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.

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.

The Structure of Hallel

We begin Hallel by reciting Psalm 113, a psalm of introductory praises. In Psalm 114, King David shows how God’s providence freed the Jews from Egyptian bondage and made their survival possible. In Psalm 115, we appeal for God’s assistance. In Psalm 116, we plead with God for survival. In Psalm 117, the shortest of all the Psalms, we invite the nations of the world to join our songs of thanksgiving for our redemption.

Finally, Psalm 118 can be interpreted in two different ways. David perhaps personally thanks God for his survival, or perhaps David represents the Jewish people and therefore the Psalm is a song of thanksgiving for the entire nation of Israel.

When we come to the end of Hallel, we strangely repeat every verse (Sukkah 38b), starting with verse 21: odekhah ki anitani, va’t’hi li li’yshua  (“When we were still in exile, You answered us and were for salvation”). Rashi (the medieval commentator on the Talmud) explains that in the first part of Psalm 118, every thought is repeated twice until we reach odekhah ki anitani (“When we were still in exile, You answered us”).For this reason many communities started repeating these last verses. This way, every thought in all of Psalm 118 has been recited a second time.

There is a principle in Judaism that we must always quote a verse in its entirety. The only exception is made for teachers, since their students cannot understand a large block of text at one time.

When we come to the end of Hallel, we ask God to save us and let us be successful. Those two requests derive from one verse (Psalms 118:25). We should properly repeat the entire verse before saying it a second time, but we do not. The reason is that according to the Talmud (Pesachim 119a), the verses we double were part of a dialogue between the prophet Samuel, Yishai–the father of David–and David and his brothers. Each one of those present when David was told he would be king of Israel participated in the dialogue. According to this, ana Hashem hoshi’ah na (-‘Please, Hashem, save us”) was said by the brothers. Ana Hashem hatzlichah na (“Please, Hashem, make us successful”) was said by David himself. True, those two requests were from one verse; however, they were uttered by different people and expressed different ideas. In this special case, we may stop in the middle of a verse.

We conclude Hallel with a blessing that is not obligatory. According to the Gemara (Sukkah 39b) it depends on the custom of each community. Today, all communities say this blessing.

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.

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