Thoughts on the Hallel Psalms – Part two
Throughout the holiday of Sukkot and continuing on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we add the Hallel Psalms to our holiday worship. Most of the passages can be sung to lively melodies which make these hymns of praise a particularly joyful addition to the service. Last week, I wrote about the first three of these six Psalms of praise, Psalms 113 -115. They celebrate the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery and speak of our ongoing faith in God's protecting care. At this and other holiday seasons, we feel especially blessed by the Almighty. As is frequently the case, we are struck by the dual nature of our understanding of God. On one hand, we believe that He is far above all of creation, looking down on both heaven and earth, as the Psalmist puts it. Yet at the same time, this transcendent being manifests love and concern for us earthly creatures, raising up the poor from the dust, making a formerly barren woman a mother of many children. It is this compassionate God whom we laud for His intervention in history, bringing us out of slavery and caring for us as we came forth into the wilderness.
Psalm 116, the fourth Psalm of the Hallel, is a very personal poem, in which the poet speaks in the first person of his own experience of God's loving presence at a time of great suffering and turmoil in his life. We are not told exactly what the circumstances were, only of the gratitude of the poet for God's response in this time of crisis. “I am filled with love, for God has heard my voice, my pleading. He has turned His ear toward me on the day that I called out.” In a rather general way, he explains that he was facing death, he felt surrounded by the “the pangs of death” and the “straits of Sheol had found me”. Sheol is the pit to which the biblical writers believed the dead descend. He goes on relating to us, “I found torment and sorrow. So I called upon the name of Adonay, 'Please, Adonay, save my life!'” Again, we are not given any details, but the poet tells us that God is gracious and righteous, and a compassionate God. He watches over even the simple. “I was brought low, but He would save me.” Speaking to himself, as it were, and using rather archaic Hebrew suffixes, he reassures himself, “Go back to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has been bounteous to you.” Now addressing God, “You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” He concludes this first part of the Psalm with a declaration to his listeners, to us, “I shall walk in God's presence in the land of the living. I had faith in God and declared it, even as I suffered greatly.” He also expresses his disappointment in humanity, perhaps including himself, as he states, “I called out b'chofzi, variously translated as my delirium, my trepidation, my alarm, all humanity is false.” One may rely only on God, for human beings are deceptive and unreliable. As with the previous Psalm, here too, the rabbis have divided the Psalm into two parts and these opening verses up to this point are omitted on Rosh Chodesh and on the last six days of Pesach, to make what we call the “half Hallel' for these semi-holidays.
The second half of the Psalm is said on all occasions, and continues, still in first person, but with an overwhelming expression of gratitude to God. “Mah ashiv ladonay, kol tagmulohi alai, How can I repay Adonay for all that has been done for me?” The next line you might recognize from the Havdalah prayers at the end of Shabbat, “Kos yeshuot esa, uv'shem Adonay ekra, I lift the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.” The Psalm then takes us to the Temple, where the author proclaims, “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people.” Again, he returns for a moment to the crisis that brought him here, “How precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His faithful one.” Yakar, precious, here does not mean desirable, but may be translated as “grievous”. We hear his pleas once again, “I pray, O Lord, for I am Your servant, Your servant, the son of Your maid-servant, You have released me from my bonds.” He continues, “Unto You, I will offer a thanksgiving offering and call upon the name of the Lord.” He repeats, “I shall fulfill my vows to the Lord, in the presence of all His people, in the courtyards of the House of the Lord, in the midst of Jerusalem, Halleluyah.”
As we read this Psalm, we are reminded that every congregation is made up of individuals, each with their own concerns, personal suffering, and desires. While we pray as a group, as a people, as a congregation, and for all of us, God views us each as separate people and we seek His personal response to our own needs even as we pray for the welfare of the whole.
The fifth Psalm of this Hallel group, Psalm 117, has the distinction of being the shortest chapter in the entire Bible, just two verses. In spite of its brevity, this Psalm is lauded by many commentators as “one of the grandest” psalms, exhibiting “ideas that are among the loftiest in the Bible.” It is one of the most universal of expressions, turning to all humanity to offer praise to the Almighty. “Praise the Lord, all nations, extol Him all peoples; for his steadfast love overwhelms us, and the faithfulness of the Lord is eternal. Halleluyah!”
