This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Feast of Firsts*

The sections from the Bible that are read in the synagogue on the holidays are usually connected in obvious ways to the themes of the respective festivals. As regards the festival of Shavu‘ot, the Mishnah prescribed that the designated reading from the Torah should be the passage from Deuteronomy that ordains the counting of seven weeks culminating in the Feast of Weeks and its special observances. This is in keeping with the Torah’s depiction of the holiday as a celebration of the grain crops and first fruits.

The Babylonian Talmud, however, was aware of Shavu‘ot’s other important theme: as the anniversary of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Accordingly, it included a variant option of reading the section in Exodus that recounts that momentous event.

Those early texts reflected the situation when Shavu‘ot consisted of only a single day and communities would have to choose between the alternative readings. However, a later stratum in the Talmud accommodated the practice in diaspora communities of observing two days. It therefore concluded “Nowadays that we keep two days, we follow both options, but in the reverse order.” That is to say, the receiving of the Torah is given precedence by being read on the first day, whereas the passage with the agricultural themes is subordinated to the second day. This indeed remains the universal practice in traditional diaspora communities.

It would appear that this approach was eventually adopted by most Jewish congregations in the land of Israel as well. Although they kept only one day of Shavu‘ot, the designated reading for that day was about the Sinai revelation, not the first-fruits. Testimony to this fact—as for much of what we know about the ancient liturgical practices in the land of Israel—are the many liturgical poems—piyyuṭ— that were incorporated into the holiday synagogue services.

The craft of composing Hebrew liturgical poetry is a very exacting one. In addition to the artistic qualities that are to be expected from any work of literature, these needed to adhere to a very elaborate catalog of formal conventions. One of their essential qualities was the requirement of bridging between various thematic and textual components. Since each piyyuṭ was tailor-made for the Sabbath or special occasion on which it was to be recited, it had to incorporate references to the scriptural readings for that day. And because they took the place of the regular prayers, they also had to incorporate the requisite components of the standard liturgy—even while maintaining their connections to the relevant scriptural texts.

As noted, the story of the Sinai revelation came to be accepted almost universally as the mandatory Torah reading for Shavu‘ot; and it should therefore come as no great surprise that most of the classical Hebrew liturgical poetry that was composed for that festival expounded that glorious event, drawing upon the full range of biblical associations and rabbinic expositions to magnify the awesome drama of that unique divine-human encounter. The synagogue poets also took up the opportunity to extol the sanctity of the Torah in both its written and oral versions.

One of the most revered and prolific authors of piyyuṭ was Eleazar Kiliri (also known as the Kalir) who resided in the holy land in the sixth or seventh centuries and left us an extraordinary body of work, much of which has been recovered thanks to the Cairo Genizah. A favourite genre of his was the “Ḳedushta,” a piyyuṭ that expounded the first three blessings of the “Eighteen Benedictions” prayer in the morning services for Sabbaths and festivals. Like most of his fellow poets, Kiliri constructed his works for Shavu‘ot around the theme of the receiving of the Torah.

There is, however, one exception to that pattern, A Ḳedushta, partially preserved in a manuscript fragment in Oxford, is built around a poetic exposition of the Deuteronomy passage that was endorsed by the Mishnah and is recited on the second day of Shavuot (as well as on other festivals) in the diaspora rites. This curious exception is difficult to explain, provoking some doubts as to the poem’s authorship. Although the name “Eleazar” does appear in an acrostic and the style closely resembles that of Kiliri, the attribution is not entirely indisputable. It is also conceivable that Kiliri might have composed the work to be recited in a congregation outside of Israel or for one that followed a divergent practice.

What I find remarkable about this piyyuṭ is how the author was able to take the elements of the text in Deuteronomy—a loose assortment of laws related to sacrifices and priestly rituals—and turn it into a poem about the proclamation of the Torah.

To be sure, Eleazar’s poem develops the convention of stirringly portraying the Israelites’ experience of hearing God’s voice at Sinai as an occurrence that was at once fearsome and incomparably joyful. Nevertheless, the piyyuṭ’s principal focus is on the miscellany of commandments in the Deuteronomy passage. The commandments that are mentioned there are understood to be representative samples of the Torah in its entirety, thereby allowing the poet to dwell on the unique privilege that was vouchsafed to Israel when the Almighty “handed down to them the precious gift that [here he employs imagery from the Song of Songs:] ‘never lacks blended wine.’”

