The Recitation of Hallel on Chanuka

  • Rav Yair Kahn


Yeshivat Har Etzion


Translated by David Silverberg


The Rambam is well known for the precision with which he arranged the halakhot in his Yad Ha-chazaka. It is always worthwhile, therefore, to pay close attention to the framework the Rambam selected for the presentation of his halakhot, as we can derive important information about certain halakhot simply from their location within the Yad Ha-chazaka. And so, when we open Hilkhot Chanuka, we find, surprisingly enough, a presentation of all the halakhot of Hallel. If we had chosen a framework for these halakhot, we would have likely selected Hilkhot Tefilla, or perhaps we would have preferred Hilkhot Yom Tov. But the Rambam chose specifically Hilkhot Chanuka, which is quite puzzling.

I. The Mitzva of Hallel

In order to explain this decision of the Rambam, we must first examine the foundations of the mitzva of Hallel as reflected in the Rambam's writings, and we will begin with a debate between the Rambam and Ramban in Sefer Ha-mitzvot. In his first "shoresh" (in the introduction to Sefer Ha-mitzvot), the Rambam disputes the Behag's listing of the 613 mitzvot, as the Behag included in his list mitzvot enacted by Chazal. In the context of this critique, the Rambam rejects the Behag's inclusion of the mitzva of Hallel as one of the 613 Biblical mitzvot, claiming that Hallel constitutes a rabbinic obligation. The Rambam considers it inconceivable that, already at Sinai, God instituted the mitzva to recite Hallel, which is taken from Sefer Tehillim, composed much later by King David.

The Ramban comes to the Behag's defense and cast doubts on the Rambam's assumption that the chapters of Tehillim we recite as Hallel (known as "Hallel ha-Mitzri" - the "Egyptian Hallel") were first composed by David. He bases his argument on the Gemara in Pesachim (117a):

"Who recited this Hallel? The prophets among them instituted that Israel should recite it for every season [on every special occasion], and for every crisis that might come upon them - when they are redeemed from it, they recite it over their redemption.

A baraita states: Rabbi Meir would say: All the praises said in Sefer Tehillim - they were all said by David, as it says, 'The prayers of David Ben Yishai are complete [kalu]'; do not read it "kalu," but rather "kol eilu" ["all of these"].

Who recited this Hallel? Rabbi Yossi said: My son Elazar says that Moshe and Israel recited it at the time they ascended from the sea."

It turns out, then, that already the Tannaim debate the origins of Hallel. How, then, could the Rambam reject the Behag's stance on the basis of an assumption subject to a disagreement among the Amoraim?

The Ramban adds that even if we concede that David composed Hallel ha-Mitzri, the Rambam's objection to the Behag still has no basis. After all, the Rambam himself maintains that the mitzva of tefilla constitutes a Torah obligation, despite the fact that it was the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola who composed the siddur. The Rambam claims that the Torah obligation requires one to pray in a manner he chooses; later, after the destruction of the First Temple, the Sages established a fixed liturgy:

"When Israel went into exile during the time of the wicked Nevukhadnetzar, they became assimilated among Persia, Greece and the rest of the nations, and they begot children in the lands of the gentiles. The languages of those children became confounded; the language of each consisted of a combination of many languages... Therefore, when one of them would pray, his tongue was unable to ask for his needs or speak the praises of the Almighty in the sacred language unless he mixed with it other languages. When Ezra and his court saw this, they arose and established for them the order of eighteen blessings." (Hilkhot Tefilla, chapter 1)

Thus, the Ramban continues, the same might very well apply to Hallel. As far as Torah law is concerned, we must praise the Almighty "who freed us from Egypt, split the sea for us and set us aside for His service." Later, David came along and authored the Psalms, several chapters of which were established as the text to recite in fulfillment of this obligation.

II. Shira or Keri'a

Indeed, the Rambam's argument appears very difficult to understand. After all, the Ramban's claim is so clear and simple. It would seem, therefore, that the Rambam disagrees with the Ramban with regard to the fundamental nature of the mitzva of Hallel. The Ramban's question on the Rambam presumes that the mitzva of Hallel involves song and praise to the Almighty; it stands to reason that the Rambam disagrees with this very point.

Indeed, we find a different definition of the mitzva of Hallel in the writings of the Geonim. The Ran in Pesachim (26b in the Rif) cites Rav Hai Gaon as describing the mitzva of Hallel as one of keri'a (recitation), rather than shira (song, praise). It would seem that according to Rav Hai Gaon, the Ramban has no claim against the Rambam. If the mitzva entails keri'a, then the text recited constitutes an inseparable component of the mitzva. "Keri'a" means reciting something. For example, to fulfill the mitzva of "keri'at Shema" - reciting the Shema, one must verbalize the words of those sections in the Torah; likewise, one can fulfill the mitzva of "mikra Megilla" only by reciting Megillat Esther as it is written. If, however, we deal with an obligation of shira, to sing to and praise the Almighty through the recitation of Scriptural verses, then the specific text is but the means we employ, a secondary component of the mitzva.

