From beginning to end, from kadeish to nirtzeh, from avdus to cheirus, from galus to geulah, all of Klal Yisroel, individually and collectively, climb fifteen steps to complete the Pesach Seder.
Just like the fifteen steps leading up to the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, and the fifteen Shir HaMaalos, the Songs of Ascent, composed by Dovid HaMelech in Tehillim.
Just like the fifteen stages of miraculous redemption recited in the dayeinus toward the end of Maggid in the Haggadah, and the fifteen generations from Avrohom Avinu’s recognition of HaShem to Shlomo HaMelech’s completion of the Temple.
Just like the fifteen days from receiving the first mitzvah in the Torah on Rosh Chodesh Nisan until the day HaShem led our forebears forth from Mitzrayim to begin their journey to Eretz Yisroel, and the fifteen words comprised by the Birkas Kohanim.
What is the significance of the number 15, and why is it so integrally connected with Pesach and redemption?
In our search for answers, let us begin at the beginning. Each day, the Jew begins his avodas HaShem with the recitation of Pesukei D’Zimra, the first fifteen verses of which (beginning with Hodu LaShem kiru biShmoh) were recited by the Leviim in the Mishkan every morning in concert with the korban tomid,1 and the conclusion of which, Yishtebach, contains fifteen distinct expressions of praise for the Master of the World. It was in reference to Pesukei D’Zimra that Rabbi Yossi said, “May my portion be with those who complete Hallel every day.”2
Yet Rabbi Yossi’s comment raises many questions. Why does he refer to Pesukei D’Zimra as “Hallel,” especially in light of the gemara’s objection that “one who recites Hallel every day is a heretic”?3 And why does the gemara’s reference to Pesukei D’Zimra apply, according to Rambam, only to the final chapters of Tehillim beginning with Tehillah L’Dovid, the third verse of Ashrei?4
Even the name Pesukei D’Zimra is puzzling. According to Rav Hirsch, the word shira, usually translated as “song,” refers to a composition of words rather than music, more akin to what we would think of as lyrics or poetry. Zemer, Rav Hirsch explains, refers to melody that accompanies the words, transforming poetry into true song. Indeed, whereas we sing zemiros on Shabbos, where do we find music accompanying the words of Pesukei D’Zmira? Would it not be more accurate to call the introductory section of morning davening Pesukei D’Shira?
Evidently, Rabbi Yossi recognized some connection between Hallel and Pesukei D’Zimra so profound that he substituted the name of one for the other. The term “Hallel,” explains the Sfas Emes, implies a pure and unadulterated perception of HaShem’s power and glory. Much the way Nachum Ish Gamzu declared gam zu laTova, refusing to recognize even the most acute crisis or suffering as anything other than an expression of the Divine Will, so too is the recitation of Hallel an expression of HaShem’s absolute unity and ultimate benevolence. This is consistent with the gemara’s explanation that the six Tehillim comprised by Hallel allude to the most foundational events in Jewish tradition: yetzias Mitzrayim, Kriyas Yam Suf, Matan Torah, techias haMeisim, and yemos HaMoshiach.5
If the praises of Hallel represent the Jew’s response to the revelation of the yad HaShem through open miracles, then we can begin to understand the gemara’s assertion that one who recites Hallel every day is an apikoros. Since we live in a world of concealment where the shroud of nature belies the spiritual reality of HaShem echad, to praise HaShem daily for His open miracles by reciting Hallel amounts to a denial of the hidden miracles that define our earthly existence.
Consequently, Rabbi Yossi comes to tell us how the spirit of Hallel may be fulfilled daily, even though Hallel itself may not be said. Indeed, Meshech Chochmah explains that the greatest miracle of all is nature itself, the seamless fusion of all the forces of the world into a single, unvarying system.
Science itself testifies thus: the principle of entropy, founded in Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, describes the natural state of the universe as tending always toward disorder. If so, the original ordering of the natural world that produced the immutable regularity of nature’s laws cannot be accounted for by the laws of nature themselves.6 What greater testimony to HaShem’s involvement in every aspect of the workings of creation?
Of all the practices that might define the tzaddikim with whom Rabbi Yossi would choose to share his lot, he singles out those who recite Pesukei D’Zimra every day. His choice resonates with the gemara that identifies anyone who recites Ashrei three times a day as a ben Olam HaBah.7 It requires little from us to recognize and acknowledge the Ribono Shel Olam when His presence is clearly revealed. To recognize and acknowledge Him when He conceals His face demands a much higher level of emunah.
Pesukei D’Zimra, therefore, with Ashrei as its focal point, is the daily equivalent of Hallel. With its verses arranged sequentially according to aleph-beis, Ashrei asserts the natural order of creation. Just as no thinking person can deny the seder, or order, of the physical world, so too one cannot rationally deny the existence of the Supreme Orderer. Through the verses of Ashrei, Dovid HaMelech declares that nature itself testifies to the Me’sadder, the One who put the world in order, the One who perpetually opens His hand and satisfies every living thing.
