English, Piyut, Readings

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3)

000000024892_0001.jpg

Ner Israel (The candle of Israel) - Selected texts of Rav Hai Gaon by the 19th century Hamagid of Koznitz

The third and last (albeit slightly belated) installment of the series on Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1, Part 2).

In the days of the Geonim (i.e., the Babylonian sages that followed the rabbis of the Talmud), individuals and communities sent to these rabbinic authorities halakhic queries and other questions concerning Jewish life. The replies of the Geonim were preserved in what is known as the Responsa literature. One of the most prominent sages of that period was Rav Hai Gaon, who headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva during the early 11th century. In one of his replies we read:

And concerning your question about the Hanukkot (Heb. inaugurations); we have heard about them in the Haggadah and the payytanim enumerated seven of them: the inauguration of heaven and earth after the six days of creation, and the inauguration of the alter in the days of Moses, and the inauguration by David… and the inauguration in the days of Solomon, and the inauguration in the days of Ezra, and the inauguration in the days of Matityahu son of Yohanan – these are six, and the seventh will take place in the future (i.e., with the coming of the Messiah)”. But those who count the one who built a new house, how can they know how many there were? But it must be said that the inauguration of a new house is called like a Mitzvah (= a religious law), and its name is celebration of the house, and it is not one of the public Hanukkot. And the inauguration of the idol, how come [one associates the inauguration] of Avodah Zara (=idol worship) with that of the house of the Lord that hopefully will be built in our days, amen.

There are several intriguing elements in this reply; first, it is curious that someone addressed Rav Hai with a question concerning the proper count of the Hanukkot. Usually, the Geonim received questions concerning laws and related religious practices. We learn then, that for some, the proper count of the seven inaugurations was meaningful. In fact, from the reply by Rav Hai we learn that it was a matter of dispute, a point to which I shall come back to shortly. Second, we should pay attention to the list itself; it consists of several “historical” Hanukkot: that of the Tabernacle (the altar in the days of Moses), of Solomon’s (first) temple, of the second temple in the days of Ezra, and finally the one in the days of the Maccabees. To this list of four Hanukkot Rav Hai adds one by David, based on Psalms 30:1 “A Psalm of David, A Song at the dedication of the Temple,” and a metaphorical one – the creation of the universe. Finally, Rav Hai mentions the seventh Hanukkah of the future (third) temple. After Rav Hai concludes the list we encounter the third intriguing fact. It turns out that Rav Hai is familiar with an alternative count that adds ‘the building of a new house’; truly, it is not quite clear what Rav Hai means here, and his explanation is even vaguer. At any rate, we realize now that the question concerning the proper count was in place. The last sentence of the response probably contains the most intriguing detail; it seems that Hai Gaon had heard of a custom to count among the seven Hanukkot an inauguration of some sort of a idol-worshiping place. Who might be the person or community that would do that? Some sort of a Christian sect? Karaites? Other non-rabbinic Jews? Muslims? I must admit that in this regard we are in the dark.

At this point, I’m sure many of you may be asking- “but what does Piyyut have to do with all of this?!” Well, as far as we know, the tradition of the seven Hanukkot emerged from the poetry of our beloved Elazar Birabi Qilir of seventh century Palestine! In several of his piyyutim for Hanukka the Qiliri elaborates quite lavishly on the seven Hanukkot. The typology of the seven inauguration makes perfect sense; it brings together six occurrences in the past, in which a sacred place was either created or rebuilt and it connects the past with the messianic hope for the completion of the series in the world to come. The inclusion of the Hanukkah of the Maccabees among these Hanukkot fits perfectly into the liturgy of the feast of Hanukkah. It is worthwhile mentioning that the list of seven Hanukkot appears also in the ninth century Pesiqta Rabbati. Interestingly enough, the list in this Midrash differs from the list known from the piyyutim of the Qiliri. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that the list brought by Rav Hai is similar to that of the Qiliri. It would seem then, that the case of the seven Hanukkot is yet another example of the rich and complex relationships within the polysystem of Hebrew literature in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Standard
English, Piyut, Readings

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 2)

cosmas_indicopleustes.jpg

The world as a tabernacle according to an illuminated manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes' Christian Topography

In the first part of this series I discussed an intriguing “historical” tradition in a piyyut by Elazar Birabi Qilir. In this second part I turn to an interesting juxtaposition of the cosmos and the Tabernacle in another piyyut for Hanukkah by the Qiliri.

