Hallel

Talmudic discussion of the liturgical use of Psalms 113-118 focuses on how the Psalms incorporate gratitude for God's past acts of salvation and confidence in God's future redemption of Israel.

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The Structure of Hallel

We begin Hallel by reciting Psalm 113, a psalm of introductory praises. In Psalm 114, King David shows how God's providence freed the Jews from Egyptian bondage and made their survival possible. In Psalm 115, we appeal for God's assistance. In Psalm 116, we plead with God for survival. In Psalm 117, the shortest of all the Psalms, we invite the nations of the world to join our songs of thanksgiving for our redemption.
 
Finally, Psalm 118 can be interpreted in two different ways. David perhaps personally thanks God for his survival, or perhaps David represents the Jewish people and therefore the Psalm is a song of thanksgiving for the entire nation of Israel.
 
When we come to the end of Hallel, we strangely repeat every verse (Sukkah 38b), starting with verse 21: odekhah ki anitani, va't'hi li li'yshua  ("When we were still in exile, You answered us and were for salvation"). Rashi (the medieval commentator on the Talmud) explains that in the first part of Psalm 118, every thought is repeated twice until we reach odekhah ki anitani ("When we were still in exile, You answered us").For this reason many communities started repeating these last verses. This way, every thought in all of Psalm 118 has been recited a second time.
 
There is a principle in Judaism that we must always quote a verse in its entirety. The only exception is made for teachers, since their students cannot understand a large block of text at one time.
 
When we come to the end of Hallel, we ask God to save us and let us be successful. Those two requests derive from one verse (Psalms 118:25). We should properly repeat the entire verse before saying it a second time, but we do not. The reason is that according to the Talmud (Pesachim 119a), the verses we double were part of a dialogue between the prophet Samuel, Yishai--the father of David--and David and his brothers. Each one of those present when David was told he would be king of Israel participated in the dialogue. According to this, ana Hashem hoshi'ah na (-'Please, Hashem, save us") was said by the brothers. Ana Hashem hatzlichah na ("Please, Hashem, make us successful") was said by David himself. True, those two requests were from one verse; however, they were uttered by different people and expressed different ideas. In this special case, we may stop in the middle of a verse.
 
We conclude Hallel with a blessing that is not obligatory. According to the Gemara (Sukkah 39b) it depends on the custom of each community. Today, all communities say this blessing.

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Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth

Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth (1916-2008) taught for many decades at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass. He was the last rabbi of the German town of Kitzingen.