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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Rosh Hashanah 5765
September 16-17, 2004    1-2 Tishrei 5765

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow

Hallel, the compilation of psalms recited on Jewish festivals and observances 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 holidays, one would expect not only the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Hashanah, but 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 God and of God's creations? And yet, Hallel is absent. It is both a deafening and pregnant silence in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. Why 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 song [Hallel] before You on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? God 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 the non-recitation of 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" (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2). If this is indeed the case, then Hallel should be forbidden on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot as well, since these are times of solemn judgment. 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, I once heard, Dr. Yehudah wove together a warning in 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 God is sitting in judgment on Rosh Hashanah, deciding the fate of each of us, it is as if we are pleading in God's Court. And so, to sing verses of praise, as we do in Hallel, would be tantamount to offering God a bribe. This, in turn, would inevitably affect God's judgment. The personal verdict must rest solely on teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteousness).

Dr. Yehudah offers us not only an important insight into a liturgical quandary, but more importantly, he offers us an insight into God's Character. The Torah's legislation is not solely for us, it is for the Lawgiver as well. God strives to be a God of Justice.

With wishes for a Shanah Tovah u'Metukah, a happy and sweet New Year,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.