No other kind of Medieval Literature has become as popular in the history of our liturgy as the piyyut. This religious poetry occupies a prominent place in the Festival prayer book, and is interwoven into the texture of our prayers. Moreover, many of the outstanding piyyutim actually form part of the Yamim Norayim prayers.
Much of the Synagogual poetry was composed by supremly gifted Chazanim, who, through their compositions, have expressed ingenious methods for the development of the Hebrew Language.
Not long after the destruction of the Temple, our Divine Prayers, which were composed mainly by our Sages in the Talmudic Period, have gained a richness of poetic prayers. The Piyyutim were added to the old formulae of prayers in a desire to give expression to the intense emotion and aspiration of the people.
The worshipper will always find something in the piyyutim in sympathy with his own spiritual mood. The piyyutim have a timelessness about them which makes them the possession of each generation: they are filled with the prayers of men who have turned to God, in penitence, in fear, and in triumph.
Poetry seldom expresses itself directly: it only hints at figures of speech. Some piyyutim are therefore difficult to understand, because they are composed with rare expressions and allegorical terms.
Quite often, one is likely to miss the payytan’s thought and the main subject, by reason of the system with which the ancient poetry is written. Because the style of composing with rhyme, and certain stanzas, and acrostics employed in the piyyut, makes it more complicated, and far from simplicity.
During the Medieval Period it was customary for the Author to incorporate his name into the text of the piyyut, either in the last few words of his poem, or in the initials of the first words of each of the last verses, forming an acrostic. This was perhaps because it was forbidden to write out piyyutim for the public or to publish them.
Quite obviously, the poet cannot communicate his vision in ordinary language: therefore we find Biblical expressions and Talmudic Midrashic terms within the piyyutim which are at times at contrast to the grammatical classic language. One would have to study carefully, to appreciate the meaning of a certain passage. A literal translation would never do justice to the piyyut. It is interesting to note that many persons who are masters of the Hebrew language do appreciate a certain difficult piyyut when they read a good translation.
The word ‘PIYYUT’ is actually derived from the Greek term for Poetry, and the author of a piyyut was therefore called a PAYYETAN. We know of many payyetanim from the time of the GEONIM, through the many centuries, till the sixteenth century, and there were many hundreds of them in this millenium. But it would be futile to try and mention all payyetanim within the small space of this article. However, it would be only right to mention a few of them who are notable for their work in piyyutim, which were inserted in our prayers and in our Selichot.
The oldest piyyutim at the time of the GEONIM (sixth and seventh centuries) are embodied in the prayer book. Examples of these are in the Sabbath Morning Service “EL ADON” and “HAKOL YODUCHA”. The well-known early payyetaniiu were YOSI ben YOSI, who is mentioned by SA’DAIA GAON, YANAI, who was the most popular of the great payyetanim of his time, ELAZAR ben KALIR, who was famous for his piyyut AZ ROV NISSIM in the Haggada for Pessach.
ELAZAR HAKALIR (as he was known) was a Chazan, a payyitan, and a great scholar in Classical Hebrew, as well as in Talmudic studies. At that time, only a prominent learned person, who deserved the title ‘Chacham’ would be chosen to be a Chazan. His piyyutim and poem-prayers were introduced into the Machzor and in the book of Selichot. A famous piyyut of his, is a KROVA for Shabbat Zachor: ‘ATZ KOTSETZ’.
He was a wondrous man of whom we know little. He lived in Palestine in the eighth century. In his time, it was customary for a Chazan to add his own compositions into the prayers. His poems and piyyutim aroused the criticism of the well-known Torah commentaror IBN EZRA, who claimed that HAKALIR’S poems were rather difficult to understand; they contained too much allusive language and Midrashic allegories, and had a wrong grammatical form, based upon various Aramaic terms.
‘If it should be a prayer’, claimed lEN EZRA, ‘it has to be written in a simple language, so that the ordinary people shou1d understand it’. However, IBN EZRA himself composed scores of piyyutim, although these were not intended originally as prayers.
The early piyyut was a ‘Hymn’, or a poetic prayer added to the older liturgy which developed during the Talmudic Era and up to the. seventh century. The most famous payyitan who succeeded Hakalir, was the great scholar, SAADIA GAON, who lived in the tenth century. He was the Head of the great School at Sura, and was contemporarily regarded as the highest authority in the setting of the prayers. He was aged only twenty, when he completed his great work, the Hebrew Dictionary, “AGRON”. Later he compiled a Siddur, in which he included his own Synagogual Poetical Compositions. SAADIA GAON lived, as has been stated above, in the tenth century, and from that time, the payyetanim became very numerous, and could be found in all larger Jewish settlements, notably, Italy, Germany, Spain and France.
Many of the early piyyutim in our present Machzor and Selichot were composed in Southern Italy in the sixteenth century. Especially noteworthy are payyetanim like “AMITTAI OF ORIA” and his son “SHEFFATYA”, whose composition, “EZKRA” features in the Neila prayer. Another of the South Italian poets was “ZEVADIA” whose Selichot were written in a varying rhyme and in an alphabetical acrostic.
The transmission of Rabbinical learning, poetic skill, and the tradition of composing piyyutim in an allusive style, was originally inspired by the Babylonian Jews. It passed from the South of Italy, where great communities lourished at that time, through Central and Northern Italy, and from there to the Rhineland and France, and is particularly associated with the family of KALONIMUS. In 11th century Germany, there were the payyitanim MOSES ben KALONIMUS and MESHULAM ben KALONIMUS. There is an opinion that MESHULAM ben KALONIMUS was the son of MOSES KALONIMUS: he wrote a hymn “Pizmon”, which is incorporated in the Selichot for the Fast of Esther, and that hymn was written during the Massacres in Mayence in 1096. One of the history books mentions that MESHULAM ben MOSES was amongst those killed, in fact, fell in “KIDDUSH HASHEM”, in order not to fall into the hands of the Crusaders.
