Written by: Erin Parfet

Hallel

It is considered a mitzvah to recite Hallel (“praise” in English) in the synagogues on certain festive Jewish holidays. Hallel is a sacred communal prayer of thanksgiving for all the blessings God has bestowed upon Israel. The basis of the prayer is Psalms 113–118, sometimes referred to as the Egyptian Hallel, especially Psalms 113–114.

The Hallel often follows the Amidah, and the last two verses of Psalm 118 are sometimes read twice. Naturally, the Psalms lend themselves to music very well; the Hallel might be accompanied by choirs, by instruments in different combinations, or could merely be a cappella. There are some well-known musical arrangements of the Psalms that have become integrated into the Hallel, such as Psalm 114 by Felix Mendelssohn, Psalm 115 by Johann Sebastian Bach, Psalm 117 by Antonio Vivaldo, and other examples throughout musical history.

As reciting Hallel is considered a mitzvah, it is customary to praise God prior to actually reading the Hallel itself: "He sanctified us and commanded us to read the Hallel.” Following the conclusion of the Hallel, one would conclude with, “Blessed are you G‑d, King, who is extolled with praises.”

Historically, the Jewish people would recite Psalms 113–118 on any of the three pilgrimage festivals. Today, the Full Hallel (all six Psalms read verbatim in full) is read, sung, or chanted during the morning service on most festive holidays, such as the first two days of Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Shemini Atzeret, and Chanukah, but excluding the night before Pesach. Sometimes the Hallel is also read on Israeli Independence Day and Jerusalem Day.

Passover also has some variations in how the Hallel is read, with the half-Hallel (the Hallel minus Psalms 115:1–11 and 116) read the last six days of the festival; a variation of the Hallel is prayed during the Passover seder. This variation is known as the “Great Hallel,” which is derived from Psalm 136. The obligations to recite Hallel during Passover in particular stem from Talmudic writings, in which the Sages comment, “Is it possible that the Jewish people would slaughter their Paschal lambs or take their lulavim and not recite Hallel?” Yet, because it was believed the intermediate days of Passover should not be more joyful than the main two days of significance of Passover (in the diaspora, or simply the first day of Passover in Israel), Half Hallel is said during the final six days of Passover.

This aforementioned Talmudic writing is considered to supersede the lack of scriptural basis for saying the Hallel during Passover otherwise. Based on traditional beliefs that Israel sang Hallel while sacrificing their Passover lambs during the Temple era, bakers today in some communities will recite Hallel while preparing matzah in the hours leading up to Passover. In Pesachim 86b, the Talmud states that the Hallel in Yerushalayim on Pesach would “break through the rooftops,” referring to the level of joy and enthusiasm to which the Hallel is often recited during Passover.

The half-Hallel is also read at New Moon/Rosh Chodesh, ushering in each new Hebrew month.

Hallel is not read on Purim, as the Talmud specifies reading from the Book of Esther in place of Hallel. Furthermore, traditionally, Hallel is only said for miracles that occur within Israel, and the miracle of Purim did not occur within Israel but within the Persian Empire. Nor is the Hallel prayed on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, as specified in Arachin 10b of the Talmud. As the writer of the Talmud states, “Is it seemly for the king to be sitting on His Throne of Judgment, with the Books of Life and Death open before Him, and for the people to sing joyful praises to him?” The joyful Hallel prayers do not fit in with the more somber and contemplative nature of the High Holy Day season.

The Talmud expounds on some history of the Hallel in Pesachim 118a, which explains that the Psalms for the Hallel were chosen based on their specific references to the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the Torah, the resurrection of the dead, and the birth pains that will occur prior to the coming of the Messiah.

Thus, the Hallel is an opportunity to praise God for the miracles and goodness He has bestowed historically while praying that God will continue to bless His children in the future. The Talmud also expands on some theories, such as the Jewish people reciting Hallel during the Exodus despite issues in the timeline with when the Psalms were believed to be written comparatively.

During the account of the Last Supper, Yeshua and His disciples are said to have sung a psalm or a hymn (depending on the version of the Bible) after finishing their meal but before leaving for the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26). Perhaps the psalms could be a reference to the Hallel? While not echoed directly, many of Paul’s writings expand on themes of the Hallel with messages of thanksgiving and gratitude for all that God has bestowed upon His children, His royal priesthood.

The Psalms that comprise the Hallel are undoubtedly fitting for today’s Passover celebrations as well as those merely wanting to celebrate God’s redemption and salvation for His people throughout history.

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