It turns out, then, that only according to the Ramban, who views the mitzva of Hallel as an obligation of shira, can one fulfill the Torah requirement by reciting a different text. According to Rav Hai Gaon's approach, however, defining the mitzva as an obligation of keri'a, one cannot substitute Hallel ha-Mitzri with any other text. Quite understandably, then, the Rambam, following his understanding of the mitzva, proves that the mitzva of Hallel cannot originate from the Torah.

However, this explanation of the Rambam must be assessed in light of the sugya in Arakhin dealing with Hallel. The Gemara there discusses the eighteen days on which we must recite the full Hallel, and searches for precise criteria by which we determine when this obligation applies. Amidst this discussion, the Gemara asks why we do not recite Hallel on Purim, and brings three possible answers:

"Rabbi Yitzchak said: Because we do not say shira for a miracle that occurred outside the Land...

Rav Nachman said: Its [the Megilla's] recitation is Hallel.

Rava said: There [on Pesach, we can recite in Hallel], 'Praise, servants of the Lord,' as opposed to 'servants of Pharaoh;' but here [on Purim, can we recite in Hallel], 'servants of the Lord' as opposed to 'servants of Achashverosh'? We are still servants of Achashverosh!" (Arakhin 10b)

The second of the three answers given clearly states that we fulfill the mitzva of Hallel through the reading of the Megilla, thus proving the Ramban's position that the Hallel obligation involves shira and can thus be fulfilled without reciting Hallel ha-Mitzri. One might claim that the three different answers debate this very point, and the Rambam follows the view that one cannot fulfill the mitzva of Hallel through a different text. In truth, however, this is not the case, for the Rambam explicitly sides with the view of Rav Nachman and brings it in his halakhot: "They did not establish [the recitation of] Hallel on Purim because Megilla reading constitutes the Hallel" (Hilkhot Chanuka 3:6).

III. What Generates the Obligation to Recite Hallel?

In order to explain the position of the Rambam, let us explore the aforementioned sugya in Arakhin which deals with the criteria generating the obligation of Hallel:

"As Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yehotzadak: There are eighteen days on which an individual must recite the entire Hallel - the eight days of Sukkot, the eight days of Chanuka, the first Yom Tov of Pesach and the Yom Tov of Shavuot...

Why is Sukkot different, that we recite it each day, whereas on Pesach we do not recite it each day? Because [the days of] Sukkot are distinct in their sacrifices; [the days of] Pesach are not distinct in their sacrifices [but rather all feature the precisely same sacrifice].

On Shabbat, which is distinct in its sacrifices, let us recite [Hallel]? It is not called 'mo'ed' ['festival'].

On Rosh Chodesh, which is called 'mo'ed,' let us recite [Hallel]? It is not sanctified with regard to the performance of melakha [activity forbidden on Shabbat and Yom Tov], as it says, 'For you there shall be singing as on a night when a festival is hallowed' - a night hallowed as a festival requires singing; one which is not hallowed as a festival does not require singing.

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which are called 'mo'ed' and sanctified with regard to the performance of melakha, let us recite [Hallel]? [We do not] because of Rabbi Abahu['s statement]. For Rabbi Abahu said: The ministering angels said before the Almighty: Master of the world! For what reason do Israel not say shira before You on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? He said to them: Is it possible that the King sits on the throne of judgment, the books of life and books of death are opened before Him, and Israel say shira before Me?"

It emerges from this sugya that the factor of "mo'ed" generates the obligation of Hallel. Any special date which possesses "kedushat ha-yom" (intrinsic halakhic sanctity) expressed through a musaf offering and a prohibition against performing melakha, requires the recitation of Hallel. Although Shabbat features "kedushat ha-yom," it does not require Hallel because it lacks the characteristic of "mo'ed," given that it occurs routinely and is not bound to a specific date. Rosh Chodesh indeed classifies as a "mo'ed," but its sanctity does not entail a prohibition against melakha. We must recite the full Hallel only once throughout the seven days of Pesach because all the days of Pesach combine into a single entity. By contrast, each of the eight days of Sukkot comprises its own entity, with an independent "kedushat ha-yom," thus requiring the recitation of Hallel every day of Sukkot.

In light of this understanding of the Hallel obligation, the Gemara there asks why we recite Hallel on Chanuka, which features neither of these properties: it neither requires a korban musaf nor entails a prohibition against performing melakha. The Gemara responds very briefly, "Because of the miracle." Despite the absence of "kedushat ha-yom" on Chanuka, it nevertheless requires the recitation of Hallel because of the miracle that occurred on this day.

