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.


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.