With this understanding, Rav Hirsch’s definition of zemer now provides an extraordinary insight into the essence of Pesukei D’Zmira. Whereas shira refers only to the words, zemer refers to the accompanying melody that produces harmony, transforming mere lyrics and a simple tune into transcendent music. To Rav Hirsch’s understanding, zemer is “the audible soaring of the spirit to the heights of rapture, and the mature outcome of thoughts that were working in the soul. This loftiest work of the human spirit in which his noblest energy unfolds itself is, when inspired by the thoughts of G-d, itself a work of G-d.”8
By reciting Pesukei D’Zmira, we celebrate the divine harmony of creation, praising the Conductor who arranges the orchestration of all the inhabitants of the world so that every one of them sings His praises every moment of every day.
If we had to choose whether the Pesach seder fits in better with the supernatural theme of Hallel or the natural theme of Ashrei, our intuitive answer would almost certainly be the former. On this night and no other night do we recite Hallel, many of us in shul and all of us after bentching. And what is Maggid itself but a litany of miracles, one after another after another? All the fundamental themes of Hallel are present, from the exodus to Moshiach, and everything in between.
Yet Chazal chose to call the evening’s ritual the Seder. Why?
We can find the answer in the fifteen steps. It is no coincidence that the Jewish people reclaimed their freedom in Nisan, the month of renewal, when the entire earth undergoes techias haMeisim as the resurrection of spring reawakens the world from the deathlike slumber of winter. Neither is it coincidence that Pesach, arriving as it does on the fifteenth of the month, coincides with the day that the moon shines full.
Chazal compare the moon both to the sh’chinah and to B’nei Yisroel.9 Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so too are the Jewish people commanded to reflect the light of HaShem as an Ohr LaGoyim. Just as the moon changes its appearance over the course of its monthly cycle, so too does HaShem’s presence in the world seem to wax and wane proportionally with the fortunes of the Jews, who travel the circular highway of history rising and falling, prospering and declining, with success ever giving way to failure and with hope ever rising from the ashes of despair.
It is on the fifteenth of the month that the moon is brightest, lighting our way, as it were, toward the fulfillment of our destiny. So too, the fifteen steps of the Pesach seder direct us along the path that leads from galus to Moshiach, showing us the way we are now free to follow on our journey toward spiritual perfection and universal harmony.
But this explanation is still not enough. Why, we might ask, did HaShem design the world thus? Why did the Master of Creation decree that fifteen days would define the circuit of the moon from invisibility to total revelation?
The number fifteen is the gematria of Yud-Hey, the first two letters of HaShem’s name. This is the name that describes the partial revelation of HaShem in our world, where we must seek HaShem’s hidden presence and reveal Him through our own spiritual investigation.
Rav Zev Leff points out that, at the end of the third chapter of Hallel, we say, “HaMeisim lo hallelu Yo-h — the dead do not praise HaShem by the name Yud-Hey.” Why don’t they? Because they have moved on to Olam HoEmes, the world of absolute truth in which HaShem is revealed in all the glory of His four-letter name. Only in this world do we have the opportunity to praise HaShem where He is not fully revealed, by virtue of our own free will.
Just as the moon most fully reflects the sun on the fifteenth of the month, the fifteen steps of the seder remind us that the natural world we live in reflects the supernatural world that is the realm of absolute truth. When we observe the physical world through the lens of Torah, the consistency of nature need not conceal the spiritual reality of the Creator. Instead, the natural order of the world testifies to the One who created nature and can transcend nature at His will.
Unlike the those who have passed on to the world where HaShem is fully revealed, we who still live must strive to penetrate the curtain of nature and recognize the spiritual reality behind the veil. Indeed, we conclude Ashrei with the summation of all that Dovid HaMelech has said and of the aleph-beis ordering that echoes the ordered work of the Master of All, by adding on the final verse of the third chapter of Hallel: “Va’anachnu nevoreich Yo-h, meiAtah v’ad olam, Hallelu-yah — And we will bless HaShem by the name Yud-Hey, from now until forever, Praise G-d!”
The freedom we celebrate on Pesach imposes an awesome responsibility. It defines the mission of the Jew to navigate through a world of light and darkness, of good and evil, a world in which HaShem’s oneness is simultaneously concealed and revealed. The fifteen steps of the seder direct us in our avodah toward resolving the contradictions and revealing that which is hidden, pointing us forward, and promising us success as long as we persevere.
Now we are free. Let the avodah begin.
1. Seder Olam
2. Shabbos 118b
4. Hilchos Tefillah 7:12; contrast with Rashi on the gemara loc cit.
5. Pesachim 118a
6. Bob Berman, Astronomy Magazine, June, 2000
7. Brachos 4b
8. Commentary on Shmos 15:2
9. Sanhedrin 42a; Shmos Rabbah 15
Originally published in the Jewish Observer