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119a: What is "Birkat Hashir"?

Rav Ezra Bick
Text file

This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of 
Rebbetzin Ruth Schonfeld z”l
by Melinda Menucha Robeson


Last week, we began the mishna (118b) about the third and fourth cups of wine. This led to our discussion of the sources for a fifth cup, not mentioned in the mishna, but referred to by one textual variant in the gemara. We now continue with that gemara, which is a discussion of the "birkat hashir" (blessing of the song) mentioned in the mishna.

            We are on the first line of 119a, "mai birkat hashir."




            First, we recall the mishna. "On the fourth (cup), he completes the hallel, and recites over it the birkat hashir." The Rashbam promptly promised us that the meaning of "birkat hashir" would be "explained in the gemara." Which is precisely what the first gemara (119a) does.

Mai birkat hashir.

What is "birkat hashir"?

Rav Yehuda said: "Yehallelucha HaShem Elokeinu" (the blessing which concludes the hallel all year).

R. Yochanan said: "Nishmat kol chai" (The blessing which concludes the morning psalms on Shabbat).


The Rabbis taught: On the fourth, he completes the hallel, and he recites the hallel hagadol (the great hallel) - These are the words of R. Tarfon.

And others say: HaShem is my shepherd I shall not want.


            The mishna has used an unidentified phrase for the concluding blessing of hallel on Pesach night. Since it is called "birkat hashir," the blessing of the song, it would appear to be a blessing recited over songs; i.e., psalms. There basically are two possibilities - either hallel or the daily recital of pesukei d'zimra, the morning hymns from Psalms. Those are the two answers given by the gemara. There exist two different blessings: "Yehallelucha," recited after hallel; and "Nishmat," which is the long form of the blessing after pesukei d'zimra recited on Shabbat.


            Analysis of the text of these two blessings would reveal what the difference between them is, a difference that is not obvious on first glance, as both state more or less that God is worthy of all praise and blessing. That philosophical exegesis is not, however, what concerned the commentators here. Rather, they concentrated on understanding exactly how these blessings relate to the text of the haggada.


            We will begin with the Rashbam.


Yehallelucha - and we conclude "baruch ata HaShem melech mehullal batishbachot." And this is the "blessing of song" in the mishna; in other words, a blessing of praise.


Rav Yochanan said: Nishmat kol chai - Also Nishmat, for that is the blessing of song of the mishna, for "Yehallelucha" is recited every day when there is hallel, and why would the eve of Pesach be different that it was necessary to mention it, if not to add on an additional blessing. And this is the meaning of what is said (below) that the halakha is like R. Yochanan in both. And they instituted it (Nishmat) after the hallel hagadol, which has to be said, as is written below, and now there is one (blessing) for each one. And this way it all works out well; so it seems to me.


            According to the Rashbam, R. Yehuda requires Yehallelucha after hallel, while R. Yochanan requires Yehallelucha AND Nishmat.


            What is the reason, in your opinion, that according to the Rashbam Yehallelucha is definitely included, and the argument only revolves whether Nishmat is also included?




            The reason, I think, is simple. Yehallelucha is the regular concluding blessing of hallel, as it is recited on every holiday during the year. There is no reason, at least as the Rashbam sees it, that it should not be the concluding blessing on the night of Pesach. Why should "Nishmat" be substituted for the regular blessing? Hence, the Rashbam concludes that R. Yochanan's promotion of "Nishmat" is in addition to "Yehallelucha."


            But this raises an obvious problem. How can there be two concluding blessings for one prayer. There is no answer for this given in the Talmud. The Rashbam, however, invents one, by noticing that in the FOLLOWING section, the Talmud mentions the recitation of "hallel hagadol." In order to make room for two concluding blessings, the Rashbam suggests that R. Yochanan intended that Yehallelucha conclude the normal recitation of hallel (as it does all year), and "Nishmat" conclude the subsequent recitation of hallel hagadol. "And now there is one (blessing) for each one. And this way it all works out well; so it seems to me."


            If you remember from last week, other Rishonim (the Rif) have a text which places hallel hagadol together with a FIFTH cup. The mishna mandates "birkat hashir" as the conclusion of the recitation of the FOURTH cup. Accordingly, it would be impossible to have R. Yochanan mandating "Nishmat" after hallel hagadol, and this would restore the problem of having two blessings over one recital. The Rashbam, however, has R. Tarfon requiring hallel hagadol immediately after the regular hallel, all of which are part of the fourth cup (and there is no fifth cup of all). This allows him to split up the two concluding blessings.


            Having two blessings presented the Rashbam with a HALAKHIC  problem, which he solved by having the two blessings relate to two different recitations (hallel and hallel hagadol). But there is also a textual problem, which the Rashbam ignores. The mishna refers to "birkat hashir," the BLESSING of the song. This seems to imply that there is only one blessing, and not two.


            This is the question posed by R. Chaim at the end of the Tosafot (s.v. "Rabi Yochanan").


R. Chaim Kohen would not have a conclusion to Yehallelucha (i.e.; he would not recite the last line of "Yehallelucha," beginning with "Baruch ata HaShem"), but only to Nishmat alone, because the phrase "birkat hashir" implies only one blessing.


            The solution of R. Chaim Kohen is to recite both blessings, Yehallelucha and Nishmat, but to have only one "Baruch" conclusion, after the second one (Nishmat). Now, in the Rashbam's model, the reasoning is presumably that hallel and hallel hagadol are two different prayers, and each one has its own blessing. But according to R. Chaim Kohen, it would appear that the two together constitute a single  expanded hallel. The question then is, why is the text of Yehallelucha (without a conclusion) inserted into the middle of this expanded hallel? The answer can only be that since hallel normally ends without the addition of hallel hagadol, a short prayer is left in place to indicate that point, but this is not a blessing, since in fact hallel has not been formally concluded. R. Chaim Kohen was forced to this conclusion by the singular form of the phrase "birkat hashir."


