Psalm 27 begins with the words “To David: The L‑rd is my light and my salvation.” (Read the entire text in English and Hebrew here)

The Midrash tells us that “my light” (אוֹרִי) is associated with Rosh Hashanah and “my salvation” (וְיִשְׁעִי) is associated with Yom Kippur.1 We also find that a later verse in the Psalm, “That He will hide me in His tabernacle . . .” (כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי בְּסֻכּוֹ), is associated with Sukkot.2

Yet the custom of reciting this psalm from Rosh Chodesh Elul until the last day of Sukkot does not appear for well over a thousand years later.

The earliest mention of the custom seems to be the work Sefer Shem Tov Katan, by the Kabbalist Rabbi Binyamin Benish Cohen, published in 1706. He writes that one who recites this psalm in a state of holiness, purity and great concentration will have his prayers answered and that it has the power to nullify Divine decrees.3

While this appears to be the earliest written mention, it is worth noting that some cite a tradition from the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) that it was the 16th-century mystic R’ Eliyahu Baal Shem4 who established the custom of reciting Psalm 27 during the high holiday season.5

Another explanation is that this is a time of Divine mercy, as it was when Moses achieved forgiveness for the people after the sin of the Golden Calf. Every year, it is the time when G‑d is especially accessible, like a king who goes out to the field to make Himself available to any subjects who wish to greet him.

As seen in the narrative of Moses’ time on high securing forgiveness, a key element of G‑d’s mercy is the phrase known as the “13 Attributes of Mercy.” Appropriately, G‑d’s name (the Tetragrammaton) is mentioned 13 time in this psalm.6

When to Recite It

During which prayers is this psalm to be recited? Those who follow the Nusach Sepharad custom generally recite it after morning and afternoon prayers. The common Ashkenazi custom is to say it after morning and evening prayers.

There are also various customs regarding when exactly it is to be said in the prayer service. The Chabad custom is to recite it in the morning service immediately after the Song of the Day, and in Minchah right before Aleinu.

The general premise is that we recite it as long as we are being judged for the new year. Thus, some have the custom to say it until Yom Kippur (the day when Moses secured complete forgiveness). However, others continue until Shemini Atzeret (or Simchat Torah). The Chabad custom is to recite it until Hoshanah Rabbah, since that is when the judgment is “sealed.”

Since the customs are numerous, each individual and community should embrace their unique traditions, in the sincere hope that we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet new year!