Thoughts on the Daily Hallel
In a section of the Talmud in which various rabbis give suggestions for pious conduct, Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, a major second century sage, proclaims, “May my portion be among those who complete the Hallel every day.” His colleagues are aghast. Is there not a statement that condemns those who say the Hallel prayers, which are to be recited only on Festivals and new moons, on a daily basis? Not every day can be a holiday. One shouldn't make the Hallel into a common song. No, the Talmud explains, Rabbi Yose was not talking about that Hallel, he meant the daily Hallel, the Psalms of praise that we include in the preliminary service, the Pesukei d'zimra. His practice, apparently, was to recite the concluding Psalms of the Psalter each day. His suggestion led to the introduction of this practice into our customary daily prayers. The question was, however, where do the concluding Psalms begin? It seems that some zealous worshipers at one point decided to start around Psalm 130 and read about 20 of them each day. That was rather burdensome. Instead, the practice is to read the Ashrei which is mainly made up of Psalm 145 with some additions. (I've written about it in an earlier piece.) Then continue with Psalms 146 -150, the end of the book. So, at first these five Psalms plus Ashrei made up the totality of the preliminary prayers. This section was formalized by adding a blessing before and after, Baruch Sheamar and Yishtabach. Later additions expanded this modest collection, more than doubling it in size, to our current practice and on Shabbat and festivals another nine Psalms have been added on top of that to make this into a rather considerable section of liturgy....Something which started off purely as a pious practice to fulfill the idea of preceding our prayers with a few praises of God can now take up to a half hour on Shabbat morning.
I thought I'd take a closer look at Psalms 146 to 150, the daily Hallel, after coming across a short passage in my reading of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar. The Zohar is the central text of Jewish mysticism and this edition provides a translation and commentary by Professor Daniel Matt, an expert on Jewish mysticism, on this very obscure but fascinating book. I've been gradually working my way through these twelve volumes and am now about halfway through volume 8. There I found the following teaching about the Daily Hallel:
“A person comes in the morning and accepts upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, as has been said. He arranges praise with those praises that he utters, including A praise of David [Psalm 145 – Ashrei] and all those Hallelujahs – an array of ten praises of the ten holy crowns of the Holy Name; therefore, ten Hallellujahs. Then he concludes with ten praises, namely Praise God in His sanctuary... [Psalms 150:1]. What are the ten Hallelujahs? There are only five [psalms]! Well, beginning praise with Hallelujah and concluding with Hallelujah.”
The “ten holy crowns” mentioned in this passage refer to the ten sefirot, the ten attributes or emanations from the Infinite and unknowable God (Ein Sof) which the Zohar devotes its efforts to understanding. Thus, as I understand it, when we recite these five Psalms, each beginning with the word “Halleluyah” (Praise the Lord) and concluding with “Halleluyah” it seems that we are ascending in praise from the lowest of the sefirot, Malchut, up to the highest, Keter, and embracing the totality of divine revelation in the world, truly accepting the “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.” In addition, the last Psalm, Psalm 150, in itself contains ten praises, re-emphasizing our ecstatic connection with the Almighty in all His aspects in the world.
Even without entering into the mystical interpretation, the reader of these Psalms, can feel a dramatic crescendo of praise as we reach the end of the book of Psalms. Unlike many Psalms, these five do not speak of the author's feelings so much as they are filled with the insistent demand that we recognize God all around us and respond with praise. In the opening Psalm, 146, the Psalmist addresses this plea to himself, “Halleluyah! Praise God, Praise Adonai my soul. I will praise Adonai so long as I live and sing to my God so long as I exist.” He reminds us of the mortality of all humankind, even of the most exalted princes and thus one should not depend on them ultimately, but put one's trust in God alone. He speaks of God as “maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that they contain.” But God is more to him and us than simply the Creator, He is the “keeper of truth forever, the grantor of justice to the oppressed.” In a series of short sentences, the Psalmist spells out the divine concern for human life. God provides food for the hungry, frees the captive, opens the eyes of the blind, straigthens those who are bent over, loves the righteous, guards the stranger, upholds the orphan and widow but thwarts the way of the wicked. In listing all these social concerns the Psalmist outlines our responsibility as well in imitating God's ways and teaches us that more than simply appreciating God's creation, we should love and care for all God's creatures as He does. The Psalm ends with a familiar praise that we include in the Kedushah, “Yimloch Adonay l'olam, Elohayich Tziyon, l'dor vador Halleluyah.” “The Lord will reign forever, your God, Zion, for all generations, Halleluyah!”
