Tag Archives: Elazar Birabi Qilir

A Payytanic Quiz for Hanukkah – “The Answers”

Hanukkah is almost over and it is time to publish the “answers” to the quiz. I put answers in quotation marks since it is not always clear what the payytan meant or was referring to, but this is the case, I would argue, with almost every text.

Before proceeding I would like to thank those of you who responded to the quiz and brought up many interesting (and “correct”) answers. Special thank goes to those who commented that there are indeed more halakhic piyyutim than one would have assumed from my brief introduction. Most significantly are the Az’harot (=warnings) piyyutim for Shavuoth, as Shamma Boyarin pointed out on our Facebook page.

Below are some short comments concerning each stanza of the piyyut; the comments are taken from my forthcoming critical edition of the piyyutim of the Qiliri for Hanukkah and from the critical edition of the piyyutim of Pinhas Hacohen by Shulamit Elizur.

Stanza 1: This was a tricky one; the prohibition to use the Hanukkah candles is well known and attested in Masekhet Sofrim (20:4). What is less known is that in the same chapter we find the following regulation:

.כיצד מברכין? ביום הראשון המדליק מברך שלוש, והרואה שתים

How does one bless? On the first day the one who lights says three blessings, and the one who sees [the candles] says two.

So what we have here is not a reference to the Havdalah or the Hallel blessings as some suggested.

Stanza 2: The reference here is to the prohibition to move the candles once they were lit.

Stanza 3: A clear reference to “נר איש וביתו” from Bavli, Shabbat 21b.

Stanza 4: Here we do have a reference to the Havdalah and the prohibition of using the Hanukkah candle for that purpose. Medieval sages quote the Yerushalmi to back up this ruling, although it is absent from the version that we now have.

Stanza 5: Here we find a direct allusion to the prohibition to use the light of the candle. The reference to spinning might relate to the following saying from Yerushalmi, Berakhot 8:6:

אין מברכין על הנר עד שיאותו לאורו, רב יהודה בשם שמואל, כדי שיהו נשים טוות לאורו

It is forbidden to bless over the candle until its light is sufficient; Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel: when women could spin in its light.

Stanza 6: A reference to Bavli, Shabbat 21b: “והמהדרין נר לכל אחד ואחד”.

Stanza 7: “מעש” refers here clearly to the famous story (“מעשה”) about בית שמאי ובית הלל in Bavli, Shabbat 21b.

Stanza 8: One reader noted the similarity to the talmudic phrase concerning the candle of Havdalah “אין מברכין על הנר עד שיאותו לאורו” (quoted above). Indeed, it is attested in our context in Masekhet Sofrim: “ואם הדליקו ביום, אין ניאותין ממנו… שכך אמרו אין מברכין על הנר עד שיאותו לאורו”.

Stanza 9: Again, according to Masekhet Sofrim one should wait until the wick will be entirely consumed and, in addition, it is forbidden to use an old one.

Stanza 10: Here the prohibition to light one candle from the other is hinted; as it is appears in Bavli, Shabbat 22a: “רב אמר, אין מדליקין מנר לנר”.

Stanza 11: Nothing halakhic here but the reference to the candles of redemption brings to mind one of my Hanukkah posts from last year.

Next year, God willing, we will have another Hanukkah quiz, this time with a genuine piyyut by Pinhas Hacohen. See you then!

A Payytanic Quiz for Hanukkah

Hebrew liturgical poems (piyyutim) only rarely relate to halakhic matters. However, we do have one intriguing piyyut for Hanukkah that enumerates laws concerning the candle lighting during the days of the feast. This piyyut is attributed in Genizah manuscripts to the celebrated poet El’azar Birabi Qilir, who lived in the Galilee in the early seventh century, although it appears as well in a composition by the mid-eight century poet, Pinhas Hakohen from Kifra (a suburb of Tiberias). At any rate, we thought that this piyyut would give us an opportunity to hold our first ever Talmud Blog Quiz. Readers are encouraged to decipher the poem: Namely, to explain which laws it alludes to and cite texts that support their answers in the comments section of the blog. When the last day of Hannukah arrives we will post the “correct” answers and respond to your suggestions.

Have fun!

hanquiz

Two Unusual Traditions in Piyyutim for Shavuot

Shavout is just around the corner and I present in this post two most unusual traditions that appear in piyyutim for the holiday:

Were Hillel and Shamai brothers?

