Here is a rarity. The Rama records a widespread Ashkenazic minhag, and yet many if most Ashkenazic batei knesset no longer follow this practice but instead follow the Sephardic practice. This is indeed a rare occurrence, but it has happened and is happening regarding the recital of Hallel in the synagogue on the night of the first night of Pesach (and second night, for those who do not have the privilege to live in Eretz Yisrael). We will try to explain the reason for this change by tracing the minhag to its source until current developments.
Background for the Dispute Between the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama
Maran Rav Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 587:4) records the practice to recite Hallel “b’tzibbur” (with the community in the synagogue) with a bracha on the first (and for some the second as well) night of Pesach. Universal Sephardic practice is to recite this Hallel with a bracha, as noted by Chacham Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 5:34). The Rama, however, insists that the Ashkenazic practice is not to say Hallel in the synagogue “at all.”
The recital of Hallel in the synagogue on the first night of Pesach has an impressive pedigree. Its sources are the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sukkah 4:5), Tosefta (Sukkah 3:2) and Masechet Soferim (20:9). Why then does the Rama object to this practice? The answer is that the Talmud Bavli, the most authoritative Talmudic source, makes no mention of this practice! The Rambam, as well, makes no mention of this practice! Thus, although there is a strong basis for reciting Hallel on the first night of Pesach, there is also a strong basis for not reciting it at that time.
The Reason for the Change in Ashkenazic Practice
The first major chink in the armor of the Ashkenazic custom is the practice of chasidim who pray Nusach Sefard to follow the ruling of Maran to recite this Hallel (as noted by the Mishnah Berurah 487:16). Nusach Sefard is hugely impacted by the Arizal, who enthusiastically endorsed the recital of Hallel on the first night of Pesach in great measure due to its great significance according to Kabbalah (as cited in the Ba’eir Heitev 487:9).
The second major blow was struck by the Vilna Ga’on, who endorsed the ruling of Maran (Bi’ur HaGra to Orach Chaim 671:7) to recite this bracha on the Hallel recited in the beit knesset on the first night of Pesach. This was followed by Rav Chaim Soloveitchik who followed in the footsteps of the Vilna Gaon (as was his wont) and endorsed the recital of Hallel in the beit knesset on this occasion, as reported by his grandson Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Shi’urim L’Zecher Abba Mari Z”l 1:3). Rav Chaim noted that the pasuk in Yeshayahu (30:29 with Rashi) “HaShir yihyeh lachem k’leil hitkadeish chag” clearly demonstrates that Hallel is recited on the first night of Pesach.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in turn, instructed (as reported by Rav Hershel Schachter in Nefesh HaRav pp.183-184 in the 5754 edition) his numerous rabbinical students at Yeshiva University to introduce the recital of Hallel on the first night of Pesach in the synagogue, if it were possible for them to do so. Often, Rav Soloveitchik’s students were able to follow through on their Rav’s recommendation. For example, Rav Yosef Adler has guided Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck to follow this practice. This has impacted dozens of congregations throughout North America to change their practice to recite this Hallel. Similarly, Yalkut Yosef (Orach Chaim 487:6) writes: “Even those communities who have not yet adopted the practice to recite Hallel at Arvit on the first night of Pesach, it is worthy and proper to adopt this precious practice.”
In Eretz Yisrael it has become accepted for almost all congregations to recite Hallel on the first night of Pesach in the beit knesset. As we have noted elsewhere, whenever the practice of Sephardic Jews, chasidic Jews and the Vilna Ga’on converges, this has emerged as the almost universally accepted practice in Israel. The reason for this is simple: At the time when the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael began growing in the early 19th century, the three major groups of Jews were Sephardim, chasidim and followers of the Vilna Ga’on. These three groups were in the right place at the right time to set the halachic tone for the large influx of Jews to arrive in the next two centuries.
It is the universal Sephardic practice to recite Hallel in the beit knesset on the first night of Pesach. Although the Rama objected to this practice, most Ashkenazic Jews today have adopted the Sephardic practice due to the influence of the Arizal, the Vilna Ga’on, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and the minhag of Eretz Yisrael. With Israel emerging as the place of residence of the majority of the world’s Jews, it seems that its halachic practices will continue to impact Jews worldwide, leaving those who do not recite Hallel in the synagogue on the first night of Pesach as a distinct minority. How interesting is this case, where the Ashkenazic community has in time gradually adopted the Sephardic custom!
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.