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    The Hallel Passover Psalms

    Psalms 117 and 118 give thanks for a victory worth remembering – and hoping for – every day of every year.

    By Atar Hadari

    April 9, 2022
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    If any part of the book of Psalms may be considered more sacred than any another, it would probably be the six-psalm sequence from Psalm 113 to 118, which rabbinic literature refers to as “the Hallel” and which is said on all festivals and celebrations. In particular, the last of its three sections, Psalm 117 and 118, lays out sacrificial offerings in song form. From their use in Passover rites and other Jewish pilgrim festivals, liturgical Christian churches have incorporated these psalms into the Easter Vigil and morning mass on Easter Sunday.

    Just how far back does this song sequence go? At least one verse of Psalm 118 is a direct quote from Moses’ Song of the Sea at Exodus 15:1–18, “my strength and my song is God,” and a similar formulation of thanks for future grace to come is in Isaiah 12:2, clearly alluding to the Song of the Sea. This may account for the Talmudic question regarding the Passover sacrifice: “This Hallel, who said it?” The answer is a long list of prophetic personages starting with Moses and ending with Mordechai and Esther, which is to say long before and long after David. This song was certainly part of the Temple service because 2 Chronicles 5:13 quotes it: “and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever.” The service is subsequently attributed to David at 7:6: “And the priests waited on their offices: the Levites also with instruments of musick of the Lord, which David the king had made to praise the Lord, because his mercy endureth for ever, when David praised by their ministry; and the priests sounded trumpets before them, and all Israel stood.”

    colorful painting of a couple lighting Sabbath candles

    Yoram Raanan, Shabbat Candle Lighting with Flowers ©2022 Yoram Raanan, Used by permission

    In short, Jews have been saying something like this since the time of Moses, and David adapted it to the service of the Levites. What follows is a translation and attribution of speaking parts largely drawn from Midrash Tehillim, a compilation of rabbinic stories about Psalms that predates the Talmud and in its original form concludes with Psalm 118.

    Psalm 117, which is very brief, serves as an introduction:

    Praise the Lord all nations – extol him all peoples!
    For his grace on us was mighty – and the Lord’s truth lasts for all time.
    Praise God.

    This is noteworthy because it addresses not Jews but other nations, as indeed some festivals were meant to be public ceremonies inviting all nations to worship the one God. But Midrash Tehillim proceeds to assign the lines of the next psalm as speaking parts for three different choirs who assemble outside Jerusalem: a house of Israel, a house of Aaron, and fearers of God. The choir master or prayer leader opens the service with a rhetorical call on all nations to praise the Lord in Psalm 117 and then turns to the three choirs to thank the Lord. Then they start the journey into Jerusalem that is choreographed in Psalm 118.

    The opening section is the choir leader’s call on each of the choirs in turn to “speak.” Each of them answer by echoing him with their own line:

    Thank the Lord for the good – for his grace is everlasting!
    Let Israel speak –
              For his grace is everlasting.
    Let Aaron’s house speak –
              For his grace is everlasting.
    Let God fearers speak –
              For his grace is everlasting.

    Each having “announced” their participation in the praise, all the pilgrims now make their way up the hill to Jerusalem and sing a list of rescues by God.

    From the narrow straits I called God – from the plain God replied.
    The Lord is with me, I’ll fear not – what can befall me from man?
    The Lord is with me in my friends – but I’ll see to my foes.
    Better to shelter in God – than trust in a man.
    Better to shelter in God – than trust in worthies.
    All nations ringed me round – in the name of the Lord I cut them down.
    They ringed me and ringed me around – in the name of the Lord I cut them down.
    They ringed me like a swarm – they flared like a flame in the thorns
    In the name of the Lord I cut them down.
    You pushed me and pushed me to fall – but God lifted me up.
    My strength and my song is God – he’ll be my salvation.

    Then something changes. As they speak the last line declaring that the Almighty himself is in the song and that will be their deliverance, they near Jerusalem and suddenly can hear the songs of people within it. Now there are further groups and parts assigned in the psalm lyric.

    A sound: song and deliverance – from the tents of the righteous.

    This first line acknowledges a new reality and new speakers. Hereafter we hear the lines of the speakers within and answers of the speakers without:

    God’s right hand did the business – God’s right hand came out on top.
    God’s right hand did the business – I shan’t die but shall live
    And tell the deeds of God.
    Torments he tortured me God – but to death he did not turn me in.

    All these calls and responses have been between singers without and those within Jerusalem, but now the pilgrims have reached the gates and the choir leader addresses the guards:

    Open for me righteous gates – I’ll go in them to thank God.

    The guards reply:

    This is the gate of the Lord – righteous men may come in.
    The pilgrims all troop in and say as they go:
    I’ll thank you for you answered me and are my deliverance.
    As they march along the road to the Temple they sing:
    The stone the builders refused finally became the corner stone.
              This comes of the Lord – it’s a wonder in our eyes.

    This may be a metaphor for Israel as a nation, or a general of Israel, or a king, who at first was despised by his foes and then triumphed in war and began to lead other nations in praising the Lord.

              This is the day the Lord wrought – let’s feast on it and celebrate Him.

    Jewish commentators dispute whether that last verb refers to “it,” the day, or “him,” the Lord. In Song of Songs, Solomon opted for “I’ll celebrate you,” the Lord, and as Solomon built the Temple I follow his interpretation.

    This last line having announced why they have come, to celebrate the Lord, they now enter the courtyard of the Temple and cry to the Lord to keep favoring them:

    Pray Lord deliver pray – Pray Lord prosper us pray.
    The priests inside the Temple come out to welcome them:
    Bless you who come in the name of the Lord –
    We shall bless you from the house of the Lord.

    The pilgrims reply to the priests and give them their animal to be offered up:

    The Lord is the God and he lit our way.
    Bind the feast offering with ropes to the corners of the altar.

    As the animal is being ritually slaughtered the choir leader addresses the Lord:

    You’re my God and I’ll thank you – you’re my God I’ll raise you up.

    Then the choir leader turns to the public and brings the song back to its beginning:

    Thank the Lord for the good – for His grace is everlasting!

    This precise delineation of exactly who does what on each beat and each step in a precise recreation of a pilgrimage to the Temple and a ritual offering is up there with the best of Broadway choreography. You can almost hear the beast neighing as it is wrestled to the right spot near the altar. Those who find such an idea fanciful might consider that David “danced before the Lord” as he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem to make it the centerpiece of his kingdom, and that the two origin stories for him in the book of Samuel emphasize his two social functions – both the war chieftain and the medicine man, both the slayer of Goliath and the harp player summoned to court to soothe Saul’s depression.

    The first psalm of the Hallel sequence refers to the departure of Israel from Egypt and the lines about “they ringed me and ringed me around” have been taken by rabbinic commentaries to refer to the future wars of Gog and Magog at the end of days.

    That is to say, the Hallel is a thanksgiving for all time. Such a deliverance naturally calls for dancing. It is no wonder Jewish tradition has been codified to require singing and waving of palm fronds in rhythm to the chant “God’s hand did the business – God’s hand is uppermost.” It is a victory worth remembering and dancing to and singing of and hoping for every morning of every day of every year.

    Contributed By AtarHadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

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