Talmudic discussion of the liturgical use of Psalms 113-118 focuses on how the Psalms incorporate gratitude for God's past acts of salvation and confidence in God's future redemption of Israel.
Hallel is recited on holidays and on the semi-festival of the new moon (Rosh Hodesh).
Many Jews also recite it on the modern festivals of Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). Although many scholars and other contemporary Jews approach Jewish liturgical texts from a literary or theological perspective, many traditional Jews use the Talmud as the primary lens through they interpret the Siddur. This article is an example of that approach. Reprinted with permission from The Guide to Jewish Prayer, by Isaiah Wohlgemuth.
What are the ideas expressed in Hallel? The Gemara (the Rabbinic debates on the Mishnah) tells us that Hallel includes five major themes (Pesachim 118a):
1. The Exodus from Egypt
2. The splitting of the Red Sea
3. The giving of the Torah
4. The revival of the dead
5. The difficulties preceding the Messianic Age
In other words, Hallel deals with all of Jewish history from the birth of our nation to the establishment of the Messianic Era. In Hallel we express our joy at past miracles and our faith in future miracles.
Who was the first to recite Hallel? The Gemara suggests that the prayer was originated by the Jews at the Red Sea, Joshua defeating the kings in Canaan, or Deborah and Barak when they destroyed the army of Sisera (Pesachim 117a).
The Gemara continues by saying that it might have been Hezekiah, king of Judah, when Jerusalem was liberated from the siege by Sanherev; or Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria when they were rescued from the oven of Nebuchadnezzer [in the Book of Daniel]; or maybe it was Mordechai and Esther [the heroes of the Purim story]. Finally, it is suggested that the Sages ordained the recitation of Hallel at the time of the redemption from the later tragic events that befell the people of Israel.
The Gemara then examines the structure of Hallel to see if it remained static, if it developed, or if it was expanded by King David. In any case, Hallel is the cornerstone of our liturgy.
The Shulhan Arukh (the preeminent code of Jewish law) states that Hallel should be said while standing (Orah Hayyim 422). The Mishnah Brurah (a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh) explains why: In Hallel we testify to the glorious miracles that God performed. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik--a preeminent 20th century Orthodox thinker--theorized that Hallel is another Amidah [the standing prayer that is central to Jewish liturgy], which explains why we must stand.
What is the nature of Hallel? In it, we praise God's providence for the individual and for the sake of the nation as a whole. In the second section we implore God not to forsake us, neither the nation nor the individual. In the last part of Hallel we thank God for miracles past, present, and future. Since Hallel is a commandment, we must start it with a blessing. We also conclude it with a blessing, which is voluntary. The Rabbis argue over whether the recital of Hallel is a Torah commandment or of rabbinic origin.