Hallel In History
Who originally sang the Hallel? Rabbi Eliezer says that Moshe and the Children of Israel sang it as they stood before the sea before it split. They sang Hallel when they were in danger. The Egyptians were behind them and the sea blocked their way. They said, “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.” God responded, “For My sake, for My sake I will save you.” They are singing Hallel when they are desperate, before they know if and how they will be saved. The key was that they had sufficient clarity to know that they did not merit salvation, and that God would save them to continue their redemption and salvation. He would perform the miracle for his Name’s sake.
Why did they sing Hallel before they were saved? If Hallel means songs of praise, why would they sing before there was a miracle to praise? It is also interesting to note that the key phrase of Hallel seems to be, “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.” This is a phrase that we do not even include on many of the Hallels of the year: We skip this, the third paragraph, on the final days of Passover and on Rosh Chodesh – the New Month.
Rabbi Yehuda says that Joshua and Israel sang the Hallel when 31 Canaanite kings joined forces against Israel. This was going to be a massive battle, far more elaborate than conquering one city at a time. They were terrified. What did they say? They said, “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.” God responded, “For My sake, for My sake I will save you.” Joshua’s situation was different from that of the Jews caught between the advancing army of their former masters and the impassable sea. The people at the sea knew that God had redeemed them and promised them a future, but they were confused and stuck. They had traveled away from Egypt and then turned back. They had no idea what to expect. Joshua, on the other hand, was on a mission to conquer Canaan. God had promised great victories and success in taking over the land. They did not expect such a major battle, but they understood that if they were victorious they would have defeated a significant part of Canaan in one battle. Despite God’s promises, they still understood that they could not rely on their own merit and that the victory would be for the sake of God’s Name.
The first Hallel was a desperate cry of faith. Joshua’s Hallel was not quite as desperate. However, it demanded a deep awareness that their mission to conquer Canaan was God’s mission, that the land was His and not theirs. They had to openly declare that their right to the land was a gift from God.
Rabbi Elazar HaModai says that Deborah and Barak sang the Hallel as they prepared for battle against Sisera, his 900 iron chariots and his massive armies. They had an insignificant army. They were no match for the superpower of the region. They sang: “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.” God responded, “For My sake, for My sake I will save you.” Deborah was not frightened. She had the vision, clarity and courage to understand that the promises of the Torah were real and that if Israel would act with that same conviction they would be victorious. Barak would not go into battle without Deborah. He understood that her passion had ignited all of Israel. He wanted her there to preserve the courage of the people. They understood that they had distanced themselves from God and that they were undeserving of a great miracle of salvation. Their key to victory was their declaration that they were not relying on their merit, but on the honor of God’s Name. That belief is what empowered their great victory.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says that it was King Hezekiah and his entourage sang the Hallel when they were under threat from Sancherib and the armies of Assyria. Sancherib had successfully conquered the entire area. Only Jerusalem was left and he massed his armies for the battle to capture the last city to stand in his way. The king and his people said: “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.” God responded, “For My sake, for My sake I will save you.”
King Hezekiah and his people were in a situation that lent itself to the clarity that the victory was for the sake of God’s Name. The attack was on Jerusalem. The Temple of God was vulnerable. They all believed that God would not allow anything to happen to His holy city and Temple. Their Hallel was a declaration of their faith in the special sanctity of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Rabbi Akiva says that Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, otherwise known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego sang the Hallel when Nebuchadnezzar had them throne into a furnace of fire. The Babylonian king had all the young princes of Judah raised in Babylonian ways inside his palace walls. He assumed that if he could successfully assimilate these future leaders that he could kill off any remaining spirit of the Jewish people. However, these three young men stood strong. When the king erected an enormous idol and insisted that all bow down to it or be burned to death, these three young heroes refused to bend to Nebuchadnezzar’s will. They first assumed that God would save them for their willingness to risk their lives. They risked their lives because they believed that God would save them: “Behold, our God Whom we worship is able to save us; He will rescue from the fiery burning furnace and from your hand, O king.” (Daniel 3:17) They realized that they had created a situation in which God’s Name would only be sanctified if He saved them, so they corrected themselves: “But if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not worship your god, and to the golden statue that you have set up we shall not prostrate ourselves.” (3:18) It was at that point that they said: “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.” God responded, “For My sake, for My sake I will save you.” They had to not only agree to die rather than to bow before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, they had to risk a fiery death without relying on the merit of their great sacrifice.
Rabbi Joseph the Galilean says that Mordechai and Esther sang the Hallel when they faced the threat of Haman. They said, “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.” God responded, “For My sake, for My sake I will save you.”
Their Hallel was also unique, as they were not waiting for the miracle, but accepted the responsibility to act, and even though they were acting they still had the clarity to declare that any miracle would not be in their merit.
The Sages say that the prophets of the people decreed that Israel should say the Hallel at each special time and for each threatening trouble as a way to be saved, and then again as praise when they are saved.
Hallel is not only a song of praise but a powerful prayer to be saved from suffering. The operative sentence is “Don’t do it for us; not for us, but for Your Name.”
1. Moshe and the Children of Israel sang the Hallel as a desperate prayer of faith that God would complete their redemption.
2. Joshua sang the Hallel as a declaration that Israel was a gift from God.
3. Deborah and Barak sang the Hallel as an assertion that God will help those who act on God’s word.
4. King Hezekiah and his court sang the Hallel as a statement of their conviction that God would protect His holy city and temple.
5. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah sang the Hallel as an assertion that even when we must risk our lives for God’s Name, we couldn’t assume that our meritorious act will deem us worthy of a miracle.
6. Mordechai and Esther sand the Hallel as a pronouncement that even though they would act and do all they could to save the Jews from Haman, that God would save them only for the sake of His Name.
1. We can chant Hallel even when we are convinced that we have no merit of our own as long as we have the clarity that we are associated with God’s Name. God will save us in the merit of praying for the glory of His Name.
2. We sing Hallel with the awareness that the Land of Israel is, and must be treated as a gift from God. We rejoice in God’s gift and His Presence in the land.
3. We intone Hallel with the conviction that when we respond to the words of the Torah we activate the merit of God’s Name.
4. We recite Hallel with the belief that God will protect what is precious to Him.
5. We understand that even when we risk all for God, we have not necessarily earned the merit to be saved. We are willing to risk everything for the sake of God’s Name, not for success, and He will respond.
6. We cannot assume that our willingness to act merits success. We act because that is what God desires. He will save us for the sake of His Name.
II. Unique Hallels
Are all the opinions above arguing?
The Rashbam says that they are all arguing. However, Rashi holds that each opinion believes that future generations added on to the Hallel of earlier generations: Joshua sang the Hallel of Moshe and added to it, and then Deborah added to that Hallel, Hezekiah to hers, Hananiah and friends added to Hezekiah’s, and Mordechai and Esther added to Hezikiah’s.
The fact that different people with different experiences add to the Hallel of others tells us that although we use Hallel as the universal song of praise of Israel, there is an aspect of Hallel that is not universal, but unique and personalized.
There must be a way that we can personalize our Hallel.