Some Notes on Yannai and Pesach: Between Exegesis and Received Traditions

Given this blog’s general preference for piyyutim of the Qaliri, it seems like the approaching holiday of Passover would be an appropriate time to discuss the work of his predecessor (and according to some traditions, his teacher) Yannai. Thanks to the placement of his piyyut “קרב יום” in the Ashkenazic Haggadah, Yannai is perhaps the classic payytan most heavily associated with the holiday of Passover. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is now sung on Passover, Yannai did not write that piyyut for the holiday. Rather, it is part of a larger composition that the payytan wrote for the Palestinian Torah reading that started at Exodus 12:29, “ויהי בחצי הלילה.”

However, Yannai did compose a whole slew of piyyutim for the holiday of Passover itself: Rabinovitz’s edition of Yannai’s piyyutim includes two works written for Shacharit of the first day of the holiday; an additional two poems for Musaf or Aravit, which riff off of the Song of Songs; and another work written for the Sabbath of Chol haMoed. Here, I’d like to share some notes on his “first” composition for the first day of Passover.

1) The reading for the first day of Passover in the Palestinian tradition was the section beginning with “שור או כשב,” Lev. 22:27. For Yannai, this meant that he had to connect some relatively esoteric sacrificial laws- e.g., the need to wait until the animal’s eighth day before bringing it as a sacrifice, and the prohibition against sacrificing a parent and its offspring on the same day- with a discussion of the holiday at hand. Yannai manages to do so by culling nicknames from these verses as he “songifies” parts of the Exodus narrative, specifically the section on the plague of the first-born. In Yannai’s idiom, the Israelites become the “שְׁוֹמְרֵי מִצְוַות שׁוֹר וְכֶשֶֹב וְעֵז כִּי יִוֶלֵד” (line 5) and the “תְּמֵידֵי מִלִּשְׁחוֹט מוֹלִיד וְנוֹלָד בְּיוֹם אֶחָד” (line 18).

Similarly, we read lines like the following (6): “זַעַם נָגוֹף שַׁתָּה לְעוֹבְדֵי לִבְהֵמָה // חֶמְלַת רָפוֹא שַׁתָּה בְּעוֹבְדֵי בִּבְהֵמָה”; those who worship animals- that is, the Egyptians- were killed, while those worship through animals were saved. A similar tactic is used by Yannai in his composition for the first day of Rosh haShanah, when the same Torah portion was read. There, Yannai hopes that just as God accepts animals after their eighth day, so too will he accept those who are circumcised on the eighth day (pg. 202, line 6): “כְּבַשְׁמִינִי וְהָלְאָה יֵירָצֶה // לַחֲתוּמֵי בְרִית הַיּוֹם תְּרַצֶּה.”

2) Stronger parallels can be found in Yannai’s aforementioned “ויהי בחצי הלילה.” At lines 5 and 15 of the Passover version of “שור או כשב”, Yannai builds off a midrash according to which the sons killed during the plague of the first-born son included also those who were not-yet-born:

…טָובְחָךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר הַנוֹלָד וְעָתִיד לְהִיוָּולֵד // יֵשַׁע לִבְנָךְ בְּכוֹרָךְ הִיוָּולֵד
פְּקֻודָּתּם בְּאַכְזְרִיוּת כֵּן עַשְֹתָּה // צֶאֱצָאֵי מֵעֱיהֶם לֹא חַסְתָּה

Yannai’s language in “ויהי בחצי הלילה” is extremely similar (14): “פְּגָרִים מֵתִים לָמוֹ עָשִֹיתָ // צוּרַת כָּל בְּכוֹר גַּם בְּמֵעֵיהֶם לֹא חַסְת.” In a note, Rabinovitz references the earliest extant midrash that contains such a theme- the Tanhumic section of Exodus Rabbah, written at least a few hundred years after Yannai:

.ומהו שאמ’ “לנגוף”? מלמד שאף המעוברות שהיו ראויות לילד הפילו ומתו האמהות; והמשחית יצא וחבל כל מה שמצא ואין נגוף אלא עוברות, שנאמ’ ונגפו אשה הרה ויצאו ילדיה

The midrash connects the root “נג”פ” used in Exodus 12:23 with the use of the root in 21:22 in order to make the plague even harsher. Still, what we find in Yannai is a bit different. Unlike the midrash, Yannai doesn’t discuss the mothers of the first-born, nor does he get into the complicated question of “Who Brought the Plague of the Firstborn?

3) As an exegete, Yannai looked for a way to rationalize the harshness of the tenth plague. Rabinovitz terms Yannai’s reasoning as “measure-for-measure,” according to which the Egyptian killing of the Israelite children justified the killing of the Egyptian offspring (14): “שַֹמוּ לְמוֹלִידִים תַּחַת אֲבָנִים // עוֹד לַיְאוֹר הִשְלִיכוּ וַולדֵי בָנִים.”

