What Is Piyyut?

piyyut or piyut (plural piyyutim or piyutim, “poet”) is a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to be sung, chanted, or recited during religious services. Piyyutim have been written since Temple times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author.

Many piyyutim are familiar to regular attendees of synagogue services. For example, the best-known piyyut may be Adon Olam (“Master of the World”), sometimes (but almost certainly wrongly) attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain. Its poetic form consists of a repeated rhythmic pattern of short-long-long-long (the so-called hazaj meter), and it is so beloved that it is often sung at the conclusion of many synagogue services, after the ritual nightly saying of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin. Another well-beloved piyyut is Yigdal (“May God be Hallowed”), which is based upon the Thirteen Principles of Faith developed by Maimonides.

Important scholars of piyyut today include Shulamit Elizur and Joseph Yahalom, both at Hebrew University.

The author of a piyyut is known as a paytan or payyetan (פייטנ); plural paytanim (פייטנים).

Picture of “Shorshei Yishay” from Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Elkabetz, compiler of the piyyut ...

Picture of “Shorshei Yishay” from Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Elkabetz, compiler of the piyyut …


The Eretz Yisrael school

The earliest piyyutim date from the Talmudic (c. 70 – c. 500 CE) and Geonic periods (c. 600 – c. 1040). They were “overwhelmingly [from][Eretz Yisrael] or its neighbor Syria, [because] only there was the Hebrew language sufficiently cultivated that it could be managed with stylistic correctness, and only there could it be made to speak so expressively.” The earliest Eretz Yisrael prayer manuscripts, found in the Cairo Genizah, often consist of piyyutim, as these were the parts of the liturgy that required to be written down: the wording of the basic prayers was generally known by heart, and there was supposed to be a prohibition of writing them down. It is not always clear from the manuscripts whether these piyyutim, which often elaborated the themes of the basic prayers, were intended to supplement them or to replace them, or indeed whether they originated in a time before the basic prayers had become fixed. The piyyutim, in particular those of Eleazar Kalir, were often in very cryptic and allusive language, with copious reference to Midrash.

Originally, the word piyyut designated every type of sacred poetry, but as usage developed, the term came to designate only poems of hymn character. The piyyutim were usually composed by a talented rabbinic poet, and depending on the piyyut’s reception by the community determined whether it would pass the test of time. By looking at the composers of the piyyutim, one is able to see which family names were part of the Middle Eastern community, and which hachamim were prominent and well established. The composers of various piyyutim usually used acrostic form in order to hint their identity in the piyyut itself. Since prayer books were limited at the time, many piyyutim have repeating stanzas that the congregation would respond to followed by the hazzan’s recitations.

The additions of the piyyutim to the services were mostly used as an embellishment to the services and to make it more enjoyable to the congregation. As to the origin of the piyyuts implementation, there is a theory that this had to do with restrictions on Jewish prayer. Samau’al Ibn Yahya al-Maghribi, a Jewish convert to Islam in the twelfth century, wrote that the Persians prohibited Jews from holding prayer services. “When the Jews saw that the Persians persisted in obstructing their prayer, they invented invocations into which they admixed passages from their prayers (the piyyut) … and set numerous tunes to them”. They would assemble at prayer time in order to read and chant the piyyutim. The difference between that and prayer is that the prayer is without melody and is read only by the person conducting the service, whereas in the recitation of the piyyut, the cantor is assisted by the congregation in chanting melodies. “When the Persians rebuked them for this, the Jews sometimes asserted that they were singing, and sometimes [mourning over their situations].” When the Muslims took over and allowed Jews dhimmi status, prayer became permissible unto the Jews, and the piyyut had become a commendable tradition for holidays and other joyous occasions.

The use of piyyut was always considered an Eretz Yisrael speciality: the Babylonian Geonim made every effort to discourage it and restore what they regarded as the statutory wording of the prayers, holding that “any [hazzan] who uses piyyut thereby gives evidence that he is no scholar”. It is not always clear whether their main objection was to any use of piyyutim at all or only to their intruding into the heart of the statutory prayers.

For these reasons, scholars classifying the liturgies of later periods usually hold that, the more a given liturgy makes use of piyyutim, the more likely it is to reflect Eretz Yisrael as opposed to Babylonian influence. The framers of the Sephardic liturgy took the Geonic strictures seriously, and for this reason the early Eretz Yisrael piyyutim, such as those of Kalir, do not survive in the Sephardic rite, though they do in the Ashkenazic and Italian rites.

The medieval Spanish school

In the later Middle Ages, however, Spanish-Jewish poets such as Judah ha-Levi, Ibn Gabirol and the two ibn Ezras composed quantities of religious poetry, in correct Biblical Hebrew and strict Arabic metres. Many of these poems have been incorporated into the Sephardic, and to a lesser extent the other, rites, and may be regarded as a second generation of piyyut.

