Ashkenazim recite a Bracha when they recite Chatzi Hallel (half Hallel) on Rosh Chodesh and the last six days of Pesach, and Sephardim (with the notable exception of Moroccan Jews) do not recite a Beracha on half Hallel (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 422:2). This divergence of customs emerges from a dispute between Rabbeinu Tam and the Rambam whether a Beracha should be recited on Chatzi Hallel. In this week’s essay, we shall discuss the conceptual basis of this dispute.
The Institution of Chatzi Hallel
The Gemara (Arachin 10) outlines the eighteen days (twenty-one days for those who reside in the Galut) when we must recite Hallel. Our practice to recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and the last six days of Pesach is merely a custom. The custom to recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and the last six days of Pesach is recorded in the Gemara. In fact, the Gemara (Taanit 28b) records an anecdote regarding this practice. When the great Amoraic sage Rav first arrived in Babylonia he was shocked to discover the locals reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. He initially thought to stop them but was satisfied when he saw them skipping portions of the Hallel. He concluded that this was the local custom and that it was entirely acceptable.
Why did the skipping of portions of the Hallel motivate Rav to change his attitude towards the practice of reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh? An answer might be based on an anecdote that I heard that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik relates in the name of his grandfather Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. Rav Chaim attended a rabbinic conference held during the very difficult days of World War 1 (Rabbi Berel Wein comments that we tend to forget the enormous suffering that we endured during World War 1). The attendees debated whether to permit Ashkenazim to eat Kitniyot (rice and legumes) on Pesach that year because of severe food shortages. One group of rabbis felt that the custom must be observed even in time of difficulty to emphasize the sanctity of venerated Minhagim (customs).
Rav Chaim vehemently objected to this reasoning. He pointed to the Rambam (Hilchot Mamrim 2:9) who states that if one labels a rabbinic law as a Biblical law, he has violated the prohibition of Bal Tosif (adding to the Torah). Rav Chaim asserts that the same applies to one who treats a rabbinic law with the same severity as Torah law and certainly applies to one who treats a custom with the same severity as a Torah law. Thus, he argued that one who forbids Ashkenazim to eat Kitniyot during a time of severe distress violates Bal Tosif, since he treats the Minhag to refrain from Kitniyot with the same severity as the Torah prohibition to eat Chametz on Pesach.
Similarly, one may explain that Rav thought the Jews of Bavel (Babylon) were violating Bal Tosif by adding days to recite Hallel. However, when he saw that they distinguished between the days when Hallel is obligatory and the days when Hallel is customary, he felt that the practice does not violate Bal Tosif.
Why is Hallel not Obligatory on the Last Six Days of Pesach?
Many are familiar with the Midrash that explains the reason for omitting full Hallel on the last six days of Pesach is that the Egyptians drowned in the Yam Suf on the seventh day of Pesach. The Gemara (Arachin 10), though, offers a different explanation. The Gemara explains that the difference between Sukkot and Pesach in this regard is that there is a different Korban Mussaf offered on each day of Sukkot, while on Pesach the same Korban Mussaf is offered on each day of the holiday.
One might ask what Korbanot have to do with Hallel. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited by Rav Hershel Reichman, Reshimot Shiurim to Masechet Sukkah p. 218) explains that the fact that we offer a different Korban Mussaf on each day of Sukkot indicates that each day of Sukkot is endowed with a distinct Kedushat Hayom. On the other hand, the fact that the same Korban Mussaf is offered on each day of Pesach demonstrates that there is one unit of Kedushat Hayom (literally, sanctity of the day) for Pesach. Indeed, the Torah (in Parshat Pinchas) in describing the Mussaf of Sukkot, specifically addresses each day separately (i.e., the first day offer these Korbanot, the second day offer these Korbanot, etc.) but does not do so in describing the Mussaf of the seven days of Pesach. Thus, the distinct Kedushat Hayom of each day of Sukkot demands that we recite Hallel each day. However, the fact that the entire seven days of Pesach constitute one unit of Kedushat Hayom requires that we recite Hallel only once (or twice in Galut) during this holiday.
Interestingly, the Rav relates that once in Brisk (the city in Lithuania where Rav Chaim Soloveitchik served as the Rav), someone posed the following question to Rav Chaim. This individual for some reason did not recite Hallel during the first two days of Pesach. He asked whether he is obligated to recite the full Hallel on the third day of Pesach. Based on the above explanation, Rav Chaim ruled that he is required to recite the full Hallel. According to our explanation, there is a fundamental obligation to recite full Hallel once during Pesach, and normally this is done on the first day of the Yom Tov. The recital of Hallel on the first day fulfills the obligation to recite the Hallel once during Pesach. However, if one fails to say Hallel on the first day, the obligation to recite full Hallel once remains in effect until the end of Pesach.
Hence, Rav Chaim ruled that the man must recite full Hallel on the third day of Pesach to fulfill his obligation to recite full Hallel once during Pesach. If the man were a Sephardic Jew, Rav Chaim most likely would have ruled that the man should recite a Beracha on this Hallel, even though Sephardim do not ordinarily recite a Beracha on Chatzi Hallel. We should note that after Pesach there is no obligation or opportunity to “make up” the Hallel. The last six days of Pesach differ because the fundamental obligation exists to recite Hallel on these days, but it was discharged if he recited Hallel on the first day of Pesach.
