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, Readings

Haman the Barber- Some Addenda

The section of the Babylonian Esther Midrash quoted by Shai in his post has a parallel in Vayikrah Rabbah and in the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (Vayikrah Rabbah 28:6 [664-666]):

על ואזא קאמינא ומזג בלנאיא ואסחייה… אזל המן בעי ספרא ולא משכח. על לביתיה אייתא זוגא מביתיה וספריה. מן דספר ליה שארי מתאנח. אמ’ ליה- מה לך מתאנח? אמ’ ליה- לא ווי ליה לההוא גברא מאן עביד קומוס בדין מאן עביד קומוס קלאטור עביד בלנא וספר! אמ’ ליה- לא אנא חכים ליה לאבוך מכפר קרינוס דהוא ספר ובלניי והוא עביד סטוכטון והדין זוגא דיליה?
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Conferences, English

A Conference on “Aggadic Midrash in the Communities of the Genizah”

Along with fellow students in Hebrew University’s Program for the Study of Late Antiquity, I set out to Haifa University early yesterday morning in order to attend a conference organized by an inter-university research group on “Physical Culture and Textual Culture in the History of the Land of Israel.” One of the day’s highlights was that I happened to sit next to Haifa University’s Dr. Moshe Lavee, who asked that I share the following information about an exciting conference that he is organizing, to take place at HaifaU next week:
The newly founded center for Genizah Research at the University of Haifa will hold the second conference of the research group on “Aggadic Midrash in the Communities of the Genizah” on Wednesday and Thursday next week, 15-16/1/2014 . The conference will present the fruits of the group, as well as lectures by scholars who deal with the subject and adjacent topics such as the relationship between Piyyut and Midrash, the question of oral homilies and sermons, the representation of Midrash in Judeo Arabic materials, and more.
The first day will also include an event marking the recent publication of Uri Ehrlich’s edition of the Amidah prayer according to Genizah fragments . On the second day there will be a special session on the use of new computational tools for classifying and analysing material from the Genizah from Qumran.

agada-heb

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English, Piyut, Readings

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.

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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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English, Piyut, Readings

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…

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English, Recent Publications

An Unusual Ashkenazi Qina for the Ninth of Av

Nuremberg Mahzor, 1331

The Ninth of Av is around the corner; here is a short post on an unusual qina (lament) from medieval Ashkenaz…

The Nuremberg Mahzor is a fourteenth century prayer-book according to the eastern Ashkenazi rite. The illuminated manuscript contains not only breathtaking artwork but also important payytanic texts, some of them unattested anywhere else in medieval manuscripts. Among these piyyutim is an unusual qina for the Ninth of Av that relates an imaginative dialogue between the Crusaders and the Jewish people.

The qina opens in medias res with the following verses:

“Come with us, you of smitten cheeks,”                                                                                           Say the uncircumcised and the unclean, my smooth-tongued enemies.                                     “We  are on our way to the land of the lovely diadem, the radiant land.                                   We  shall attack and plunder the spoil of the fortified cities,                                                       There we shall take our share, to each man two lengths of dyed cloth.”                                                                   (Translation by T. Carmi, in his The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse)

The awkwardness of this call had led Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson many years ago to explain that “the impact of the crusader climate opinion was so widespread that during one of the crusades the writer of a lament wrote as though crusader excitatoria (propaganda letters) were addressing the Jews” (A History of the Jewish People, p. 416). More recently, Elisabeth Hollender discussed the qina and wrote: “it is startling to see that here even the liturgical space, the communication with God, is not free from the fear of Christian attractivity… Israel cannot accept this offer, and it is exactly this refusal that shows the Jewish devotion to their religion, their God, as can be seen in the next passage of the qina”. Indeed the qina continues with harsh criticism of Christianity but also with a bitter sense of desperation from the absence of God and the past leaders of Israel.               This intriguing qina (and other qinot from the Nuremberg Mahzor) is discussed in Hollender’s article that was published recently in Giving a Diamond – Essays in Honor of Jospeh Yahalom on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. The volume (edited by Wout Van Bekkum  and Naoya Katsumata ) was published by Brill and features fifteen essays that deal with various aspects of Hebrew verse and prose compositions from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

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