Hallel: Praise and Thanksgiving

By rabbinic decree, we recite the Hallel at times of joy and on festivals. The Hallel, made up of chapters 113-118 of Tehillim, contains two motifs: praise and thanksgiving. This article examines the connection between Hallel and the festivals in light of this duality.

A climax of the festival prayers is the public recitation of the Hallel. From the initial verse, “Halleluya! Give praise, O servants of the Lord” (113:1 – all quotations are from Tehillim unless otherwise noted), rising from the collective voice of the congregation, until the stirring conclusion, “O give thanks to the Lord for He is good” (118:29), we read chapters of exaltation and thanksgiving. We extol and glorify God, and we pay homage and tribute to Him for redeeming us and saving us from distress. Our song comes as a spontaneous outburst from the very depths of the soul, giving thanks to the Redeemer of Israel who has rescued us from grave trouble. “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord” (118:16).

The prophet Yishayahu (30:29) can find no better way to describe the powerful outpouring of relief and gratitude in response to the miraculous victory over Sancheriv other than to compare it to the singing of the Hallel on Pesach. In a similar vein, the Talmud (Pesachim 85b) relates that the recitation of the Hallel in Yerushalayim on Pesach would “break through the rooftops,” such was its intensity and power.

However, there is another dimension to the Hallel. We recite the Hallel on a festival because of the holiness of the day. This recitation is unrelated to our deliverance from trouble and does not result from our desire to thank God for His providence. It is not a spontaneous outburst of gratitude. On the contrary, there is an independent obligation to sing out the verses of Hallel as part of the sanctity of Yom Tov (the festival). What is the connection between Hallel and Yom Tov? Why does the sanctity of Yom Tov mandate the recitation of Hallel?

Dual Themes

Even a cursory examination of the relevant text will reveal a clearly defined structure whereby the Hallel is divided into TWO distinct parts. The first section begins with a verse of PRAISE: “Halleluya! Give PRAISE, O servants of the Lord” (113:1), and concludes thematically by enjoining, “O PRAISE the Lord all you nations” (117:1). The second section opens with the call of THANKSGIVING: “O give THANKS to the Lord for He is good” (118:1), and ends off with the very same words (118:29). Thus, two balanced sections are created. Each one has a relevant opening and conclusion, and each one comprises a separate entity within the general framework of the Hallel.

These two distinct units differ in focus. The first concentrates on GOD. Its purpose is to glorify and exalt His greatness. The second focuses on MAN. While we express our gratitude towards God, there is an underlying message that man is important, and it is for his sake that God performs His kindness.

The twin motifs of praise and thanksgiving are evident in other areas of Halakha. For example, the Amida prayer begins with blessings of praise and concludes with blessings of thanksgiving.

Similarly, an analysis of the laws of the birkot ha-shachar (morning blessings) reveals these two motifs. According to the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:3-4), one should recite each blessing as soon as he performs the action connected with that specific blessing. (For example, one should recite the blessing, “Malbish arumim – Who clothes the naked,” when he gets dressed, and recite, “Matir assurim – Who releases the bound,” when he sits up in bed.) However, our custom is to recite all of the blessings afterwards, as the introductory part of the morning service. It would seem that according to the Rambam, birkot ha-shachar are an expression of THANKSGIVING to God. Therefore, they must be recited as a response to His kindness, specifically at the time that it is manifest to the individual. This cannot be delayed for any reason. Our custom, however, is based on the premise that birkot ha-shachar are an expression of PRAISE and need not be recited as a response to the actual occurrence of a particular act of kindness. It is enough that God, generally speaking, clothes the naked, in order to glorify His name and sing His praises. Therefore, one may delay the recitation of the various blessings until he begins the morning prayers.

(The distinction between praise and thanksgiving is also evident in the parallel blessings of she-hechiyanu [praise] and ha-tov ve-hameitiv [thanksgiving]. However, discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this shiur.)

As mentioned above, the first part of the Hallel concentrates on the greatness of God as expressed through His hand in history and His providence over the destiny of both individuals and nations. The purpose of this section is not to thank God for His providence, but to praise Him. Therefore, the introductory and concluding verses speak of praise as opposed to thanksgiving. The second part, however, aims to thank God – not to praise him. This understanding of the Hallel can help to explain problematic verses within the Hallel itself, as will presently be explained.

