Studying Hallel – Part 1

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

One of the problems expressed by many concerning prayer involves the repetitive nature of the activity. After all, we are saying the “same things” over and over again. Examination of such a complaint usually reveals a lack of understanding of the specific prayers being recited. One such example exists with Hallel, a tefilah composed exclusively of Tehillim, Psalms. An argument could be made that the recitation of Tehillim further justifies the initial complaint, as the words and themes of Dovid Hamelech’s writings are difficult to penetrate. Rather than shy away from such inquiry, we should open our minds to the deep concepts that are contained within Tehillim. In the next few articles, we will attempt to analyze the various chapters contained within Hallel. In general, we will rely on the guidance provided by the various commentators, with the Radak[1] as the predominant source.  

The first chapter of Hallel is really two parts. The first set of verses is as follows (Tehillim 113-1-3):

“(1) Hallelujah. Praise, O ye servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord. (2) Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forever. (3) From the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof the LORD'S name is to be praised.”

The Radak offers some interesting comments on the above verses. He first notes the use of “Hallel”, or “praise”, three times in the first verse, mentioning how we are obligated to give many praises. He also explains that the “servants” here are referring to the talmidei chachamim, as they are the ones who see the beauty of praising God. Why these people? Since they, due to their wisdom and insights, know how to praise God above all.

On the next verse, he writes that God being “blessed” is something every created being must engage in. He also comments that the praises offered to God span all of time (as mentioned at the end of verse 2).

The primary question one should ask here is why, according to one type of praise, the talmidei chachamim are best suited, while according to the other, it is seemingly open and accessible to everyone. We also must understand further the idea of the praises offered to God spanning all of time.

The very notion of praise to God, while earnestly pursued by man, is in fact fraught with danger. God is qualitatively differentiated from man in a way that, by our very nature, we cannot ever understand. To apply what we consider “praises” to God implies we somehow have some type of understanding of Him. Yet, as man, we are obligated to recognize the greatness of God and verbalize it, to demonstrate how we understand how great He is. As such, there are different types of praises we can offer God, quite often based on different scenarios. There is the praise that man must offer due to his existence as a created being. And there is a more “reactionary” praise, a shevach tied to a unique event. One such example, and quite possibly the paradigm of such a phenomenon, was the splitting of Yam Suf, the Reed Sea. After experiencing this miracle, the Jewish people desired to give praise to God; this is a natural reaction to being on the receiving end of such an event. One could argue such a reaction has the character of spontaneity, and in a sense it does. Yet we see that Moshe (as described by many commentators) composed the eventual praise, Shiras Yam Suf, the Song of the Sea (Az Yashir) and taught it to the Jewish people. What one can deduce from this is that while the Jew who experiences such a revelation must engage in praise, he needs the assistance of a talmid chacham to formulate the appropriate response. He needs the guidance to separate his overwhelming emotions from the appropriate words that need to be expressed. This is exactly what Moshe did with the Jewish people at Yam Suf. The above serves to help clarify the Radak’s explanation. The concept of God being “blessed” is a natural, intuitive human recognition of the Creator – thus every person is able to engage in such praise. When we turn to Hallel, we see a different subcategory, one wherein the formulation of the correct words is more of a challenge and therefore requires the guidance of the talmid chacham.

At this point, we are being “introduced” to the praise of Hallel, understanding that it is distinct. And while it demands a precision, we see the word mentioned three times in this first verse (as noted by the Radak). While we may succeed at formulating an appropriate response to the great acts performed by God, we still must realize there can be no finite amount of praise to give to God. All the great Hallelim written cannot in any way reflect the amount of praise God is worthy of. 

The second half of the second verse discusses the concept of praise afforded God in the context of time. The Radak notes that these praises span all time, from the beginning through the future. The point he is bringing out to us is that the ideas conveyed to us about God are not subject to changing circumstances or trends. The reality of Hallel is one that transcends time itself. The truth of each idea, as it pertains to God, remains eternally a truth. 

