I’m going to talk about תהילים פרק קיח, the last chapter of Hallel. When we look at Hallel, there are two types of inclusio. The first half is all הללוי־ה. The last half, פרק קיח, is hard to see as a whole because we divide it up into little songs, but it begins and ends with הודו לה׳. What is the difference? Both are terms for praising ה׳.
What is a הלל and what is a הודאה?
As a practical matter, הודאה, thanksgiving, is personal. It can’t be delegated. That’s why we have a מודים דרבנן:
This idea, that הודאה must be said by everyone, is expressed in ספר תהילים, the “siddur” of the בית המקדש.
The Gemara says that on Pesach night, we recite הלל הגדול:
רבי יהודה says הלל הגדול is תהילים קלו:
רבי יוחנן says it also includes תהילים קלה:
(רב אחא בר יעקב agrees that הלל הגדול includes תהילים קלה but it actually starts at the second הללוי־ה, in פסוק ג׳)
The two chapters basically say the same thing but are structured differently: תהילים קלו has a refrain, כי לעולם חסדו. It is הודאה, not הלל (note it says that explicitly: הודו לה׳ vs. הללו את שם ה׳), and such it has to be said by the entire קהילה. They can’t just listen to the Leviim singing. But they don’t have printed siddurim and they don’t know all the words. So תהילים קלו is structured so that the קהילה can at least sing the important parts.
הודאה needs to be said by each person and so the public expression of הודאה, what we call שירה, is said with a refrain that everyone can sing. This was first seen in the epitome of שירה, שירת הים:
הלל starts with הללוי־ה's but ends with a הודו לה׳. The last perek is a הודאה, a שירה, and is meant to be sung by all, not just the חזן. So it has a refrain; it’s just written in the first 4 and last psukim, but I imagine it was actually said after each verse, like אז ישיר. And it is a שירה about military victory, just like אז ישיר, but here it’s not a specific battle. It’s an idealized one. David is creating the archetype for how we rejoice in victory.
The first 4 psukim are introduction: come everyone join me in thanking/acknowleging ה׳. The rest of the perek is structured like an overture—it’s almost exactly the same as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. It tells the story of a battle, the chaos of war, and the triumphant return of the victors. But instead of being a paean to Russian nationalism, it’s a paean to the true source of victory, הקב״ה.
David calls out מן המצר, from“the straits”; he is constricted with no options, no place to go. ה׳ answers במרחב, with wide-open spaces. Anything is possible even when everything looks impossible.
ה׳ לי בעזרי—David has those who will help him but the only one Who matters, the One that gives him the strength to look at his enemies, is הקב״ה. טוב לחסות בה׳ מבטח באדם.
We don’t know what the problem is yet. David is expressing his faith but we too are מן המצר—our point of view is very restricted. טוב לחסות בה׳, fine, but from what?
Then the camera pulls back: כל גוים סבבוני. He is surrounded by his enemies. But he is not afraid; ה׳ will save him.
I would translate אמילם as Hirsch does: from מול, ”opposite“. בשם ה׳ כי אמילם means “with the name of G-d I can face them”.
Then סבוני כדבורים, like bees, and כאש קוצים. Both express the same image: bees sting and die; brush burns quickly and loudly but burns out.
There’s an interesting poetic technique here. All the psukim so far have had a simple parallel structure; two clauses per verse, 6 to 8 syllables each. Easy to sing (think of how we sing מן המצר). Then פסוק יב with three clauses and everything falls apart. The 1812 Overture does the same thing, as the simple musical line devolves into chaos as the French army attacks. It gives us a sense of the chaos of battle. The poem falls apart because everything is falling apart.
When the dust clears, David suddenly is addressing his enemies: דחה דחיתני לנפל. You tried to pressure me, but וה׳ עזרני. He’s thumbing his nose at them from the top of the next hill.
The scene changes to the שירה of the victors in the immediate aftermath of the battle: קול רנה וישועה באהלי צדיקים. They quote directly from the ur-שירה, אז ישיר: עזי וזמרת י־ה; ויהי לי לישועה.
Similarly in Isaiah:
And ימין ה׳ עשה חיל is an echo of אז ישיר as well: ימינך ה׳ נאדרי בכח; ימינך ה׳ תרעץ אויב.
Then David makes it personal: יסר יסרני י־ה; ולמות לא נתנני. My life is not perfect but things will work out. That is David’s approach throughout תהילים, גם זו לטובה. It’s the message of סבוני כדבורים דעכו כאש קוצים.
He then visualizes himself coming to the בית המקדש to offer his קרבן תודה. פתחו לי שערי צדק, as he says in תהילים כד:
He can’t believe it’s true; he was a nothing shepherd and now is the king of Israel. The gemara sees this as a conversation between David and his family when he is anointed:
David is the one who united all of Israel, with its united capital in Jerusalem. He describing himself entering the בית המקדש, to bring his קרבן תודה.
Then the tone changes completely: אנא ה׳ הושיעה נא. The grammar also changes; David for the first time is addressing ה׳ directly, rather than the people. I think that this is David breaking the fourth wall. He isn’t really going to enter the שערי צדק. There is no בית המקדש. The one thing he wants more than anything else, he cannot have. So for a brief moment, he cries out in despair.
Then he recovers. As this virtual parade reaches the בית המקדש, the כהנים call out ברוך הבא בשם ה׳ and he can bring his חג to the מזבח.
And that is what the entire פרק means: א־לי אתה ואודך. This is a personal song of thanksgiving, and one that all of us join in: הודו לה׳ כי טוב; כי לעולם חסדו.
We say הלל on יום ירושלים. As we look back at the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, I have to admit that it’s hard for me to feel הודאה. I was born a few months before the Six Day War, so I’ve never known a reality without ירושלים.I have to work on turning my הלל into הודאה. But something like the sentiment of this perek is appropriate. We are in David’s position. We have a united Jerusalem, an powerful independent country, but something is missing. We celebrate the victories that ה׳ had given us, but in the middle of the celebration, we realize it’s not complete. The vision of פתחו לי שערי צדק; אבא בם אודה י־ה is still just a vision. We still call out אנא ה׳ הצליחה נא.