The Special Mitzvah of Reciting Hallel
Hallel is our unique praise to Hashem that is reserved for special occasions. Whenever the Jews survived a crisis, they responded by singing Hallel. Thus, we sang Hallel when we crossed the Yam Suf and again after the allied kings of Canaan were defeated in the days of Yehoshua. Hallel was sung when Devorah and Barak’s small force defeated the mighty army of Sisra and when the huge army of Sancheiriv fled from Yerushalayim. It was also sung when Chananyah, Mishoel, and Azaryah survived Nevuchadnetzar’s fiery furnace and when the Jews were saved from Haman’s evil decrees. After each of these events, Jews recited Hallel to thank Hashem for their miraculous salvation (Pesachim 117a, see Rashi; cf. Rashbam).
In the same vein, Chazal instituted the recital of Hallel to commemorate Yomim Tovim and days when miracles provided salvation for the Jewish people. The Gemara teaches that we recite the full Hallel eighteen days every year in Eretz Yisrael and twenty-one days in Chutz La’Aretz. These days include: The eight days of Sukkos/Simchas Torah (nine days in Chutz La’Aretz), the eight days of Chanukah, the first day(s) of Pesach and Shavuos (Arachin 10a). Each of these days is either a Yom Tov or commemorates a miracle. Full Hallel is not recited on Rosh Chodesh, because it is neither a full Yom Tov nor does it commemorate a miracle (Arachin 10b). (We will soon discuss the partial Hallel that we recite on Rosh Chodesh and the last days of Pesach.)
Hallel includes Chapters 113-118 of Tehillim, with some of the verses repeated.
WHY DO WE RECITE THESE SPECIFIC VERSES?
The Gemara (Pesachim 118a) says that these chapters of Tehillim were chosen for Hallel because they mention five unique events: (1) The Exodus from Egypt, (2) The Splitting of the Yam Suf, (3) The Receiving of the Torah, (4) The Resurrection of the Dead, and (5) The Travails of the Coming of Moshiach.
- The Exodus from Mitzrayim is explicitly mentioned in the pasuk, “Be’tzeis Yisrael Mi’mitzrayim,” “when Yisrael left Egypt.”
- The Splitting of the Yam Suf is implied in the pasuk, “Hayom ra’ah vayanos,” “The Sea saw and fled.”
- Receiving the Torah is alluded to by the pasuk, “He’harim rakdu ch’eilim,” “The mountains danced liked rams.” This refers to the mountains that danced in excitement when the Jewish people received the Torah.
(4) The Resurrection of the Dead is implied by the pasuk, “Es’haleich lifnei Hashem be’artzos hachayim,” “I will walk before Hashem in the land of the living,” thus alluding to a future time when the deceased will return to life.
(5) The Travails of the Coming of Moshiach is implied by the pasuk, “Lo lanu Hashem,” “Not for our sake, Hashem.” This pasuk alludes to several calamitous events that will transpire in the era preceding Moshiach’s arrival.
WHY ARE PARTS OF THE HALLEL REPEATED?
The practice of repeating some pesukim of Hallel is already mentioned in the Mishnah (Sukkah 38a). Many interpretations are suggested for this custom. Rashi explains the reason for this custom as follows: From the words “Hodu Lashem ki tov” until “Pischu li shaarei tzedek,” every theme mentioned is repeated. After “Pischu li,” this style ceases. However, in order to make the rest of the Hallel continue this poetic style, the custom is to repeat these last pesukim.
WHY DO WE SPLIT A PASUK IN HALF?
During Hallel, we divide the pasuk “Ana Hashem Hoshia Na, Ana Hashem Hatzliacha Na” in half and recite it as two different pesukim. This practice is already mentioned in the Gemara (Sukkah 38b). Normally, it is forbidden to divide a pasuk, except to teach schoolchildren, who may find it too difficult to learn the explanation of an entire pasuk at one time (Megillah 22a). Why are we permitted to divide this pasuk during Hallel?
Tosafos (Sukkah 38b) explains that this pasuk is different, because it was originally recited as part of a conversation between Dovid HaMelech and his family. Dovid’s brothers declared “Ana Hashem Hoshia Na” and Dovid responded “Ana Hashem Hatzlicha Na” (Pesachim 119a). Therefore, even though it was subsequently written down as one pasuk, it is treated as two separate statements during Hallel.
WHY IS HALLEL RECITED STANDING THE WHOLE YEAR, BUT SITTING AT THE SEDER?
Most mitzvos are performed while standing, and there are additional reasons why Hallel should be recited standing. Hallel testifies to Hashem’s miracles and wondrous deeds, and testimony must be made while standing (Mishnah Berurah 422:28). Furthermore, the pasuk in Hallel declares, “Sing praise, servants of Hashem who are standing,” implying that this is the proper way to give praise (Shibbolei Leket).
On the other hand, at the Seder Hallel is recited sitting, because this demonstrates that we are freemen (Shibbolei Leket).
