The Music of Halacha: The Forms of Hallel
The Talmud discusses the proper form for singing Hallel: Rabbi Akiva taught that when Moshe and Israel stepped out on the other side of the split sea, and they wanted to sing the praises of God, Moshe would say a verse and the people would respond, “I shall sing to God!” Moshe said, “For He is exalted above the arrogant,” and the people responded, “I shall sing to God!” Moshe said, “The might and vengeance of God was salvation for me,” and the people responded, “I shall sing to God!” They sang the Song of the Sea as a great person leading the Hallel. Rabbi Akiva compares the Song of the Sea to Hallel. He holds that Hallel is sung by a great person phrase by phrase, to which each phrase the congregation simply responds, “Hallelukah!”
If you sing Hallel according to Rabbi Akiva, you will respond “Hallelukah” 123 times corresponding to the lifetime of Aaron HaKohen who lived 123 years. Aaron represents the attribute of Hod – the discovery and nurturance of the inner glory of God’s creations. Aaron used this attribute to bring peace between people. He would attach each person to his and the other’s inner glory. He used this same attribute when making an offering: He did not simply slaughter an animal. He perceived and treated the animal as a reflection of God’s glory on the earth. The 123 times that we would recite “Hallelukah” remind us of Aaron and his attribute of Hod. It was a way for us to remember to look at the world through the prism of Hod, always searching for the innate beauty in others and all creations.
Rabbi Eliezer taught that the people repeated everything that Moshe said. Moshe said, “For He is exalted above the arrogant,” and the people repeated, “For He is exalted above the arrogant.” Moshe said, “The might and vengeance of God was salvation for me,” and the people repeated, “The might and vengeance of God was salvation for me.” Rabbi Eliezer holds that Hallel should be sung phrase by phrase, led by anyone. It is not necessary to have a great person leading the Hallel. He too compares the Song of the Sea to Hallel.
The Maharal explains the debate between Rabbis Akiva and Eliezer: Song must always reflect the level at which the person singing is at that moment. Song to God must be an expression of a person’s spiritual status at the time he is singing. In order to be a true song it must come from me. In order for it to come from me it must be an accurate expression of where I am, what I have achieved, how I have grown, to what am I striving, and the insights I have incorporated at this moment of song.
The Maharal explains “Shira” – Song – as connecting to the source of your being. It must come as an expression of my existence in order for it to be a connection to the source of my existence. I cannot connect to my source If I am not aware of who I am.
Moshe could not possibly sing the same song as everyone else. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva says that when Moshe sang Hallel, the great person was leading, but because the people could not connect to the same level as Moshe, all they could sing was, “I shall sing to God” in response to each phrase Moshe sang. They were in the presence of someone who was fully aware of exactly where he was in his relationship with God. It was Moshe’s song celebrating his mental, spiritual and physical gifts. Moshe’s song was an expression of what he had understood, what was unique about him, and how he was able to connect with God. Moshe’s song was a reflection of his relationship with his source. Israel could not repeat his words.
Rabbi Eliezer agrees that Moshe had a unique perspective, but Moshe would not lead his people in such a manner. Moshe’s objective was to lift everyone and raise them to their highest level. Therefore, they sang each phrase along with Moshe.
Halachically, both Talmuds rule, as does Maimonides , that the best way to sing Hallel is according to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva: The greatest person present leads with his song, and the people respond to each phrase with: “Hallelukah!” We, however, sing the Hallel according to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. His opinion is so powerful that it has changed the way we sing Hallel! Moshe’s objective was to sing in a way that he could share with everyone in order to raise them to greater heights. The way we sing Hallel follows Rabbi Eliezer that every single one of us is capable of singing Hallel, and it means something different for each one of us.
• Application: According to the Maharal the best way to prepare for Hallel is to review the text before singing and choose a verse that most accurately reflects your feelings at that moment.
• Application: Hallel is my opportunity to connect to God as the Source of my existence. It is a celebration of what I have done with the gifts God has given me.