What Is Psalm 23?

Psalm 23, which begins with the words “Mizmor leDavid” (“A song of David”), is arguably the most famous of all the Psalms. In it, King David sings of G‑d’s protection, referring to Him as a shepherd. David describes how his trust in G‑d never falters, and how, even as he walks through through the valley of the shadow of death, G‑d shields him from harm, vanquishes his enemies and enthrones him in the house of G‑d.

All of six verses, the psalm is a timeless testament to the rock-solid faith of the Jewish people in knowing that G‑d is always with us, protecting and guiding our path.

History of This Psalm

Rashi teaches us that David composed this psalm while on the run from King Saul, who was intent on murdering him. Hiding in the dry Judean forest of Hereth, and on the brink of death without food or drink, he was miraculously saved by G‑d, who nourished him with a taste of the World to Come.1 David gratefully burst out in song, describing the magnitude of his trust in G‑d. According to the interpretation of the Targum and Radak, David alludes to how G‑d provided for the Jews’ every need throughout their 40-year sojourn in the desert, and to how they will sing when G‑d returns them to our Holy Land; David sings, not just for himself, but for every Jew.2

Throughout the ages, in times of both sorrow and joy, millions of Jews gathered strength from these heartfelt words—words that comforted and uplifted them, and strengthened their trust in the Almighty—trust that G‑d, our faithful shepherd, will never forsake His precious flock, and ultimately will uplift and exalt us eternally in His holy house.

Psalm 23 in Hebrew

  1. מִזְמור לְדָוִד ה׳ רֹעִי לֹא אֶחְסָר.
  2. בִּנְאוֹת דֶשֶׁא יֵרְבִּיצֵנִי, עַל-מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַהֲלֵנִי.
  3. נַפְשִׁי יְשׁוֹבֵב, יַנְחֵנִי בְמַעְגְלֵי-צֶדֶק לְמֵעֵן שְׁמו
  4. גַם כִּי-אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת לֹא-אִירָא רָע כִּי-אַתָּה עִמָדִי, שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ הֵמָה יְנַחֲמֻנִי
  5. תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי שֻׁלְחָן נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי, דִשַנְתָּ בַשֶמֶן רֹאשִי כּוֹסִי רְוָיָה
  6. אַךְ, טוֹב וָחֶסֶד יִרְדְפוּנִי כָּל-יְמֵי חַיָי, וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-ה׳ לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים

Psalm 23 in English

  1. A song of David. The L‑rd is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  2. He causes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters.
  3. He restores my soul; He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
  4. Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
  5. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.
  6. May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the L‑rd for length of days.

Psalm 23 Transliterated

  1. Miz-mohr leh-dah-vid, ah-doh-noi roh-ee loh ekh-sar.
  2. Bin-oht deh-sheh yahr-bee-tzay-nee, ahl may meh-noo-khoht yeh-nah-hah-lay-nee.
  3. Nahf-shee yeh-shoh-vayv, yahn-chay-nee veh-mah-geh-lay tzeh-dek leh-mah-ahn sheh-moh.
  4. Gahm kee ay-laykh beh-gay tzahl-mah-veht, loh ee-rah rah, kee ah-tah ee-mah-dee, shiv-teh-khah oo-mish-ahn-teh-khah hay-mah yeh-nah-khah-moo-nee.
  5. Tah-ah-rohkh leh-fah-nai shool-khahn neh-gehd tzoh-reh-rai, dee-shahn-tah vah-sheh-mehn roh-shee, koh-see reh-vah-yah.
  6. Ahkh tohv vah-kheh-sehd yir-deh-foo-nee kohl yeh-may khah-yai, veh-shahv-tee beh-vayt ah-doh-noi leh-oh-rehch yah-mim.

