Piyyut and Modern Hebrew Poetry – The Passover Connection

Amir Gilboa
(1917-1984)

It is well known that modern Hebrew poetry makes extensive use of the Bible and to a lesser extent of rabbinic literature. What is less known is the role of liturgical texts and poetry in the modern poetic corpus. In what follows I exemplify how a piyyut for Passover by the late antique poet Yannai influenced Amir Gilboa, a prominent Hebrew poet who began publishing poetry in the 1950’s. The piyyut by Yannai opens with the declaration: אז רוב ניסים הפלאת בלילה (‘Then You performed many miracles at night’) and then enumerates the many miracles that occurred according to the Bible and rabbinic tradition at midnight. Here are some lines from the Piyyut (the alphabetical acrostic is highlighted):

וישר ישראל לאל ויוכל לו לילה
…זרע בכורי פתרוס מחצת בחצי הלילה
נושע מבור אריות פותר בעיתותי לילה
שנאה נטר אגגי וכתב בספרים בלילה
…עוררת נצחך עליו בנדד שנת לילה
קרב יום אשר הוא לא יום ולא לילה
רם הודע כי לך היום אף לך הלילה
שומרים הפקד לעירך כל היום וכל הלילה
תאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה

Israel wrestled with the angel and prevailed in the night,
The first-born of Egypt you did smite in the middle of the night…
Daniel, rescued from the lion’s den, interpreted the dread vision of night,
Haman, in his enmity, wrote his instructions against the Jews at night,
But You did conquer him by the king’s sleep departing at night…
Hasten the day of redemption, of which it is said “It shall be then neither day nor night”,
O Most High! Make known that to You belong day and night,
Appoint watchmen for Your city day and night,
Shed the brightness of day on the darkness of the night.

Originally, this Piyyut was composed by Yannai for the Sabbath in which the Torah portion from Exodus 12:29 (‘At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt’) was read in late antique Palestinian synagogues, but it became famous and widespread when it was included at the concluding parts of the medieval Passover Haggadah, where it is found until this day. Amir Gilboa alludes to this piyyut in more than one place and I shall discuss here one of the more interesting occurrences from a poem entitled ידעתי בחלום (I knew in the dream); here are the relevant verses from the poem:

.ידעתי בחלום החלום לא כחלום יעוף
.ידעתי בחלום החלום חולמים בי ריבואות
.נפקחתי. חצות. מי מאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה
.ושמש עומד דום בחלון בחלום כביום ההוא בגבעון אזכור
הנה הנה קרב הלילה אשר הוא יום ולא לילה
.ויום התמיד בא בחצי הלילה. וכבר הוא לא יעריב
.ובוקר אור מזהיב. נפקחתי. הנה הנה לפני, ירושלים
(אמיר גלבוע – כל השירים, תל אביב 1987, כרך ב’, עמ’ 83)

I knew in the dream the dream like a dream will not fade.
I knew in the dream the dream tens of thousands dream in me.
I woke up. Midnight. Who sheds the brightness of the day in the darkness of the night.
And the sun stands still in the window in the dream as it did at Gibeon, I remember.
Behold, behold the night, which is neither day nor night, is approaching
And the eternal day comes at midnight. And it shall no more dusk.
And the morning becomes gold. I woke up. Behold, behold in front of me, Jerusalem.

The poem opens with the dream of a speaker who wakes up at midnight. Interestingly, the midnight in the poem corresponds directly to the list of midnight miracles in the Piyyut. Gilboa fuses the language of his poem with that of the Piyyut; for examples the line ‘מי מאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה’ in the poem is a reworking of the payytanic verse ‘תאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה’, and similarly the line ‘הנה הנה קרב הלילה אשר הוא יום ולא לילה’ corrospondes to ‘קרב יום אשר הוא לא יום ולא לילה’. It is worth mentioning that in both cases we witness a process of secularization of the payytanic text; in the first example Gilboa wonders who is the one who performs the miracle and in the second he omits the appeal to God for salvation. Interestingly enough, Gilboa adds to the list of midnight salvations in the Piyyut another biblical scene that is not mentioned in the latter – the story about the battle of Joshua as narrated in Judges chapter 10. But like Yannai who concludes the Piyyut with Jerusalem ‘שומרים הפקד לעירך כל היום וכל הלילה’, itself a biblical allusion to Isa. 62:6), Gilboa too ends the dream sequence with the sacred city.

This poem is but one example of Gilboa’s impressive use of Piyyut in his poetry and there are many more. Before Yom Kippur – in exactly half a year – I plan to discuss another poem by Gilboa that correspondes to a famous Piyyut from the liturgy of the day that opens אכן מה נהדר היה מראה כהן (Indeed how splendid was the vision of the High Priest).

Until then have an inspiring holidays or at the very least a wonderful spring.

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