Poetic Subversions: Piyyut (Hebrew poetry), Love, and Liturgy

Enter LOVE (as in, songs about).

At last!  (Follow the link for W’s entry on Etta James’ 1960 hit…)

This week, as we continue to visit Berkeley synagogues, we also focus on piyyut, aka, “Hebrew liturgical poetry.” This is the last, and crucial, “building block” in our construction of Jewish Nightlife as a research topic.

In class, we discussed the subversive nature of the addition of new poetry to the liturgy of the synagogue: a subversion carried out through language, interpretive takes on biblical narratives, a predominant focus on the ambiguous theme of divine/human love, and, of course, music.

We also focus on the history of one piyyut, with incipit (beginning words):

kol berue ma’ala umatah (“All creatures above and below” [in Heaven and on Earth])
Bakkashah with acrostic “shelomoh” (Solomon)
Attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol (Malaga-Valencia, 11th ccenturyCE)

On bakkashot, see Idelsohn p. 157:

Among the Oriental and Levantine communities, there is an old custom to rise before sunset on Saturdays, to assemble in synagogues, and to sing religious songs. These songs are called BakkashothShevahoth, and Pizmonim. The authors of these songs are Jehuda Halevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, Israel Najara, and many other Oriental poets who lived between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Find several musical versions of this poem (discussed by Idelsohn, p. 217), which celebrates the unity of all “creatures” in acknowledging the unity of the divine, at this link.

I published an Italian musical version of the poem in 2001. In recent years, a Jerusalem-based singer, Hadass Pal-Yarden, has popularized (in the best sense of the word) this poem according to a musical version she collected in Turkey:

But the poem has a long history, going back at least to the 17th century

Publication history (selection) of kol berue ma’ala unmatah, based on Davidson’s Thesaurus of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry

Kol Berue publication history (Davidson no. 282)

Pay attention to the intersection between chronology and geographical span. For your convenience, I have arranged select entries (listed above and decrypted through the Thesaurus’ key) in chronological order.

1. Not dated
Bakkashot rash”ad, Ms. Bodleian Library (Oxford) n.d.

2. 17th century
Sidur tefilah, Mantua 1676

3. 18th century
Zavche shlemim, Constantinople 1728
Sidur ya’avatz (Italy), Altona (Germany) 1731
Z”Y Izmir, Smirne [Izmir] 1766
Arba’h ta’aniyot, Constantinople 1780
kapa, Mezhirov (Ukraine) 1793

4. 19th century
Yiztchaq yeranen, Jerusalem 1855
Ms. Tunis 1, Livorno 1861
Bet av, Livorno 1877
M. Argil 1, Livorno 1878
Liqute zvi hachadash, Warsaw 1879
Bet habechirah, Livorno 1880
Yigal, Jerusalem 1885
Bet ya’aqov, Tunis 1898

5. 20th century
Mishmeret hachadash, Baghdad 1908
Machzor Elohei Ya’aqov, Jerusalem 1908
Meshat Binyamin, Jerusalem 1909 (Persian)
Bakkashot yerushalayim, Jerusalem 1913
Otzar hatefilot, Vilnius 1914

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Jewish Liturgical Music: Intersections and Subversions

Finding our topic, Jewish nightlife, involves researching the intersections of many networks.

Let’s quickly review:

  1. Maps and Timelines: Jewish liturgical music is determined by the historical distribution of Jews in diaspora
  2. Textual networks: Jewish liturgical music is mostly built on Jewish literary texts, which are themselves the result of a network (or web) of textual sources and languages
  3. Ritual identity: Jewish liturgical music is also determined by how the texts of the rituals evolve across time and space
  4. Modes of musical production: the different musical worlds, aesthetics, performance styles, repertoires, found across the Jewish diaspora, and produced both within, outside, and in collaboration with surrounding non-Jewish cultures
  5. In this context, Jewish liturgical music interacts with location, historical memory, literary text, language, aesthetics, and constitutes a negotiation, carried out in real time, among each of these dimensions. Some examples of this negotiation can be isolated, and perhaps understood, by looking at the following
    • Liturgical and Para-liturgical practices: how the intersection between music and the other dimensions listed above highlights the inner conflicts between normative (i.e., the behaviors dictated by religious authorities) and non-normative (i.e., how people behave subversively in relationship to the normative) dimensions of Judaism by modifying, at times just slightly, ritual behavior, and adapting ritual to various occurrences (such as lifecycle events)
    • Musical performance practices: for example, the seamless alternation of “chant” and “tunes” within the musical rendition of liturgical texts

Think about how Jewish liturgical music reached mainstream audiences in the opening scene of Schindler’s List (1993), a context that is quite far removed from the archival recordings we have been listening to thus far:

This scene presents viewers with an essential moment in Jewish para-liturgical practice, the qidush (Heb. קידוש, commonly spelled Kiddush), or the blessings recited at the eve of the Sabbath (and of other Holidays, albeit with slightly different texts) around the family table. (Note that the Kiddush is also recited in the synagogue, but that’s another story…).