The Gemara thus establishes that the occurrence of a miracle generates an obligation to recite Hallel even without "kedushat ha-yom." The question then arises as to whether the Gemara here changes course, such that in conclusion, even on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot we recite Hallel because of miracles, and "kedushat ha-yom" does not generate an obligation of Hallel at all. Alternatively, one might argue that the Gemara simply points to an additional factor that generates an obligation; "kedushat ha-yom" and the occurrence of a miracle each independently gives rise to an obligation of Hallel.

It stands to reason that even according to the Gemara's conclusion, "kedushat ha-yom" itself obligates the recitation of Hallel, for the Gemara at this point does not repeat the question of why Sukkot differs from Pesach and requires the full Hallel recitation each day. We might deduce this as well from the fact that the Gemara responded simply, "because of the miracle," instead of, "rather, it is because of the miracle" - the formulation we normally find when the Gemara retracts a previously held assumption. As we saw earlier, the Gemara in Pesachim states, "The prophets among them instituted that Israel should recite it for every season, and for every crisis that might come upon them - when they are redeemed from it, they recite it over their redemption." The phrase "for every season" ("al kol perek u-perek"), which refers to the festivals, points to the factor of "kedushat ha-yom" as obligating Hallel, whereas "and for every crisis... they recite it over their redemption" refers to miracles, which also generate an obligation of Hallel.

Interestingly, the Midrash comments (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayikra 23:654),

"All seven days of Sukkot we recite Hallel, but on Pesach we recite Hallel only on the first Yom Tov and that evening. Why? Because 'When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, your heart shall not exult.'"

It appears that this midrash disagrees with the sugya in Arakhin, which attributes the single-day Hallel recitation on Pesach to the fact that the same offering is brought throughout the festival. However, the Shibbolei Ha-leket (174) brings this passage from the Midrash even though he had already cited the Gemara in Arakhin. Why did he find it necessary to bring the Midrash into his discussion, if it represents a different view from that in the Talmud?

I heard from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a that both Rav Aharon Kotler zt"l and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l answered that the Gemara simply explains why we do not recite Hallel each day of Pesach due to the factor of "kedushat ha-yom." According to the Gemara's conclusion, however, that the miracle and redemption also generate a Hallel obligation, we must resort to an additional reason to explain why we do not recite Hallel each day of Pesach in response to the miracle, as we do on Chanuka. Understandably, then, the Shibbolei Ha-leket adds the reason of "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice."

It thus emerges from the sugya in Arakhin that there exist two "mechayevim" (obligating factors) for the recitation of Hallel: "kedushat ha-yom," and miracles. The concept of reciting Hallel in response to a miracle is obvious: we must praise the Almighty for our salvation. It requires explanation, however, why "kedushat ha-yom" gives rise to an obligation of Hallel. This point becomes clearer in light of the Gemara's comment in Shabbat (118b):

"Rabbi Yossi said: May my portion be among those who complete Hallel every day. Is this so? Was it not said: 'One who recites Hallel every day is considered a reviler and blasphemer'? Regarding what did we say [that daily recitation of Hallel is laudatory] - [only] Pesukei De-zimra."

Wherein lies the blasphemy in reciting Hallel daily? The normative human condition is one of routine behavior driven by the force of habituation. Halakha reflects this condition, and the Jewish calendar is therefore based upon regular, routine obligations in the spirit of "temidim ke-sidram" (the order of daily sacrifices). But onto this routine the Torah established festivals, sacred occasions, when an individual is to experience spiritual elevation and sanctity. The Ramban explains (Vayikra 23:2):

"'Mikra'ei kodesh' ['sacred occasions'] means that on this day they shall all be summoned and assembled to sanctify it, for it is a mitzva for Israel to gather in the House of God on the festival day to publicly sanctify the day through prayer and praise to God with fine clothing, and to observe it as a day of festivity."

"Mikra'ei kodesh" are special occasions intended to disrupt our routine, in the spirit of "musafim ke-hilkhatam" - rituals that come in addition to the "temidim," the daily, routine obligations. We accord these occasions sanctity by observing issur melakha (a prohibition against mundane activity), and each member of Israel must prepare himself for spiritual elevation on these festivals. As part of this framework, we recite chapters of Hallel specifically designated for the festivals. But a person who recites Hallel each day cannot ever succeed in this endeavor to sanctify the mundane, for it is against human nature to observe every day of his life as a "sacred occasion." Instead, such a person will succeed only in defiling the sanctity of the holy days, transforming the sacred occasions into nothing more than his ordinary routine.