Rabbi Benjamin Segal in his commentary on Psalms writes, “The unmistakable international orientation of the first verse is the key to its appreciation. This orientation,” he adds, “is by no means unique in the Bible, whose monotheism includes both the special relationship with Israel and God’s dominion over the whole world. As non-Israelite worship of the Lord is more often seen as a future phenomenon…, Psalm 117 stands out for the exclusivity and present tense of its address. It is a ringing affirmation of God’s universal sway.” We need not await the Messiah to bring people together in praise of the one God we all worship.
The final Psalm of the Hallel prayers is 118. It is much longer, with 29 verses divided into several sections as we recite the Hallel. The opening verse and the closing verse are the same, “Hodu ladonay ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo. Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His lovingkindness endures forever.” This same verse appears in several other Psalms as well and it is the opening verse of Psalm 136, which is known as the Hallel Hagadol, the Great Hallel in which every verse concludes with “Ki l’olam chasdo.”
The first section of this Psalm contains four verses, each ending with that same phrase. Customarily these verses are chanted by the reader and after each verse, the congregation is to reply by repeating that opening verse of Hodu. Thus we chant, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His lovingkindness endures forever.” and the congregation repeats that line. Then we turn to all the people of Israel, “Let Israel say, ki l’olam chasdo.,” and the congregation repeats Hodu ladonay ki tov...” Then the same process with the third and fourth verses, “Let the House of Aaron [the kohanim] say, ki l’olam chasdo” and “Let those who fear the Lord say, ki l’olam chasdo.” The congregation repeating “Hodu ladonay ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo” after each line. On Sukkot, this is the first place where the reader takes his lulav and etrog and waves them in the various directions as he recites the first two lines. Since the congregation is to repeat the Hodu verse after each line, they wave their lulavim four times, once after every verse is chanted.
The section which follows is generally read silently by the congregation or some times read responsively in English. It is comprised of verses 5 through 20 and once again, it is mostly in the first person. The Psalmist again as in Psalm 116,speaks of great anguish leading him to call out to God, who answers his prayer, leading the Psalmist to praise Him and offer his thanks. “Tormented, I cried to the Lord, God answered me with open arms. The Lord is with me, I do not fear; what can anyone do to me? With the Lord as my help, I face my enemies.” He instructs his listeners, “Better to depend on the Lord than on human beings; better to depend on the Lord than on princes.” He goes on to speak of God defending him from his enemies, “If any nation surrounds me, with God’s name I shall cut them down. Though they surround me and encircle me, with God’s name I shall cut them down. Though they swarm round me like bees, they shall be stamped down like thorns on fire; for with God’s name I shall cut them down.”
The Psalm continues, “Though I be pushed and stagger, the Lord shall be my help. The Lord is my strength – I sing to God who rescued me.” This verse is taken from the Song at the Sea, “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay’hi li liyeshuah.” The commentator in Lev Shalem suggests that this quotation indicates that every salvation that we experience is a reminder of the saving acts at the time of the crossing of the sea. We re-experience the Exodus and thus it is an occasion for another exultant song. The Psalm continues with another repetitive passage: “In the tents of the righteous, voices resound with song and triumph. God’s right arm is like an army. God’s right arm is upraised. God’s right arm is like an army.” In Lev Shalem, I note that these lines appear in transliteration encouraging the congregation to sing this passage to a popular melody. The poet concludes with triumphant words, “I shall not die, but live, to tell of the Lord’s deeds. Though the Lord chastened me, God did not hand me over to death.” Once again, we find ourselves at the gates of the Temple and the reader and congregation may sing the next two verses, “Pitchu li shaarei tzedek, open for me the gates of righteousness, that I might enter through them to thank the Lord. This is the gateway to the Lord, through it the righteous shall enter.”