In some congregations it is customary to link the closing Halleluyah of each Psalm to the opening Halleluyah of the next Psalm. Even as a child, I remember being struck by the double Halleluyah chanted by the leader between each pair of Psalms. Psalm 147, begins by saying “it is good to sing to our God and it is pleasant, praise is beautiful.” Here too the Psalmist takes us from the heights of the universe down to earth, mixing together God's role in steering the cosmos with His attention to the broken-hearted and the humble among us down on earth, as well as His concern for the beasts and birds of the world. God is seen as in control of the forces of nature, “He grants snow like wool and scatters frost like ashes. He casts out His ice like crumbs; who can stand before His cold? “ The Psalm ends with a recognition that God has singled out the people Israel for the gift of His laws and statutes for which we are to offer God praise. No other nation has been so blessed.
Psalm 148 is much more clearly delineated, beginning with the highest heavens and gradually descending to earth instead of going back and forth. There is an insistence in this Psalm of the need for all creation to acknowledge God. Again and again, “Halleluhu” “Praise Him.” He addresses the angels and the heavenly bodies and then the earth and all the creatures upon it, Praise Him! ”The mountains and all the hills, the fruit tree and all cedars, wild beasts and all animals, bugs and birds and fowl, kings of the earth and all nations, princes and all judges of the earth, young men and women, the old with the young: Let them all praise Adonai's name, for His name alone is exalted.” The final verses are familiar, perhaps, for we chant them as we return the Torah to the ark each week: “Hodo al eretz v'shamayim... His majesty is on earth and in the heavens. He is the strength of His nation, the praise of His faithful, of the children of Israel, the people near to Him, Halleluyah!”
The last two Psalms are both comparatively short, but very powerful hymns. Psalm 149 begins, as do several Psalms with the invitation to “Sing a new song to Adonay.” This Psalm transitions from the universal themes of the last two Psalms, which speak of all creation before focusing on the people Israel. Here Israel is at the center, “Let Israel rejoice in their maker; let the children of Zion celebrate their king. Let them praise His name in dance; let them play drums and harps for Him. For Adonai takes pleasure in His people, and adorns the meek with triumph.” Some find the conclusion of this Psalm rather jarring, for the Psalmist suddenly goes from praises of God, to wielding two edged swords to wreak vengeance on the nations, meting out judgment to our enemies. The pious can rejoice on their couches, however, once they know that their enemies have been subdued. The author concludes in triumph, “God is the glory of all His faithful, Halleluyah!
When I read the final Psalm, Psalm 150, I am transported back to the choir loft of the synagogue where I grew up. There, as a child, I would sit with my parents after Junior congregation got out on the high holidays and listen to them and the cantor chanting the melodies of the last sections of the service. This Psalm is incorporated not only into the P'sukei d'zimrah, but re-appears in the Shofarot section of the Musaf on Rosh Hashanah. The choir would sing a powerful rendition of this passage which recalls the ancient Temple and speaks of all of the different musical instruments praising God, the blast of the shofar, the gentle notes of harp and lyre, the rhythm of the drums and dance, and the added notes of the strings and flute. Finally, in a grand crescendo, “Praise Him with resounding cymbals, Praise Him with clashing cymbals. The choir would pause for a beat, and I waited to hear the crash of the cymbals in that moment if only in my head. The Psalm concludes and with it this section the service and the entire book of Psalms, “Kol haneshamah t'halel Yah, Haleluyah,” Let every breath, let every soul, praise God, Haleluyah!”