English, Piyut, Recent Publications

Palestinian Vs. Babylonian Sources from an Unusual Angle

Scholars of Hekhalot literature, much like Talmudists, distinguish between Palestinian and Babylonian layers in the texts they study. The following post is about a rare occasion in which a newly discovered text from the Cairo Genizah potentially changes dramatically what we know about the provenance of ideas, motifs and texts.

Earlier this month another Festschrift was published (yet again by Brill), this time in honor of Menahem Schmelzer from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Everyone interested in late antique and medieval liturgy, piyyut and theology can find many interesting articles in the volume.  Most interesting for the readers of this blog is Michael Swartz‘s piece on Ancient Jewish Liturgy and Mysticism. In a nutshell, Swartz shows that the author of a fifth or sixth century Palestinian piyyut (published a few years ago in Jewish Studies Quarterly by Michael Rand) was acquainted with the ascent narrative pattern in Hekhalot literature . Swartz then singles out the importance of this newly discovered piyyut:

This finding is significant because of how components of the Heikhalot corpus have been dated by several students of this literature, including this writer. The hymnic element, consisting of compositions praising God on his throne and abounding in elaborate descriptions of the angels, has been traced to Palestine in late antiquity. However, it has been argued that the ascent narratives developed in Babylonia and were used to frame these hymns. This source now serves as strong evidence for placing the element of ascent in amoraic and early post-amoraic Palestine, at least for the narratives of Heikhalot rabati and parts of Heikhalot zutrati. (p. 278).

Swartz’s findings not only affect the study of Hekhalot literature but also that of piyyut. We now know that at least some early payytanim were familiar with Hekhalot notions and perhaps more interestingely, that they felt free to include such materials in compositions that were performed in public. Hopefully Swartz’s contribution will provoke interesting reactions from scholars of Jewish mysticism, rabbinic Judaism and Hebrew liturgical poetry from Late Antiquity.


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