As Maimonides teaches, human perfection takes on many forms, including perfection of the body and perfection of wealth. But the greatest perfection, which is also the objective of mitzvahs, is intellectual perfection. This perfection must culminate in our action, and not simply remain cerebral. Only when we act upon our knowledge, are we truly convinced in our beliefs, and then, truly perfected. One who cannot give charity for example, but “accepts” that virtue as a good, is still lacking in his conviction. He must possess an emotion that opposes his giving, or he has yet to fully grasp all positive elements of charity. God designed man in a manner wherein complete conviction necessitates action. It is impossible that someone fully convinced in any belief, will not express that belief in action, unless he possesses an emotional block, or is uncertain of the value of his beliefs. But when a value of something is clear, and a person has no opposing emotions, he will act on that value.
Since the greatest perfection is intellectual perfection, that which brings us closer to understanding God and His will, our performance of mitzvahs is sorely lacking if we do not know why we perform a given command.
This past week we have been reciting Hallel each morning. Do we know why we recite it? Do we understand its distinction over other praises or blessings? For now, I would like to address Hallel’s primary elements, since there is much text to the Hallel, and much discussed in the Talmud, and the discussion could become lengthy. As always, our questions are the paths to answers, so let’s commence with some basic ones:
1) What does “Hallel” mean? It means “praise”. But that title seems highly generic: are we not praising, based on some ‘specific’ reason? 2) What Torah source obligates our recital? Meaning, is there any “textural basis” from which Hallel is derived? We learn that the blessings surrounding the Shima are derived from a verse in Psalms, and the Shima itself is derived from Torah verses. This applies to all commands: each is derived from some verse in the Written Law. Surprisingly, the Prophets who instituted Hallel offer no verse! 3) What are the main ideas within the text of Hallel? 4) Maimonides’ formulation catches our attention. Typically, for each law or holiday, Maimonides wrote a separate “section” of laws, titling them by name. For example, he formulated the “Laws of Passover”, the “Laws of Stealing”, the “Laws of Idolatry”, and so on. But when it came to Hallel, he did not formulate an independent section titled “Laws of Hallel”. But instead, he subsumed it under the “Laws of Channukah”. Why is Hallel not its own, independent section, and why is it subsumed under Channukah, and not some other section? 5) Furthermore, when Maimonides introduces his Laws of Channukah, he discusses the history of Channukah, stating that the Rabbis instituted it as “a day of gladness and praise and that we light lights”. Now, instead of continuing with his formulation of “how” and “who” lights, he interrupts his discussion midstream, making a lengthy “detour” to all the laws of Hallel…in the very same chapter! How do we understand this interruption, as well as his formulation as, “a day of gladness and praise and that we light lights”? 6) Why does Hallel commence, conclude, and reiterate many times (“Ki L’Olam Chasdo”) the idea that God’s praises and kindness are “eternal”?
I would like to suggest an answer to the first question: why is the title of the Hallel simply that, “Hallel”, or “praise”? We must first define what praise is. Praise is the human response to that which man deems important. Most important, is God: the Cause of all existences and benevolence towards man. Naming this praise as simply “praise”, we underscore the epitome of praise: the Source of all goodness, be it the good He caused by creating us and His goodness in providing for all our needs; or be it our daily needs, or salvation from mishap. Thus, when we refer to this praise as simply “Hallel”, we say in other words that God is deserving of praise, over all else. He epitomizes our reason for praise. Therefore, “praise” or “Hallel” is synonymous with the true Recipient of praise. Similarly, we need not qualify the term “judge”, by adding that it refers to “one who seeks truth”. For that is the very definition of judge. So too, “praise” needs no qualification, if we understand that all praise – by definition – must be directed to He who is most fitting to receive praise. Since God created everything, any praise we direct to anything but God, is a denial of the fact that God created all else. If we praise man, we elevate man above God, and in fact, we distort the very idea of what praise is. Therefore, “Hallel” by definition refers to praise of God. Nothing more need be added.
The Talmud states that Hallel contains five fundamentals: the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, Resurrection, and Messiah. These fundamentals form the historical and future events wherein God transformed our affairs from negative to positive (Exodus, Red Sea), and where He bestowed upon us His goodness (Torah, Resurrection and Messiah). These two categories form all the good God performs for man. We recite Hallel on days, which commemorate His providence in these two categories. Therefore, we did not originally recite Hallel on the New Month, for the new moon is a natural event, and not Divine providence.
Hallel may therefore be defined as a “response” to God’s intervention. Talmud Pesachim 117a cites the very first case of Hallel: the Az Yashir sung by Moses and the Jews upon their deliverance from the Egyptians on their exit from the Red Sea. This brings us to our second question, “What Torah source obligates our recital?”
The Talmud’s omission of a verse from which we derive Hallel, is a lesson in itself. This teaches that no verse is necessary. Or rather, praise of God in its perfect form, is not “compulsory”, but it is natural. When man receives a good from God, as we have throughout time, our nature is to be overjoyed, and to respond. The best embodiment of praise is when man functions based purely on his design, without any obligation. Therefore, I believe this explains why the Talmud cites “cases” of when the Jews praised God, instead of citing a “verse”. A verse implies “obligation”, which is the antithesis of what praise is, in its primary form. Therefore, the Talmud cites correct human behavior alone in response to God’s kind acts to teach the lesson of Hallel, and mentions no verse.