The Kabbalistic school of Isaac Luria and his followers, which used an adapted Sephardic liturgy, disapproved of the Spanish piyyutim, regarding them as spiritually inauthentic, and invoked the Geonic strictures to have them either eliminated from the service or moved away from the core parts of it. Their disapproval did not extend to piyyutim of the early Eretz Yisrael school, which they regarded as an authentic part of the Talmudic-rabbinic tradition, but since these had already been eliminated from the service they regarded it as too late to put them back. (The Kabbalists, and their successors, also wrote piyyutim of their own.) For this reason, some piyyutim of the Spanish school survive in their original position in the Spanish and Portuguese rite but have been eliminated or moved in the Syrian and other Oriental rites. Syrian Jews preserve some of them for extra-liturgical use as pizmonim.

The Piyyut (Poem) Akdamut Milin

The Piyyut (Poem) Akdamut Milin

Well-known piyyutim

What follows is a chart of some of the best-known and most-beloved piyyutim. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it tries to provide a flavor of the variety of poetic schemes and occasions for which these poems were written. Many of the piyyutim marked as being recited on Shabbat are songs traditionally sung as part of the home ritual observance of Shabbat and also known as zemirot (“Songs/Melodies”).

Name Hebrew Poetic scheme Recited on
Adir Hu אַדִּיר הוּא Alphabetic acrostic Passover
Adon Olam אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם Hazaj metre (based on short-long-long-long foot) Daily
Anim Zemirot אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת Double alphabetic acrostic Shabbat and Festivals
Akdamut אַקְדָּמוּת מִלִּין Double alphabetic acrostic, then spells out “Meir, son of Rabbi Yitzchak, may he grow in Torah and in good deeds. Amen, and may he be strong and have courage.” The author was Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak “Shatz” Shavuot
Barukh El Elyon בָּרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן Acrostic spells “Baruch Chazak”, or “Blessed be he, with strength”, or possibly “Baruch” is the author’s name Shabbat
Berah Dodi בְּרַח דּוֹדִי Every stanza begins with the word “Berah” Passover
D’ror Yikra דְּרוֹר יִקְרָא Acrostic spells “Dunash,” the name of author Dunash ben Labrat. Shabbat
Ein Keloheinu אֵין כֵּאלֹהֵינו First letters of first 3 stanzas spell “Amen” Shabbat and Festivals (Daily in the Sephardic tradition)
El Adon אֵל אָדון Alphabetic acrostic Shabbat and Festivals as part of first blessing before the Shema
El Nora Alila אֵל נוֹרָא עֲלִילָה Refrain: “At this hour of Ne’ilah”. Acrostic spells Moshe chazak, referring to Moses ibn Ezra Ne’ilah (conclusion of Yom Kippur)
Alei Tziyon אֱלִי צִיּוֹן Hazaj metre; alphabetic acrostic; each stanza begins with the word alei; each line ends with the suffix -eiha (meaning “her” or “of hers”, referring to Jerusalem) Tisha B’av
Geshem תְּפִלַּת גֶּשֶׁם Alphabetic acrostic; each stanza ends with standard alternating line Sh’mini Atzeret
Hakafot הקפות Alphabetic acrostic Simchat Torah
Hayom T’am’tzenu היום תאמצנו also called הַיּוֹם הַיּוֹם Alphabetic acrostic, each line ends “Amen” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Hoshanot הוֹשַׁעְנוֹת Alphabetic acrostic Sukkot
Ki Hineh Kachomer כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹמֶר Refrain: “Recall the Covenant, and do not turn towards the Evil Inclination” Yom Kippur
Ki Lo Na’eh כִּי לוֹ נָאֶה Alphabetic acrostic Passover
L’kha Dodi לְכָה דּוֹדִי Acrostic spells name of author, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz. Shabbat evening
Mah Y’didut מַה יְּדִידוּת Acrostic spells Menucha (“rest”); refrain Shabbat
Ma’oz Tzur מָעוֹז צוּר Acrostic spells name of author, “Mordechai” Hanukkah
M’nuha V’Simha מְנוּחָה וְשִׂמְחָה Acrostic spells name of author, “Moshe” Shabbat
Mipi El מִפִּי אֵל Alphabetic acrostic Shabbat and Simchat Torah
Shir Kel Nelam שִׁיר אֵ-ל נֶעְלָּם Alphabetic acrostic spells name of author, Shmuel. Purim Only recited by Polinim.
Shoshanat Ya’akov שׁוֹשַׁנַּת יַעֲקֹב Alphabetic acrostic Purim
Tal Reverse alphabetic acrostic; each stanza ends with “Tal” Passover
Tzur Mishelo צוּר מִשֶּׁלּוֹ First stanza is the refrain Shabbat
Unetanneh Tokef וּנְתַנֶּה תּקֶף Kedusha of Musaf for these days Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Yah Ribon יָהּ רִבּוֹן Acrostic spells “Yisrael” Shabbat
Yedid Nefesh יְדִיד נֶפֶש Acrostic spells Tetragrammaton Shabbat
Yom Shabbaton יוֹם שַבָּתוֹן Acrostic spells “Yehudah” Shabbat
Yom Ze L’Yisra’el יוֹם זֶה לְיִשְׂרַאֵל Acrostic spells “Yitzhak” Shabbat
Yom Ze Mekhubad יוֹם זֶה מְכֻבָּד Acrostic spells “Yisrael” Shabbat
Yigdal יִגְדַּל Metre Daily

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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