There are two lines of questioning that may arise from (re)watching this scene.

On the one hand, the musical aspect: does this pertain to the musical area we generally defined as “chant,” or to the one we generally defined as “tune” (and what kind of chant/tune it may be, based on our knowledge of musical culture in the Jewish diaspora)?

On the other hand, the layers of meaning (and especially the related musical representations of identity) that this scene may contain: here, ritual is both presented as a symbol (of what?) and as a staged performance. Why was this scene chosen to open Schindler’s List?

Time, or Rhythm? Some (Visual) Thoughs on Jewish Liturgy

Over time, I have found that a useful way to discuss Jewish liturgy (or the complex array of liturgical and paraliturgical rituals found in Jewish communities across the global diaspora) is through visual means.

Here are some iPad-generated infographics. I created them long ago, and every time I review them, I end up questioning them in new ways. Consider them as “conversation starters,” rather than fully formed ideas…

1. Jewish liturgy: an ecosystem?

The Jewish Liturgical Ecosystem

As I review the idea that Jewish liturgy is like an ecosystem (aka, a complex network), I feel strongly that it is entirely based on time, and that text and music (or sound, or interpretation) come after. But, recently, I have started to wonder whether the foundation is better defined by rhythm than by time: the rhythm provided by the interpretation of nature, to begin with (sunset/sundown; the lunar cycle; the yearly cycle). [Note: not by nature, but by its (human) interpretation].

The Time/Text relationship in Jewish liturgy

2. A complex network of liturgical texts

The corpus of Jewish literature (mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic, but at times in other Jewish languages) is activated in the context of the liturgy. Here’s a quick (but really, really quick) summary/list.

The Texts of Jewish Liturgy

Please note that just as “Bible” is a network of texts, “Talmud” is a placeholder for a broader network of texts, and that texts like the Midrash are also part of the network. These networks are thus part of an ecosystem. See for example the visualization of the intertextual connections between the Bible and the Talmud provided by the awesome Sefaria:

Connections between Talmud and Tanakh | Sefaria Visualization

Then think that the interconnections between these texts and poetry are constantly activated in the context of the liturgy.

In analyzing the first stanza of the liturgical poem, Lekhah dodi:

Hebrew
שָׁמוֹר וְזָכוֹר בְּדִבּוּר אֶחָד
הִשְׁמִיעָנוּ אֵל הַמְּיֻחָד

Hebrew transliteration
shemor ve-zakhor be-dibur echad
hishmi’anu el ha-meyuchad

English translation
‘protect’ and ‘rember’– in one utterance
the unique god let us hear

Abraham Z. Idelsohn (Jewish Liturgy X:128-129; please note that this is our textbook) highlights the intertextual connections of the text, thus uncovering the textual network it activates, and at the same time points to the wide variety of its musical renditions across the diaspora:

“Come, my friend, to meet the bride…” — Lecha dodi — is a poem by Solomon Alkabetz (1505-diest after 1572); he was the brother-in-law of Moses Cordovero, lived in Safed, and was encouraged by Isaac Luria to compose this poem about 1571 (Hemdath Yamim, Leghorn, 1763, I, 41; Seder Hayyom, l.c.).

This poem spread to all Jewish communities and became a favorite text for Synagogal composers, so that over two thousand settings were composed to it.

The name of the author is to be found as an acrostic at the beginnings of the stanzas: Shelomo hallewi. The poem starts out with a refrain based on b. Sabbath 119a. In the first stanza: “Observe and Remember,” the author refers to the Midrashic explanation (b. Shevuoth 20b) of the discrepancy between the two versions of the fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8 and Deuteronomy 5:12, according to which God uttered both words simultaneously.

By using the Piyyut website, you can listen to many of the thousands of musical settings of this fundamental poem.

3. Music (or sound): Different modes to interpret text 

Music in Jewish Liturgy: "chants" and "tunes"

4. The relationship between text, music, and (cultural) identity

Musical Expressions of Jewish Identity

Studying (Jewish) Culture, Understanding Diasporas

Two approaches to be discussed in class this week.

First, the “linguistic model” (a tree…):

Then, a “mind map”:

Ward Shelley's Jewish Diaspora Painted Mindmap

And, finally, a visual approach to Jewish liturgical diversity that combines both models:

Historical Map of Jewish Liturgies (Nusḥaot-Tree-2.4.5)

If it all seems cryptic, it’s because–at least in my view–it has a lot to do with labyrinths…