English, Piyut, Readings, Zutot

Some Notes on Yannai and Pesach: Between Exegesis and Received Traditions

Given this blog’s general preference for piyyutim of the Qaliri, it seems like the approaching holiday of Passover would be an appropriate time to discuss the work of his predecessor (and according to some traditions, his teacher) Yannai. Thanks to the placement of his piyyut “קרב יום” in the Ashkenazic Haggadah, Yannai is perhaps the classic payytan most heavily associated with the holiday of Passover. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is now sung on Passover, Yannai did not write that piyyut for the holiday. Rather, it is part of a larger composition that the payytan wrote for the Palestinian Torah reading that started at Exodus 12:29, “ויהי בחצי הלילה.”

However, Yannai did compose a whole slew of piyyutim for the holiday of Passover itself: Rabinovitz’s edition of Yannai’s piyyutim includes two works written for Shacharit of the first day of the holiday; an additional two poems for Musaf or Aravit, which riff off of the Song of Songs; and another work written for the Sabbath of Chol haMoed. Here, I’d like to share some notes on his “first” composition for the first day of Passover.

1) The reading for the first day of Passover in the Palestinian tradition was the section beginning with “שור או כשב,” Lev. 22:27. For Yannai, this meant that he had to connect some relatively esoteric sacrificial laws- e.g., the need to wait until the animal’s eighth day before bringing it as a sacrifice, and the prohibition against sacrificing a parent and its offspring on the same day- with a discussion of the holiday at hand. Yannai manages to do so by culling nicknames from these verses as he “songifies” parts of the Exodus narrative, specifically the section on the plague of the first-born. In Yannai’s idiom, the Israelites become the “שְׁוֹמְרֵי מִצְוַות שׁוֹר וְכֶשֶֹב וְעֵז כִּי יִוֶלֵד” (line 5) and the “תְּמֵידֵי מִלִּשְׁחוֹט מוֹלִיד וְנוֹלָד בְּיוֹם אֶחָד” (line 18).

Similarly, we read lines like the following (6): “זַעַם נָגוֹף שַׁתָּה לְעוֹבְדֵי לִבְהֵמָה // חֶמְלַת רָפוֹא שַׁתָּה בְּעוֹבְדֵי בִּבְהֵמָה”; those who worship animals- that is, the Egyptians- were killed, while those worship through animals were saved. A similar tactic is used by Yannai in his composition for the first day of Rosh haShanah, when the same Torah portion was read. There, Yannai hopes that just as God accepts animals after their eighth day, so too will he accept those who are circumcised on the eighth day (pg. 202, line 6): “כְּבַשְׁמִינִי וְהָלְאָה יֵירָצֶה // לַחֲתוּמֵי בְרִית הַיּוֹם תְּרַצֶּה.”

2) Stronger parallels can be found in Yannai’s aforementioned “ויהי בחצי הלילה.” At lines 5 and 15 of the Passover version of “שור או כשב”, Yannai builds off a midrash according to which the sons killed during the plague of the first-born son included also those who were not-yet-born:

…טָובְחָךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר הַנוֹלָד וְעָתִיד לְהִיוָּולֵד // יֵשַׁע לִבְנָךְ בְּכוֹרָךְ הִיוָּולֵד
פְּקֻודָּתּם בְּאַכְזְרִיוּת כֵּן עַשְֹתָּה // צֶאֱצָאֵי מֵעֱיהֶם לֹא חַסְתָּה

Yannai’s language in “ויהי בחצי הלילה” is extremely similar (14): “פְּגָרִים מֵתִים לָמוֹ עָשִֹיתָ // צוּרַת כָּל בְּכוֹר גַּם בְּמֵעֵיהֶם לֹא חַסְת.” In a note, Rabinovitz references the earliest extant midrash that contains such a theme- the Tanhumic section of Exodus Rabbah, written at least a few hundred years after Yannai:

