Excerpted from Go Forth and Learn: A Passover Haggadah. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.
The Mishnah connects Hallel with two holidays in the Jewish calendar: Pesach and Sukkot. It seems that the primary association is actually with Sukkot, a Temple-based holiday on which the full Hallel is recited every day. In contrast, the complete Hallel is recited only on the first of the seven days of Pesach, in conjunction with the slaughtering and eating of the Passover sacrifice. Nonetheless, the connection between Pesach and Hallel runs deep.
The psalms of Hallel are closely related to the song that the Israelites sang at the Sea of Reeds, a prayer of thanksgiving that both describes the personal experience of redemption and promotes worship at a central site where the glory and kingship of God can be proclaimed in public. As noted, the Song at the Sea concludes with a reference to the Temple, which can be accessed only by an act of “crossing over” from wasteland to the Promised Land:
…Till Your people crossed over, O LORD, till the people you made Yours crossed over. You’ll bring them, You’ll plant them, on the mount of Your estate, a firm place for Your dwelling You wrought, o LORD, the sanctum, O Sovereign, Your hands firmly founded. The LORD shall be king for all time! (Exod. 15:16-18)
This is precisely the form of thanksgiving that is expressed in the six psalms that comprise Hallel, and especially in the last four. The division of the Hallel at the seder into one unit of two psalms recited with Maggid, and one unit of four recited later in the evening, is a division suggested inherently by the text. The first two psalms relate to the Exodus itself, whereas the next four reflect the experience of leaving Egypt and journeying toward a holy site, the Mikdash.
From Egypt to the Temple
It is clear that the recitation of Hallel is appropriate for Sukkot, which is the quintessential Temple holiday, because the Temple theme is so central to these psalms. However, the precise narrative arc traced in the Hallel passages is actually more reflective of the Passover experience: Hallel highlights the movement from Egypt to the Temple, and the movement from human bondage to service of God is what the Passover story is all about. Indeed, in the Torah, the concept of constructing sacred space marks both the culmination of the Exodus story (in the context of the Song at the Sea) and the conclusion of the book of Exodus as a whole.