Aharon was one hundred and twenty-three years old when he died at Hor Hahar

Classic Questions

Why does the Torah state the age at which Aharon passed away? (v. 39)

Jerusalem Talmud: The 123 years of Aharon's life correspond to the 123 times that the Jewish people answer "halleluka" when reciting Hallel (Shabbos 16:1).

Rambam: In the days of the early sages, the custom for reciting Hallel was as follows:

After the leader who was reciting the Hallel made the blessing, he said the word "halleluka" and the congregation responded, "halleluka!"

He said, "halelu avdei Hashem," and the congregation responded, "halleluka!"

He then said, "halelu es shaim Hashem," and the congregation responded, "halleluka!"

He then said, "Yehi shaim Hashem mevorach me'atah ve'ad olam," and the congregation responded, "halleluka!"

This continued with each verse so that they answered "halleluka!" a total of 123 times throughout the recitation of Hallel. This number corresponds to the years that Aharon lived....

This is an ancient custom which is appropriate to follow.

(Laws of Megilah and Chanukah 3:12-14)

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Years of Aharon's Life (v. 39)

The Jerusalem Talmud and Rambam explain that Aharon's 123 years correspond to the number of verses in Hallel. But what is the significance of this connection, more than the superficial similarity between the number of verses and his lifespan? And why did Rambam deem it necessary to mention the connection between Aharon and Hallel?

A further question concerns Rambam's recommendation that "this is an ancient custom which is appropriate to follow." Commentaries on the Talmud (Succah 38a) explain that this custom of a responsive Hallel was instituted because there was a decline in Jewish knowledge in those days, to the extent that many people were not familiar with the text of Hallel. Thus, it became necessary to devise a method whereby the congregation could fulfill their obligation to recite Hallel without knowing the words.

So what, according to Rambam, is so admirable about this practice that makes it "appropriate to follow" at other times, when people are familiar with Hallel? Surely it was only devised for negative reasons, due to the desperation of the times?

And why does Rambam require the response of "halleluka" after every verse in Hallel, in contrast to other opinions (Tosfos, Ran & Ritvah) which only require responses for the first chapter of Hallel?

The Explanation

If Rambam understood that answering "halleluka!" alone was a mere leniency, then he certainly would not recommend that "it is appropriate to follow" this custom. How could it be "appropriate" to follow a leniency?

Rather, according to Rambam, the "ancient custom" of reciting Hallel is not a leniency at all. In fact, it is the ideal method of reciting Hallel. Despite the fact that the causes that led to this method of reciting Hallel were negative, the solution nevertheless contains no compromise or leniency. This is because Rambam understood that by answering "halleluka!" alone, one fulfills the obligation to recite Hallel exactly as if one would have said the entire Hallel oneself (rather like the principle that a person who says "amen" is like the one who makes the blessing—Rambam, Laws of Blessings 1:11).

Since one is fulfilling one's entire obligation through answering "halleluka!", it follows that, according to Rambam, it is necessary to make a response after every single verse, and not just at specific highlights. Thus a total of 123 responses are required.

In the final analysis, Rambam's recommended method of Hallel has both advantages, of being: a.) in total communal harmony, through responsive recital; and yet b.) not at the expense of any individual following a leniency, for each person is considered to have recited the entire Hallel himself.

Genuine unity without compromise was the life mission of Aharon. After he passed away, at 123 years, the entire Jewish people mourned (above 20:29). And they mourned even more than after Moshe's passing, as Aharon was a person who constantly pursued communal peace (See Rashi ibid.). Thus the communal recital of Hallel and Aharon's 123 years share a common theme.

In fact, even the reason for this type of Hallel recital is reminiscent of Aharon. For, just as the responsive Hallel was instituted for the sake of simple Jews, likewise, Aharon's life was devoted to bringing simple people closer to Torah.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 23, p. 229ff.)