At this point, once again we find four verses, each of which is sung and then repeated. This is the prayer of gratitude offered by the psalmist, “Od’cha ki anitani, I give thanks to You, for You answered me and You were my rescuer. The stone the builders rejected has become the keystone. This is the Lord’s doing, how wondrous it is in our sight. This is the day that the Lord has made, we shall celebrate and rejoice in it.” There is a lot of repetition in this poem and the rabbis, picking up on it, call on us to continue the pattern by repeating all of the verses which follow as we saw earlier with the four verses at the beginning of the Psalm and these four verses of thanksgiving.. According to the Mishnah, it seems that there were different traditions as to whether or not to repeat the closing verses of this Psalm. The Mishnah of Sukkah (3:11) says that one should follow the custom of the local place, if they repeat verses, we should repeat, and if not, we should follow their lead and not repeat. In the Talmud, we’re told that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the author of the Mishnah, would repeat only the last five verses of this Psalm, while Rabbi Elazar, would repeat the final nine verses which is our current practice. The commentators explicitly point out the many repetitive elements in the opening section of the Psalm and claim that this led the rabbis to call for the reader and congregation to similarly repeat the verses at the conclusion of the Psalm.
After the section beginning with Od’cha, the reader then chants two prayers on behalf of the congregation. “Ana Adonay hoshia na. O Lord, we implore You, deliver us. O Lord, we implore You, deliver us.” Then he says, “Ana Adonay hatzlicha na, O Lord, we implore You, grant us success. O Lord, we implore You, grant us success.” After each phrase, the congregation repeats it. On Sukkot, this is the second place where the reader waves his lulav and the congregation follows after.
Psalm 118 concludes with four final verses either read silently by the congregation or sung aloud. Once more, the custom is to repeat each verse after chanting it. “Blessed are You who come in the name of the Lord; may the blessings of the house of the Lord be upon you.” I begin every wedding ceremony with those words as we welcome the bride and groom under the chuppah. Here, in context, perhaps it is the words of welcome extended to the Psalmist who has come bearing his offerings of thanks to God. We continue: “The Lord is our God, lighting our path. Dress the horns of the altar with branches of myrtle in celebration of the festival. You are my God and I offer thanks to You, Eli ata v’odeka; my God and I exalt You, Elohai aromemecha.” As mentioned earlier, we end with the same verse with which we began, “Hodu ladonay ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, Give thanks to the Lord for He is good and His lovingkindness endures forever.” One last time, on Sukkot, the na-anuim, the waving of the lulav, is performed with the congregation following suit.
The Hallel concludes with a closing blessing: “May all that You have created praise You, Lord our God, and Your faithful, the righteous, who do Your will and all of Your people, the House of Israel, shall joyfully glorify and thank, exalt and extol, sanctify and celebrate Your name, our Sovereign. It is good to offer You thanks, fitting to sing to Your name, for You are God from the beginning to the end of time. Praised are You, Lord, Sovereign, celebrated through words of praise.” Here too, the Mishnah notes variant practices and says that where the custom is to recite a blessing at the end of the Hallel, we do so and where that is not the custom, we do not. They then establish a general principle “hakol k’minhag hamakom, everything follows the local custom.” By medieval times, local custom becomes a very significant rule and we see to this day, that various congregations have their own customs and practices and, as long as they are not in violation of Jewish law, we are urged to maintain those traditions.
Following the Hallel, on days when we will be reciting a Musaf prayer, the reader now chants the Kaddish Shalem, the full Kaddish, combining the Hallel with the Amidah which preceded it and requesting that all of our prayers and supplications to this point be accepted before our Heavenly Father. If there is no Musaf prayer that day, as is generally the case on Chanukah, except for the days coinciding with Rosh Chodesh or Shabbat, we say simply the half Kaddish at this point, marking the end of a section and saving the full Kaddish for the end of the service. On days when there is an additional Amidah, a Musaf, there will be another Kaddish Shalem afterwards, since that form of the Kaddish always comes after the Amidah has been recited. We add a line in this Kaddish In Aramaic, asking that God accept tzlot-hon, our prayers, i.e. the Amidah, uvaut-hon, and our supplications, either the Tachanun prayers said on most weekdays or the Hallel prayers, said on holidays. In Tachanun, we seek forgiveness for sins while in Hallel, we offer thanksgiving for our blessings. Whichever prayers we offer, we pray that they may be accepted in the spirit in which they were offered before “avuhon di b’shmaya, our Heavenly Father.”