Readings

Moses in the Pesach Haggadah?

One of the most peculiar traits of the traditional Pesach Haggadah is the absence of Moses. Interestingly enough, in some modern versions of the Haggadah Moses’ role is restored, as for example in the Peasach Haggadah of the Kibbutz Ha’artzi, the association of Kibbutzim that belong to the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement.

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Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.59.40 PMThis Haggadah, first published in this form in 1964, features numerous innovations, including references to the agricultural aspects of Pesach, the arrival of spring, the Holocaust, and  Zionism. No less significant are its exclusions; Indeed, the very name of God is taken out of the narrative, as seen in the Haggadah’s version of the והיא שעמדה text:

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Here the people of Israel are not saved by God, rather they are simply saved (ואנו נצלים מידם, in the Hebrew passive mode). The image may hint that they are praying to the sun. At any rate, the editors were kind enough to note that this is a נוסח חדש (a new version) of the text.

Yet there is another Moses in this Haggadah, namely, Moses Ibn-Ezra, the celebrated Hebrew poet from Granada, Spain who lived in the twelfth century. Like the editors of the Bavli, this Haggadah’s editors remain anonymous. Still, one thing we can know about them is their fondness for poetry, which is evident throughout the text. One can find piyyutim by late antique poets such as Elazar Birabi Qilir and Yose ben Yose, as well as a beautiful poem by Moses Ibn Ezra entitled כתנת פסים לבש הגן (“The garden put on a coat of many colors”). Here is the poem in the original, followed by an English translation by T. Carmi:

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The garden put on a coat of many colors and its grass garments were like robes of brocade
All the trees dressed in chequered tunics and showed their wonders to every eye
The new blossoms all came forth in honour of Time renewed, coming gaily to welcome him
But at their head advanced the rose, king of them all, for his throne was set on high
He came out from the guard of leaves and cast aside his prison-clothes
Whoever does not drink his wine upon the rose-bed that man will surely bear his guilt.

Why did the editors include this work by Ibn Ezra? Truly, it is a beautiful poem that describes the blooming of the spring (a very important motif for the culture of the Kibbutzim), and it also calls for the drinking of wine. But there seems to be another more subtle allusion, namely, to the story Joseph. The closest reference to Joseph is the mention of the chequered tunic, like the one Joseph had, as mentioned in Genesis 37:3 (although Tamar also wore one after she was raped by her brother Amnon as told in 2 Samuel 13:18). Of course in the poem, the coat of many colors is ostensibly a metaphor for the colorful garden. Yet, the allusive use of the specific biblical phrase כתנת פסים is still quite striking. What is more, later on the blooming of the rose metaphorically describes a king restored to his throne after he cast aside his prison cloth, again resembling the story of Joseph in Egypt. Moreover, there is another possible connection to Pesach in the poem. Ibn-Ezra concludes his poem with a biblical quotation from Numbers 9:13 ״חטאו ישא האיש ההוא״  (that man shall bear his sin), a verse that deals with a person who did not offer the pascal sacrifice and therefore is condemned to death. The allusion to that verse in the poem is certainly humorous because the sin of not drinking wine is not really a sin and in reality the biblical context is not entirely necessary in order to understand the poem, yet the accumulation of possible references to Egypt and the Exodus narrative is quite striking. It is no wonder then that Aharon Mirksy, the scholar of medieval Hebrew poetry, suggested in one place that this is the correct reading of the poem, although the accuracy of his reading is disputable.

At any rate, according to this interpretation, the choice of the poem by the editors of the Haggadah would make sense because in that way the poem would be referring to the spring, to the drinking of wine, to the Pesach sacrifice and also to a major biblical figure associated with the narrative of exile and redemption from Egypt.

Finally, another remark concerning the beautiful artwork of the Kibbutz Ha’artzi Haggadah. Those familiar with Israeli children’s literature might recognize the distinctive style of the artist. It is none other than Shmuel Katz, who drew the classic דירה להשכיר (An Apartment for Rent) by Leah Goldberg.

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We conclude with the blessing for the fourth cup of the Haggadah, written in a socialistic mode:

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Chag sameach to all our readers, and le’chaim!

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English, Ruminations

On the Israeli Seder: Four Fragments

Back in July I posted some thoughts on the National Library’s final event of the series “נפגשים בבבלי”. I wrote how I was pleasantly surprised to see that the event did not uncomplicatedly celebrate the new place of the Talmud in Israeli society, rather it satirized it, problematized it, and productively questioned it. What follows are some sharp thoughts in that vein by the blog’s resident cultural critic– S.S.
Continue reading

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English, Texts

Blessing Beaujolais

(A special Haggadah Supplement from the Talmud Blog)

Why is this night different from all the other nights? Well, it really isn’t. What makes it different are the words. On all nights, we just eat, and don’t talk, and on this night, we ask questions about eating. On all nights, we mumble blessings before and after our food – quickly – and on this night we embellish our food with explanations and narratives. It’s not that the food is symbolic but rather that we take care and time to point out that the food has a story. Any food would have sufficed – “for on all nights we eat mac and cheese, but this night we eat caviar and steak,” – a would-be son could have asked, and might have been right. Continue reading

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English, Piyut, Readings, Zutot

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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English, Piyut, Readings

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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