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11 Nissan 5765 - April 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
A Song from Within: Understanding the Uniqueness of Hallel on Seder Night

by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis

A Time of Intimacy

Our daily prayers are often disturbed by the distractions and interruptions of our everyday lives. Frequently, when we stand up to converse with our Creator, we find our hearts distanced from the words that our lips utter mechanically. As we take three steps backwards to leave His Presence, we hope that perhaps next time we will achieve that closeness that we truly seek.

A little preparation beforehand always goes a long way to make sure that our prayers are sincere. But there is one night every year when we spend the entire evening preparing, so that when we finally arrive at the moment of prayer, we are ready to praise Hashem with the full force of heart, soul, and body.

After reliving the slavery in Egypt, the miracles and the redemption through the songs, stories and discussions of the Seder, we are now ready for another mitzvah — singing Hallel. All the usual inhibitions should have vanished, and we should find ourselves in the perfect frame of mind to open up our hearts to Hashem.

With or Without a Blessing?

The uniqueness of this Hallel finds expression in halochoh. Even though we normally say a blessing before Hallel, on Pesach night many Rishonim say that we sing it without a blessing. The Hallel of the Seder is supposed to be a spontaneous outburst from our souls, and a pre-planned brochoh is just out of place (Rav Hai Gaon as cited in the Ran, Pesochim 118a).

Other Rishonim argue that Hallel on Pesach night is just like any Hallel said at other times of the year, and a brochoh should definitely be recited beforehand. They explain that the exuberance of this mitzvah is actually a good reason why a blessing should be said. In the words of the Ramban, "We certainly must recite a blessing for there is no greater obligation relating to Hallel than the one to recite a brochoh on Seder night at the commemoration of our redemption from Egypt" (Ramban, Pesochim, ibid.).

In practice, we follow the first opinion and no blessing is said (Mishnah Berurah 480,1). A number of communities have the custom to sing Hallel in shul on Seder night in order to fulfill the words of King David, "We will exalt His Name together" (Tehillim 34,4). Some of them recite the blessing on this Hallel, releasing them from any obligation to recite one later on during the Seder.

Part Two

One of the reasons given for why a brochoh should not be said before the Hallel of the Seder night is that the recitation of this particular Hallel is interrupted. Before the meal we sing the first two chapters, and after its conclusion we sing the rest. Why is this prayer of praise split into two, a practice which is generally forbidden?

Shiroh to Hashem can only be said where there is wine. Over the first of the four cups of wine we sing Kiddush, and on the last two we sing Bircas Hamozone and Hallel. One of the Rishonim explains that the beginning of Hallel is sung before the meal so that the second cup will also be drunk amidst singing (Mordechai, end of Pesochim).

When thanking Hashem for the kindnesses He does for us, we try to be as specific as possible. The opening section of Hallel deals with the Jewish people's exodus from Egypt, while the last sections deal with the future redemption. In order to thank Hashem for the past redemption and praise Him separately for the future one, Hallel is broken up into two parts (Levush 486).

Have a Seat

"The servants of Hashem praise Him, those who stand in the house of Hashem," (Tehillim 135:1-2). When Hallel is sung in synagogue throughout the year, it immediately follows the Shemoneh Esrei, which is said while standing. We remain on our feet for Hallel as an expression of the awe that we feel in His home, the synagogue.

Hallel bears witness to all the miracles that Hashem performed for us. Since testimony is not given sitting down, we recite Hallel while standing. However, if one did say Hallel sitting down he has still fulfilled his obligation (Mishnah Berurah 422,28).

On Seder night, we once again deviate from the norm. Since this Hallel is interrupted by the meal (during which one remains seated), we sit for Hallel as well. This change of practice is a further sign of the newly acquired sense of freedom (Beis Yosef 422).

Looking for Three

It is always preferable to say Bircas Hamozone with at least three men, in order to recite the zimun. On Seder night, there is an additional mitzvah to have three men present (Shulchan Oruch 479,1). What is the reason for this?

When the shaliach tzibbur repeats Shemoneh Esrei before a congregation there is one brochoh which he cannot say on behalf of others — Modim (the blessing that thanks Hashem). Thanking Hashem must be done sincerely, on an individual level. That is why our Sages ruled that when the prayer leader repeats Shemoneh Esrei, each individual must say for themselves the Modim Derabbonon, an expression of thanks to Hashem (Abudraham).

