Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root הלל (halal) covers quite an array of meanings. The renowned Scripture theorist and father of modern Hebrew philology Wilhelm Gesenius squeezed all various meanings and nuances of halal into the central charge of splenduit. But almost a hundred years later, the authoritative dictionary of Brown, Driver and Briggs, listed two separate roots halal, each with their own group of meanings.
Three quarters of a century later, Harris, Archer and Waltke published their lexicon, and split the second root of Brown, Driver and Briggs in two, forming three distinct roots halal. This is of course wonderfully clever, but as mere readers of the Scriptures, we should never forget that to the Hebrews these three roots were indistinguishable.
Note that at first glance the form הלל (halal) may seem somewhat similar to חלל (halal, or chalal), but it's really quite different and no Hebrew poet would entertain a parallel between them.
The verb הלל (halal I) denotes what lamps and celestial bodies do: shine, emit light (Job 31:26, Isaiah 13:10). This verb occurs a mere five or six times in the Bible, but it exists in cognate languages with similar meanings. In Job 41:10 this verb is employed to state how the sneezes of Leviathan "flash forth light". Equally enigmatic is a statement made by the prophet Isaiah, "How you have fallen from the heavens, O shining one, son of dawn" (14:12). The noun translated with "shining one" is הילל (helel) and was derived from our root halal. BDB lists this word as an appellation, an epithet, but HAW interprets it as the proper name Helel.
The identical verb הלל (halal II) means to be boastful or to praise (also see the other important praise-verb ידה, yada). Our verb הלל (halal) shows up all over the Bible, from praising God in a liturgical setting to letting it rip in an informal bout of worship. It's even used to convey praise for commendable people (Proverbs 31:30). This verb yields three derivations:
- The masculine noun הליל (hillul), meaning praise or a rejoicing. It occurs only in plural: הלולים (hillulim), literally meaning congratulations or rejoicings (Judges 9:27, Leviticus 19:24).
- The masculine noun מהלל (mahalel), again meaning praise but literally a "container" for praise. It occurs only in Proverbs 27:21 where silver and gold are tested in a crucible and a furnace, and a man in his "container for" praise.
- The feminine noun תהלה (tehilla), meaning praise, song of praise or thanksgiving or adoration, or it denotes praiseworthy deeds. This noun occurs all over the Bible. HAW condenses the meaning of this beautiful noun as, "the results of halal as well as the divine acts which merit that activity".
The troublesome verb הלל (halal III) means to be insane, or rather irrational. It yields two derivatives:
- The feminine noun הוללה (holela), meaning madness (Ecclesiastes 1:17).
- The feminine noun הוללות (holelut), meaning madness as well (Ecclesiastes 10:13).
Without designating a separate root, BDB carefully acknowledges a mere few occasions in which derivations of the halal stem may denote a kind of madness: Ecclesiastes 1:17 (cf. 2:12, 7:25), where the feminine noun הוללה (holela) seems grouped together with folly, and both contrast wisdom (see the "name" Hochma).
The other instance of halal-madness that BDB is willing to concede occurs in the same book: Ecclesiastes 10:13 (cf. 9:3), where the feminine noun הוללות (holelut) is modified by the word רעה (ra'a), the common Hebrew word for evil, and both reflect the result of a process that starts with speaking nonsense.
The younger lexicon of HAW, however, counts sixteen instances of this meaning of madness; enough to recognize a whole separate root (1 Samuel 21:13, Psalm 102:9, Jeremiah 25:16).
Here at Abarim Publications we are not at all convinced that these three seemingly different groups of meanings are so dissimilar that the existence of three separate verbs is the only logical conclusion. Even after a century of quantum mechanics, many people still have the tendency to lean towards determinism; the erroneous idea that one thing invariably leads to another and every situational mode can be classified in its rigorous category. But black-and-white thinking is old, and in the Biblical arena it never even existed. Sure, good opposes evil but not the way that wisdom opposes folly. And halal can not be radically nested under the wings of either wisdom or folly, but is rather a third modus. In Ecclesiastes 2:12, Solomon resolves to look at (1) wisdom, (2) holela, and (3) folly, and not (a) wisdom and (b) holela-and-folly.
Halal denotes an exuberance, for whatever reason. It takes no great poetic leap to see symmetry between the shining of a star and the praising of a worshiper, certainly also because in the Bible true believers are compared to stars (Daniel 12:3). Halal denotes a letting go of restraints and inhibitions, and, entirely depending on the heart behind it, can result in either a complete surrender to God's control, or a detrimental flight without anyone at the helm. Halal can turn to either a most holy expression of devotion or else a blasphemous display of derangement.
And whether the act of halal is reckoned positive or negative also depends much on the heart of the spectator. The apostle Paul warns his followers to ease up on a typical halal-expression, namely speaking in tongues, when guests are in the congregation, lest they think the congregants are insane (1 Corinthians 14:23). And when David transports the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-edom to Jerusalem, he shows such a gladness that he surely acted out the verb halal II. When his wife Michal sees him, she insults him by readily applying verb halal III. David's response seems somewhat cool, but of Michal it was said that she remained childless until her death. Tradition has her struck with infertility but it may very well be that David stopped seeing her all together (2 Samuel 6:16-23).
A similar confusion occurs when spectators who have never personally experienced spiritual rapture see someone at it. Bernini's sculpture called the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa marvelously captures this rapture, but critics (and pop writers) recognize sexual euphoria. The usual battles ensued and raged, until a group of scientists took brain scans of people who were having sex and compared them to brain scans of people worshipping. Lo and behold, the exact same brain regions were activated in both groups (Andrew Newberg, John Horgan, also see Miracles: God, science, and Psychology in the Paranormal  and Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion ). The Bible frequently equates the relationship of God with His people to that of a husband with his wife, and now we know that this is more than a metaphor. In fact, it seems reasonable to conclude that a frequent bout of worship is an indispensable element of a healthy sex life.
It seems that we are designed to let go every now and then. When we let go in the presence of God, we'll be worshipping. When we let go but don't focus on God, we'll be doing lots of other things, most of which will cause grave trouble. It's no coincidence that in our times we see a decrease in divine experience, but an increase in what MTV calls partying. Lacking proper temples, our kids go loose in rave caves and surrender to nothingness. A pressing task of the church today is to reinstate the old halal (i.e. Hallelujah) tradition, the letting go in surrender to God.