On June 8, 1951 Menachem Zulay published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz two late antique piyyutim for Shavuot that rather astonishingly suggest that Hillel and Shammai were brothers. The first piyyut relates in great detail the chain of tradition of the Torah according to Mishna Avot. Towards the conclusion of the poem we read:

 וכמו קיבלוה מראש שני אחים

כן נמסרה בסוף לשני אחים

That is, at Mount Sinai (‘the beginning’), the Torah was given to two brothers, Moses and Aaron, and at the conclusion of the process it was handed to yet another two brothers. “But who are these two brothers?”, wondered Zulay. The second piyyut has a straightforward answer to this question:

שמעיה ואבטליון מיהרו לדרוש בדת רשומיי

וקיבלו מהם שני אחים הלל ושמאי

According to this piyyut Sh’maya and Avtalyon studied the Torah while two brothers, Hillel and Shammai, received it from them. Two years after the publication of the piyyut in Ha’aretz, Zulay complained that scholars paid little attention to his curious discovery.  He also rejected a suggestion made by the poet Aaron Zeitlin to regard the poems as metaphorical. Zulay then wrote the following the comment, which to a large extent is still relevant today:

It is about time that our learned persons should know that the common way to settle contradictions between payytanic and rabbinic texts is not a scientific one, and at any rate it is unacceptable in regard to the piyyutim in the Cairo Genizah. The naive assumption is that the entire corpus of Jewish texts was fully preserved and that any source that does not agree with the canonical sources is mistaken or the illusion of the author.

Indeed!

Why didn’t the Patriarchs receive the Torah?

Ela’azar birabi Qilir was the first poet to dedicate a special section of the Shavuot piyyutim to the question of why it was Moses who received the Torah and not one of the patriarchs. The section describes God and the Torah as king and  daughter, and in the course of the piyyut God presents to the Torah a set of potential grooms (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).  The Torah refuses since in her view they all sinned. She describes – at great length – these sins and after dismissing all of the suitors she finally chooses Moses. This literary unit is unparalleled in any other source (that is, outside of the payytanic corpus) and I wish to provide one example, that of Abraham. In one piyyut by the Qilir, Abraham is blamed for doubting God at the ברית בין הבתרים (Covenant of the pieces) – as he asks ‘O Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?’ (Gen. 15:8).  Admittedly, this is a rather subtle critique. However, in another piyyut the Qiliri is much more daring.  He describes how Abraham hastened to bind Isaac and adds:

עניין כרחם אב על בנים בשכחו / עטיפת תחינה היה לו לערך בשיחו

The Torah claims that Abraham forgot the rule that a father should have mercy on his son  and that he should have prayed before God – apparently to cancel the commandment to slaughter Isaac! A later payytan by the name Yochanan Hacohen (ca. eight century) went even further and wrote:

אבל על יחידו לא קנה רחמים / ושלח יד כאכזר לשפוך דמים

וכל כך לעשות רצונך בלב תמים / ובטוח כי אתה טוב ומלא רחמים

אבל היה לו להתחנן לפניך ולבקש רחמים / ולחשוך יחידו מאש פחמים

הוא לא ריחם לולי ריחמתה, בעל הרחמים

(But on his single one he did not have mercy / and stretched his hand like a cruel man to shed blood

And all that in order to fulfill Your will with an honest heart / and he was sure that You are righteous and full of mercy

But he had to beg before You and ask for mercy / and to save his single one from the fire of coals

He did not have mercy, but you did, O Mercy One.)

Such blames continued to be rephrased in piyyutim for Shavuot in the High Middle Ages in the East as well in the West and it is undoubtedly a striking example of the boldness of these poets. Interestingly, many of the piyyutim that criticize the patriarchs were censored in medieval manuscripts. For many years it was assumed that the censorship was due to the discomfort of medieval Jewish sages who did not want to defame the patriarchs. More than a decade ago, I suggested that they were censored because contemporary Christian apologists attacked the (Jewish) patriarchs by using similar claims to the ones found in the piyyutim. The article was published in Tarbiz 70 (2001): 637-644 and can be downloaded here.

On a parting note, for those of you who would like to delve into the piyyutim of El’azar birabi Qilir for Shavuot I highly recommend Shulamit Elizur‘s critical edition published by Mekizei Nirdamim in 2000; in her introduction Elizur discusses – among other things – the piyyutim that were presented in this post.

And until next time, wishing all celebrants a wonderful holiday of Torah study, milk and honey.

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3)

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Ner Israel (The candle of Israel) - Selected texts of Rav Hai Gaon by the 19th century Hamagid of Koznitz

The third and last (albeit slightly belated) installment of the series on Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1, Part 2).