Another poet of the KALONIMUS FAMILY was ELAZAR ben JUDAH ben KALONIMUS of Worms. Born in 1176, he was a descendant of this noted Family of Poets. A Talmudist and Cabbalist, and a disciple of YEHUDAH HE’CHASID. Before he became Rabbi of Worms, he was Chazan in Erfurt. Many of his poems were incorporated in the Machzorim, Selichot and Kinot.
Having mentioned the City of Worms (Vermaiza), it would be only correct to mention, in passing, the payyitan MEIR ben ISAAC, the Chazan of Worms, who was a great poet, and wrote in Hebrew and Aramaic. One of his poems in Aramaic is the well-known and greatly hallowed piyyut of “AKDAMOT” which we recite on Shavuot.
One of the outstanding payytanim was SHAMAYA ben ELlA, of very little is known, except that he was a pupil of the great “RASHI” and lived in the twelfth century. He composed a most moving prayer “ADAM EICH YIZKE”, which is incorporated in the Selichot of the Eve of Rosh Hashana.
A contrast to HAKALIR, whose style and system of poetry was followed by many later payyitanim, was the great poet YEHUDA HALEVI: A Spanish Jewish poet, philosopher and physician of the late eleventh century. He was among the few exceptional poets who did not use the style of metric and acrostic, or the successive lines of alphabetical arrangements. His famous ODE on ZION is well known to us from the later KINOT recited on the Ninth of Av.
He wrote with great love and passion of Israel and Zion. As a poet acquainted with the secular poetry of his time, his work has a remarkable lyric quality and clarity, and is simple to understand. His love for Zion,for the Land of Israel, inspired his ZIONIC ODES. His work was meritorious enough to be translated into many languages.
SULOMO IBN GABRIOL was also a great poet in the eleventh century and could be compared to YEHUDA HALEVI. A Spanish poet, philosopher and moralist, he wrote in a fine Hebrew and Biblical style and became the model of the Spanish School of Hebrew poets. His compositions of Hebrew poetry and piyyutim are among the best known in the Book of Selichot: “SHOFET KOL HAARETZ” for the Selichot on the Eve of Rosh Hashana. His moving hymn “SHOMAMTI B’ROV YEGONI” inserted in the Ashkenazic Ritual for the Fast of G’dalya.
SIMON ben ISAAC (also called “Simon the Great”), a prominent exponent of the Law and one of the most important writers in liturgy of the tenth and eleventh centuries, was a native of Mayence, and a contemporary of RABBEINU GERSHOM (The “Maor Hagola”). He composed the very famous piyyut: “ATTITI L’CHANNENACH”, which serves as an introduction to the Yotzroth of the Shacharith Service of the second day of Rosh Hashana, and which is a noble expression of trust in God’s Mercy, and in the vanity of life.
The piyyutim are divided into several groups, and termed with a specific name which indicates their content and character: The SELICHA occupies the foremost rank, and is probably the oldest. The TECHINA (supplication) is included in the daily prayer-book as well as in the Book of Selichot. Like the “Vehu Rachum”, which is recited every Monday and Thursday, and known to have been composed at the time of the GEONIM, this was origibally composed for Fast Days. The TECHINOT in the Book of Selichot are mostly composed by AMRAM GAON. The early prayers, such as “EL MELECH” and “MI SHEANA” were also composed by AMRAM GAON in the ninth century. However, the prayer “AVINU MALKEINU” is attributed to Rabbi AKIVA and mentioned in the Talmud (MASECHET TAANIT p.252), and later it was developed to the present form.
Another kind of piyyutim are termed with the name “AKEIDA”, which are always a reference to the Sacrifice of Isaac, but do not necessarily speak of the Patriarch. It refers, in general, to Jews who were sacrificed because of their belief in God, and sacrificed in His Name.
The YOTZROT are another kind of poetic piyyutim: these are inserted in the morning services of all Festivals. Those which are included in the evening service for the Three Pilgrim Festivals are called “MA’ARAVIYOT”.
We have piyyutim under the name of ZULATT, GE’ULLA, or KROVETZ, as well as OFANIM, and SHIBATA. A very special class of piyyutim are named TOCHACHA (reproof). Then we have the “VIDUY”, which is a Prayer of Confession. These are said at each day of Selichot and, of course, on Yom Kippur.
Among the many important hymns in the Service of the Selichot is also the “PIZMON”, which is always written in metric stanzas with a refrain,such are “BEMOTZAEI MENUCHA” at the first night of Selichot. “YISRAEL NOSHA” at the second night of Selichot, composed by SHEFFATYA ben AMITTAI (ninth century),”SHACHAR KAMTI” by IBN GABRIOL (eleventh century), and the famous “Z’CHOR B’RIT” by GERSHON ben JUDAH (tenth century), parts of which are also included in the Neila Service. Almost every day of Selichot is divided, so that it contains a “PIZMON”, a “TOCHACHA”, an “AKEIDA”, and the “VIDUI”.
Each poetic composition has its own metric name according to the number of lines of each rhyme.
Having read all these notes, I am sure that Chazanim will appreciate and read the piyyutim with more interest, and try to apprehend their beauty. There are so many piyyutim which form the “Treasure of our Liturgy”.
No author is mentioned.)