Someone who recited Hallel while sitting need not repeat it (Mishnah Berurah 422:28, quoting Pri Megadim).
WHEN SHOULD ONE RECITE HALLEL?
Chazal derive from the verse of Hallel, “From when the sun rises in the east until it sets shall Hashem’s Name be praised,” that Hallel should be recited by day and not by night (Megillah 20b). Although the day begins when the eastern horizon lights up (amud hashachar), Chazal ruled that Hallel should not be said until after sunrise.
One should preferably recite Hallel immediately after Shacharis. However, if one failed to do so, one can recite Hallel the entire day.
The exception to this rule is when we recite Hallel on Pesach night as part of the Haggadah, since the miracle took place at night. Many communities have the custom of reciting Hallel in shul, also, that night.
MAY ONE LEAN WHILE RECITING HALLEL?
Resting one’s weight on a table or shtender in such a way that one would fall if the support was removed is considered the same as sitting. Therefore, many poskim contend that one may not lean while reciting Hallel (Magen Avraham 422:11). However, some poskim (Beis Meir; Biur Halacha) maintain that it is acceptable to rest one’s weight on a stand or table while reciting Hallel.
WHY IS HALLEL ON SUKKOS DIFFERENT FROM HALLEL ON PESACH?
Why do we recite the full Hallel every day of Sukkos, but only on the first day of Pesach?
The Gemara gives a surprising answer. On Sukkos, we recite full Hallel daily, since each day of Sukkos has a different korban in the Beis HaMikdash, while on Pesach, we do not recite full Hallel every day, because the same korban was offered every day. Thus, we see that Yom Tov is not a sufficient reason to recite Hallel. There must also be something novel about the day.
In a similar vein, we recite Hallel every day of Chanukah, because the miracle became greater every day as the oil miraculously continued burning. Therefore, each day is considered a new Yom Tov (Tosafos, Taanis 28b s.v. veyom).
The Midrash provides a different reason why the full Hallel is not recited on Pesach — we should not recite Hallel at the time when our enemies suffered (quoted by Shibbolei Leket #174).
There is no Hallel on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, because one should not sing on days when judgment is being rendered (Arachin 10b). Rambam explains that these are not days of total simcha, and that Hallel must be recited only on days of complete simcha (Hilchos Chanukah 3:6).
HALLEL ON PURIM?
Why we do not recite Hallel on Purim? After all, we do celebrate the tremendous miracle that transpired by saying the prayer Al HaNisim and performing many mitzvos. The Gemara provides three answers.
(1) Because the miracle of Purim occurred outside Eretz Yisrael.
(2) Because reading the Megillah is a form of Hallel.
(3) Because in Hallel we say, “Praise Him, servants of Hashem,” and we are still servants of Achashveirosh (Arachin 10b).
There is a practical difference between these opinions. According to the second opinion, someone who has no Megillah to read on Purim would be required to recite Hallel! Indeed, Rambam appears to rule according to this opinion (Hilchos Chanukah 3:6).
Why do we say only a partial Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and the latter days of Pesach? Reciting the partial Hallel on these days originated as a minhag and not as a takanah of Chazal. Reciting partial Hallel on Rosh Chodesh as a custom is mentioned in a puzzling story.
The Gemara relates that the Amora, Rav, went to Bavel. [It is unclear whether this meant the country of Bavel in the environs of present day Iraq, or the city of Bavel (Babylon).] Rav was perturbed when the congregation began reciting Hallel after the repetition of Shemoneh Esrei and was about to interrupt them. But when he noticed that they were skipping parts of the Hallel, presumably similar to what we do, he chose not to interrupt them, saying, “I see that they are observing a custom of their fathers” (Taanis 28b).
Rav’s reactions seem very enigmatic. Why was he so concerned about their reciting Hallel that he was prepared to interrupt them in the middle? Furthermore, why did the fact that they omitted something make him change his mind? And, finally, why did he justify their practice on the basis that it was a custom of their fathers?
To understand what happened, we need to understand what is wrong with reciting Hallel on days not included in Chazal’s takanah.
The Gemara teaches us that someone who recites Hallel every day is a blasphemer (Shabbos 118b). What? A blasphemer! What’s so terrible about what he did?
The Maharal explains as follows: Non-believers sometimes ask that if Hashem is all-powerful, why does He allow evil to exist? Why aren’t all evildoers immediately destroyed? But to believers, this is not a question at all, because they understand that Hashem allows the world to exist naturally, without His interference. If Hashem destroyed evildoers, His existence would be so obvious that there would be no reward for those who do His will. Therefore, Hashem allows the world to function without His obvious involvement.
However, occasionally the need arises for Hashem to perform a miracle. When this happens, Hashem demonstrates His presence, and the world temporarily switches into “miraculous mode.” We commemorate these special occasions by reciting Hallel and celebrating the revelation of Hashem’s presence.