While this reasoning seems most natural, one would be hard-pressed to find it used by the rabbis. Louis Feldman, in an article comparing the rationale for the tenth plague offered by the rabbis and others, cites a rabbinic tradition from the fifth-century Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana according to which the first-born Egyptians killed some 600,000 of their own in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites and avert their deaths. This seems to be one of the few “justifications” for the deaths of the first-born found in the early rabbinic corpus, and it doesn’t really even seek to do that explicitly. Tellingly, the rabbinic traditions surrounding the tenth plague actually do more of the opposite, enlarging the number of those killed and creating an image of God as more powerful. Adding to those mentioned by the Torah, the rabbis include: first-born daughters, first-born children of second marriages and of illegitimate relationships (one is reminded of Abdu, the protagonist of an early Etgar Keret story…), the oldest of every family regardless of whether or not he or she was born first, the first-born children of non-Egyptians living in Egypt- even first-born children who were already dead.

Yannai’s “measure-for-measure” approach is found in other Jewish poems from Late Antiquity. Yahalom and Sokoloff‘s edition of Aramaic poetry includes an interesting poem told from the perspective of God in the first person as he speaks to Moses in the heavens (lines 7-11):

זרק אין הוא / בנהרה מיינוקייה
[חשבן אחשב עמיה / במה דחשב [..ייה
טירנוס אין הוא / על כל בנייה
יתיב משעבד להון / בטינה ובליבנה
כל בכוריו אתקטל / בפלגות לילייה

If he throws \ the children in the river
I will reckon with him \ like he reckoned with the [bo]ys
If he is tyranical \ with all of the boys
As he sits and enslaves them \ with bricks and mortar
All of his first-born I will kill \ in the middle of the night

The rabbis, Yannai, and the anonymous author of this Aramaic poem all view the tenth plague more as a punishment for the Egyptians than as a way of convincing Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Yet unlike the rabbis, the poets rationalize the punishment by showing how it was met out measure-for-measure. It is worth highlighting how the Aramaic poem goes as far as depicting God as not necessarily even wanting to punish the Egyptians in such a manner: God says that he will punish the Egyptians if (“אין”) Pharaoh throws the children in the river.

[Also in Aramaic, the Syriac church father Ephrem used an imagery that similarly rationalized the harshness of the punishment in his commentary to Exodus, ad loc: "ܕܐܬܡܠܝ ܢܗܪܐ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܝ ܥܒܪ̈ܝܬܐܼ܂ ܐܬܡܠܝܘ ܩܒܪܝ ܡܨܪ̈ܝܐ ܡܢ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܐ ܕܡܨܪ̈ܝܬܐ"- "Just as the river had been filled with the firstborn of the Hebrew women, Egyptian tombs were filled with the firstborn of the Egyptian women."]

4) Lastly, so as not to end on such a dismal note, here’s my favorite rendition of Yannai’s “קרב יום,” featuring the hassidic serenades of a somewhat distant side-curled relative of mine:

Chag Sameach!

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2 responses to “Some Notes on Yannai and Pesach: Between Exegesis and Received Traditions

  1. This is fantastic. Thank you!
    An early, and elaborate, measure-for-measure midrash-type exposition on the plagues and the exodus (extended, antithetically, to divine grace to Israelites in the wilderness), in Wisdom of Solomon, includes a reference to the plague of the death of the firstborn, mixed together with the miracle of the sea, in chapter 18:
    “5 When they had resolved to kill the infants of your holy ones, and one child had been abandoned and rescued, you in punishment took away a multitude of their children; and you destroyed them all together by a mighty flood. 6 That night was made known beforehand to our ancestors, so that they might rejoice in sure knowledge of the oaths in which they trusted. 7 The deliverance of the righteous and the destruction of their enemies were expected by your people. 8 For by the same means by which you punished our enemies you called us to yourself and glorified us.”
    The measure-for-measure perspective on the plagues/exodus was assisted (though not necessarily triggered) by Ex 18: 11:
    יא עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-גָדוֹל ה’ מִכָּל-הָאֱלֹהִים: כִּי בַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם.
    Wisdom of Solomon 18:8, above, completes the ellipsis in the biblical verse.
    Rabbinic exegesis of this verse (though not necessarily applied to plague of firstborn) , e.g., in Sotah 11a (cited by Rashi on the verse): בקדרה אשר בישלו, בה נתבשלו.
    In Wisdom of Solomon, the plague is justified as a demonstration of Divine greatness; not as incentive to free Israel, and not only retributive, but:
    “13 For though they had disbelieved everything because of their magic arts,
    yet, when their firstborn were destroyed, they acknowledged your people to be God’s child.”

    • Thanks, Shani!
      I now recall reading this footnote (pg. 223 no. 52) in Michael Segal’s book back in the day:

      “Jub. 48: (1) v. 14: “All of the people whom he brought out to pursue the Israelites, the Lord our God threw into the sea—to the depths of the abyss—in place of the Israelites, just as the Egyptians had thrown their sons into the river. He took revenge on 1,000,000 of them, 1000 men (who were) strong and also very brave perished for one infant of your people whom they had thrown into the river.” This verse explains the drowning of the Egyptians as an instance of “measure for measure” (cf. Jub. 4:31), a motif that recurs in other compositions that address the story of the splitting of the sea (Wisd. Sol. 18:5; Mek.
      R. Ism., Sirta 4; see Kugel 1997: 285–293).”

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