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“Hallel or Megillah?”

By: Rav David Milston

"Rav Yochanan said in the name of Rav Shimon ben Yehotzadak: There are 18 days [in Eretz Yisrael] on which we say the full Hallel: the eight days of Chag [Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret], the eight days of Chanukah, the first day of Pesach and the day of Shavuot. In the Diaspora [where two days of Yom Tov would be celebrated instead of one], we complete the Hallel on 21 days: the nine days of Chag, the eight days of Chanukah, the first two days of Pesach and the two festive days of Shavuot.

 

Why is it that we recite the entire Hallel throughout Sukkot whereas during Pesach we only recite it on the first day(s)? Because the days of Sukkot are different from one another in terms of the sacrifices brought, unlike the days of Pesach...

 

But what of Rosh Chodesh which is called a festival? Let the complete Hallel be said on it! No, for on Rosh Chodesh one is allowed to work…

 

Then let Hallel be said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Both are festivals and include the prohibition to work.

 

It is irrelevant to recite Hallel on the Yamim Noraim, as Rabbi Abbahu said, “The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, Why do Am Yisrael refrain from singing to You on the New Year and the Day of Atonement?” He answered them, “Is it right that the King sits on the Throne of Judgment, with the Books of Life and Death before Him, whilst Israel stands there before Me singing a song?”

 

But what of Chanukah, on which neither of the conditions apply [Chanukah is not a festival and work is permitted] yet the full Hallel is recited? That is because of the miracle of Chanukah.

 

Then let it be said on Purim, when a miracle also occurred. Rabbi Yitzhak said, “Hallel is not said on Purim because it occurred outside of Israel.” R. Nachman ben Yitzhak argued, “But the Exodus from Egypt constitutes a miracle that happened outside the Land, and we still say Hallel!” There it is due to the fact that it occurred before Israel entered the Land. At that time, all the lands were considered fit for song to be said [if a miracle had occurred in their boundaries]. Once Israel had entered the Land, no other countries were considered fit for song.

 

Rabbi Nachman answered, “The reading [of the Megillah] is a Hallel…"[1]

 

This famous Talmudic discourse is a fundamental source for many halachic discussions. However, for our purposes, we are particularly interested in Rabbi Nachman’s final statement – “The reading [of the Megillah] is a Hallel.”

 

What exactly does he mean? Why can't we read both? Are we concerned about unnecessarily prolonging the service or is there a deeper message?

 

The Talmud,[2] in a discussion relating to Rabbinic festive days cancelled as a result of the destruction of the Beit Mikdash, notes that the two ‘surviving’ festivals are Chanukah and Purim.

 

By briefly comparing these two festivals, perhaps we can understand Rabbi Nachman’s statement a little better. By doing so, we will also understand what Purim is all about.

 

When discussing the essence of Chanukah,[3] the Talmud places the emphasis on the miracle of the oil, seemingly ignoring the miraculous military victory of the few against the many:

“What is the reason we celebrate Chanukah? Our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev, the days of Chanukah commence… For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils, and when the Chashmonaim prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil with the High Priest’s seal, which contained sufficient oil for only one day's lighting. Yet a miracle occurred and that small amount of oil kept the Menorah alight for eight days. The following year these days were appointed as a festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving.”

Chanukah is the celebration of a clear and distinct supernatural miracle. Wars are occasionally won by the underdog and those victories can often be explained naturally, such as due to the enemy’s inefficiency or complacency.

But when a small quantity of oil lasts for over a week, in the nation’s most central and holy site, the revelation is indisputable. No natural explanation will suffice. Therefore, Chazal preferred to emphasize the open miracle of the oil over the more ‘natural miracle’ of victory at war.

Purim is a different story altogether. If Chanukah salutes the overt miracle, Purim is the celebration of God in Nature.

Let us take a brief look at the timescale of the events as described in the Megillah:  

Stage 1, Chapter 1:3: "…In the third year of his reign, he made a feast for all his princes and his servants, the army of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him…"

The story begins in the third year of Achashveirosh’s reign. He hosts a feast and incites a scandal leading to the dethronement of Queen Vashti.