But, reciting Hallel on an ordinary weekday implies that Hashem’s control over the world should always be obvious. This leads to blasphemy, because if Hashem’s control is obvious, non-believers can ask why evildoers continue to exist without Hashem destroying them. Thus, the non-believer interprets saying Hallel every day as proof that Hashem is powerless to stop the forces of evil. This is, of course, terrible blasphemy (Gevuros Hashem #61). This is why Rav was so disturbed when he noticed the people of Bavel reciting Hallel on a day that is neither Yom Tov nor a day when a miracle occurred.
WHY DID RAV, INDEED, NOT STOP THE RECITAL OF HALLEL?
Why did Rav change his mind when he realized that the people were omitting parts of Hallel?
Although Rishonim record variant customs as to which parts of Hallel are omitted on Rosh Chodesh, every custom I have seen, as well as the usual practice today, omits the passages that include the words “Lo lanu” and “Ahavti” (see Rashi, Taanis 28b s.v. de’midalgi; Rambam, Hilchos Chanukah 3:7). These omissions delete two of the five essential components that make the Hallel a unique praise. By skipping these passages, what is left is, indeed, a beautiful praise, but it is not a fulfillment of the mitzvah of Hallel.
Only when one recites the full Hallel on a weekday is it considered blasphemy. Therefore, the custom of the community of Bavel was to recite a partial Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, thus praising Hashem for his wondrous deeds, without performing an act that could, G-d forbid, imply blasphemy. This is why Rav saw no reason to interrupt them.
DO WE RECITE A BRACHA ON “HALF-HALLEL”?
As we mentioned, Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is a custom and not a takanah of Chazal. Do we recite a bracha before reciting this partial Hallel, since reciting it is, technically, not a mitzvah but a custom? This question is disputed by the Rishonim. Rambam rules that one does not recite a bracha before doing a custom (Hilchos Chanukah 3:7). This approach is the prevalent practice among the Sefardim and Edot HaMizrach in Eretz Yisrael, who do not recite a bracha on Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 422:2). Tosafos (Taanis 28b), however, rules that one may recite a bracha on Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and the last days of Pesach, and this is the universal practice among Ashkenazim (Rema).
DOES ONE RECITE “HALF-HALLEL” WHEN DAVENING IN PRIVATE?
The Gemara rules that an individual need not recite partial Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, but that once he began reciting Hallel, he should complete the partial Hallel (Taanis 28b). The custom among Ashkenazim is to recite partial Hallel with a bracha, even when davening alone. However, one should make an effort to recite the Hallel together with the tzibur, in order to avoid any shaylah. For this reason, if someone arrives late in shul, he should recite Hallel with the tzibur and daven afterwards. If he is in the middle of Pesukei Dezimra when the tzibur begins Hallel, he should recite the Hallel with the tzibur, as if it is part of Pesukei Dezimra (Mishnah Berurah 422:16).
Hallel, like Shmoneh Esrei, is one of the prayers that must be recited in its proper order (Megillah 17a). If someone misses a word or sentence, he must return to the place he omitted (Rema, Orach Chayim 422:6).
I was once in shul on Chanukah, and the chazan inadvertently skipped Lo Lanu and recited the subsequent paragraph, Hashem Zecharanu. The chazan was a talmid chacham, and, upon realizing his error, he recited Lo Lanu and then repeated Hashem Zecharanu. Although the lay people in the shul did not understand why the chazan had repeated the paragraph, he had, indeed, followed the correct procedure.
WOMEN AND HALLEL
Are women required to recite Hallel?
The mishnah implies that women are exempt from reciting Hallel (Sukkah 38a). This is because Hallel is a time-bound mitzvah, from which women are absolved.
However, some poskim rule that women are obligated to recite Hallel on Chanukah and Pesach, since it is recited in regard to miracles that benefited women. According to these poskim, women are absolved from Hallel on Sukkos and Shavuos, since it is recited only because of Yom Tov and not because of a miracle (see Tosafos, Sukkah 38a s.v. Mi; Toras Refael, Orach Chayim #75).
The logical basis for this distinction is that women are required to observe mitzvos established because of miracles that benefited them. This is why they they are required to kindle Chanukah lights, to hear Megillah on Purim and to drink the four cups of wine at the Seder (Megillah 4a, Shabbos 23a; Pesachim 108b).
To the Jew who yearns to make Hashem’s presence an integral part of his life, nothing is more distressing than when Hashem hides His presence. Yet, in today’s world, not only is Hashem’s presence hidden, but much of modern society ignores His existence altogether. How can we safeguard ourselves from this influence?
Reciting Hallel with tremendous emotion and reliving Hashem’s miracles rekindles the cognizance of Hashem’s presence. The moments that we recite Hallel can encapsulate the most fervent experience of His closeness.
In the merit of joyously reciting Hallel, may we see the return of the Divine Presence to Yerushalayim and the rededication of the Beis HaMikdash, speedily in our days.