TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
Mar 21, 2018
Pesach is very much a time of Jewish customs. In fact there are so many, that we rarely have the time to focus on any one in particular. Let’s try to redress that balance and address the Minhag (custom) to recite Hallel (the chapters taken from King David’s book of Tehillim) on Seder night.
The reciting of Hallel at night, is unique to Pesach. Equally unique is the splitting up of Hallel into two very separate parts. Because the first two paragraphs are in the main section of the Haggadah - over the second cup of wine - and before we eat our meal. Whereas the main part of Hallel is said only after we have drunk the third cup. To paraphrase a very famous question: Why is this night different to all other nights… when it comes to saying Hallel?
The 13th century halachic commentary known as the Tur, whilst not answering this question, does mention another custom regarding Hallel, which many communities continue to this day, which is the saying of Hallel additionally, in shul after the Ma’ariv prayers (but this time we complete it in one go as per usual). So instead of no Hallel at night as per usual – on Pesach night we have two recitals!
"Curiouser and curiouser", to quote Alice.
The answer goes to the heart of the festival of Pesach – the festival of Nationhood. Pesach was somewhat of a start-up company. It launched the Jewish People into existence. And during the Seder, we take the time to remember, reflect and retell this history. This is where the first two chapters of Hallel come into their own. They discuss the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea and the events that allowed us to emerge from slavery. We formulate our thanks to G-d for taking us out of Egypt and making us into a People - indeed the word Hallel means praise.
But all good start-up companies need to continue to grow, over time.
So the rest of Hallel sets out to do just that. And in the remaining four chapters we don’t actually mention Egypt at all. Rather we deal with other experiences we have gone through, including personal times of deliverance and assistance from G-d (which is why much of the remainder of Hallel is in the singular). Two parts of Hallel, fulfilling two very different goals.
But hang on a second… how does that answer the custom of reciting it at night in the synagogue? Opinions are split on this. Some say the historic reason is to remember the other Hallel, that was recited in the Temple - during the afternoon before Pesach - whilst the priests were preparing the Korban Pesach (Paschal Lamb). Others point to a time in Jewish history when the Jews were unlearned and unable to read Hebrew. Consequently, in the middle of their Seder, they would go off to shul to have the Chazzan read Hallel aloud, which they would then repeat verse by verse.
But since Pesach is all about questions (and answers), I will leave you with a question. There is one other unique feature to Hallel during the Haggadah of Seder night. Namely that we don’t we make a blessing before reciting Hallel… why not?