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Rambam writes (avodah zarah 11:12):

הַלּוֹחֵשׁ עַל הַמַּכָּה וְקוֹרֵא פָּסוּק מִן הַתּוֹרָה, וְכֵן הַקּוֹרֵא עַל הַתִּינוֹק שֶׁלֹּא יִבָּעֵת, הַמַּנִּיחַ סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה אוֹ תְּפִלִּין עַל הַקָּטָן בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁיִּישַׁן - לֹא דַּי לָהֶם שֶׁהֵם בִּכְלַל חַבָּרִים וּמְנַחֲשִׁים, אֶלָּא שֶׁהֵם בִּכְלַל הַכּוֹפְרִים בַּתּוֹרָה, שֶׁהֵן עוֹשִׂין דִּבְרֵי תּוֹרָה רִפְאוּת גּוּף, וְאֵינָן אֶלָּא רִפְאוּת נְפָשׁוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: "וְיִהְיוּ חַיִּים לְנַפְשֶׁךָ" (משלי ג,כב). אֲבָל הַבָּרִיא שֶׁקָּרָא פְּסוּקִין אוֹ מִזְמוֹר מִתִּלִּים כְּדֵי שֶׁתָּגֵן עָלָיו זְכוּת קְרִיאָתָן וְיִנָּצֵל מִצָּרוֹת וּנְזָקִים - הֲרֵי זֶה מֻתָּר.

A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: "And they shall be life for your soul." It is, however, permitted for a healthy person to read verses [from the Bible] or chapters from Psalms so that the merit of reading them will protect him and save him from difficulties and injury.

Not all of tehilim are prayers.

Typically tehilim is recited to cure an undesirable situation rather than head one off.

I would imagine (altho not explicit) that if "the merit of their reading" is being invoked vs them being used magically then it may be used even in the first few cases mentioned by Rambam, with the converse true as well (altho why motivation isn't posited as the diffentiating halachic factor isn't clear).

Folks nowadays seem to just read it without too much comprehension ostensibly using it as a segulah and presumably running afoul of this halacha and severe censure.

Anyone know what's up with that?

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    See the Shulchan Aruch on this: sefaria.org/…
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Dec 31, 2023 at 18:21
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    Rav Yiztchak Abadi is makpid on this ...
    – sam
    Dec 31, 2023 at 20:12
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    The standard defense raised in response to this is that it is being said either derekh tefillah or derekh talmud torah... as for whether that is a persuasive defense, I think that depends on the individual. Jan 1 at 0:09
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  • There are Tehillims printed with headers that often highlight which chapter is appropriate for certain situation (e.g. chapter 20), though I don't think the author of those is known. In any case, I wouldn't jump to dismiss long-standing traditions without an airtight case.
    – shmosel
    Jan 1 at 11:42

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My answer is based on a book entitled Kavana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer by Seth Kadish (Aronson Press). It’s hard to distill a specific quote to address the question but in Part 2 Chapter 7 he explains how the current state of how many Jews pray, namely by rote and without knowing it’s meaning, is ironically an outgrowth of the mystical approach to Kavana.

Rabbi Kadish identifies 3 forms of prayer: simple, rational, and mystical. The mystical form of prayer basically views the words of prayer as codes or tools that operate the machinery of the universe. Through various formulaic structures and intentions one can tap into and manipulate, as it were, the divine sefiros. In this approach prayer is less about the emotional relationship between the one praying and the divine and more about saying the words correctly and in their proper order in order to get the formula correct. On page 239 Kadish writes: “but historically, kabbalistic prayer became a disadvantage for those not capable of mastering the Kavvanot. Eventually, the common people were taught that the Hebrew words themselves had certain mystical powers when recited, even without the kavvanot.

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Tehillim should be said as a merit for whatever is being prayed for. The reason why it is picked over anything else is because reading it without understanding is considered beneficial (as opposed to other things, see Avot 2:13)

Midrash Tehillim 1:5

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי. יעשו לדורות ויכתבו לדורות אמרי פי ויחוקקו לדורות. ולא יהיו קורין בהם כקורין בספרים אלא יהיו קורין בהן ונוטלין שכר עליהם כנגעים ואהלות

Let the words of my mouth be acceptable. May the sayings of my mouth be made for generations, written for generations and engraved for generations. And they shall not be read in them as one reads in books, but they shall be read in them, and reward shall be taken for them like "Nega'im" and "Oholot".

Shla, 10 Dibrot, Yoma

בקש דוד המלך ע"ה שיהיו מקבלים שכר הקורים בתהלים כעוסקים בעומק התורה נגעים ואהלות

King David, may his memory be blessed, requested that those who recite the Psalms be rewarded as if they are engaged in the depth of Torah study, receiving rewards akin to those for "Nega'im" and "Oholot".

I heard in the name of the Ohr Sameach that David compared Tehillim to Oholot because it is difficult but Nega'im is not difficult, rather Nega'im depends on the Kohen saying the word Tameh even if he does not understand it (Nega'im 3:1), so too David requested that Tehillim should count even if one does not understand it.

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    Thank you for this info. To be honest I don't see how you've extracted from here that it can be said w/o comprehension. At most I would take from it that altho reading/learning tehilim is a lot easier than studying difficult mishnayos it is somehow considered the same (don't ask me how). In any event it would still depend on if it is being said derech tefilah/limud vs magically which an uncomprehending reading would seem to imply. See @deuteronomy's comment above.
    – Nahum
    Jan 1 at 13:56
  • The difference in the shlah is the word קוראים reading vs עוסקים toiling. The Ohr Sameach was comparing it to the Cohen who needs to know nothing and just say the magic words
    – Mordechai
    Jan 1 at 14:07

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