One of the conventions of piyyuṭ was that it usually focused on the opening words of the designated biblical readings. In the present instance, the reading begins with the law of firstborn animals. If they are unblemished, they are deemed sacred and must be eaten inside the sanctuary.

For our poet, this rule resonated with the fact that the Torah designates Shavu‘ot as “the day of the first fruits, when you bring a new grain offering unto the Lord.” A stanza that states “You sheltered them on the day of the first fruits” creates a transition to the theme of divine protection as found in the first blessing of the Eighteen Benedictions, when God is addressed as the “shield of Abraham.”

The mention of firstborns also evokes associations with the situation of the Israelites before Mount Sinai. God had recently “revealed yourself in Noph [i.e.: Memphis, Egypt] in order to smite their firstborns; your own firstborn [= Israel] you instructed to sanctify every firstborn.”

Thus, the concept of firstborn was associated with the people of Israel, as God had instructed Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Israel is my son, even my firstborn.” Furthermore, the image of unblemished firstlings—and indeed, the requirement that all sacrificial offerings be free from any blemishes—put the poet in mind of a midrashic homily in which God declared that it would be inappropriate to give the perfect Torah to people who were blemished, disabled or disfigured; and for this reason he took the initiative of healing all such persons immediately prior to the great revelation.

The poet also alluded to a midrashic legend according to which the people were scorched by the heavenly flames that burned at Sinai; and afterwards the Almighty commanded the clouds of divine glory to pour life-giving moisture upon them. This motif provided an ingenious link to the second blessing in the Eighteen Benedictions with its themes of dew and resurrection.

All these motifs converge in the concluding stanza of the piyyuṭ which assembles a broad range of nuanced associations and word-plays with the concepts of first-born and first-fruits:

Then from the top of the rocks [= from the days of Israel’s forefathers]
You designated your people as firstborn,
and for their sake you smote the firstborns of Egypt
and you admonished them regarding the commandment of the firstlings
who are your first choices
human firstborns and those which open the womb of the donkeys
as well as the firstlings of the sheep and goats and cattle.

I like to imagine that the Kiliri’s own congregation was swept away when they first heard the poet’s virtuoso blending of literary artistry, erudition and spiritual expression—upholding a tradition of lyric inspiration whose roots may be traced to that first revelation at Mount Sinai.

This article and many others are now included in the book

The Times of Our Life
The Times of Our Life: Some Brief Histories of Jewish Time

published by

Alberta Judaic Library
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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 11, 2018, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Elizur, Shulamit. Rabbi El‘azar BiRabbi Kiliri: Ḳedushtaʼot le-Yom Mattan Torah [Rabbi El‘azar Birabbi Kiliri: Hymni Pentacostales] . Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 2000. [Hebrew]
    • ———. “The Congregation in the Synagogue and the Ancient Qedushta.” In Knesset Ezra: Literature and Life in the Synagogue. Studies Presented to Ezra Fleischer , edited by Shulamit Elizur, Moshe David Herr, Gershon Shaked, and Avigdor Shinan, 171–90. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and the Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Eastern Jewish Communities, 1994. [Hebrew]
    • Fleischer, Ezra. Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals as Portrayed in the Geniza Documents . Publications of the Perry Foundation in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988. [Hebrew]
    • ———. “Solving the Qiliri Riddle.” Tarbiz 54, no. 3 (1985): 383–427. [Hebrew]
    • ———. “Studies in the Prosodic Character of Several Components of the Qedušta.” Hasifrut: Quarterly for the Study of Literature 3 (1972): 390–414. [Hebrew]
    • Mirsky, Aaron. “The Ten Commandments in the Liturgical Poetry of Eleazar Kallir.” In Ten Commandments in History and Tradition , edited by Ben-Zion Segal, translated by Gershon Levi, 343–54. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1990.
    • Rand, Michael. “Liturgical Compositions for Shemini ’Atzeret by Eleazar Be-Rabbi Qillir.” Ginzei Qedem 3 (2007): 9–99.
    • Zulay, M. “Were Hillel and Shammai Real Brothers?” Melilah , Original Series, 5 (1955): 63–82. [Hebrew]