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…


12 thoughts on “A Sign of Confusion? The Hometown of Elazar Birabi Qilir

  1. Daniel Boyarin says:

    Is it possible that two payetanim are being confuted here: Haqalir and Qiliri which I understood are two different figures but perhaps my information is old and outdated.
    thanks for enlightenment on this

  2. Moulie,
    That was my guess as well. So what do you say – do we have a second hand here or does the same person is responsible for both? What would that mean?

    As for the question of Sefer Zerubavel and the more general notion of the Midrash-Piyyut hierarchy – this is indeed a very serious question. Let me just say that I think that the idea that piyyut is merely a versified midrash no longer holds water.

  3. The whole issue was discussed by Ezra Fleischer in his essay Solving the Qiliri Riddle in Tarbiz 54 (1985): 383-428. In the article Fleischer printed a piyyut by the Qilir that mentions the conquests of Palestine by the Persian and by Heraclius. On page 406 Fleischer asserted that the Qiliri witnessed as well the Arabic conquest and brought several reference to some of his piyyutim.

  4. Yehoshua Granat says:

    Interesting notes following a deplorable act of vandalism – מעז יצא מתוק…
    Two pedantic remarks, though:
    A) As far as I am aware, it was the late Ezra Fleischer’s original – and sharp – suggestion (in his 1985 article mentioned in your comment) to identify “Kiryat Sefer” with Sepphoris, and therefore the words “it was suggested by several scholars (including the late Ezra Fleischer)” should be accordingly rephrased (unless you are aware of some other scholar who suggested that independently!)
    B) It is rather inaccurate to say that Elazar birabbi Kilar was a “Babylonian poet”.

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