In the days of the Geonim (i.e., the Babylonian sages that followed the rabbis of the Talmud), individuals and communities sent to these rabbinic authorities halakhic queries and other questions concerning Jewish life. The replies of the Geonim were preserved in what is known as the Responsa literature. One of the most prominent sages of that period was Rav Hai Gaon, who headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva during the early 11th century. In one of his replies we read:

And concerning your question about the Hanukkot (Heb. inaugurations); we have heard about them in the Haggadah and the payytanim enumerated seven of them: the inauguration of heaven and earth after the six days of creation, and the inauguration of the alter in the days of Moses, and the inauguration by David… and the inauguration in the days of Solomon, and the inauguration in the days of Ezra, and the inauguration in the days of Matityahu son of Yohanan – these are six, and the seventh will take place in the future (i.e., with the coming of the Messiah)”. But those who count the one who built a new house, how can they know how many there were? But it must be said that the inauguration of a new house is called like a Mitzvah (= a religious law), and its name is celebration of the house, and it is not one of the public Hanukkot. And the inauguration of the idol, how come [one associates the inauguration] of Avodah Zara (=idol worship) with that of the house of the Lord that hopefully will be built in our days, amen.

There are several intriguing elements in this reply; first, it is curious that someone addressed Rav Hai with a question concerning the proper count of the Hanukkot. Usually, the Geonim received questions concerning laws and related religious practices. We learn then, that for some, the proper count of the seven inaugurations was meaningful. In fact, from the reply by Rav Hai we learn that it was a matter of dispute, a point to which I shall come back to shortly. Second, we should pay attention to the list itself; it consists of several “historical” Hanukkot: that of the Tabernacle (the altar in the days of Moses), of Solomon’s (first) temple, of the second temple in the days of Ezra, and finally the one in the days of the Maccabees. To this list of four Hanukkot Rav Hai adds one by David, based on Psalms 30:1 “A Psalm of David, A Song at the dedication of the Temple,” and a metaphorical one – the creation of the universe. Finally, Rav Hai mentions the seventh Hanukkah of the future (third) temple. After Rav Hai concludes the list we encounter the third intriguing fact. It turns out that Rav Hai is familiar with an alternative count that adds ‘the building of a new house’; truly, it is not quite clear what Rav Hai means here, and his explanation is even vaguer. At any rate, we realize now that the question concerning the proper count was in place. The last sentence of the response probably contains the most intriguing detail; it seems that Hai Gaon had heard of a custom to count among the seven Hanukkot an inauguration of some sort of a idol-worshiping place. Who might be the person or community that would do that? Some sort of a Christian sect? Karaites? Other non-rabbinic Jews? Muslims? I must admit that in this regard we are in the dark.

At this point, I’m sure many of you may be asking- “but what does Piyyut have to do with all of this?!” Well, as far as we know, the tradition of the seven Hanukkot emerged from the poetry of our beloved Elazar Birabi Qilir of seventh century Palestine! In several of his piyyutim for Hanukka the Qiliri elaborates quite lavishly on the seven Hanukkot. The typology of the seven inauguration makes perfect sense; it brings together six occurrences in the past, in which a sacred place was either created or rebuilt and it connects the past with the messianic hope for the completion of the series in the world to come. The inclusion of the Hanukkah of the Maccabees among these Hanukkot fits perfectly into the liturgy of the feast of Hanukkah. It is worthwhile mentioning that the list of seven Hanukkot appears also in the ninth century Pesiqta Rabbati. Interestingly enough, the list in this Midrash differs from the list known from the piyyutim of the Qiliri. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that the list brought by Rav Hai is similar to that of the Qiliri. It would seem then, that the case of the seven Hanukkot is yet another example of the rich and complex relationships within the polysystem of Hebrew literature in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 2)

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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.

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1)

A tenth century illuminated manuscript of the first book of Maccabees; Leiden University Library

Hanukkah begins today and since I have been working for some years now on Hebrew liturgical poems for this feast, I thought it would be nice to share with the readers of the Talmud Blog some interesting bits and pieces of these verse compositions. Here is the first installment.

Late antique piyyutim for Passover elaborate on the Exodus, those for Shavuoth on the giving of the Torah at Sinai, those for Purim on the story of Esther and Mordecai, and those for Hanukkah… on the inauguration of the Tabernacle! Neither the Maccabees, nor the Seleucians are mentioned; rather, one finds lengthy descriptions of the desert dwelling and the sacrifices that were brought on the occasion of its inauguration.

Why is this so? Simply put, the piyyutim follow the liturgy, and since the reading of the Torah during Hanukkah focuses on the inauguration of the Tabernacle as narrated in the book of Numbers, the poets followed that lead. It is no coincidence, of course, that this biblical episode is read at the synagogue. In the absence of a canonical book that relates the Hasmonean revolt, the rabbis and the payytanim chose the closest biblical episode to the historical event that they could find. Indeed, once the so-called Scroll of Antiochus (מגילת אנטיוכוס) was introduced to Jewish culture in the early Gaonic period, the piyyutim were filled with “historical” description of the battles of the Hasmonean agains Antiochus Epiphanies.