IV. Two Types of Hallel

In light of what we have seen, we can now return to the Rambam's view. If, as we explained, there exist two distinct "mechayevim" of the Hallel recitation, these two obligations may very well differ from one another in terms of the essential nature and definition of their respective recitations of Hallel. It stands to reason that the occurrence of a miracle requires the recitation of shira and praise to the Almighty for our redemption. By contrast, the Hallel mandated by virtue of the unique sanctity of a festival may involve not shira, but rather keri'a, as we detected in the Rambam's formulation in Sefer Ha-mitzvot. This is indeed a reasonable assumption, for, after all, we do not recite Hallel on festivals in response to redemption from crisis mandating song and praise.

According to the Rambam, then, the recitation of Hallel on the festivals involves an obligation of keri'a, whereas the Hallel obligation in response to redemption requires shira. Thus, when the Gemara questions the absence of a Hallel obligation on Purim, it refers to an obligation of shira, rather than keri'a. Purim does not qualify as a "mo'ed," but it should, at first glance, require Hallel as a response to the miracle that occurred on this day. Understandably, the Gemara answers that we fulfill the Hallel obligation on Purim through the reading of the Megilla. For, as we explained, when dealing with Hallel as shira, the precise text is of secondary importance. This Gemara, then, does not preclude the possibility that on festivals we recite Hallel as keri'a, and thus the chapters recited constitute an integral part of the obligation. Now we easily understand how the Rambam proved that this mitzva of Hallel was not given at Sinai from the fact that its text was composed long after Matan Torah.

V. Hallel on Chanuka

Accordingly, it would appear that on Chanuka we recite Hallel as shira, whereas the primary obligation of Hallel, which applies on the Yamim Tovim, involves keri'a. If so, then our original question, as to why the Rambam chose Hilkhot Chanuka as the appropriate context for the presentation of the laws of Hallel, becomes even stronger!

The answer emerges from the Gemara's description of Chanuka as "festivals with Hallel and thanksgiving" (Shabbat 21b). Rashi there comments,

"Not that melakha is forbidden on them [the days of Chanuka], for they were established only for reciting Hallel and saying Al Ha-nissim in Hoda'a [the "Modim" section of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer]."

According to Rashi, the baraita is referring to laws of Chanuka, i.e., the obligation to recite Al Ha-nissim and Hallel. The Rambam, however, appears to have understood the Gemara differently:

"Therefore, the Sages of that generation legislated that these eight days, beginning from the eve of the 25th of Kislev, shall be DAYS OF CELEBRATION AND HALLEL, and that we light candles on them."

This formulation suggests that the Gemara in this passage deals with the definition of Chanuka. These eight days were designated as "days of celebration and Hallel" as part of their very essence and definition. If so, then Hallel not merely constitutes an obligation on Chanuka, but rather characterizes the day. Chazal established Chanuka as a time of publicizing the miracle and offering praise and thanksgiving; the very essence of these eight days thus mandates the recitation of Hallel. (See the Rambam's formulation in Hilkhot Chanuka 4:12.)

This definition of Chanuka very likely affects the nature of the Hallel obligation on this festival. For if the days of Chanuka are, by their very essence, "days of Hallel," and this definition generates the mitzva of Hallel on Chanuka, then the recitation of Hallel on these days involves not merely shira in response to our redemption, but also keri'a, required by virtue of the day's status. As we saw, "kedushat ha-yom" suffices to establish an independent obligation of keri'a; it stands to reason, then, that on Chanuka, there is an obligation of keri'a as an expression of the nature of the day as a "day of Hallel."

Had Chanuka not been established as "days of Hallel," no obligation of keri'a would be possible, since Chazal cannot create a new holiday and infuse it with "kedushat ha-yom." But once they defined the days of Chanuka as "days of Hallel," the day itself generates an obligation of keri'a. It turns out, then, that we recite Hallel on Chanuka both as shira - to express praise and thanksgiving for the miracle - and as keri'a - by virtue of the day's status. We now understand why the Rambam chose to present the halakhot of Hallel specifically in Hilkhot Chanuka. He did so not because of the nature of the mitzva of Hallel, but rather due to the nature of Chanuka, which the Rambam defines as days of Hallel and celebration.

We might add that, whereas on Purim "its recitation is Hallel," on Chanuka, conversely, "Hallel is its recitation." One of the means by which Chazal designated special days is the reading of a section of Tanakh relevant to the given occasion. The Ritva (Megilla 17b), in fact, considers Torah reading on Yom Tov to be a biblical obligation. Similarly, Chazal mandated that we read the Megilla on Purim in order to publicize the miracle. The miracle of Chanuka, however, occurred after the canonization of Tanakh, and we thus have no suitable section from the Tanakh by which to publicize this event. Chazal perhaps established the recitation of Hallel on Chanuka as a Scriptural reading corresponding to the reading of the Megilla on Purim. This reading, which serves to publicize the miracle (see Berakhot 14a), expresses the essence of the days of Chanuka, which, according to the Rambam's formulation, Chazal established as days of celebration and Hallel.