This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Piyyut: The Poetry of Worship*

One of the many features that contribute to the uniqueness of the New Year's season is the abundance of poetic additions to the standard prayers. These passages are known in Hebrew as "piyyut," from the same Greek root that gives us the English words "poetry" and "poet."

Although in our synagogues the recitation of piyyutim has become almost the exclusive prerogative of the High Holy Days, many communities include them on other special occasions as well. The term "Mahzor," which we usually associate only with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, actually translates as "cycle," and originally included prayers--primarily the poetic elaborations--for the entire year, especially the holidays.

Our knowledge about the purpose and history of piyyut has been immeasurably enriched by manuscript discoveries over the last century, especially from the Cairo Genizah (which I mentioned in my previous column). The Genizah preserved thousands of poetic creations, and the analysis and appreciation of those works has become one of the most exciting areas of recent Judaic scholarship.

From this new evidence we have been able to paint a vivid picture of how central piyyut was to synagogue life in the Land of Israel during the Talmudic and early medieval eras. It was on native soil that this art-form thrived. The ancient Rabbis encouraged innovation and improvisation in public worship to counterbalance the mechanical recitation of fixed texts. In keeping with these sentiments, the original piyyutim did not appear as additions or embellishments to the fixed liturgy--as they do in our rites--but as replacements for them.

Indeed, the prolific cantors of old were able to compose original poetic versions of the prayers for each and every Shabbat, as well as for the festivals. In those piyyutim the motifs of the Shema and Amidah would be ingeniously meshed with topics from the day's Torah and haftarah readings.

This was no small achievement if we recall that in ancient Israel the reading of the Torah was not completed in a single year as it is now, but in three and a half years. Thus a paytan might have to compose a mahzor of almost two hundred different renderings of the Shabbat and holiday services before he could revert back to old material.

The complexity and erudition of classical piyyut is utterly astounding. To take as an example the renowned poet Yannai, we note that he specialized in a particular type of piyyut known as the "Kedushta" which gave poetic form to the first three blessings of the Shaharit service for Shabbat and festival Amidah (In those days the "Kedushah" was not recited outside the Morning Service). Every one of Yannai's Kedushtas was composed of nine separate sections, each of which had to conform to strict formal rules that dictated the metre and number of lines and stanzas, rhyme, acrostic structures (i.e., the initial letters of lines would spell out the author's name or be in alphabetical order), the incorporation of verses from the day's Torah and Prophetic readings, etc.

Within this confining structure, Yannai and his colleagues worked their poetic magic. Their creations are stamped with masterful scholarly erudition in their frequent allusions to the full range of Biblical and Rabbinic literature and in the creative liberties they take with the Hebrew language. Alongside these learned and didactic qualities, the finest piyyutim succeed in poignantly and movingly evoking the sublime emotions of religious awe and the unrelenting longing for national redemption from the yokes of Rome and Byzantium.

During the Middle Ages, as the Babylonian rabbinate strove to assert its dominance against the Palestinian religious leadership, the use of piyyut came under heavy attack. The Babylonians preferred uniform and standardized rituals and were wary of the spontaneity that piyyut embodied. Nevertheless the ancient Palestinian tradition was kept alive, especially in the Jewish communities of France and Germany whose founders had originally migrated from the Holy Land. Many of the most illustrious Ashkenazic scholars were also accomplished poets whose creations still adorn the pages of our Mahzor.

Recent generations have been uneasy about the inclusion of piyyut in the service for various reasons: Some argue that they distract from the mandatory prayers; others complain that they unduly prolong the service, and that few Jews are now literate enough to appreciate them. Though all these arguments might have merit, it would be a pity if they were to result in the abandoning of some of our most precious literary and religious treasures.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Sept. 8 1994.