But at least in once case we find a payytan from late antique Palestine who sought to (re)collect some “historical” data concerning the Maccabees, and this payytan is no other than the by-now Talmud Blog favorite, Elazar Birabi Qilir. Here is one interesting and somewhat amusing example of what the Qiliri came up with. In one place he writes:

קינאו חמישה / להקים דת חמישה / כממים נימשה // רצו עד מודעית / יוונים שם להבעית / על נקמת שביעית

The five [sons of Matityahu] were zealous / and sustained the law of the five [books] / like the one whom from the water was drawn [=Moses] // They ran all the way to Modi’in / in order to terrify the Greeks / and to take revenge of the seventh [land (= Israel)]

But why does the Qiliri indicate that the Maccabees had to run all the way to Modi’in, the place in which one of the major battles against the Seleucians took place? This mystery is solved in the next couplet:

ארבעת ראשי נמר / ריצצו פרחי אימר / בגזירת שומר // לבשר בחוצות יבנית / כי קיצצה חנית / כל לשון יוונית

The flowers of Immer / smashed the four headed tiger [=the Greeks] / by the decree of the Guard [=God] // To announce in the streets of Yavnit / that the spear chopped / every Greek tongue

According to the Qilir, the Maccabees were part of the priestly division called Immer that dwelled in a village called Yavnit (יבנית). Already in the Bible the Israelite priests were said to be divided into twenty four divisions, Immer being one of them. Interestingly, according to Josephus (and other historical sources) the Maccabees belonged, in fact, to the Yehoyariv order that was located in Judaea. But as was mentioned above the order of Immer dwelled in the Galilee. So now we can begin to appreciate the finesse of the Qiliri: the name of the village is pronounced almost the same as the Hebrew adjective for Greek (יוונית), and the Qiliri brilliantly plays on this similarity in the last verse quoted above. But this complicates things for the Qiliri, geographically-wise. If the Maccabees dwelled in the Galilee surely they had to rush all the way to Modi’in, which is located in Judaea, and of course soon thereafter to rush back north in order to bring back the happy news to their Galilean hometown.

Much more can be said about these verses (and those of you who read modern Hebrew can read this Ha’aretz article on this piyyut by Joseph Yahalom) but let me conclude with the following quote from Aristotle’s Poetics, part four:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen, what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So who do you prefer – Josephus or Elazar Birabi Qilir?

A Sign of Confusion? The Hometown of Elazar Birabi Qilir

Archeological sites in Israel feature signs that explain the findings and elaborate on their historical context. Many of these signs quote texts that are relevant to the site in most cases from the Bible and rabbinic literature. To my joy, while hiking in the ancient synagogue at Arbel in the Galilee last week, I came across the following sign that quotes from a liturgical poem by Elazar Birabi Qilir, one of the prominent payytanim of the late ancient school of Hebrew liturgical poetry.

The first thing that drew my attention was the partial defacement of the sign; while I could not explain the erasure of the ר from the word הקליר, the damage to the acronym לסה”נ (literally, according to the Christian calendar) suggests that someone thought that it is improper to mention the Christian calendar in the context of an ancient synagogue. Such a purist practice is not unusual in some nationalistic circles, which reminded me the outrageous phenomenon of defacing Arabic names from street and highways signs around the country (but this is a matter for another post on another blog).

But then I noticed another thing; according to the sign the Qiliri was a resident of Tiberias in the seventh century. That the Qiliri lived during the seventh century can be deduced with reasonable certainty from his mention of the Muslim conquest of Palestine in that century. However the only clue we have concerning his hometown is the ambiguous mention of קרית ספר in the acrostic of several of his poems. קרית ספר, to be sure, is mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 15:15) as the ancient name of דביר in the southern part of the country (not to be confused with the modern ultra orthodox west-bank settlement מודיעין עילית, also known as קרית ספר). At any rate scholars agree that קרית ספר is a generic name for a central Jewish town in late antique Palestine. It is true that Tiberias falls under that category but other places qualify as well – most notably Sepphoris – and in fact it was suggested by several scholars (including the late Ezra Fleischer) that the latter was the hometown of the Qiliri.  It was a real pleasure to find a mention of the Qiliri at this ancient synagogue but it would have been nicer if the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority would be more modest in its attempts to revive the past.

Did you come across similar inaccuracies in other archeological sites? Tell us about it…