First section of Hallel

My father, R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l, once addressed the following problem: In the second chapter of the Hallel, the psalmist relates the miracles that occurred when our forefathers left Egypt, including the splitting of the Red Sea. The concluding verse (114:8) recounts that God “turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters.” When the Jews left Egypt, however, it was the water that was turned into rock – the very opposite of that which is described in the above verse. It seems strange that this miracle should be mentioned at this particular juncture.

However, if we view the first part of Hallel primarily as a song of PRAISE, the apparent incongruity falls away. The psalmist extols God’s absolute control over nature, which is exhibited by His ability to change the consistency of solid to liquid and vice versa. We are not thanking Him for a specific miracle; rather, we revel in awe at His power and might. If, though, it were a song of thanksgiving, it would not make sense to thank God for simply having the potential to alter nature.

The distinction between verses of praise and verses of thanksgiving can shed light on another part of the Hallel. We read (117:1-2): “O praise the Lord, all you nations; praise Him all you peoples. For His love for us is great, and the truth of the Lord endures forever. Halleluya!” Why is it necessary for the nations of the world to rejoice in the good that God has done for Israel? There are those who wish to explain that, ultimately, the nations of the world realize that they, too, benefit when God rescues His people. However, this theory does not lend itself to the straightforward meaning of the text.

As soon as we note that the psalmist calls on the nations to PRAISE God – NOT to THANK Him – the intention of the verses becomes clear. It is entirely possible that the nations will be unhappy with God’s treatment of Israel, and for this reason they cannot be forced to THANK Him. However, they too, cannot but recognize His greatness and majesty, which are expressed in His providence over Israel. Therefore, they should join in adoration and adulation – “Halleluya!”

Chapter 115 is seemingly out of place in the Hallel. The psalmist cries out: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory… Why should the nations say, Where is their God?” This call for the future redemption is inconsistent with the contents of the rest of the Hallel, where we relate to that which God has done for us in the past.

However, a closer examination of the chapter reveals its thematic connection. The psalmist describes a situation where the evildoerare confident in their own strength. They feel self-assured and do not hesitate to ridicule and belittle God. Nonetheless, the psalmist’s belief is firm. He knows that their idols are worthless and that when God deems it fit, He will glorify His name and correct the sorry state of affairs. We are therefore praising God by recognizing His might, even though at present it exists merely in potential.

The Second Section of the Hallel

As mentioned previously, the second section deals with THANKSGIVING, and thus the transition from “Praise the Lord” (117:1) to “Give thanks to the Lord” (118:1) is all-important. It is for this reason, too, that the second half of Hallel is more optimistic than the first half. We thank God only AFTER we have been party to his mercy, and the rosy picture presented in the psalm is evidence of the all the kindness we have received.

Thus, even when the psalmist makes a request of God, it is within the context of thanksgiving and not of praise. In the first section, the request for Divine intervention is in order to prevent desecration to His name (“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory” – 115:1). However, in the second section, we are confident of a favorable response, based on our past experience (“I will give You thanks, for You have answered me, and have become my salvation” – 118:21). Similarly, the request, “Save us, O Lord” (118:25), is preceded by the affirmation, “This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24). We rely on God, for He has answered us in the past; we are not making requests for the glory of His name.

Hallel Ha-Gadol

Until this point, we have dealt with Hallel Mitzrayim (chapters 113-118). However, the section of Tehillim referred to as Hallel ha-Gadol (chapter 136) exhibits the same two themes when viewed together with chapter 135. Anyone who is accustomed to praying the morning service on Shabbat or to reciting the book of Tehillim is well aware of the repetition of these two chapters. Both use many of the same phrases when relating the wonders of God’s creation, the miracles He performed when redeeming us from Egypt and our triumph over the Emorites. At first glance, this repetition seems superfluous. However, in light of our discussion above, the difference between the two chapters is readily apparent.

Although both chapters discuss the same EVENTS, they approach them from different viewpoints. Chapter 135 is a psalm of PRAISE, as indicated by its introduction: “Halleluya! Praise the name of the Lord; praise Him, O servants of the Lord” (135:1). (This is very similar to the first line of the regular Hallel: “Halleluya! Give praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord” [113:1].) Its conclusion, “Blessed is the Lord out of Zion, He who dwells in Yerushalayim. Halleluya!” (135:21), is in keeping with this theme. “Blessing” God involves the recognition of His greatness and is unconnected to thanking Him for His kindness.

