Hallel at the Seder

How does Hallel connect to Passover?

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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.

But the Rabbis chose to end the seder with Hallel for another reason as well. The Hallel we recite at the seder and in holiday prayers is called "the Egyptian Hallel" not only because of the explicit reference to Israel leaving Egypt in Psalm 114, but also because the historical Exodus story and the experience of personal redemption are predominant motifs throughout the passages.

In the biblical text itself, the Israelites do not pray to God in response to their suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. The Israelites "groan" when their labor is intensified and "cry out" when they cannot bear the oppression (Exod. 2:23), and God responds to these cries of pain (2:23-25); but they are not expressions of prayer. Lack of voice and personal agency is a fundamental feature of slavery that precludes prayer. Remarkably, by the end of the story, the People of Israel are able to sing--to tell of their experiences, to express their gratitude, to articulate their hopes--which is the ultimate mark of freedom.

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Rabbi David Silber is the founder and dean of Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City. He is the recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for excellence in innovative Jewish education.