“The L‑rd is my shepherd”

In the Midrash, Talmud, and throughout Jewish tradition, the idea of a shepherd carries a lot of significance. A true shepherd tends to his flock with love and devotion, providing each sheep with exactly what it requires. Many of our leaders started off as shepherds, including the 12 sons of Jacob, David and Moses. In fact, it was precisely because of the dedication they displayed to their charges, nurturing and tending to them with love, that G‑d chose them to lead His people. Moses, the greatest of all Jewish leaders is described as a “raya m’heimnah,” a faithful shepherd,3 a persona he epitomized both in his capacity as an actual shepherd and as the shepherd of his people. Moses tended to the people on a personal level, caring for each individual and providing for their needs, similar to how he fed each sheep the type of grass that was most suitable to it.4

“G‑d is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.” G‑d is the quintessential shepherd, for His is a gaze that never shifts from his flock, the Jewish people. He tends to the individual Jew, ensuring that “I shall lack nothing.” He provides them with abundant sustenance, physical and spiritual, each according to his or her needs. As the psalm continues, G‑d leads us “beside green pastures and still waters.”5

“Even as I walk … for you are with me.”

Our faith in our Heavenly shepherd is such that, “Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.” Even in times of terrible upheaval and pain, we are not afraid, because we know that G‑d is with us. Throughout the ages, many a Jew has found solace in these stirring words. Through terrible suffering and pain, the immortal words of this psalm echo in our hearts and ears. Whether tied to the stake during the Spanish inquisition, butchered by the Cossacks in Eastern Europe, or sent into the fires of Auschwitz, our lips did not cease from murmuring King David’s song. This portrayal of the Jew’s unwavering, unshakable trust in G‑d has stood by our ancestors in times of sorrow and triumph.

When Is It Said?

In addition to being said in times of trouble, and as part of the specific set of psalms recited on behalf of a sick person, Mizmor Ledavid is most famously sung on Shabbat, during shalosh seudot¸ the third Shabbat meal eaten in the waning hours of the day. Some even say it three times. Some (including Chabad) also say it prior to eating the other two Shabbat meals (Friday night and Saturday morning), as well as at the conclusion of Friday night services.

Why Do We Say Psalm 23?

This custom of reciting Mizmor leDavid on Shabbat, before each meal and during the prayers, actually comes from the famed Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shlomo Luria, the Arizal (1534 - 1572). Why specifically on Shabbat? As mentioned, the theme of Mizmor leDavid is trust in G‑d. And therefore, on Shabbat, when we are commanded to rest and forbidden to work, we recite this prayer, proclaiming our trust that it is G‑d who provides sustenance to all, and that He, our faithful shepherd, will surely provide for us. This idea is especially related to the verse, “You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries.” That is also why we say it particularly at the end of Shabbat, when we are about to re-enter the mundane world and toil to earn a livelihood.6 Additionally, the Arizal explained that this psalm helps to strengthen those who are not so confident, who are concerned that their livelihood will suffer as a result of their not working on Shabbat. Through reciting Mizmor leDavid, he taught, one will develop proper trust in G‑d.7

Interestingly, the Kabbalists teach that this psalm has special significance to one’s livelihood because it has 57 words, the numerical value of the word “zan,” which means to sustain, and 227 letters, the numerical value of the word brachah,” blessing. This again reminds us that G‑d is the source of our sustenance.8

Perhaps this above-mentioned reason is also the reason we say it specifically before we begin the meals, before we enjoy the sustenance that G‑d bestowed on us.

Other Reasons for Psalm 23 on Shabbat

Here are a few more interesting explanations on why we recite Mizmor leDavid throughout Shabbat.

  • Moses passed away on Shabbat afternoon (according to some opinions),9 and Moses, as mentioned, is referred to as the “raya m’heimnah,” the faithful shepherd of the Jews. Therefore we say this psalm at this time, affirming that although Moses is no longer with us we are not afraid, because we know that G‑d is our eternal shepherd.10
  • Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rimanov (1745-1815), chassidic rebbe and author of Divrei Menachem, explains the verse “ You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries” to refer to the manna that G‑d provided for the Jews in the desert. Shabbat has a special connection to the manna, as a double portion fell from heaven on Friday for every Jew, for Friday and Shabbat. (That is one the reason we have two challahs at each Shabbat meal). Perhaps that is another reason we say Mizmor leDavidspecifically before meals, reminding us of the miracle of the manna, and how even now, just like then, it is G‑d who provides for us.