Let’s begin by laying out what we say, and when we say it.

Hallel, which literally means “praise,” is composed of Psalms 113-118 and is recited in praise of G‑d’s miracles and His salvation of the Jewish nation from a particular crisis.

The entire Hallel is added to the daily prayers on the following holidays:

Passover (the first two days)
Shavuot
Sukkot
Chanukah

We say a truncated version (known colloquially has “half-Hallel”) on the following occasions:

Rosh Chodesh
● The intermediate and last days of Passover

(There are differences of opinion whether the recital of Hallel is a biblical1 or rabbinic2 obligation.)

Why these days, and why two different lengths? Let’s have a look.

It Is Said on Holidays

The Talmud explains that as a very general rule, Hallel is recited on days that are a) called a mo’ed (holiday) in the Torah; and b) days on which one is prohibited to work.3 Thus, Hallel is recited on the three major festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

Additionally, Hallel is also recited on days when miraculous salvation took place for our people. Many authorities limit this to miracles in which the entire Jewish nation was saved, not just individual communities.4

Shabbat and High Holidays: The Exceptions

Although one is prohibited to work on Shabbat, it is not called a mo’ed in Scripture,5 and therefore Hallel is not recited then (we will get to Rosh Chodesh a bit later).

Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would seem to fit the bill, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Abahu explains that the ministering angels asked this very question of G‑d, who replied to them: “Is it possible that the King sits on the Throne of Judgment, and the Book of Life and the Book of Death are open before Him, and [the nation of] Israel sings before Me!?” 6

Passover vs. Sukkot

You may have noticed that there is a difference between Passover and Sukkot: On Sukkot, the entire Hallel is recited every day, while on Passover, the entire Hallel is only recited the first two days.7

Two reasons are given for this, one having to do with the uniqueness of Sukkot and the other of Passover.

On each day of Sukkot, the priests would bring a different unique offering in the Holy Temple. Thus each day is considered a separate and unique holiday, and the complete Hallel is recited. On Passover, however, the same offering was brought every day.

The Midrash explains that the reason we don’t recite the entire Hallel on the final days of Passover is that these days commemorate the miracle of the Jews safely crossing the sea while the Egyptian army drowned. G‑d Himself declared: “My creatures are drowning in the sea; it is not a time for the full expression of joy.”8 Since the full Hallel is not said on the final days of the holiday, neither is it recited during the intermediate days (chol hamoed), as it is not proper that these days be more joyous than the main days of the holiday.9

Why Chanukah?

Although one is permitted to work on Chanukah and it is also not called a holiday in Scripture, Hallel is nevertheless recited, for as explained, Hallel commemorates the miracles, and every day of Chanukah marks the miracle of the oil lasting one more day. We therefore recite (the complete) Hallel every day of Chanukah.10

Why Not Purim?

Although the holiday of Purim also commemorates a miraculous salvation that occurred to the Jewish people, Hallel is nevertheless not recited. The Talmud gives a number of reasons for this:11

● Once the Jews became a nation and entered the Land of Israel, Hallel could only be instituted for miracles that happened for the entire nation in the land of Israel.

● Reading the Megillah, in which we recount the story of Purim, is in itself a form of Hallel.12

● In Hallel, we say, “Praise, servants of G‑d . . .”—because of G‑d’s salvation, we are free to serve Him. In the story of Purim, however, even after the miracle, we were still under Achashveirosh’s rule.

Rosh Chodesh and “Half-Hallel”

The Talmud explains that Rosh Chodesh, although referred to as a mo’ed in Scripture, is not sanctified with the prohibition of work, and therefore Hallel would not be recited.

Indeed, until about the 3rd century, it wasn’t the custom to recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh in Israel, only in Babylonia. The Talmud recounts that Rav (a first generation Talmudic scholar) once went to Babylonia and was perturbed when the congregation began reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. He was going to stop them, until he noticed that they were skipping parts of Hallel, and then decided not to, saying, “I see that they are observing a custom of their fathers.”13

Nowadays, it has become the universal custom to recite parts of Hallel (sometimes called “half-Hallel,” even though it is more like 85%) on Rosh Chodesh.

So why do we recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, when work is permitted and no miracle occurred?

It is either in remembrance of the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month14 or to publicize that that day is Rosh Chodesh.15

This would explain why it wasn’t the custom to recite Hallel in Israel, since at that time, they knew when Rosh Chodesh was and still sanctified the new moon based on the testimony of witnesses.16 Thus, no Hallel was necessary.

The commentaries explain that we find that the word hallelujah (“praise G‑d”) 12 times in the last chapter of Psalms. This corresponds to the 12 months of the year and hints to the Hallel that is recited on the first day of every month.17

This psalm starts with the words “Hallelujah! Praise God in His holy place . . .” The word בְּקָדְשׁוֹ (“in His holy place”) can be read as “in His sanctifying,” i.e., “Praise G‑d when we sanctify Him.”18

Although there are reasons for reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, nevertheless, only partial Hallel is recited. There are two reasons for this: a) because it is only a custom to recite Hallel on Rosh Chodesh as opposed to the holidays when it is obligatory;19 or b) because Rosh Chodesh is also in a small degree a day of atonement and forgiveness, similar to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (when Hallel is not recited).

Why Skip Specifically Those Parts?

Although there used to be various customs about which portions of the Hallel to skip, nowadays the custom is to skip the first half of Psalm 116 and the first half of Psalm 117. One explanation for this is that the themes of the first half of these psalms are very similar to the second half. Thus, although we are “skipping” part of Hallel, we don’t miss out on the major themes.20

From Salvation to Redemption

Although the verses of Hallel explicitly talk about the exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah, the Talmud explains that implicit in the verses is the Resurrection of the Dead and the birthpangs of the final redemption and the coming of Moshiach.21 May we merit this speedily in our days!