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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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

Modern Hebrew Night Poems | A Lecture by Professor Robert Alter

Next week, we will have a chance to further explore the theme of Jewish Nightlife with Professor Robert Alter.

Robert Alter is Professor of the Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967, and where he is the Founding Director of the Center for Jewish Studies. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, and past president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has twice been a Guggenheim Fellow and has been a Senior Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, and Old Dominion Fellow at Princeton University. Professor Alter has written widely on the European novel from the 18th century to the present, on contemporary American fiction, on modern Hebrew literature, and on literary aspects of the Bible. His 25 published books include two prize-winning volumes on biblical narrative and poetry, and award-winning translations of Genesis and the Five Books of Moses. In 2009, he was given the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Contribution to American Letters by the Los Angeles Times. In 2013, he received the Conference on Christianity and Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Charles Homer Haskins Prize given by the American Council of Learned Societies.

In preparation for his lecture, professor Alter shared with us his translations of Hebrew poetry.

1.
​​Midnight Vigil

Gloomy night, a strong wind sends a strong raincloud
rolling over the town,
and all the little town sinks
in deep mire and in sleep.

The dark entrances are silent.
The rustle of rain alone stirs in them,
and collapsing houses, bleak and desolate,
show black faces here and there.

And like a wretched orphan to whom
the charity people have forgotten to give a blanket for warmth,
roofs laid bare, they bend low,
huddle, and silently groan,

as if they reflected and pondered
voiceless evil thoughts:
Are they cracked to their foundations
and show defiance to all?

And driving rain rolls down
like streams of tears on the walls;
the roofs shrink more and more
and the town weeps bitterly.

Those who sleep in the dark curse
in their dreams the morrow and yesterday—
oh, rest complacent, eternal beggars, schnorrers!
and dream a good dream, you heavy-yoked people.

From between the cracks
the wind’s howl bursts forth, blood-freezing.
Ah! who knows if the curse
of an innocent perishing brother is bound up there?

Not a single star remains on high,
not a spark of light, not a beam—
just a solitary window still shows some light:
a Jew getting up for the midnight vigil.

​​​​​H.N. Bialik

2.

​​​In Praise of the Night​​​

​​​1.
Very ancient the night in our blood,
dense, dark as old wine.
Like wine it’s sweet and bitter too.
It sings, it sings in the depth of our dream.

It is in us of old, buried, hidden,
it walks by day at our heels,
lies in wait till our love is ripe
to burst forth in the gladdened body.

But if we betray it and do not love
and its ferment and its singing are in vain,
in hateful darkness it will flood us.

In it our soul and body sink
and in our eyes a sun bereaved
will find its dark reflection.

​​​2.

Its glory fearsome
its hand is heavy,
the brilliance of its stars
for its lovers.

Its secret deep
for it alone,
its autumn scents
its springs’ as well.

It hides in the garden
the bridegroom’s lips,
in the darkness—
the arms of the bride.

Its shadow conceals
the knife,
and blood is swallowed up
in the darkness.

Praise, oh praise
the black of night,
its eyes are fair,
its eyes ablaze.

Praise, oh praise
we sing to the night,
by desire scorched,
our bodies ablaze.

​​​Leah Goldberg

3.

Bats, fugitives of light who wait in the crevice,
their feet against the ceiling
upside down angels of rubber, who follow
with big ears, with precision,
the dull ticking within them
to the final count,
the signal to burst out
of the quivering tangle—dark upon dark—outside​​​​​​​​​

​​​Dan Pagis

4.

​​​​But We Must Praise

​​​​ We must praise the Lord of all.
–Hebrew liturgy

But we must praise
a familiar night. Gold borrowed from the abyss.
Cypresses rose forever. Far away,
long hair still flows, Lord of the loss of all.

What are you doing to me, far-away woman?
As on branches you hung me with weeping thoughts.
From far away your hand touches me as if testing
my bridges. They bear the weight and tremble. Yours is the kingdom.

Behind my words dark as a moon
come to me, make me tired.
But we must praise the loins of all: your lap.
Shout of the shoulder

that bore you to me on the night of reversal,
stars of forgetful man above us.
Your body’s style, sky’s manner here in the hollow
of this narrow world. But we must.

​​​Yehuda Amichai