What is the Hallel?

Aug 25 2020

Do you ever wonder where church song writers get their material? If you’re a church-goer, you might have sung recently, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory” (Ps 115:1). Or another popular line, “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever” (Ps 118:1).

Jesus also sang (or chanted) these lines–at least four times a year, in fact. We call these Psalms, 113-118, the Hallel. The Mishnah (the 2nd century code of the Rabbis) gives their title and use.

At Passover, Israelites brought their lambs to the temple for butchering and sacrifice, and while the priests were preparing the meat … “[The Levites meanwhile] proclaimed the Hallel Psalms [113-118]” (m. Pesahim 5.7)

[In between courses] “The first Passover requires the recitation of the Hallel Psalms when it is eaten” (m. Pesahim 9.3).

According to the Mishnah, the devout also recited the Hallel at the Feast of Huts (Tabernacles) (m. Sukkah 3.9; 4.1) and possibly also on New Year’s day (m. Rosh Hashshanah 4.7) in the fall.**

L. Finkelstein makes the case from the Babylonian Talmud and Rabbinic practice that the Hallel was recited at the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) in the winter and at the Feast of Pentecost (Weeks) in the spring.++

Jesus and his disciples would have known the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) pretty well by repeating it at least these four times a year — year-after-year. I imagine that it was like some of the popular stadium-event tunes we hear repeatedly today.

** Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).
++ Louis Finkelstein, “The Origin of the Hallel,” Hebrew Union College Annual 23 (1951): 319–337.

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