Hallel: The Song of the Seder

Sally Mayer
Senior Faculty, Midreshet Lindenbaum 

The prayer of Hallel evokes memories of the celebrations that dot the Jewish calendar throughout the year. On holidays such as Hanukkah, Succoth, Rosh Hodesh, and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, we gather in the synagogue to sing Hallel, a collection of songs of praise to God. Hallel begins with a special blessing; it is integrated into the day’s prayers, and is recited while standing.
One Hallel of the year stands out as strikingly different from all the others: the Hallel we sing during the the Seder, on the first night of Passover. Not only do we leave out the usual introductory blessing, we also sit through its recitation rather than standing, and we even interrupt the prayer with a meal! Why does the Hallel of the Seder seem so informal? Why is it stripped of the customary blessing, recited while sitting—and eating! Understanding the uniqueness of Hallel on the Seder night will help us unlock the significance of the Seder and of the holiday of Passover itself.
The Talmud (Arakhin 10a) asks why each of the days of the holiday of Succoth carries a formal religious obligation to recite Hallel, while the latter six days of Passover do not carry such a Hallel obligation (Hallel is recited on these days merely as a minhag, a custom). In response to this challenge, the Talmud articulates three characteristics of special holiness which each day of a festival must possess in order to mandate the recitation of Hallel as a formal obligation: 1) The festival must be one during which the Torah prohibits work; 2) The festival must be called a “mo’ed,” a “sanctified time,” by the Torah; and 3) The festival must carry a Torah-mandated special sacrifice, to be offered in the Temple. These three characteristics indicate that the day carries great sanctity, sufficient to trigger the human reponse of Hallel to the Divine indications that the day is special. Succoth, Shavuoth, and the first two days of Passover all meet this litmus test of holiness, and therefore require the recitation of Hallel to properly celebrate them.
But this understanding of Hallel does not account for one other occasion on which the Talmud asserts Hallel is mandated as a full religious obligation: Hanukkah. Although Hanukkah meets none of the three requirements above, it somehow merits a fully mandated Hallel for all eight days! The Talmud explains that Hallel is recited on Hanukkah because of the miracle that occurred on that holiday: Hanukkah does not need to meet the “sanctity test” described above because the Hallel of Hanukkah is not a response to the great sanctity of the day—it is instead the Jewish people’s expression of their thanks to God for the miracle of their salvation
Besides the two types of formally mandated Hallel we have mentioned—“sanctity Hallel” and “miracle Hallel”—the Talmud (Pesahim 117a) introduces yet a third type of Hallel: “spontaneous Hallel.” This Hallel, a mixture of praise and plea, was recited by Moses and Israel, trapped between the sea and the pursuing Egyptian cavalry; it was recited by Mordekhai and Esther, threatened with genocide by the evil Haman; it was recited every time in history that Jews faced trouble or danger and cried out for salvation—and it was recited once again when they were saved by God. “Spontaneous Hallel” differs from the two other types of Hallel not only in purpose, but also in duration: future generations do not commemorate these miracles with Hallel as we do on Hanukkah. They are one-time recitations of Hallel, urgent cries to God and heartfelt bursts of thanksgiving.
Thus far, we have outlined three types of Hallel: “Sanctity Hallel,” exemplified by the Hallel of Succoth, Shavuoth, and Passover; “miracle Hallel,” thanksgiving for a miracle, as in the case of Hanukkah; and “spontaneous Hallel,” prayer for salvation from imminent danger, followed by thanksgiving for salvation. Let us now return to the Hallel of the Seder night: which type of Hallel do we sing on this evening? In the Haggadah, Hallel immediately follows a powerful passage which informs our perspective on the Seder night:
In every generation, one must see himself as though he himself left Egypt, because God redeemed not only our ancestors, but us as well . . . and therefore, we must thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, and raise high the One who performed all of these miracles for us and our ancestors . . . .
The Haggadah reminds us that the events of the Exodus are not merely history, the substance of an old story: during the Seder, we must personally experience our own exodus from the slavery of Egypt. We begin by recounting the misery of our toil and labor, tasting the saltwater tears of our nation’s suffering. We suffer the harshness of bondage through the bitter herbs, we feel the quickening haste of the sudden redemption as we eat the matzah, the bread which had no time to rise before we fled Egypt. Each of us, personally, leaves Egypt—and in “spontaneous” response, we cannot help but sing the song that Jews have sung throughout the centuries at their moments of redemption: Hallel! We echo Moses and Israel on the banks of the Red Sea, and Mordekhai and Esther in Shushan. We sing it every year not to commemorate an old, dusty miracle, but to celebrate the redemptive miracle we create and experience personally during the Seder.
This personal, spontaneous cry of thanks needs none of the trappings of formality which accompany the “sanctity Hallel” and “miracle Hallel.” We do not introduce it with a blessing, which would bespeak the formal establishment of a mitzvah, a commandment, because we are spontaneously reacting to a miracle that has just occurred before us. We need not stand, we do not have time to go to the synagogue; elated by our good fortune, we cannot help but sing to thank God for the miracle He has just performed. Even the meal seems in consonance with this Hallel, as though it is the champagne brought out to celebrate the joy of victory.
The Hallel of the Seder thus reflects the character of the entire holiday of Passover. Passover celebrates the creation of the Jewish people, the forging of our relationship with God. And yet it is not merely the anniversary of our covenant with God, not merely a day on which we remember that He took us out from another nation and consecrated us as His own, but the reenactment of that marriage. Hallel celebrates that moment when we personally leave Egypt and start out on the road to accepting the Torah at Sinai and becoming God’s chosen people.
Each year, we have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to God and to reinvent ourselves as a people.
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