By Molly Zatman
For MitzpehMembers of Ometz follow instructions given by Claire Shoyer (Molly Zatman/Mitzpeh)
On Tuesday, May 11th, the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinic Intern for Ometz, this university’s traditional egalitarian minyan, led a “Psalms cut and paste” learning session. Claire Shoyer, the intern and a current Rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary, taught participants how to compile their own prayers through picking and choosing lines from psalms.
The virtual session took place after the last day of classes and was a way for participating Jewish students to unwind. “It worked out really well. It was a great way to end the semester and segue into finals and summer,” said Rachel Robin, a sophomore government and communications major.
The hour began with an icebreaker: students shared what type of dairy food they most felt like, a nod to the upcoming holiday Shavuot, in which one of the observances is consuming dairy products. Shoyer told everyone, “I would be blintzes because I love to be all snuggly with my friends, and you always get blintzes snuggled up to one another.” Participants chose cheesecake, ice cream and various types of cheese.
The main activity began with an introduction to Psalms and its contents. Psalms refers to poetic liturgy from the Book of Psalms, a biblical anthology of 150 individual psalms traditionally attributed to the ancient King David.
“A lot of praise, a lot of grand, hyperbolic language. Scholars say there are three main types of psalms: psalms which praise God, complain-y psalms called ‘laments’ and psalms meant to thank God. The first and the third overlap a bit,” Shoyer explained.
Psalms “show up everywhere in our prayer services” according to Shoyer. “Hallel, morning prayers and Shabbat morning services all contain portions from Psalms. There are times in services when we say entire portions of a psalm, completely intact, though a lot of our services are made up of compilations of cherry-picked verses from psalms.”
Participants at the learning session were challenged to look at the introduction to Havdalah, a celebration meant to separate the Sabbath from the weekdays ahead, and pick out key themes, like trust, deliverance and happiness. Shoyer then revealed that Havdalah is composed of different Psalm verses, picked and tied together because of their common themes.
“So what do we see around us, personally or communally, which seems praise-worthy, which seems like it needs lamenting, which we feel like we could give thanks for?” Shoyer challenged students. “We’re going to put together our own compositions the same way the Havdalah introduction and Ashrei [another prayer] are put together.”
Participants were given access to a compilation of Psalms writing and put together their own prayers. Junior English, religions of the Ancient Middle East and agricultural & resource economics major Jared Bennett said, “I did something inspired by Tachanun, which is a prayer of confession and supplication for mercy. It has a lot of themes of longing after Hashem [an informal name for God]. It was sort of just what spoke to me in the moment.”
Shoyer told students: “The prayers in the books in front of us may not exactly reflect our experiences or what we need. We can do something about that. We can put together compositions that are really personal and really specific to our needs. I think this tool is really powerful for how we can approach our feelings, our needs, getting in touch with our spiritual side, talking to the divine. This is a way to make it more appropriate and specific, tried and true, to take what’s in the siddur and do it for yourself.”
Robin said, “It was a great time to reflect, specifically about prayers and Psalms. The idea behind it will stick with me in my day-to-day life.”
“I would love to do it again. We had a few learnings with Claire throughout the semester and I really enjoyed them all,” junior graphic design major Hannah Freeman commented.