Thoughts on Hallel HaGadol
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The term “Hallel” which is a song of praise to God can be a bit confusing as we've seen in earlier discussions. I have written over the course of this series about the Hallel prayers which we add to the service on festivals and new moons, Psalms 113 -118. We also have looked at what we have called the “Daily Hallel” the five closing Psalms of the Psalter, 146 -150, which all begin and end with the word “Halleluyah, Praise the Lord,” and are the core of the daily P'sukei D'zimrah (introductory Songs of Praise), coming right after the Ashrei each day. There is, however, another set of Psalms in the Shabbat and Festival P'sukei D'zimrah known as “Hallel HaGadol, the Great Hallel.” This is made up of Psalms 135 and 136. Though these Psalms appear in the middle of this section of the service, they represent a high point at which the congregation rises and answers antiphonally a long list of praises of God with the chorus, “Ki l'olam chasdo, for God's loving kindness endures forever.” For us, whatever God does in this world is an indication of His love and concern for humankind and for us in particular.
Reviewing a bit the prayers we've already covered, we began P'sukei D'zimrah with an opening blessing, Baruch Sheamar. After that we encountered last week the prayer unit beginning with Hodu Ladonay Kir'u Vishmo, a long piece found in Chronicles, recited by the Levites when the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem by King David. This is followed by a collection of 18 Psalm verses, including representative verses from each of the five books of the Psalms. These praises were followed by four Psalms that we have examined individually in previous columns, Psalms 19, 90, 91, and 34. These poems took us through a variety of emotions as they spoke of God as Creator, Protector, Provider, Teacher, and Judge. We felt the joy of the sun as it goes forth to bring light to the world. We also reflected not only on life's joys but on the shortness of life and the travails and suffering which often are a part of it, yet we were reminded nonetheless to have faith in God's goodness and lovingkindness each day. Now we come to these Psalms which follow Psalm 34 and voice full-throated praise for God both as Master of Creation as well as Lord of History.
I have always thought of Psalm 136 as the Hallel HaGadol as designated by our rabbis. However, when I began studying these prayers to write about them, I realized that Psalm 135 not only leads into 136, but it contains many of the same themes and expressions as the Psalm that follows. Looking at the marginal notes in Lev Shalem, I was pleased to note that the editor concurred with me and designates both Psalms as “Hallel HaGadol.”
Psalm 135, like the five Psalms of the daily Hallel, begins and ends with the exclamation “Halleluyah!” “Praise God!” Its opening line calls on the “servants of the Lord who are standing in God's house, in the courtyards of our God” which can be taken as those who officiate in the Temple, the Levites and Kohanim, or more broadly, as I prefer, to all of us who are called upon to serve God. To me, God's house is more than simply the ancient Temple or the modern synagogue, but all the world is God's house and we stand ready to do God's will. The Psalm goes on and again calls for praise for God is good and singing those praises is delightful, (zamru lishmo ki na'im). Our joy reflects our sense of chosenness as a treasured people to receive the Torah. The Psalmist extols God as greater than any other god who may be worshiped.
At first, the Psalmist focuses on God's role as Creator, ruling over heaven and earth, the sea and the deep, controlling the clouds, the lightning, rain and wind. However, beyond the forces of nature, God rules over history. We recall His signs and wonders in Egypt as well as His mighty victories over the Amorite kings Sihon and Og, resulting in our ancestors' conquest of the land of Canaan, as our perpetual inheritance.
The latter part of the Psalm contrasts God's eternal rule and His great compassion for His people to the idols of the other nations which are powerless. They may be depicted in gold and silver statues, but these images have no ability to speak, to see, to hear, or to do anything to benefit those who worship them. As the poem ends, it calls to the House of Israel, the House of Aaron, the priests, the House of Levi, the Levites, indeed to all who revere the Lord to bless the Lord. “From Zion, bless Adonai,who dwells in Jerusalem, Halleluyah!.”
Psalm 136 follows immediately in both the Psalter and in our preliminary service of P'sukei D'zimrah each Shabbat and festival, as a response to these calls for praise. As mentioned earlier, these twenty-six lines each end with a congregational response, “KI l'olam chasdo” “For God's love endures forever,” a response familiar from the festival Hallel, occurring several times in Psalm 118. In some synagogues, the reader chants the opening phrase of each line and the congregation responds. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, in the Talmud, explains that the 26 verses of this Psalm, each extolling God's lovingkindness, stand for the 26 generations who lived prior to the giving of the Torah (ten generations from Adam to Noah, ten more to Abraham, and then six more to Moses). Since in rabbinic thought, the world endures thanks to the fulfillment of Torah, the first 26 generations prior to Torah survived purely by God's gracious indulgence, for His love endures forever. Also, it is noted that the numerical value of the letters of God's ineffable Name total 26 as well. Thus, though God's gracious acts are without number, by counting 26 of them we represent all of God's wondrous and beneficent acts in the world.
The Psalm opens with the familiar line from Psalm 118, “Hodu ladonay ki tov” “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good” to which we reply as in all of these verses,“Ki l'olam chasdo,” “For His love endures forever.” The Psalmist goes on, “Give thanks to the God of gods, Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for His love endures forever.” After the third line, we may assume that each line which continues enumerating God's acts, includes the word “Hodu” “give thanks or acknowledge, as being understood.
After these opening three lines, the next six speak of God's power as Creator, paralleling the previous Psalm. He alone works great wonders, creating the heavens with wisdom, stretching the earth over the waters, forming the great lights, the sun to rule the day, and the moon and stars by night. Again, following the pattern of Psalm 135, six more verses focus on the victory over Egypt and at the crossing of the Red Sea,and five more about the conquering of the kings of Canaan, including specifically, the slaying of Sichon the King of the Amorites and Og, the King of Bashan. The next two verses praise God for giving us the land of Canaan as an inheritance, “an inheritance to Israel, God's servant.”
The two verses which follow are more general, thanking God who “remembered us when we were laid low and rescued us from our foes.” The final two lines are more universal when they offer thanks to God who “provides bread for all flesh” and ends with the words, “Give thanks to God in heaven, for His love endures forever.”
Besides appearing in the P'sukei D'zimrah each Shabbat and festival, this Psalm was added into the praises that conclude the Passover Haggadah after the regular holiday Hallel. Since this Psalm was a later addition, it is seen by some modern Haggadah editors as an unnecessary reading and thus one of the passages omitted in the some Conservative and Reform Haggadot.
Reflecting on these Psalms, one realizes that God is hardly in need of our praises. He is not sitting around on high awaiting these acclamations. Rather our recitation of these divine acts is a reminder to us all that we should aspire to imitate God's actions in this world. Just as He is concerned with creation, so too is it our responsibility to guard creation, to care for the environment. As God fought injustice and brought us to freedom, we too should be concerned for those who are oppressed and who are not treated appropriately in our society and we need to work for all people to enjoy the benefits of freedom. As God fought our enemies and brought us to the Promised Land, we too should fight against the forces of evil in our world and bring hope and comfort to all peoples around the globe. As God remembers those who are laid low and provides bread for all flesh, we too bear a responsibility to care for those in need and those who are hungry. In particular, this week, as we go to the polls to choose our leaders, we know that none are perfect and certainly none can be compared to God, but they should be people who strive to do godly works in this world and not in order to receive praise, but rather they should act, as God does, with chesed, with love and kindness toward all people. In these Psalms all of these acts we recall are a reflection not of God's power or grandeur, but we received them all as acts of lovingkindness, ki l'olam chasdo, for God's love endures forever. God acts out of love and so should we.