 

Stage 2, Chapter 2:16: "So Esther was taken to King Achashveirosh into his royal house in the 10th month, which is the month of Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign."

 

The events that occurred between the third and seventh years are not detailed in the Megillah.

 

Stage 3, Chapter 3:7: “In the first month, which is the month of Nissan, in King Achashveirosh’s 12th year, they cast Pur, lots, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the 12th month, which is the month of Adar.

 

Bigtan and Teresh’s foiled assassination attempt and Haman’s rise to power are not dated. Haman’s decision to destroy the Jewish people is. It did not happen till the 12th year of the king’s reign. Hence, another five years are unaccounted for in our story. 

 

Stage 4, Chapter 3:12: “Then the king's scribes were called on the 13th day of the first month, and it was written according to all that Haman commanded the king's ministers and governors over every province, and to the princes of every people; to every province in their own writing and to every people in their own language. It was written in the name of King Achashveirosh and sealed with the king's ring.”

 

The bulk of the Megillah covers a three to four day period, beginning with the official publication of Haman’s decree on the 13th of Nissan and culminating with his hanging on the second day of Pesach just a few days later – all this occurred in the 12th year too.

 

Stage 5, Chapter 8:9: “Then the king's scribes were summoned, on the 23rd day of the third month, the month of Sivan, and they wrote all that Mordechai commanded to the Jews and to the ministers, governors and princes of the provinces from India unto Ethiopia, 127 provinces. Each province according to its writing, and every people in its language and to the Jews according to their writing and their language.”

 

Approximately two and a half months after Haman's demise, King Achashveirosh officially changes sides and pledges strategic and military allegiance to Mordechai and Esther.

 

Stage 6, Chapter 9:1:Now on the 13th day of the 12th month, the month of Adar, when the king's commandment and decree were about to be implemented, on the day the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them; it all turned to the contrary and the Jews ruled over those who hated them…”

 

Finally, on the day originally marked by Haman for a national and international pogrom, the tables are turned and, with the support of the king’s armies, Am Yisrael overcome their enemies.

 

As we review the story of Purim, we note it takes place over a nine-year period. In contrast to the obvious miracle of Chanukah, it is fair to assume that people did not immediately identify the hand of God in the political turmoil in Shushan. Even in the 21st century, when we have 24/7 global communication, there are few who would connect events of a decade ago with the evolving reality of the present.[4]

Perhaps Chazal decided to retain Chanukah and Purim in the Jewish calendar because they reflect the different ways the Almighty acts in this world. We do see open revelation on occasion but He is very much involved in all that is taking place even when His handiwork is not so plain to see,. 

 

When we summarize events in a 45-minute reading of the Megillah, it is impossible to deny God's involvement. This is exactly what Rav Nachman means, “The reading [of the Megillah] is a Hallel…

 

Hallel is recited on occasions when the miracle is obvious – the Exodus, Matan Torah, the Clouds of Glory surrounding us in the desert (Sukkot) and on Chanukah. On these days there is no need to praise God in any other way. The revelation is clear and we voice our thanks by reciting the chosen chapters in Tehillim. The objective of Hallel is to acknowledge Hashem’s existence and involvement on the specific occasion we are commemorating.

 

Thus, it is less relevant to recite Hallel on Purim, because God is seemingly less obviously present. There is no sea-splitting or awesome thunder and lightning.

 

The best way to celebrate the involvement of the Almighty is by reading the Megillah. Because when we read the story of Purim, we clearly see God's controlling involvement in the natural, constant flow of human history.[5]

 

And that is the message we are meant to internalize in our daily lives… naturally.

 

 

 



[1] Erchin 10a-10b.

[2] Rosh Hashanah 18a-19b.

[3] Shabbat 21b.

[4] A strong hint to the meaning of Purim is contained in the name, ‘Esther,’ which is a derivative of the Hebrew ‘seter’ – ‘hidden.’

 

[5]  Indeed, there is no Hebrew word for history. Rav Kook took the Hebrew transliteration of the English – “historia” and said it referred to “hester yah,” the hidden hand of God.

 

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