Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tzav - Shabbat Hagadol (Psalms)

Psalms 135-136: The Great Hallel

If most reader’s experience is anything like my own, they have probably found that, year after year, those assembled at the Seder will spend quite a bit of time discussing the four sons and the other sections near the beginning of the Haggadah; shortly after Ve-hi she-amdah / Tsei u-lemad, as the evening begins to wear on and people’s tummies start grumbling, someone is bound to say, “Perhaps we can hurry things up a bit” or “The meat will dry out if we don’t eat soon.” After the meal, particularly if it’s a long Seder that goes on well after midnight, and people have eaten and drunken their fill and then some, some eyes will start getting a glazed look and heads may even nod during the recitation of Hallel and the other passages read over the fourth cup.

This is unfortunate, as in many ways the fourth cup, with its festive recitation of Hallel and other hymns of praise, is meant to be no more afterthought, but the very culmination of the Seder. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that the earliest “Seder,” in First Temple times, consisted primarily of eating the Korban Pesah with the Matzah and bitter herbs, accompanied by the Hallel; the “telling” of the story seems to have been minimal. The prophet Isaiah even sees these festive nights as a paradigm for all joyous sacred song: “The song shall be for you like a night when the festival is sanctified” (30:29). I remember how, as a young man attending my first Orthodox shul, the rabbi of our local Young Israel, Rabbi Hayyim (Marvin) Luban— may he flourish like a fruitful palm tree in his old age—one year devoted his Shabbat Hagadol discourse to an analysis of the oft-neglected fourth cup. I will try here to follow in his footsteps.

According to the Mishnah (m. Pesahim 10.7), the fourth cup consists of two basic elements: the “completion” of the Hallel—i.e., Psalms 113-118, the regular festive Hallel recited in the synagogue on all holidays, the first part of which is read on Seder night before the meal; and Birkat Shir, the “blessing over the song”—i.e., some sort of festive peroration to the Hallel, formulated as a benediction. Opinions differ as to whether this refers to the usual concluding blessing, Yehallelukha, or to the lengthy, festive Nishmat kol hay (“the breath of every living creature shall praise You…”), a major liturgical composition in which all of creation and all faculties of the human being are shown praising God. Things become more complicated when the gemara quotes a statement that over the fourth cup one “completes the Hallel and recites the Great Hallel.” This latter term is identified either with Psalm 136 or with Psalm 135 and 136 taken together, or possibly also Psalm 23; in practice, the universal custom is to read Psalm 136 alone. These two “Hallels” are then concluded by Yehallelukha and Nishmat, either separately, in turn, or conflated together. (This relates in turn to the issue of whether one drinks four or five cups of wine at the seder, an ancient practice which some contemporary rabbis, such as the late Rabbi Menahem Kasher or Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, have suggested reviving since the creation of the State of Israel, as a fulfillment of “I shall bring you to the Land”—but discussing his point will bring us too far afield.)

We shall return to the significance of these halakhic concepts a bit later. First, let us discuss these two psalms as psalms.

Psalm 136 is the antiphonal psalm par excellence, following a very simple pattern: each of its 26 verses consists of a brief phrase describing some point for which God is to be praised, followed by the chorus, ki le-‘olam hasdo—“for His lovingkindness is eternal (or: constant).” One can imagine two choirs, or a leader and a choir, perhaps of Levites singing in the Temple, standing opposite one another, the one reading or singing the various expressions of praise and the other answering with the refrain.

The 26 verses begin with assertions of God’s utter supremacy over all—He is “God of Gods” and “Lord of Lords” (vv. 2-3); continues with a reference to His wondrous deeds and His creation of the natural world—heaven, earth, great luminaries (vv. 4-9); turns from there to His redemptive power in delivering Israel from Egypt, dwelling especially on the splitting of the Red Sea and defeating the great and powerful kings they encountered in the desert, and the gift of the land (vv. 10-20). The psalm concludes with two summary verses praising God for “remembering us in our lowliness… delivering us from our enemies,” plus two more general verses at the very end: “He gives bread to all flesh…. Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His lovingkindness is forever” (vv. 25-26).

The refrain that dominates this psalm, ki le’olam hasdo, combines two essential aspects of God: His eternity and/or constancy, and His love or kindness (or, as the English has it, “lovingkindness”). The word hesed is interpreted in Kabbalistic thought as the first and most basic of God’s “emotive” or “relational” qualities. Interestingly, in the verse in David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:11 from which the seven lower sefirot are derived, this quality is represented by the word gedulah. Hence, rather than “mercy,” “compassion,” “love,” or even “lovingkindness,” perhaps the best translation of this term is “largesse”: that is, the overabundant flow of God’s bounty, the quality of generosity, of giving and caring freely, “for no reason,” without any expectation of return. We shall return to this point below.