A further parallel between chapter 135 and the first section of the Hallel can be found in the reference to the useless idols of gold and silver whose eyes cannot see and whose ears cannot hear. In both cases, the psalmist invokes God to destroy them and take revenge on the idol-worshippers. The discerning reader taking the striking similarities into account cannot but conclude that both chapters are identical in theme and purpose. They form the section of praise in the general framework of Hallel.

Chapter 136, however, recounts the wondrous acts of God from the viewpoint of thanksgiving. This is readily apparent from the opening verse: “O Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever” (136:1). These are the selfsame words that are used at the beginning and end of the second section of the regular Hallel. Since this is a psalm of thanksgiving, the references to God’s future destruction of idol-worship is missing.

Pesukei De-Zimra

The introductory psalms of the morning service (Pesukei de-Zimra) are referred to by the gemara as the Daily Hallel (Shabbat 118b). The main body of this Hallel is comprised of chapters 145-150, which deal primarily with the PRAISE of God. As such, most of them both begin and conclude with the exhortation “Halleluya! – Give praise to the Lord!” However, there is another element of the Pesukei de-Zimra, which cannot be overlooked. In addition to the above-mentioned psalms, we recite “Hodu” and Mizmor le-Toda (psalm 100), both of which express our thanks to God for the kindness He has bestowed upon us. Thus, even in the Daily Hallel, both elements are present.

Hallel as an Obligation of the Festival

At the beginning of this shiur, we raised the question of the connection between Hallel and Yom Tov. Many of the Geonim and Rishonim point out the difference between Hallel that is recited on the first night of Pesach and Hallel that is recited on all other days of Yom Tov. On the first night of Pesach we sing the Hallel as a heartfelt response for having been released from bondage. We re-enact the Exodus and, therefore, experience the same sense of joy and gratitude as our ancestors who were snatched from the jaws of slavery. Thus, women are obligated to join in the Hallel. In contrast, the Hallel that is recited on Yom Tov does not evolve from a spontaneous reaction to God’s acts, but is a separate obligation. Since this obligation is time-related, women are exempt from the recitation of Hallel on Yom Tov. (See Tosafot Sukka 38a s.v. Mi.)

In light of all we have said above, we can conclude that on the first night of Pesach, we focus on the aspect of THANKSGIVING in the Hallel. Therefore, Hallel ha-Gadol (psalm 136) plays a central role and is sung in gratitude, while psalm 135, the psalm of praise, is omitted. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that the Hallel of Pesach night is a Hallel of thanksgiving and not of praise. This thesis is strengthened by the prophet Yishayahu’s comparison of the powerful outpouring of gratitude in response to the miraculous victory over Sancheriv to the singing of the Hallel on PESACH (see Yishayahu 30:29). However, on all other days of Yom Tov, we focus on the aspect of PRAISE contained within the Hallel.

Since Hallel is comprised of TWO separate motifs, the obligation to recite Hallel can arise from either one of its sections. On Pesach night we recite the Hallel as a result of our obligation to THANK God, whereas on Yom Tov we recite Hallel as a result of our obligation to PRAISE Him.

The gemara (Yoma 37a) states in the name of Rebbi: “Moshe said to Israel, ‘When I call out the name of the Lord, ascribe greatness to Him.'” When a Jew is exposed to the Divine, he is required to offer praise. For example, when the ineffable name of God is uttered by the High Priest, those present prostrate themselves and call out: “Blessed is the glory of His kingdom forever!” On Yom Tov, the Jew stands before God and it is this encounter with the Divine that mandates the recitation of the Hallel.

Translated by Zev Jacobson

About the Author
Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein is a co-Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and and is teaching an advanced Gemara BeIyun shiur at the Beit Midrash for Women Migdal Oz. He is the author of: Moses - Envoy of God, Envoy of His People, and Netivei Nevua, a sefer on haftarot. He is also the author of several series of shiurim online at the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is married to Dr. Michal Lichtenstein and has three daughters.
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