by R. Gil Student
Thanking God is an integral part of Jewish life. We receive so much from God—from the time we wake up each morning with our full physical and mental abilities, as we go through our busy days of ups and downs, until we go to sleep with our families in our homes—that praise should naturally flow from our mouths as we recognize our good fortune. Recognition of our dependence on a higher power, the humility of human awareness, forms a crucial basis of the religious personality. The Chovos Ha-Levavos (Sha’ar Avodas Hashem, intro) builds this gratitude into a philosophical foundation of mitzvah observance: We owe God so much, the least we can do is follow His rules. For an observant Jew who prays and recites blessing throughout each day, every day is Thanksgiving.
However, the Talmud (Shabbos 118b) seems to reject this idea when it states that whoever says Hallel every day is a blasphemer. Apparently, thanking God every day is an inappropriate response to our divine gifts. This startling idea challenges not only the prayers and blessings we recite but the mitzvah observance that the Chovos Ha-Levavos says should stem from our gratitude. If we are not expected to thank God every day, why should we show gratitude by observing mitzvos?
Clearly, there is something special about Hallel that distinguishes it from other, expected praise. The Gemara itself says that Pesukei De-Zimra, part of the morning prayers, is an appropriate daily recitation. With the over 100 blessings we recite daily, our lives are filled with expressions of gratitude to God. Hallel, however, is not daily material. Why not?
Rashi (ad loc, sv. harei) explains that Hallel was established for specific days–holidays. If you recite it daily, you remove it from its proper context and treat it like a song or rote recitation, you don’t understand its significance. Hallel is reserved for special occasions, for days of extra joy and praise. It is intended to commemorate great miracles, not everyday events. If we fail to distinguish between reasons to praise God, if we ignore context and instead equate all divine gifts, we fail to truly appreciate all that God does for us.
This is a surprising message. We normally associate religious enthusiasm with a higher level of worship. We aspire to pray with inspiration and intention, with uplifting tunes and soulful tears. However, the Talmud is telling us that everything has its right place and time. When we turn regular days into holy days, we give lip service to the Lord. How can this be? How can honest, well-intentioned praise be turned away? But still, how can prayerful songs be rejected?
Rabbeinu Yonah (Berachos, 23b sv. ve-ha-amar) explains that our prayers reflect our beliefs in how God runs the world. In Judaism, not just behavior but also belief is important. Judaism teaches a worldview, an understanding of how God interacts with the world. When we pray improperly, even if inadvertently, we may be reflecting an improper religious worldview.
God runs the world in a hidden manner. Nature is a divine creation through which God’s plan is enacted every day, every moment. The religious observer sees the divine hand everywhere, hiding in our daily lives, moving events behind the scenes. Every day we thank God for the natural gifts He gives us, the successes we achieve with His help, the wise choices we make with His guidance. These are miracles but of a natural kind–hidden, constant, bound up with human action.
Then there are supernatural miracles. They dazzle us with their wonder, demonstrating God’s power to all who are willing to see. A miracle is rare, an occurrence about which legends are told, stories we transmit for generations. We celebrate miracles on our holidays and discuss them in our sacred texts. Miracles sometimes—rarely—occur even in the post-biblical world, and when they do we recite a special blessing commemorating it (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 218) and say Hallel.
Every day we thank God for the everyday miracles, the natural course of providence in which the divine hand runs the world. On holidays, we thank God for the supernatural miracles, the wonders that have come to define Jewish history. Confusing this order by reciting Hallel daily, singing about miracles rather than praying about ordinary life, risks confusing how God runs the world (Meshech Chochmah, Vayikra 26:4). It reflects a misunderstanding that can lead to denial of God’s role in the everyday world. If we only care about miracles, we neglect the divine role in everything else that happens, mistakenly relying on our own, limited abilities.
The American celebration of Thanksgiving is traditionally about thanking God for the bounty He has given us—for our sustenance, health and family. In Jewish thought, every day is that type of Thanksgiving. Note that this does not imply that there is anything within Jewish law opposing the celebration of Thanksgiving, which is a separate discussion. Celebrating the daily Thanksgiving once a year, in the fall, risks reducing the thankful praise we offer God every day. However, if done right, it may serve as a teaching moment, an example of the gratitude we must show every day.