Turning to Psalm 135, parts of this psalm read almost like a non-antiphonal counterpart to 136. One could argue a degree of parallelism between 135:8-12 and 136:10-22. Indeed, there are numerous interconnections, a kind of family resemblance, among all the chapters of the two Hallels—what Hazal define as Hallel Hagadol and the chapters of the “Egyptian Hallel”: the opening verse of the one, 135:1, is an exact inversion of that of the other, 114:1; 135:15-18 and 115:4-8 are almost identical; while the next verses, 135:19-20, closely parallel 115:9–10, with the substitution of “bless the Lord” for “trust in the Lord.” The leitmotif with which Psalm 136 opens, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good…” is repeated in 118:1 and 29; in 106:1, 107:1; and, with minor variation, in the joyous voices of groom and bride in Jeremiah 33:11.

But essentially, Psalm 135 is a festive hymn, a song of joy and thankfulness and fullness sung by those actually “standing in the house of the Lord, in the courtyards of the house of our God.” Its position in the Psalter, immediately after the series of fifteen Shirei ha-Ma’alot—“Songs of Ascent” or “pilgrim songs” which, according to one theory, were recited by the pilgrims coming up to the Temple—is significant. True, it celebrates the Exodus and God’s gracious acts throughout the history of Israel (vv. 8-12), but it also contains two other central themes. Following the introductory verses of praise declaring how good and pleasant it is to sing unto the Lord, the psalm speaks of God’s dominion over nature (as does Ps 136), the notion that He may do “whatever He wishes,” and particularly sending clouds, lightning, rain and winds over the earth. Following the relatively brief center section about the Exodus, there is a harangue against those who worship idols, ‘atzabim —objects “fashioned” by others (“sad” excuses for divinities)—that are the work of human hands, unable to do anything for themselves, with mouth, eyes, ears and throats (and, in the parallel in 115:7, also legs, arms, and nose) that are useless.

Why, then, is this chapter read at the end of the Seder? What, if any, is its relation to Birkat Shir and Nishmat? And what is the significance of its name, the “Great Hallel”? The Talmud, at Pesahim 118a, tells us:

Why is it named “the Great Hallel”? Rav Yohanan said: Because the Holy One blessed be He sits at the pinnacle of the world and distributes food to all every creature. R. Joshua b. Levi said: To what do these twenty-six verses of thanksgiving correspond? To the twenty-six generations that the Holy One blessed be He created in His world, and He did not give them the Torah, but fed them with His compassionate largesse.

Rav Yohanan and R. Joshua b. Levi do not disagree, but are expressing the same basic idea with slightly different emphases: namely, the central theme of Hallel Hagadol is God’s granting sustenance not only to Israel, but to all humankind, nay, to every living creature. This idea is exemplified, so to speak, by the 26 generations that preceded the Torah. The Torah, which Israel devotedly study and practice, is seen as the highest source of merit, as that which in some sense “justifies” the sustenance and blessing they enjoy; by contrast, the pre-Torah world exists purely through Divine love and giving, or “grace.”

A similar idea appears in two other places in the Talmud in connection with Hallel Hagadol. The Mishnah relates a case when there was a prolonged drought, and a day of fasting and prayer was declared in the town of Lod; just before midday abundant rains fell, and Rabbi Tarfon instructed the people to go home, eat and drink and be festive, and towards evening to return to the synagogue and recite the Great Hallel (m Ta’anit 3.9 (=b. 19a). Similarly, in Berakhot 4b, in discussing Rav Avina’s statement of the special virtues of the recitation of Ashrei (Ps 145), it is observed that, just as that psalm declares that God “opens His hand and satiates all living things” (v. 16), so too does the Great Hallel speak of Him as “giving bread to all flesh” (136:25). To all these we must add the reference to rain, essential to the growth of food for the world, in Psalm 135 itself; and the passing mention of the custom of reciting Psalm 23, which also depicts God as a kindly, nourishing shepherd. All these add up to the conclusion that the central distinguishing feature of Hallel Hagadol is that it depicts God as nourishing and sustaining the entire world.

