Why do we say LeDovid during Elul and Tishrei, and how far back does this minhog extend? Glancing at Orach Chaim (O.Ch. 481), we find that it is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch or Rama. It is left to the Mishnah Berurah to tell us its details and conclude, in parentheses, that its origins are found in the Acharonim. In fact, LeDovid is not only one of the most recent additions to the Siddur, but, as we will see later, the resolution of a centuries’ old argument may hinge on the exact date this minhog was first publicized. When did it all begin?
Segulah for Success and Health
An important source for this minhog is the sefer Mateh Ephraim (chapter 581, see Elef Lemateh) authored by Rav Ephraim Zalman Margolios (1762-1828) who fought together with the Chasam Sofer against the Haskala. In this important collection of the halachos and minhogim of Elul and Tishrei, he explains that the custom of reciting LeDovid has its earliest source in the Medrash Shochar Tov (27), which forges an intimate connection between LeDovid and the Asseres Yemei Teshuvah.
“The rabbis explain that the verse is speaking of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” the medrash says. ‘He is My light’ on Rosh Hashanah, which is a day of judgment as it says (Tehillim 37:6), And He will make your righteousness go forth as light, and your judgment like noonday, and ‘He is my salvation’ on Yom Kippur, for He will save us and forgive us for all our sins.”
To this, the Mateh Ephraim adds that the words, When He shelters me in his sukkah, refer to the refuge of Sukkos after the hazardous days of judgment.
Of course, the inyon of reciting LeDovid during Elul and Tishrei is found long before the time of the Mateh Ephraim. It appeared in print for the first time in the sefer Shem Tov Katan authored by Rav Binyomin Beinush HaKohein from Kortshin. This sefer was published in 1706 (a significant date as we will see later) by the famous printers of Sultzbach, Germany, who published hundreds of seforim included siddurim, machzorim, and the beautiful Sultzbach Shas, which the author of this article once saw for sale in the Johannesburg Kollel three decades ago and probably could have picked up for a song.
In this earliest source of our minhog, Rav Binyomin Beinush describes LeDovid not as an established part of the Siddur liturgy, but rather as a segulah to succeed in the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“I would like to tell you a great secret (sod),” he advises. “Whoever says this psalm from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Simchas Torah, even if an evil decree has been inscribed from heaven against a person, he can annul it. He will annul from himself all evil, harsh decrees, and go free, and be meritorious in his judgment. One must be very, very careful to say this psalm evening and morning, every day, from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Sim- chas Torah. Then one will be assured that he will live his years and days in goodness and it will be pleasant for him and through this, one will subdue all kinds of accusers.”
It is worth noting that Rav Binyomin Beinush does not base the recital of LeDovid on the Medrash Shochar Tov mentioned earlier, but says that its significance is that, “The Shem Havaya appears thirteen times in this kapi- tel, corresponding to the thirteen midos [of mercy].”
The sefer, Shem Tov Koton, was enormously popular in its time and underwent eight reprints, probably helping to turn the recitation of LeDovid into a widespread minhog.
Soon afterwards, other seforim emphasized the importance of saying LeDovid, perhaps after seeing this min- hog in the earlier Shem Tov Katan. These were the Sefer Hazechirah of Rav Zechariah ben Yaakov Simnar (Hamburg, 1709), and the Sefer Hayirah (Berlin, 1724). Within a few decades, the minhog of LeDovid was so widely accepted that we find Rav Mordechai of Vilekatch writing in his sefer Shaar Hamelech (1762), “I would like to mention the beautiful and correct minhog that has spread among most of the large and small kehillos, that they say psalm zach (27) of Tehillim, LeDovid, Hashem ori, immediately after the tefillah.”
How was Rav Binyomin Beinush HaKohein accepted by a vast proportion of Klal Yisroel? Among his credentials is Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz’s statement that Rav Binyomin Beinush was the greatest of his teachers, and Rav Pinchas Katzenelenbogen’s description of him in his sefer Yesh Manchilin: “You should know that the author of Amtachas Binyomin was the great mekubal, Rav Bin- yomin Beinush HaKohein, who visited my home in 1720 when I was living in the Valerstein kehillah. I heard wonderful things from him, he was a great baal shem, and his deeds were wondrous. One can see from his above mentioned sefer, Amtachas Binyomin, that he was involved in all wisdoms (yodov bakol).”
The term baal shem he mentions connotes a person who could effect healings and salvations through his sanctity and his knowledge of practical kabbala, and indeed, this is probably why the Besh”t first became known as a Baal Shem Tov.
Three Baal Shem Tovs
Despite Rav Binyomin Beinush’s greatness, his minhog was not unanimously accepted. Among Sephardim it was mainly adopted by a number of North African kehillos, and even among the Ashkenazim we find the Siddur Maaseh Rav based on the customs of the Gra stressing that we do not say psalm 27 between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. Rav Eliyohu Dovid Rabinowitz (the Aderes) explained that the Gra’s rationale to omit LeDovid was because of torach (bother) of the tzibbur and bitul melacha, taking away people’s time from work.
