By Cantor Russ Jayne
(AJNews) – Hallel, the compilation of psalms recited on Jewish festivals throughout the year, is the quintessential expression of joy. All of the psalms woven into this section of the liturgy contain the word, Hallel, or praise. Joyous melodies and vivid imagery typically characterize the recitation of Hallel and so its recitation becomes a truly moving experience of prayer. Given its central importance during our holidays and festivals, one would expect not only the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Hashanah, but also some embellished version of the typical Hallel text. After all, we are gathered as a nation to commemorate the beginning of the Jewish year. What could be a more appropriate time to express our praise of G-d and of G-d’s creations? Yet, Hallel is absent. It is both a deafening and pregnant silence in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. So why is there this restriction on the recitation of Hallel?
The Talmud, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 32b, gives us the rabbinic reason for the absence of Hallel. We read, “Rabbi Abahu said: The ministering angels said before the Holy One, ‘Master of the Universe, why do the Jews not recite Hallel before You on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?’ G-d replied: Is it possible that a King be seated on the Throne of Judgment and the Books of Life and Death are open and the Jews should recite Hallel?”
The Midrash quoted by Rabbi Abahu identifies the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah as the reason for not reciting Hallel. Still, the answer remains unsatisfying. After all, the second Mishnah of Tractate Rosh Hashanah points out that “the world is judged at four times over the year: on Passover for grain; on the Festival of Shavuot for produce; on Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the world…and on Sukkot, they are judged for water.” If this is indeed the case, then Hallel should also be forbidden on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, since these too are times of solemn judgment. So how can we sharpen our understanding of this curious prohibition?
Rabbi Dr. Zvi Yehudah, Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, offered a precious insight toward the resolution of our dilemma. In a D’var Torah, Dr. Yehudah skillfully wove together a warning from Exodus and the proscription of Hallel on Rosh Hashanah. In Exodus 23:6-8 we are warned, “You shall not subvert the rights of the needy in their disputes. Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer. Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.” Since G-d is sitting in judgment on Rosh Hashanah deciding the fate of each of us, it is as if we are pleading our case in G-d’s own court, and so to sing verses of praise, as we do in Hallel, would be tantamount to offering G-d a bribe. This, in turn, would inevitably affect G-d’s judgment. Yet, however, that cannot be the case, because each human’s personal verdict must rest solely on teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteousness), and the extent to which we have incorporated them into our lives.
Dr. Yehudah offers us not only an important insight into a liturgical quandary, but more importantly, he offers us an insight into G-d’s Character as well. The Torah’s legislation is not solely for us, it is also for the Lawgiver. Both we and G-d must strive, perpetually, to be agents of Justice in this world.
May the knowledge, justice, and mercy of our G-d fill the whole world in 5781 as the waters fill the sea.
With wishes for a Shanah Tovah u’Metukah, a happy and sweet New Year!!
Cantor Russ Jayne is Chazzan at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary.