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

Tu Bishvat as Judgement Day in a Poem by Aharon Mirsky

The cover of Mirsky's book, which was published in 1999 by Bizaron Books

Tu Bishvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat), which is celebrated today, is also known as the New Year of the Trees. This festive date appears for the first time in tractate Rosh Hashana (The New Year) of the Mishna. The Mishna refers to four New Years:

The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals… On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

As can be seen there was a dispute between בית שמאי (House/School of Shammai) and בית הלל (House/School of Hillel) concerning the exact date of the new year of the trees. Ultimately (and not surprisingly) the date was set according to the latter. In practice, Tu Bishvat remained a marginal date in the Jewish calendar throughout the Middle Ages. It became gradually more prominent from the beginning of the early modern period, especially in mystical circles and reached its heyday in modern Israel, where it is celebrated widely and quite lavishly.

This post is dedicated to an interesting and charming children’s poem by the late Aharon Mirsky (1914-2001), a prominent piyyut scholar and poet. I bring here a photocopy of the original publication, which is accompanied by drawings by Yehudit Ben-Yosef:

It would be superfluous to provide here a full English translation of the poem but I would like to touch upon its main themes. Mirsky takes here quite seriously the notion of the new year of the trees and compares it to Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the New Year at the beginning of the Jewish High holidays. Since Rosh Hashana is considered to be the judgment day for all human beings, so – according to Mirsky – Tu Bishvat must be the judgment day of the trees and plants. But what does this mean? Mirsky draws here on the famous late antique piyyut for Rosh Hashana (and subsequently Yom Kippur) –           ונתנה תוקף קדושת היום (and we shall proclaim the greatness of the day). A famous line in the piyyut reads: בראש השנה יכתבון / וביום צום כיפור יחתמון (On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed), namely that the people’s judgement will begin on Rosh Hashana and end on Yom Kippur. Similarly, according to Mirsky, the trees and flowers in the garden will be judged.

Then Mirsky draws on another famous part of the piyyut in which the poet enumerates those who will die during the coming year: …מי יחיה ומי ימות / מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו / מי במים ומי באש / מי בחרב ומי בחיה (Who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast…). This terrifying litany (which also stands behind Leonard Cohen‘s Who by Fire) is echoed in Mirsky’s poem as well, for example: מי עוד יוסיף לפרוח כאן  / ומי גזעו יקמול (who will continue to grow here / who his trunk will wither); מי יטרף בידי עלעול / בבוא ימי הסתיו (who will be devoured by stormy wind [עלעול] in the autumn).

This playful children song does not seem to call for an extension of Jewish theology to the realm of flora but it does bring together brilliantly ancient piyyut and modern Hebrew poetry. I have no doubt that many kindergarten and elementary school teachers could use it in class in order to develop discussions concerning Tu Bishvat in particular and enviormental issues in general.

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