Having said that, the relationship to the themes of universalism and particularism becomes clearer. The Seder is celebrates and focuses on the birth of the Jewish people: the main part of the Haggadah is an occasion of teaching that elaborates upon this theme and explores our history, ending both in ritual acts and in blessings of thanksgiving for the redemption. After the meal, we resume with psalms which carry the theme of redemption from the past into the future; the latter group of Hallel psalms are understand by many medieval commentators, beginning with Don Yitzhak Abravanel in his monumental Zevah Pesah, as alluding to the future redemption of Israel. But it doesn’t stop there: Hallel Hagadol, so to speak, seems to view the Exodus, and even God’s providence in Jewish history generally, as one manifestation of a more general, universal rule: that He is a good God who sustains the entire universe, and all living things therein, from the smallest insect in the bottom of a tropical swamp to the eagles who dwell in the lofty mountain peaks—and this, simply as an expression of His overflowing, freely given, infinite largesse: ki le’olam hasdo— which may now also be translated as, “for His loving-kindness is on behalf of the whole world.” Having said that, we may turn to the other major interpretation of the 26 verses of this psalm: namely, the Kabbalistic view that this number is the gematria, the numerical equivalent, of the Divine name HVYH. This also explains why it is appropriate that it conclude with Nishmat kol hai—the hymn of God’s universal praise by all things. Even the pagan, as Malachi says (1:11), “in every place, truly, incense is offered to My name”— who burns fragrant incense on the altar, perhaps to a graven image, is ultimately doing so to the Source of All Being.

I will conclude with a few words about issues of food. Why does the Seder take the specific form of a meal? Why couldn’t it be in the form of a shiur, a study session—as we do on Shavuot night; or the form of one more of the multitude of readings we have in the synagogue, such as the Scroll of Esther on Purim (that is followed, it is true, by a festive, even rambunctious feast, but one that is thoroughly “secular,” without any didactic agenda), or the three middle blessings of Musaf for Rosh Hashanah, which constitute a mini-course in Jewish theology? One answer commonly offered is that the Seder borrowed from or was influenced by the Greek or Roman symposium, as a well-known cultural model in Late Antiquity. But there is more to it than that.

The fact is, that food is a central human concern, a focus of social codes in every human group, and as such constitutive of society community. Ritual eating is common to virtually every traditional culture. Hence, a feast dedicated to the origins of the House of Israel, of the extended congregation of Jewry, can only take place around a common table.

The very fact that this point requires elaboration or explanation indicates a certain lack in our own culture. We in the modern world have lost the sense that there is even the possibility of finding the sacred within the everyday. Western society has a purely functional approach to eating, as reflected in the culture of fast foods, in the epidemic of obesity, and in the counter-obsession with diet, and in its root: the decline of the family meal.

All this is part of a broader phenomenon of the shallowness of contemporary culture, and the flattening of many aspects of our life: note such things as what has been called the “secularization” of sexuality; the emergence of an industry devoted to selling “happiness”; or even the concept of humor (there is an “Academy of Laughter” in Israel) as something that can be taught outside of any social or cultural context. Culture itself has become a “consumer” commodity, rather than something shared. It is for that reason that something like the Mardi Gras, which we mentioned a few weeks ago, notwithstanding its orgiastic aspects, seems somehow more authentic—as a kind of throwback to peasant cultures, with rituals in which the mind forgets the individual in the ecstasy of the dance, as part of an organic whole. Perhaps this is one of the meanings of the revival in Israel in recent decades of folk-singing, as a return to earlier, simpler days, when there was a sense of a shared, collective identity. The simple act of sitting with others and singing familiar songs together somehow expresses a feeling of belonging—far more so than a flawlessly executed, well-orchestrated “production.” This is perhaps the source of the sense of collective grief upon the recent (and sudden, and premature) death [this was written in 2005] of Ehud Manor—a lyricist who wrote many of the popular Israeli songs of the past few decades, who seemed to give voice to a certain common experience, as well as knowing how to give voice to private experience in a certain way that spoke to others. Thus, his Ein li eretz aheret, “I have no other land,” with its haunting melody, usually sung a capella, gives voice to the sense of attachment to the soil of this land, in a post-ideological age, one that has gone past the simple nationalism of the early years of Zionism. Or Ahi ha-tzair Yehudah, an elegy for his own brother, killed in defending the land, which gave voice to the all-too-common experience of grief over life cut short violently. And many others, including many joyful, more optimistic songs as well.

Two Hints for a Happier Pesah

1. Repeat one hundred times the mantra: “Dust is not hametz; grime is not hametz; even burnt-in stains on pots and pans are not hametz.” If you like a clean house, and want to use Pesah as an excuse for “spring cleaning”—with pleasure. (I personally spent quite a few hours last week sorting out and throwing away old papers and making my office/study generally more liveable – but don’t have any illusion that if you don’t do so you’re somehow a ”bad Jew.”

2. At the Seder itself: there is no halakhic prohibition against having nibbles on the table—dry fruit, nuts, carrot sticks, etc.– for people to eat during the course of the Haggadah, to stave off hunger pangs and thus avoid the feeling that one must rush through the Seder to get to the food. A careful reading of the Mishnah in Pesahim Ch. 10 suggests that the ancient practice was to begin the meal shortly after Kiddush, and to engage in questions and answers and midrash during the course of the meal, somewhere between the first courses and the Afikomen and/or Korban Pesah.


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