The Dispute between the Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam
Eventually, the universally accepted practice developed to recite Chatzi Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and the last six days of Pesach (though there is some debate regarding the obligation of one who is not davening with a Minyan, see Rambam Hilchot Chanukah 3:7 and Raavad ad. loc.). The Rishonim, however, debate whether a Beracha should be recited on the recitation of Chatzi Hallel. The Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 11:16 and Hilchot Chanukah 3:7) rules that one does not recite a Beracha on Chatzi Hallel because it is merely a Minhag. Rabbeinu Tam, on the other hand, believes that one does recite a Beracha because he believes that one does recite a Beracha on a Minhag. The Machzor Vitri (a compilation of Rashi’s practices and opinions compiled by his student Rabbeinu Simcha) records that Rashi also believes that no Beracha should be recited on Chatzi Hallel.
Both sides marshal proofs from the Gemara to support their respective opinions. Rashi and Rambam can point to the Gemara (Sukkah 44b) that states that we do not recite a Beracha when we bang the Arava on the ground on Hashana Rabbah (Chibbut Arava) because it is only a Minhag. We should note, though, that this is a highly venerated custom that was initiated by the prophets, as we mention in our Tefilot before we “Klap” the Hoshanot. Rabbeinu Tam, on the other hand, points to our practice to recite a Beracha on the Mitzvot that we in the Galut perform on the second day of Yom Tov even though we observe Yom Tov Sheini only as a custom, now that we have a set calendar (see Beitzah 4b).
Analysis of Rav Velvel Soloveitchik
Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (Rav Velvel) in his comments to the Rambam Hilchot Berachot 11:16 notes that no fundamental dispute exists between Rabbeinu Tam and Rambam. Rabbeinu Tam agrees that upon some Minhagim we do not recite a Beracha (such as Chibbut Arava) and the Rambam agrees that there are Minhagim that we do recite a Beracha (such as the Mitzvot we perform on Yom Tov Sheini Shel Galuyot). Rav Velvel explains that the underlying principle upon which all agree is that we recite a Beracha only upon an act that is defined as a “Cheftza Shel Mitzva” (an entity of a Mitzva), and not upon an act that is defined as a Cheftza Shel Minhag (an entity of a Minhag). Chibbut Arava is not a Cheftza Shel Mitzva whereas the eating of Matza at the second Seder is a Cheftza Shel Mitzva. Eating Matza is an act defined as a Cheftza Shel Mitzva since at some time we use Matza to fulfill a Mitzva, unlike Chibbut Arava where we are never commanded to bang an Arava on the ground.
The Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam simply argue whether Chatzi Hallel is defined as a Cheftza of a Mitzva of Hallel. Rabbeinu Tam believes that despite the omissions, one who reads Chatzi Hallel is considered to be reciting Hallel. Thus, the recitation of Hallel is an act that is defined as an act of reciting Hallel and is regarded as a Cheftza Shel Mitzva. The Rambam, though, believes that the omissions of Chatzi Hallel alter the character of the act of reciting Hallel and that reciting Chatzi Hallel is not defined as an act of reciting Hallel. The Rambam believes that the act of reciting Chatzi Hallel is merely an act of reading chapters from Tehillim and thus is defined as a Cheftza Shel Minhag.
The Ramban and Raavad present variations on the opinions of the Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam. The Raavad (gloss to Rambam Hilchot Berachot 11:16) suggests that while he agrees with the Rambam that a Beracha should not be recited upon Hallel of the last six days of Pesach, he agrees with Rabbeinu Tam that a Beracha be recited on Chatzi Hallel when said on Rosh Chodesh. He presents an enigmatic explanation for this approach. He writes that the Hallel of Rosh Chodesh is different because “its function is to publicize that it is Rosh Chodesh.” One might explain that the Raavad fundamentally agrees with the Rambam that reciting Chatzi Hallel per se is not defined as a Beracha. However, Chatzi Hallel on Rosh Chodesh deserves a Beracha because then it constitutes a Cheftza Shel Mitzva, the Mitzva of publicizing that it is Rosh Chodesh. Publicizing that it is Rosh Chodesh is an expression of the Mitzva that we all perform in establishing the day as Rosh Chodesh simply by treating the day of Rosh Chodesh. The Rav developed this idea at great length in many essays including Kovetz Chiddushei Torah pp.47-65 and Shiurim Lezecher Abba Mari z”l 1:129-132.
The Ramban (cited by the Kesef Mishna to Hilchot Berachot 11:16) presents a fourth opinion, that a Beracha is recited on Chatzi Hallel only on the last six days of Pesach but not on Rosh Chodesh. The reason for this offers the Ramban is that the last six days are referred to the Torah as a Moed (holiday). He appears to fundamentally agree with Rabbeinu Tam that Chatzi Hallel is defined as a Cheftza Shel Mitzva. However, the Ramban believes that Chatzi Hallel is defined as a Cheftza Shel Mitzva only on the last six days of Pesach since it is called a Moed and a fundamental obligation exists to recite Hallel, as we explained earlier. In contradistinction, since there is no fundamental obligation to recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (outside the Bait Hamikdash) reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is not considered a Cheftza Shel Mitzva.
We have analyzed the four-way dispute among the Rishonim regarding the recitation of a Beracha upon Chatzi Hallel and seen a rigorous explanation for each opinion. Thus, everyone should maintain the Minhag of his family and/or their community regarding this issue.