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Hallel Hagadol

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            Last week, we discussed the "birkat hashir," the "blessing of the song" which follows Hallel. At the end of that discussion, the beraita mentioned that after the usual Hallel, one recites the "Hallel Hagadol," the "great Hallel." We did not define what the "Hallel Hagadol" actually was, since last week we were only interested in how the additional text affects the blessing that follows Hallel. As you recall, the Rashbam utilized the presence of this additional text to separate between the TWO blessings that he understood R. Yochanan to be requiring. Now we shall find out what Hallel Hagadol is.

            We are on line 4 on 118a. The webpage for the shiur is at:



Mei'heichan Hallel Hagadol

From where does Hallel Hagadol (begin)?

R. Yehuda says: From "Hodu" until "Naharot Bavel."

R. Yochanan says: From "Shir Hama'alot" until "Naharot Bavel."

Rav Acha bar Yaacov says: From "Ki Yaacov bachar lo Kah" until "Naharot Bavel."


And why is it called Hallel Hagadol (the great Hallel)?

R. Yochanan said: Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits on the heights of the world and distributes sustenance to every creature.


            Hallel Hagadol is a chapter in Psalms. However, the system of numbering Psalms did not exist, and the sages never refer to a chapter by its number. On the other hand, they knew Psalms by heart, so simply hinting at the boundaries with a few words suffices.


            "R. Yehuda says: From Hodu until Naharot Bavel." Chapter 136 of Psalms begins "Hodu laShem ki tov." Chapter 137 begins "Al naharot Bavel." R. Yehuda is therefore identifying "Hallel Hagadol with chapter 136. The psalm consists of 26 verses, each of which lists a short description of an action of God, followed by the words, "ki l'olam chasdo" ("for His grace is forever"). (This psalm is familiar as one of the additional psalms recited before the prayers on Shabbat morning).


            "R. Yochanan says: From Shir Hama'alot until Naharot Bavel." There are many psalms beginning with the words "Shir hama'alot" (120-134); R. Yochanan is apparently referring to the last one, the closest to "Al naharot Bavel," which is Psalms 134. Therefore, Hallel Hagadol according to R. Yochanan is three chapters, Psalms 134-136.


[Question: Why does R. Yochanan see these three chapters as one unit, one "hallel?" For this you will have to quickly review the three chapters and see the connection between them.]


            "Rav Acha bar Yaacov says: From Ki Yaacov bachar lo Kah until Naharot Bavel." This is a little harder to identify - it really does help to know Psalms by heart. "Ki Yaacov bachar lo Kah" is verse 4 of chapter 135. In all likelihood, Rav Acha is referring to the entire chapter 135, and is simply mentioning a prominent and easily identifiable verse. The three opinions in the gemara then are either Psalm 136, 135-6, or 134-6.


            In any event, it is clear that the heart of the Hallel Hagadol is Psalms 136. This is supported by the explanation of the gemara why it is called the GREAT Hallel. "R. Yochanan said: Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits on the heights of the world and distributes sustenance to every creature." The Rashbam explains:


She-Hakadosh Barukh Hu

Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits on the heights of the world etc. - For it is written in it (Psalms 136, 25), "He gives bread to all flesh," and that is a great thing.


            Two weeks ago, we saw the disagreement whether the Hallel Hagadol was part of the fourth cup (as is the text in the printed gemarot) or was the text for a FIFTH cup. For those Rishonim who have it as the text for a fifth cup, the possibility arises that the fifth cup is optional (since the first mishna of the chapter states clearly that there are four obligatory cups, without mention of another, dissenting opinion). The Ramban then states that R. Tarfon, who first mentioned the Hallel Hagadol, was stating the following ruling. IF one wants to drink a fifth cup, it is permissible; however, he must also add a reading for it so that it will be a "kos shel beracha." This reading is the Hallel Hagadol.


According to our reading, however, where there are only four cups, and the mishna defines the fourth as being based on the Hallel, it is apparent that Hallel Hagadol is an addition to the Hallel. The gemara does not explain, however, why on Pesach night the Hallel has grown beyond its usual size. Of course, this is the only Hallel recited at night, and is perhaps not to be equated with the usual Hallel recited as part of the prayers. It is nonetheless perplexing to find an additional chapter added to Hallel without any explanation.




            The gemara now continues with an extended section of aggada. I normally would skip, but since you have been good and followed me through all the halakha sections of the second half of the chapter "Arvei Pesachim," we shall learn some aggada today. We shall see only a short portion, and I invite you to continue on your own, as there are several truly fascinating sections here.


            The gemara continues:


R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: These twenty-six "hodu" are parallel to what?


            I have translated the Hebrew word "kineged" as "parallel," for lack of a better alternative. Any time there is a halakhic institution or recitation that includes a given number of parts, the Talmud assumes that the number is symbolic of something, that it has been instituted "parallel" to some other feature. Prominent examples of this is the Talmud's explanation why there are three aliyot during the weekday reading (kineged, parallel, to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov; or, alternatively, kineged Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael), or why there are 18 blessings in the daily prayer. Here, the gemara is asking not about a halakhic institution but about a psalm with a formal structure. The Hallel Hagadol, psalm 136, has each verse end with the phrase "ki l'olam chasdo." (The gemara calls each line a "hodu" after the first line, "hodu laShem ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo"). What is the significance of the number 26?


R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: These twenty-six "hodu" are parallel to what?

They are parallel to the twenty-six generations that God created in His world to whom He did not give the Torah, but He sustained them with His grace (chasdo).