Similarly, as taught by a wise Rabbi, we include in the blessings over circumcision the words, “To enter into the covenant of Abraham our father”. This is problematic, since our obligation stems not from a pre-Torah figure as Abraham, but as the Rabbis teach, “Once the Torah was given, Jewish law was renewed”. Thus, our obligation of circumcision is not a carryover from Abraham, but truly, a totally new law. Therefore we wonder why we mention Abraham in our blessings today. The answer given by this Rabbi, if I recall correctly, is that we wish to enunciate the “most favorable form” of circumcision; that performed by Abraham, whose perfection was not due to a Torah, which was not yet given (Pesachim 118a). Abraham’s perfection was based purely on his natural function as an intelligent being, since he possessed no Torah. Another similar case is the dispute over whether the first of the Ten Commandments – “I am God” – is even a commandment at all! One Rabbi, I believe Rav Hai Gaon, opined that this cannot be a command, for knowledge of God is “obvious”. His intent is that a command to “Know God” would undermine the very “obvious” nature that God must exist, since the world cannot create itself.
In a few cases, the absence of any derivative verse or command is the very lesson. In connection with knowing God, a “command” undermines the very nature of God – that He is obvious. Any command to “Know Him” belittles how obvious He is. Therefore, a command is absent. Regarding circumcision, we retain a reference to Abraham. Since he embodied perfection par excellence, and this is the very goal of circumcision, we make reference to him. And in connection with Hallel, again we find no verse, since a verse, which equates with compulsion negates the primary idea of praising God: a “natural” response.
This idea explains why Maimonides does not have a separate section on Hallel, but subsumes it under another area. He means to teach that Hallel is not an “independent” phenomenon but a “response” to something else. The nature of Hallel is a “reaction”, and placing it within his Laws of Channukah, Maimonides embodies Hallel’s “dependent” nature: it is “attached” to, or “depends” on something else. It is a response.
Perhaps Maimonides includes Hallel in Channukah, and not elsewhere, due to the unusual definition of Channukah. As Maimonides stated so articulately, the Rabbis of that generation instituted Channukah as “a day of gladness and praise and that we light lights”. A “day” of gladness and praise. Meaning, the very entity of “day” was given a status as a “day of praise”, a day of Hallel. Channukah, over all other days, possesses a unique definition where it is a “day of praise”. Sabbath is a “day of sanctifying God’s name” and rest. Other holidays are days of “awe”, “pleasure”, and so on. But Channukah alone is designated as a “day of praise”. Therefore it is most fitting that Maimonides places the ‘dependent’ Hallel, in the Laws of Channukah. Hallel is thereby displayed as a “dependent” phenomenon.
This also explains why Maimonides interrupts his introduction to the laws concerning the Channukah lights, with his laws of Hallel. It is because of his formulation: “a day of gladness and praise and that we light lights”. Lights come last, since Hallel is primary. Hallel is what defines the day of Channukah, not the candles. His formulation bears out this idea. And this makes sense. For “lights”, is performed by us on behalf of the observer. But since the Talmud teaches we are to be more concerned with our own perfection over others, (Moade Katan 9a) our Hallel is more primary. Additionally, Hallel permeates the entire “day” of Channukah, whereas lights are a discrete, momentary activity. The lights do not define Channukah, as much as Hallel. Maimonides is correct to break off his discussion of the lights, with a full account of the laws of Hallel.
As a Rabbi taught, when Moses sand the Jews exited the Red Sea, seeing the dead Egyptians’ on the shore, they experienced such a level of profundity of God’s revelation, that they all burst forth with a song of praise. “What a maidservant saw at the Red Sea, Ezekiel ben Buzi did not see all his days”. Man’s apprehension of God’s revelation reached an extreme zenith at that moment. That Rabbi added, “The verse in Az Yashir which emphasizes the objective of the Sea’s splitting was ‘This is my God and I will adorn Him’.” The Rabbi explained that God imbued in those Jews a deep realization and appreciation for God. Simple maidservants experience a far greater revelation of God than great prophets. Perhaps this event surpasses all others, as the miracle of the sea splitting combined with the death of our enemies overwhelmed us with both an intelligent comprehension of God’s might, and our complete salvation and release from the Egyptians through God’s justice. This pre-Torah, natural human response is the primary example of what praise is, and is therefore not structured as a Torah command, but as an event.
Finally, if that which we praise is temporary, its value is severely mitigated. But God is eternal, and this is what defines His greatness. He preceded all and controls all. Only that which is the First, is responsible for everything else. Additionally, God’s perfection is not subject to change, so His goodness is eternal. Therefore, we commence and conclude, and intersperse this eternal nature of God’s goodness in Hallel. The Kedusha also concludes with this idea, “God will reign forever, the God of Zion for all generations, Halleluyah”. God’s eternal nature is a primary concept, and deserving of our reiteration numerous times daily.
Hallel may then be defined as the proper human-nature response to He who eternally bestows good on man. As we light the Candles this final night of Channukah, and as we recite the Hallel on Shabbos, try to sense the true appreciation we must have for God’s providence over our nation; review in your minds and hearts all our fortunate, great events, and all the good God has bestowed, and will bestow upon us. Happy Channukah!