The interrelation between the cosmos and the Tabernacle is hinted already in the Hebrew Bible, and it became a central theme in Jewish thought of the first century of the Common Era in the writings of Philo and Josephus. Philo, as expected, offers an allegoric interpretation in which various elements of the Tabernacle correspond to parts of the cosmos. In classical rabbinic literature the relation between the Tabernacle and the cosmos is hardly mentioned but in contemporaneous payytanic literature it is widespread. It is attested in a piyyut for Hanukkah by Yannai (6th century) and more elaborately in the following Hanukkah piyyut by Elazar Birabi Qiliri (7th century):

בזה נתחדש עולם / ובזה בוסס והוכן עולם / כי כנגד יצירת עולם / הוכן אוהל בעולם / מכוונים בו כל מפעלות עולם… שבעת עננים מול שבעת מעונים / מנורת המאור מול שמש ומאור / שבעת הנרות מול שבעה אורות / קרסים וענובים מול כוכבים…

In this the world was renewed / And in that the world was established /For against the creation of the world / A tent was prepared in the world / In it are reflected the elements of the world… Seven clouds corresponding to seven skies / The bright lampstand corresponding to the sun (and moon) / The seven candles corresponding to seven stars / Clasps and loops corresponding to the stars…

The basic premise of the section is that without the Tabernacle the creation is not complete, or, in other words, that the construction of the Tabernacle is the final stage of creation. This idea is expressed in a very clear fashion in midrash Pesiqtah de Rav Kahana (5th/6th century), which indicates that “until the Tabernacle was set up, the earth was unstable. After the Tabernacle was set up, the earth became stable.”(1:4) The specific details of the comparison between the cosmos and the Tabernacle (included here only in part) are similar to many found in Philo, Josephus, in a few rabbinic sources and also in the piyyut by Yannai. It is crucial, though, to stress that the comprehensive list appears for the first time ever in this poem by the Qiliri. Interestingly enough, a similar list is known from the medieval Midrash Numbers Rabbah that is associated with Moshe Hadarshan  (Heb. “Moses the Preacher”), the eleventh-century composer and compiler of midrashic literature. This specific piyyut by the Qiliri was known in the days of Moshe Hadarshan and it probably influenced this medieval midrashic composition.

Finally, I would like to mention a similar Syriac liturgical poem by Narsai of Nisibis, the fifth century celebrated poet of the Church of the East. In his “piyyut” Narsai elaborates also on the correspondence between the cosmos and the Tabernacle:

A second creation did the Creator create through Moses / that man learn that it is He who created the creation in the beginning… Corresponding to the inhabited world, the Tabernacle was extended to the four corners / and it was disposed according to the disposition of the months of the year… As a symbol of the luminaries was the candelabrum looking at them with its flames / and they towards it as seedlings in the direction of the sun…

(Trans. Judith Frishman)

Narsai bases his poem on a longstanding exegetical tradition within Syriac Christianity, and narrates for his audience the many resemblances between the cosmos and the Tabernacle, which also represents the Church. In the sixth century, Jacob of Serugh, another prominent Syriac poet, elaborated further on the consequences of the cosmos-Tabernacle relationships.

Indeed, the relations between Jewish and Christian liturgical poetry have become a hot issue among scholars recently and I promise to enlarge upon it in the blog in the near future. Until then, don’t forget to look for the third and final part of this Talmud Blog series on Hanukkah and Piyyut.