.ומהו שאמ’ “לנגוף”? מלמד שאף המעוברות שהיו ראויות לילד הפילו ומתו האמהות; והמשחית יצא וחבל כל מה שמצא ואין נגוף אלא עוברות, שנאמ’ ונגפו אשה הרה ויצאו ילדיה

The midrash connects the root “נג”פ” used in Exodus 12:23 with the use of the root in 21:22 in order to make the plague even harsher. Still, what we find in Yannai is a bit different. Unlike the midrash, Yannai doesn’t discuss the mothers of the first-born, nor does he get into the complicated question of “Who Brought the Plague of the Firstborn?

3) As an exegete, Yannai looked for a way to rationalize the harshness of the tenth plague. Rabinovitz terms Yannai’s reasoning as “measure-for-measure,” according to which the Egyptian killing of the Israelite children justified the killing of the Egyptian offspring (14): “שַֹמוּ לְמוֹלִידִים תַּחַת אֲבָנִים // עוֹד לַיְאוֹר הִשְלִיכוּ וַולדֵי בָנִים.”

While this reasoning seems most natural, one would be hard-pressed to find it used by the rabbis. Louis Feldman, in an article comparing the rationale for the tenth plague offered by the rabbis and others, cites a rabbinic tradition from the fifth-century Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana according to which the first-born Egyptians killed some 600,000 of their own in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites and avert their deaths. This seems to be one of the few “justifications” for the deaths of the first-born found in the early rabbinic corpus, and it doesn’t really even seek to do that explicitly. Tellingly, the rabbinic traditions surrounding the tenth plague actually do more of the opposite, enlarging the number of those killed and creating an image of God as more powerful. Adding to those mentioned by the Torah, the rabbis include: first-born daughters, first-born children of second marriages and of illegitimate relationships (one is reminded of Abdu, the protagonist of an early Etgar Keret story…), the oldest of every family regardless of whether or not he or she was born first, the first-born children of non-Egyptians living in Egypt- even first-born children who were already dead.

Yannai’s “measure-for-measure” approach is found in other Jewish poems from Late Antiquity. Yahalom and Sokoloff‘s edition of Aramaic poetry includes an interesting poem told from the perspective of God in the first person as he speaks to Moses in the heavens (lines 7-11):

זרק אין הוא / בנהרה מיינוקייה
[חשבן אחשב עמיה / במה דחשב [..ייה
טירנוס אין הוא / על כל בנייה
יתיב משעבד להון / בטינה ובליבנה
כל בכוריו אתקטל / בפלגות לילייה

If he throws \ the children in the river
I will reckon with him \ like he reckoned with the [bo]ys
If he is tyranical \ with all of the boys
As he sits and enslaves them \ with bricks and mortar
All of his first-born I will kill \ in the middle of the night

The rabbis, Yannai, and the anonymous author of this Aramaic poem all view the tenth plague more as a punishment for the Egyptians than as a way of convincing Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Yet unlike the rabbis, the poets rationalize the punishment by showing how it was met out measure-for-measure. It is worth highlighting how the Aramaic poem goes as far as depicting God as not necessarily even wanting to punish the Egyptians in such a manner: God says that he will punish the Egyptians if (“אין”) Pharaoh throws the children in the river.

[Also in Aramaic, the Syriac church father Ephrem used an imagery that similarly rationalized the harshness of the punishment in his commentary to Exodus, ad loc: “ܕܐܬܡܠܝ ܢܗܪܐ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܝ ܥܒܪ̈ܝܬܐܼ܂ ܐܬܡܠܝܘ ܩܒܪܝ ܡܨܪ̈ܝܐ ܡܢ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܐ ܕܡܨܪ̈ܝܬܐ”- “Just as the river had been filled with the firstborn of the Hebrew women, Egyptian tombs were filled with the firstborn of the Egyptian women.”]

