Edition (1993, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) page 1067; Gelbard, Shmuel Pinchas, Rite and Reason: 1050 Jewish customs and their sources (Engl. transl. 1998, Israel, Mifal Rashi Publ'g) page 161. The standard Biblical Hebrew dictionaries, such as Furst, Brown-Driver-Briggs, Harkavy, et al., treat the two forms as being the same word. Brown-Driver-Briggs cites but one instance of the short vowel, and Mandelkern's Concordance lumps the two forms together for a list of six appearances either way -- but, in all the authoritative Hebrew Bibles (Ben-Chayyim, Ginsburg, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, Koren, Leningrad Codex, Aleppo Codex) all six instances listed by Mandelkern, including the one listed by Brown, have the long vowel.
- See, e.g., Baer, Seligman, Siddur Avodat Yisroel (1868 Roedelheim) page 69.
- Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz) pages 68-69, 150-151, 232-233, 392-393, 502-503; Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Sefard) pages 72-73; 154-155, 254-255, 428-429, 496-497, 546-547.
- Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz) pages 68-69, 150-151; Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Sefard) pages 72-73, 154-155; Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Ashray, page 43.
- Orot Sephardic Weekday Siddur (1994) pages 105, 233, 306; and , described by Ben Ish Chai (19th century Baghdad); and Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Ashray, page 43.
- Abrahams, Israel, Companion to the Authorised Daily Prayer Book (2nd ed. 1922, London) page ; Kimelman, Reuven, Psalm 145: Theme, Structure, and Impact, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 113, nr. 1 (Spring 1994) pages 51. Indeed, Rabbi David Kimhi (13th century) believed this verse meant that all creation, including animals, expresses praise of the Creator. Jacobson, Bernhard S., The Weekday Siddur (2nd Engl. ed. 1978, Tel-Aviv, Sinai) page 95.
- Abrahams, Israel, Companion to the Authorised Daily Prayer Book (2nd ed. 1922, London) page .
- Kimelman, Reuven, Psalm 145: Theme, Structure, and Impact, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 113, nr. 1 (Spring 1994) pages 40-41 (this unique occurrence was noticed by Abraham ibn-Ezra in the 12th century).