            What I have just written is based on my juxtaposing R. Chaim Kohen to the Rashbam. However, reading the entire Tosafot gives a different impression. (The Tosafot, in punctuated Hebrew with English translation, can be seen here:)



R. Yochanan amar

Rav Yochanan said: "Nishmat kol chai" - It would appear that this is the correct interpretation - also "Nishmat kol chai," after Yehallelucha. For if you do not say so, who are we following?

And he calls "Nishmat" the blessing on the song because we recite it on Shabbat after pesukei d'zimra.

And R. Chaim Kohen would not have a conclusion to Yehallelucha, but only to Nishmat alone, because the phrase "birkat hashir" implies only one blessing.


            In this context, R. Chaim is responding not to the Rashbam, but to the first part of Tosafot. Like the Rashbam, Tosafot explains that R. Yochanan is ADDING Nishmat to Yehallelucha and not substituting it. However, there are two differences.


            First, there is a difference concerning the reasoning. Tosafot does not mention the Rashbam's argument that Yehallelucha must be recited as it is the customary conclusion of hallel the whole year. Instead he argues from his own practice, which apparently was to recite both Yehallelucha and Nishmat (which is what is found in most Ashkenazi haggadot to this day). The halakhic practice must conform to one of the positions in the Talmud, so it must be that R. Yochanan mandated both blessings.


            The other difference - and this is the important one for us - is that the Tosafot do not mention postponing Nishmat until after hallel hagadol, with Yehallelucha immediately after hallel. The simple reading of Tosafot, without benefit of having the Rashbam in memory, is that both blessings are recited together. Then R. Chaim Kohen eliminated the "Baruch" from the end of Yehallelucha. The result is one long blessing, beginning Yehallelucha, continuing with Nishmat, and concluding with the conclusion of Nishmat ("Baruch… habocher b'sirei zimra, melech kel chai ha-olamim"). The problem I raised above, of a textual break in the middle of the "enlarged" hallel, does not exist.


            But, is this correct? Does Tosafot think that Yehallelucha and Nishmat are recited sequentially, without hallel hagadol in between?




            That is a good question. In the Tosafot, it definitely seems that way. However, remember that the reason Tosafot explained that we recite both Yehallelucha and Nishmat was because that was the practice in his time. Now, in our haggadot, hallel hagadol comes between Yehallelucha and Nishmat. Siddurim and haggadot do not change much, and I suspect that the same was true for the author of this Tosafot. If so, then R. Chaim Kohen is referring to the custom of the Rashbam, even though that is not explicit in the language of the Tosafot.




            In fact, there is another version of this discussion, found in the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher). (I have added a few notes of clarification to the text.)


The Rashbam explained that we follow both (Rav Yehuda and R. Yochanan), and we conclude the hallel with "baruch ata HaShem, melech mehulal batishbachot" (the usual conclusion of Yehallelucha), and then we say hallel hagadol and Nishmat, and conclude again with "baruch ata HaShem, melech mehulal batishbachot."

And R. Chaim Kohen did not conclude Yehallelucha with "baruch ata HaShem, melech mehulal batishbachot," for since he would have to conclude (a blessing) at the end of Yishtabach (i.e., Nishmat), why have two identical conclusions.


            This text has an additional fact concerning the opinion of the Rashbam, and that additional fact is the focus of R. Chaim Kohen's disagreement (rather than the textual point made in Tosafot). What is the new point in the Rosh's version of the Rashbam that we had not formerly seen, and how does that affect the comment of R. Chaim Kohen?




            The Rosh quotes the Rashbam as having two blessings, Yehallelucha and Nishmat. However, the Rashbam changed the final conclusion of Nishmat from that found in the Shabbat siddur to the usual conclusion of Hallel. Instead of saying "Baruch… habocher b'shirei zimra melech kel chai ha-olamim," the Rashbam said "Baruch… melech mehulal batishbachot" a second time. In the Rosh's version of the ensuing discussion, this was the point that led R. Chaim Kohen to not have a concluding blessing to Yehallelucha, for it is impossible, in his opinion, to recite the SAME blessing twice (and the last line, the "chatima," is apparently the defining part of the blessing).


            This version of the Rashbam is also quoted in the Tur (which is not surprising since the Tur was written by the Rosh's son, R. Yaacov).


            Since there is no indication in the text of the Talmud for the Rashbam's version of Nishmat, it is clear that he made a deliberate decision to change the conclusion from the usual one. Why?




The answer apparently is that the Rashbam is convinced that the conclusion to hallel is "melech mehulal batishbachot." Adding the text of Nishmat will not, in his opinion, change this. If it appears that one is meant to recite both Yehallelucha and Nishmat, then both must have that conclusion.


Assuming that in this version of the Rashbam, the separation of Yehallelucha and Nishmat which we saw in our Rashbam still holds (although the Rosh does not mention it), we could conclude that according to the Rashbam there are two hallels on Pesach night, the regular hallel, and a second one, the hallel hagadol. Since both have the halakhic status of hallel, they require the same concluding blessing, at least in the final crucial line (the chatima).


Check in your haggada to see what is the prevalent custom today (there is a difference between Ashkenaz and Sefarad in this point, and some haggadot follow the Vilna Gaon, who had a different custom than the regular Ashkenaz one).






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