Rav Chaim of Sanz also did not say LeDovid, explaining that that he did not want to introduce into the general liturgy anything that was “not mentioned in the Shul- chan Aruch and the Kesavim (writings of the Arizal).”
An intriguing Chassidic story offers yet another reason why some kehillos refrained from saying LeDovid:
“Rav Moshe Dovid Shtrum of Tarnow related that Rav Shimon of Zhelichov once came to the beis hamedrash of Rav Aryeh Leibush of Sanz, and asked the avreichim there why Rav Aryeh Leibush refrained from saying Le- Dovid, while in Shiniveh [the locale of Rav Yechezkel, Rav Chaim of Sanz’s son] they do say it. Not waiting for a reply, he continued – ‘I will tell you what happened:’
“Once, in the days of Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem Tov, the local lord had no sons and asked the Jews to pray for him; if not, he was ready to promulgate a decree of expulsion against all the Jews. Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem came and told the lord that he would have a son in twelve months. When the holy Besh”t [Rav Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus] told this story to his talmidim, he said – Do not think Rav Eliyahu achieved this easily. First, he went to the side of holiness and it was ineffective, and afterwards he went to the other side and it did not help, until he arranged it with the [head of the] other side himself.
“The Besh”t concluded: Do not think that Rav Eliyahu received sixty lashes of fire for doing this. Although they wanted to deprive him of his nefesh, ruach, neshomoh, since he was moser nefesh for his people, it was said in heaven that it would suffice to annul two takanos that he had made, one, the reciting of Kegavna [before Borchu on Shabbos night], and the second, the saying of LeDovid, Hashem ori.
“Rav Shimon of Zhelichov concluded by saying – It is known that Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk did not say Keg- avna and that the holy Rebbe of Apta did not say LeDov- id.” (Rav Aharon Halberstam, Nezer Hakodesh, Brooklyn 2000)
This story not only provides an interesting reason why some kehillos did not say LeDovid, but also pushes the custom of saying LeDovid back to the times of Rav Eli- yahu Baal Shem. The only question is which Eliyahu Baal Shem he was speaking of as there were actually two of them. One was Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm, a talmid of the Maharshal, who is famous for creating a golem as his grandson, the Chacham Tzvi testifies, and who passed away in about 1483. The second Eliyahu Baal Shem was a talmid of the Maharal of Prague who served as rav in Worms at the end of his life and passed away in 1536.
According to this Chassidic maaseh, the minhog of saying LeDovid germinated not in 1706 as mentioned earlier, but back in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
The Chemdas Hayomim
There is yet another suggestion why some kehillos did not adopt the minhog of saying LeDovid, although, as we will see, it seems historically paradoxical.
One of the earliest (but not first) printed sources for saying LeDovid is the sefer Chemdas Hayomim printed in 1737, which, while revered and quoted by many gedolim including the great mekubal, Rav Shlomo Elyashiv (author of Leshem Shivo Ve’achlama) who writes: “For I have seen a few exaltedly holy people (kedoshei elyon) who wrote otherwise… such as in the sefer, Chemdas Hayomim,”) was suspected by some of having Sabbatean leanings. Others say that some of his stuents were Sabbateans and they added things to his sefer.
The actual identity of its author is unknown due to the loss of the first volume that may have mentioned him on its flyleaf.
An example of this latter opinion is found at the beginning of the newly reprinted sefer, Lev Same’ach Hachodosh, in which Rav Pinchas Chaim Toib of Razla (grandfather of the Kaliver Rebbe in Eretz Yisroel) writes to his son, Rav Yehuda Yechiel, that he has a tradition that Le- Dovid was not said by certain rebbes due to its origins in the sefer Chemdas Hayomim. He adds that his tradition was corroborated by a chance meeting in a spa resort.
“In 5684 when I was in Karlsbad,” he writes, “I met the tzaddik of Parisov from Poland, who is a grandson of the Yehudi Hakodosh, and he told me that he has a certain tradition from Rabeinu Hakadosh, his grandfather, person to person, that he did not say LeDovid Hashem ori, because he heard from his holy teacher from Lublin that saying LeDovid is from the sefer Chemdas Hayomim.”
However, as stressed throughout this article, thanks to the modern benefit of easy access to all seforim, it is clear that the Chemdas Hayomim was by no means the first sefer to mention this minhog, since it was mentioned by the Shem Tov Katan thirty-one years before Chemdas Hayomim rolled off a printing press. Thus, we are left with the arguments of the Gra and Rav Chaim of Sanz who, while refraining from making it part of the Siddur, undoubtedly agreed that the segulah of saying LeDovid will bless us all with happy, healthy years and long life.
(Source: Article by Rav Shmuel Baruch Genut, “Le- Dovid Hashem Ori Veyish’i.”)