Standard
English, Piyut, Readings

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1)

A tenth century illuminated manuscript of the first book of Maccabees; Leiden University Library

Hanukkah begins today and since I have been working for some years now on Hebrew liturgical poems for this feast, I thought it would be nice to share with the readers of the Talmud Blog some interesting bits and pieces of these verse compositions. Here is the first installment.

Late antique piyyutim for Passover elaborate on the Exodus, those for Shavuoth on the giving of the Torah at Sinai, those for Purim on the story of Esther and Mordecai, and those for Hanukkah… on the inauguration of the Tabernacle! Neither the Maccabees, nor the Seleucians are mentioned; rather, one finds lengthy descriptions of the desert dwelling and the sacrifices that were brought on the occasion of its inauguration.

Why is this so? Simply put, the piyyutim follow the liturgy, and since the reading of the Torah during Hanukkah focuses on the inauguration of the Tabernacle as narrated in the book of Numbers, the poets followed that lead. It is no coincidence, of course, that this biblical episode is read at the synagogue. In the absence of a canonical book that relates the Hasmonean revolt, the rabbis and the payytanim chose the closest biblical episode to the historical event that they could find. Indeed, once the so-called Scroll of Antiochus (מגילת אנטיוכוס) was introduced to Jewish culture in the early Gaonic period, the piyyutim were filled with “historical” description of the battles of the Hasmonean agains Antiochus Epiphanies.

But at least in once case we find a payytan from late antique Palestine who sought to (re)collect some “historical” data concerning the Maccabees, and this payytan is no other than the by-now Talmud Blog favorite, Elazar Birabi Qilir. Here is one interesting and somewhat amusing example of what the Qiliri came up with. In one place he writes:

קינאו חמישה / להקים דת חמישה / כממים נימשה // רצו עד מודעית / יוונים שם להבעית / על נקמת שביעית

The five [sons of Matityahu] were zealous / and sustained the law of the five [books] / like the one whom from the water was drawn [=Moses] // They ran all the way to Modi’in / in order to terrify the Greeks / and to take revenge of the seventh [land (= Israel)]

But why does the Qiliri indicate that the Maccabees had to run all the way to Modi’in, the place in which one of the major battles against the Seleucians took place? This mystery is solved in the next couplet:

ארבעת ראשי נמר / ריצצו פרחי אימר / בגזירת שומר // לבשר בחוצות יבנית / כי קיצצה חנית / כל לשון יוונית

The flowers of Immer / smashed the four headed tiger [=the Greeks] / by the decree of the Guard [=God] // To announce in the streets of Yavnit / that the spear chopped / every Greek tongue

According to the Qilir, the Maccabees were part of the priestly division called Immer that dwelled in a village called Yavnit (יבנית). Already in the Bible the Israelite priests were said to be divided into twenty four divisions, Immer being one of them. Interestingly, according to Josephus (and other historical sources) the Maccabees belonged, in fact, to the Yehoyariv order that was located in Judaea. But as was mentioned above the order of Immer dwelled in the Galilee. So now we can begin to appreciate the finesse of the Qiliri: the name of the village is pronounced almost the same as the Hebrew adjective for Greek (יוונית), and the Qiliri brilliantly plays on this similarity in the last verse quoted above. But this complicates things for the Qiliri, geographically-wise. If the Maccabees dwelled in the Galilee surely they had to rush all the way to Modi’in, which is located in Judaea, and of course soon thereafter to rush back north in order to bring back the happy news to their Galilean hometown.

Much more can be said about these verses (and those of you who read modern Hebrew can read this Ha’aretz article on this piyyut by Joseph Yahalom) but let me conclude with the following quote from Aristotle’s Poetics, part four:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen, what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So who do you prefer – Josephus or Elazar Birabi Qilir?

Standard