            The implied idea here is that the Torah is the basis for God's relationship to the world, it is the basis for the world's existence. This recalls the famous statement in Pirkei Avot - "The world stands on three things, on Torah, on service, and on acts of lovingkindness." There were twenty-six generations that preceded the giving of the Torah. What justified the existence of the world during that period? The answer of the gemara is that this is a supreme example of God's chessed, his undeserved acts of kindness and grace. The connection between the verses in our psalm and this idea is, I think, the expression, "for His grace is FOREVER." The eternity and infinitude of God's grace is expressed by the fact that it exceeds the logical basis for it. God supported the world at its inception, even though the conditions for redemption were lacking.




Rav Chisda said: What is the meaning of what is written, "Praise God, for good"? - Praise God, who takes payment of Man's debt from His good, the rich man from his ox, the poor man from his sheep, an orphan from his egg, and a widow from her hen.


            The Rashbam explains:


From His good - from the good that He had granted him. This is the meaning of "for good, for His grace is forever (l'olam)" - He is graceful to the world (olam) by the good; i.e., with the good that He has given it.


The rich man from his ox, the poor man from his sheep - He causes him to lose money, and atones for his body.


            According to the Rashbam, the point here is that God, who has given man undeserved material blessing, uses those material goods to punish him when that is necessary, rather than punishing his body.


            In my opinion - and this is slightly different than the Rashbam's explanation - Rav Chisda's comment is also based on the phrase l'olam - forever. Even when material goods are withheld from Man, that is a sign of God's grace, because He thereby atones for the man without having to afflict him bodily. So it turns out that the good of God - the blessings He bestows on Man - are eternal, forever, for even when they are absent, they are serving a purpose for Man.




R. Yochanan said: The sustenance of Man is twice as difficult as childbearing, for we find by childbearing the term "etzev" ("sorrow" - "You shall bear children with sorrow", Bereishit 3,16), and by sustenance the term "itzavon" ("You shall eat from it with sorrow all the days of your life", ibid.17).

And R. Yochanan said: The sustenance of Man is more difficult than the redemption, for we find that by redemption it is written, "May the angel who has redeemed me from all evil" (Bereishit 48,16) - only an angel, whereas by sustenance it is written, "The God who has guided me" (ibid. 15).


            The first statement of R. Yochanan is clearly talking about the effort and difficulty of man. R. Yochanan claims that the curse of Woman - "You shall bear your children with sorrow" - is less difficult than the curse of Man - "Cursed be the earth because of you, with sorrow shall you eat from it all the days of your life." While obviously the pain is usually less intense, R. Yochanan apparently believes that the continual effort to provide for one's family is a greater strain.


            The second statement is less clear. Here the difficulty seems to refer not to man's efforts, but to God's. To save someone from trouble, to redeem him, can be accomplished through an intermediary, an angel. To provide for him, however, requires direct intervention by God Himself. What is this supposed to mean?


            By comparison to the first statement, I believe the explanation is the same. R. Yochanan is comparing one dramatic and intense experience, such as childbirth, or a sudden deliverance from a particular trouble, with the continual struggle of life, to make a living and provide, day by day, for one's family. The world, as a natural arena, is not hospitable to Man - at least not since the curse following the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It is unnatural for Man to find his bread, and so it requires a supernatural intermediation, a sort of action on par with creation itself. A one-time exception to the natural conditions, the salvation from a trouble or even the miracle of childbirth, is, from that point of view, less revolutionary, even if it is far more dramatic. R. Yochanan is directing us to appreciate the every day struggle of existence, both for its difficulty and for the greatness of God's grace in overcoming it, more than single dramatic acts of deliverance.




R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: At the time that God said to Adam, "thorns and thistles shall (the earth) grow for you," his eyes flowed with tears. He said to Him: Master of the Universe, shall I and my mule eat from one trough? After He said to him, "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread," his mind was settled.


            It turns out that the natural world can provide food for man - thorns and thistles, weeds that grow without any work. It is conceivable that man could sustain himself as a gatherer of weeds. This existence contradicts the majesty of man; it is the sustenance of a mule. God offers man an alternative - to eat bread, but at a price. Bread can be had only by the sweat of one's brow. Although we tend to read this verse as part of the curse, R. Yehoshua read it as a promise and consolation. There is a way to eat bread, to transcend the level of the animals, and that is through effort and work, the sweat of one's brow. In short, the superiority of man over the beasts is not, in the final sense, in his natural condition, but only if he applies himself and makes the effort. Bread here is merely a symbol for man's accomplishments. Purely natural existence is brutish in its value; man has the potential - but only the potential - to transcend that state, by applying the sweat of his brow. If it comes easily, without the "etzev" of the statements of R. Yochanan, it can be no more than thorns and thistles, and is worth no more than the life of a mule.


            Do not stop here - the aggada continues for the next two pages. You are however, on your own.




            This is the last shiur of this series. I hope that you both enjoyed and benefited from it. The exact form of this course has been a work in progress, and I would appreciate any helpful comments from those who actually know how successful it was reaching its goal of offering an introduction to Talmud for those who do not have an opportunity to learn it in other forums - namely, from you, the students. Feel free to write to:

[email protected]


            Hopefully, you are all more advanced, relatively speaking, than when we started. Part of learning gemara is review - "chazara." I would strongly suggest that you start over from the beginning and review the gemara and all the shiurim, learning them again. This will both help you remember the material, and, more importantly, give you an opportunity to learn gemara on a level that is already better than it was the first time.

            Kol tuv - all the best. I have enjoyed my role in this shiur, and hope you did yours.

            Ezra Bick