Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 2)

cosmas_indicopleustes.jpg
The world as a tabernacle according to an illuminated manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes' Christian Topography

In the first part of this series I discussed an intriguing “historical” tradition in a piyyut by Elazar Birabi Qilir. In this second part I turn to an interesting juxtaposition of the cosmos and the Tabernacle in another piyyut for Hanukkah by the Qiliri.

The interrelation between the cosmos and the Tabernacle is hinted already in the Hebrew Bible, and it became a central theme in Jewish thought of the first century of the Common Era in the writings of Philo and Josephus. Philo, as expected, offers an allegoric interpretation in which various elements of the Tabernacle correspond to parts of the cosmos. In classical rabbinic literature the relation between the Tabernacle and the cosmos is hardly mentioned but in contemporaneous payytanic literature it is widespread. It is attested in a piyyut for Hanukkah by Yannai (6th century) and more elaborately in the following Hanukkah piyyut by Elazar Birabi Qiliri (7th century):

בזה נתחדש עולם / ובזה בוסס והוכן עולם / כי כנגד יצירת עולם / הוכן אוהל בעולם / מכוונים בו כל מפעלות עולם… שבעת עננים מול שבעת מעונים / מנורת המאור מול שמש ומאור / שבעת הנרות מול שבעה אורות / קרסים וענובים מול כוכבים…

In this the world was renewed / And in that the world was established /For against the creation of the world / A tent was prepared in the world / In it are reflected the elements of the world… Seven clouds corresponding to seven skies / The bright lampstand corresponding to the sun (and moon) / The seven candles corresponding to seven stars / Clasps and loops corresponding to the stars…

The basic premise of the section is that without the Tabernacle the creation is not complete, or, in other words, that the construction of the Tabernacle is the final stage of creation. This idea is expressed in a very clear fashion in midrash Pesiqtah de Rav Kahana (5th/6th century), which indicates that “until the Tabernacle was set up, the earth was unstable. After the Tabernacle was set up, the earth became stable.”(1:4) The specific details of the comparison between the cosmos and the Tabernacle (included here only in part) are similar to many found in Philo, Josephus, in a few rabbinic sources and also in the piyyut by Yannai. It is crucial, though, to stress that the comprehensive list appears for the first time ever in this poem by the Qiliri. Interestingly enough, a similar list is known from the medieval Midrash Numbers Rabbah that is associated with Moshe Hadarshan  (Heb. “Moses the Preacher”), the eleventh-century composer and compiler of midrashic literature. This specific piyyut by the Qiliri was known in the days of Moshe Hadarshan and it probably influenced this medieval midrashic composition.

Finally, I would like to mention a similar Syriac liturgical poem by Narsai of Nisibis, the fifth century celebrated poet of the Church of the East. In his “piyyut” Narsai elaborates also on the correspondence between the cosmos and the Tabernacle:

A second creation did the Creator create through Moses / that man learn that it is He who created the creation in the beginning… Corresponding to the inhabited world, the Tabernacle was extended to the four corners / and it was disposed according to the disposition of the months of the year… As a symbol of the luminaries was the candelabrum looking at them with its flames / and they towards it as seedlings in the direction of the sun…

(Trans. Judith Frishman)

Narsai bases his poem on a longstanding exegetical tradition within Syriac Christianity, and narrates for his audience the many resemblances between the cosmos and the Tabernacle, which also represents the Church. In the sixth century, Jacob of Serugh, another prominent Syriac poet, elaborated further on the consequences of the cosmos-Tabernacle relationships.

Indeed, the relations between Jewish and Christian liturgical poetry have become a hot issue among scholars recently and I promise to enlarge upon it in the blog in the near future. Until then, don’t forget to look for the third and final part of this Talmud Blog series on Hanukkah and Piyyut.

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3 thoughts on “Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 2)”

  1. A thorough examination of the Cosmos-Tabernacle theme in Piyyut and Christian hymnography will be published in a collection of essays on Jewish, Christian and Pagan cosmogony in Late Antiquity. The volume is edited by Lance Jenott and Sarit Kattan-Gribetz (Ph.D. Candidates in the Department of Religion at Princeton University) and is based on the proceedings of a 2010 conference in Princeton on Jewish and Christian Cosmogony in Late Antiquity.

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