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Thoughts on the Hallel Psalms

As soon as Yom Kippur departs, we begin getting ready to celebrate the festival of Sukkot which begins this Sunday evening.  We will be having holiday services at the Temple for the first two days of the holiday on Monday and Tuesday and a service on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah, a week from this Sunday.  The last days, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are actually considered a separate holiday in themselves, though they are linked to Sukkot.  I took the opportunity in a post prior to Sukkot early in this series, a few years ago, to write about the Hallel prayers, a series of Psalms that are chanted each day of Sukkot as well as on other holidays: Chanukah, Pesach, and Shavuot as well as on Rosh Chodesh, the observance of the new moon each month.  In more recent times, it has become customary to recite the Hallel also for Israel’s Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut) as well as on Yom Yerushalayim, the commemoration of the unification of the city of Jerusalem in 1967.  In the earlier piece, I focused on some of the rituals associated with the Hallel on Sukkot, particularly, the na-anuim, the waving of the lulav and etrog at several points in the liturgy.  Looking back, however, I see that I did not say much about the actual passages read for the Hallel.  So this piece will be the first of two essays taking a closer look at Psalms 113 – 118, which comprise the Hallel and are placed between an opening blessing and a closing one.  The opening blessing praises God who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us likro et hahallel, to recite the Hallel.  Generally the reader chants this bracha and the congregation repeats it after him.


The Hallel is also a part of our Passover seder liturgy in the Haggadah.  The first two Psalms are read before dinner and the rest is said after the meal.  The School of Shammai holds that it is sufficient to recite just the first Psalm before dinner, while the School of Hillel requires the first two since the second one specifically mentions the Exodus from Egypt.  The Midrash, however, does link the first Psalm also to the story of the Exodus.  Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon tells a tale of Pharaoh in a frenzy following the plague of the firstborn, urging Moses and Aaron to leave immediately in the middle of the night and they respond that God instructed them not to leave their homes until morning.  Pharaoh who has claimed authority over the people all these years now refers to them, using the language of the Psalm as Avdei Adonay, servants of the Lord.  This opening Psalm begins with the word Halleluyah, Praise the Lord, and repeats that verb twice more, “Hal’lu avdei Adonay” “Offer praise servants of Adonay” “Hal’lu et shem Adonay” “Praise the name of Adonay.”  The Psalm goes on to say “Let the name of Adonay be blessed from now and forever”.  This is followed by a passive form of the same root of hallel, “From the rising of the sun until its setting (from East to West) “mehullal shem Adonay,”  The name of Adonay is praised.  The Psalmist goes on to say that God is above all the nations (or perhaps, beyond all the gods worshipped by the nations), His glory is above the heavens.  The Psalmist pictures God enthroned on high and looking down, not only on the earth, but looking down on both heaven and earth.  The last few lines of the Psalm recall the prayer of Hannah that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah from the second chapter of the book of Samuel.  It speaks of God’s concern for the unfortunate, in spite of the lofty position He occupies. Here God transcends the world, sitting enthroned on high and yet he is also the one who raises the poor from the dust and the impoverished from the dung heap, seating them with nobles, the nobility of God’s people.  He also installs the barren woman of the house as a joyful mother of children.  It is this latter quality that was of particular note for Hannah who prayed for the birth of child and was answered.  The Psalm ends as it began, “Halleluyah. Praise the Lord.”


The second Psalm reflects on the events of the Exodus more directly and gives the name of “Hallel Mitzraim,” the Egyptian Hallel, to this group of Psalms.  This Psalm links God’s role in history to His role in nature.  The Psalmist speaks of the time “When the people of Israel came forth from Egypt, b’tzeit Yisrael mi-Mitzraim.”  Using the parallelism that is so common in biblical poetry, it concludes the verse with “Beit Ya’akov mei-am loez, The House of Jacob from a foreign nation.”  The next verse speaks of Judah and Israel, the two nations that split apart after King Solomon’s death, “Judah became God’s holy place (a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah), Israel became God’s dominion.”  The Psalm then focuses on the response of the elements of nature to the events of the Exodus. “The sea saw and fled,” referring to the splitting of the Red Sea or Sea of Reeds. “The Jordan turns back” referring now to the splitting of the Jordan as Joshua leads the people into the land of Canaan. “The mountains danced like rams, hills like young lambs.”  “Rakdu” usually means dancing, though I suspect the translators who used “skipped” or “pranced” were skeptical about the terpsichorean talents of most sheep.  The image of mountains and hills skipping or dancing reflects the events at Mount Sinai, perhaps an earthquake or even a volcano as some speculate, accenting the revelation of the Almighty on that mountain.  The Psalmist continues playing with these images, “Mah l’cha hayam ki tanus, hayarden tisov l’achor, What disturbs you, O sea that you flee, O Jordan that you turn back, the mountains that you skip like rams, the hills like young lambs?”  The response, “Milifnei Adon chuli aretz, before the Lord, whirl or shake, O Earth! Before the God of Jacob.”  The closing line then refers to one more miracle of the wandering people in the desert, “He who turns a rock into a pool of water, flint into a spring of water.”  God who has taken His people out of Egypt is all-powerful and can do as He wills with the forces of nature that He has created and we sing His praise.


The third Psalm of Hallel, 115, is split into two parts and on Rosh Chodesh and on the last six days of Passover, the first eleven lines are omitted and only lines 12 – 18 are chanted.  A similar procedure applies to Psalm 116 and we speak of a half-Hallel, though it is only slightly abridged.  This Psalm begins with a  kind of protest, “Not to us, Adonay, not to us, but to Your own name give glory, for Your lovingkindness and Your faithfulness.”  Once again, the Psalmist speaks of the futility of worshipping idols even though people may be perplexed at our invisible God. “Why should nations say, ‘where is their God?’  Our God is in heaven doing whatever He will.”  In contrast, he writes, “Their idols are made of silver and gold – the work of human hands.  They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes and cannot see, ears but cannot hear, a nose that cannot smell, hands that cannot feel, feet that cannot walk, their throats do not utter a sound.”  He goes onto say, “Those who create them will be just like them, anyone who puts his trust in them.”  The Psalmist then turns to his own people and proclaims, “Israel, put your trust in the Lord, He is their help and their shield.  House of Aaron (the kohanim) put your trust in the Lord, He is their help and their shield.” He then calls upon all of those who fear the Lord, who show reverence for Adonay, to put their trust in the Lord, for He is their help and their shield.


The second half of this Psalm continues by speaking of Adonay remembering us and blessing us.  Specifically, he will bless the house of Israel, the house of Aaron, and those who revere the Lord, great and small.  The Psalmist continues, “God will add to your blessings, yours and your children.  For you are blessed by Adonay, who formed heaven and earth.”  The Psalmist then proclaims, “The heavens are God’s but He has given the earth to human beings.”  The rabbis say, actually the earth is also the Lord’s until we recite a blessing over its products.  Then God gives it all to us.  The last lines note that “The dead cannot praise God, nor those who go down to the grave.  But as for us, we shall praise the Lord from now and forever. Halleluyah, Praise the Lord.”  This last line is taken from here and appended to Psalm 145, when we recite the Ashrei, thus linking Psalm 145 to the final five Psalms which all begin and end with Halleluyah and which we have called in an earlier piece, the daily Hallel.


We will save the rest of the Hallel Psalms for the next piece next week as we recite Hallel throughout this coming week celebrating Sukkot.  Chag sameach to all!

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