Hallel is the ultimate expression of gratitude to Hashem. When at least three men recite it together, there is a special mitzvah for the leader to say the four verses which start with "Hodu." All the participants in the Seder then recite the appropriate responses. In each response, the next Hodu verse is added (Mishnah Berurah 479,9). This gives everyone the opportunity to express their own personal thanks.

If there are less than three men present at the Seder, one can technically fulfill this halochoh by visiting a neighbor, even if one was not present at their meal. However, since Hallel is recited immediately after Bircas Hamozone, this would necessitate eating the Afikoman (the final piece of matzo) in someone else's home. Due to the various halachic difficulties that this would entail, it is preferable to stay home for the recitation of Hallel.

The Zohar recommends inviting needy guests to the Pesach table. This will guarantee that one has three men with whom to recite Hodu responsively, and at the same time it actualizes the declaration from the Haggodoh, "Let all who are hungry come and eat." All opinions agree that it is not an obligation to have three men, and if they are not present Hallel may still be recited.

The two verses starting with "Onoh Hashem" are also said responsively and the host of the Seder may allow another man present to lead their recitation (Mishna Berurah 479: 8-12).

Women and Hallel

The halochoh mentions another striking difference between the Hallel said during the rest of the year and that of Seder night. Women are generally not obligated to recite Hallel on Yom Tov, as it is a time-bound mitzvah. Pesach night is an exception to this rule, and women must say Hallel.

Why are women obliged to fulfill this and other time-bound mitzvos on Seder night?

Our Sages tell us that in the merit of the righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt. Hallel on Seder night is a jubilant expression of the deep gratitude we feel for the unprecedented miracles of the Exodus. Since women played such an important role and were included in the deliverance from Egypt, they too say Hallel on Pesach night as we relive the experience (Tosafos, Succa 38a).

Our Sages write that one of the reasons for drinking four cups of wine at the Seder is in order to recite the Haggodoh and Hallel over them. Since women are obligated in Haggodoh and Hallel, they must also drink the four cups of wine (Pesochim 108a).

Time Limits

One of the most challenging aspects of Seder night is fulfilling all the pertinent mitzvos before chatzos (halachic midnight), by which time the Afikoman must be eaten. To make matters even more tricky, the Rema recommends that Hallel be completed before then as well (477,1). What is behind these time limits?

The Talmud cites a dispute regarding whether the final time for eating the korbon Pesach is at midnight or dawn. Since the Afikoman represents the korbon Pesach, the same time framework applies. Most authorities agree with the stringent opinion that the Afikoman must be eaten by midnight.

Since Hallel was also sung while eating the korbon Pesach, some Rishonim require us to finish reciting it before midnight, as was done in those times (Ran, Megilloh 21a). The Rema and other Ashkenazi authorities agree with this ruling. Others note that Hallel is a rabbinic mitzvah and can therefore be said any time throughout the night, while the Afikoman is a Torah mitzvah which must be fulfilled more stringently. This is in line with Kabbalistic writings which say that Hallel should preferably be said after midnight (Zohar, Behaalosecha 149a).

Even those who rule that we should finish Hallel before midnight, say that it is preferable but not an absolute obligation. Therefore, if a person is able to finish Hallel before chatzos without causing stress in his household or rushing his Seder, he should try to do so. If not, he may rely on the lenient opinions that rule that it may be said throughout the night (Mishna Berurah 477, 7).

The Fifth Cup

The exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt was our first redemption from an exile among another nation. Since then the exile redemption/cycle has repeated itself many, many times. Each time, we hope that this will be the last time that we will be subjugated by other nations, and that the final redemption is at hand.

In order that this feeling should remain strong in our hearts, many have taken on the custom to fill up an additional fifth cup of wine in honor of the Prophet Eliyahu, who will announce the arrival of the Moshiach. This last cup is a powerful reminder that just as Hashem took us out from Egypt, He will save us from our current tribulations, and send Eliyahu to herald the final redemption (Mishna Berurah 479,10).

The poskim say that the cup of Eliyahu should be larger and more elegant than the other cups used during the Seder (Siddur Yavetz). This sets the gesture apart from the many mitzvos we perform that night, and ensures that it will make a lasting impression on our hearts.

Having spent a memorable evening commemorating the great exodus from Egypt we are moved to look forward to the future, ultimate Redemption. May it come speedily in our days.

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