This leads us to the third verse. At first glance, this seems to be not merely superfluous, but irrelevant in light of the previous verse. After all, if the praises of God transcend time, certainly they will be apparent on a daily basis. The Radak points out that the verse refers to a totality of praise. The entire world, including non-Jews, will come to praise God, as even they recognize the phenomenon of a Creator. The idea here is the praise of God, as formulated through Hallel, contains universally understood ideas about God. 

This now leads us to the second part of this first chapter of Hallel:

“(4) The Lord is high above all nations, His glory is above the heavens. (5) Who is like unto the Lord our God, that is enthroned on high, (6) That looketh down low upon heaven and upon the earth? (7) Who raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the needy out of the dunghill; (8) That He may set him with princes, even with the princes of His people. (9)Who maketh the barren woman to dwell in her house as a joyful mother of children. Hallelujah.”

There is a clear transition taking place from establishing the basic outlines as to the nature of Hallel to offering clear rationales for such praise. In the first of these verses, the term “ram” – high above – is employed. The Radak offers two interpretations to this verse. In his first explanation, he writes that while the nations of the world may offer their praises to God, He exists beyond them. Furthermore, even though those occupying the world of the metaphysical, such as angels, may possess greater insights into God, their praises are insufficient. There is another way to read the verse, though. In this version, “ram” is qualifying both parts of the verse. In other words, God is above all, whether we’re talking about the natural world, or the metaphysical realm. What is the difference between these two interpretations?

As we begin to engage in the actual praise of God, this verse serves to reinforce the fundamental concept of our limitations within this pursuit. In the first part of the verse, we come to understand that there is a notion of relativity to our praises. We maximize our ability to offer praise, while the angels do the same. No doubt, the praise of the angels is of a greater quality then what we can offer, as they have greater insights into God. Regardless, the praise is always “incomplete”. It is critical that we understand the concept of relative praise. However, the second interpretation is expressing an objective truth – God is intrinsically above all potential praise. This reality must always be present when we enter into the category of shevach, praise.

The next sets of verses are more linked. A rhetorical question is asked – is there anything like God? This is then qualified will some examples. God “looks down from heaven to earth” is the first of these. The Radak adds that He is aware of the actions of even the most insignificant of creatures. The point that comes across here is that while it is true that we can never truly offer a complete praise of God, this does not mean He is “disconnected” from the universe. One could posit that God’s separation from the universe is complete, and that He has no involvement. This praise is recognizing that hashgachas Hashem – God's providence – is indeed a reality. 

We see a continuation of this theme. God is described as being able to take those on the bottom of the ladder and raise them to the top. Similarly, He is able to change the situation of the barren woman, bringing her children. The Radak adds to this that the “princes of His people” is referring to the Jewish people. What is this adding? This concept alludes to the overall idea of God as a moshia, savior. The concept of yeshua (salvation) refers to being able to take someone from one extreme situation to another. An example of this is a person going from the state of extreme poverty and then rising to the level to sit aside princes. This is where the point of the Radak is important. The objective of yeshua is tied to the person being part of the Jewish people. The relationship here is not some sort of cultural identification. It is the ability to engage in the system given to us by God, the gift bestowed upon the Jewish people. This is the greatest expression of yeshua, to take a person from a state where he is unable or limited due to his situation to one where he is able to pursue and follow the derech Hashem. What about the distinction between the change for the “poor” and the change in the “barren”. The Radak writes that the involvement of God in the situation of the barren woman is a more open change in the natural order. Therefore, we see two scenarios of God’s involvement in yeshua. One is through a more subtle change in the causal chain, while the other is a more open involvement in the natural order.

Taking a step back, we see now how this first chapter of Hallel is actually an introductory chapter. First, we understand how this type of praise is unique. We then see how God is deserving of such praise. These two concepts are obviously necessary prerequisites to the specific praises that will soon follow.

[1] Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) born in Narbonne, France