4) Lastly, so as not to end on such a dismal note, here’s my favorite rendition of Yannai’s “קרב יום,” featuring the hassidic serenades of a somewhat distant side-curled relative of mine:

Chag Sameach!

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English, Talk of the Town

Captivated

Last night, Dr. Youval Rotman of Tel Aviv University lead the inaugural discussion of Hebrew University’s  Group for the Study of Late Antiquity. The Group, which was started by Uriel Simonsohn and I in order to create an active scholarly community for researchers working on different corners of late antiquity, will be meeting monthly for group text-study and conversations, topped off by cheese, crackers, and Israeli wine as robust as the discussions.

Rotman’s topic was “Captives and Redeeming Captives in Late Antiquity: The Law and the Community,” and a crowd upwards of 30 (that’s in quantity, though I suppose also in age) read texts by Ambros, Tertullian (and more), along with rabbinic sources from the Mishna, Tosefta, and Babylonian Talmud (sources are available here).  A number of interesting trends were noted, included an apparent development in communal solidarity that turned captive redemption from a more private, family affair into a public,  community-based activity.  A connected issue that came up was the role of the state, or lack thereof, in redeeming captives.  Apparently, once you hit late antiquity Roman and Byzantine legislation forbids the state from redeeming prisoners of war.

I wonder whether the following, fascinating anecdote about Ifra Hormiz somehow reflects  those two points:

איפרהורמיז אימיה דשבור מלכא שדרה ארנקא דדינרי לקמיה דרב יוסף אמרה ליה ליהוי מצוה רבה יתיב רב יוסף וקא מעיין בה מאי ניהי מצוה רבה אמ’ ליה אביי מדתני רב שמואל בר יוסף אין פוסקין צדקה על היתומים ואפלו לפדיון שבוים שמע מינה פדיון שבוים מצוה רבה היא

Ifra Hormiz the mother of King Shapur sent a moneybag of dinars to Rav Yosef. She said to him: Let it be for a great mitzvah. Rav Yosef was sitting and looking into it –  what could be a great mitzvah?  Abaye said to him: Since Rav Shmuel b. Yosef taught that we do not levy money for charity from orphans even for the redemption of captives, it may be concluded that the redemption of captives is a great mitvah. (b. Bava Batra 8a-b; according to MS Hamburg).

The story is fascinating for a number of reasons. But in the meantime it is noteworthy that the talmudic storyteller has the queen-mother essentially delegating (and funding) rabbis to redeem (Jewish?) captives – as opposed to having the Sasanian state take care of it by itself. And it is the rabbis as a group who are in charge of captive redemption – as we also find at b. Taan 22a, where a case of captive redemption (apparently – though see the MSS) “visits upon” the rabbis, again apparently as a group.

Next up is Prof. Shaul Shaked, who will be speaking on January 3rd on “Zoroastrianism: A Religion of the Book.” For that I leave you with the following, thought-provoking picture – courtesy of my friend Dan Sheffield who has been digitizing a treasure-trove of photograph’s by the late Mary Boyce.

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Announcements, English

Pet Projects

I am involved in two new and exciting projects at Hebrew U that although at some distance from academic Talmud, may be of interest to some readers of this blog.  The first is the Group for the Study of Late Antiquity organized by Uriel Simonsohn and I.  This is a series of working seminars for late antiquists at Hebrew U and other Israeli universities to get together, read texts and discuss new research projects over wine and cheese.  Each meeting will be lead by a different scholar working on a different corner  of the field.  The first meeting will be held next week on Wednesday November 30.

With Domenico Agostini and Eva Kiesele I also have begun a project of reading and translating a fascinating Middle Persian text entitled Zand ­fragard ī jud-dēw-dād.  This text lay languishing in manuscript (and facsimile) until quite recently, when Goetz Koenig discussed it at an Iranian studies conference, and Yaakov Elman, P. Oktor Skjaervo, Mahnaz Moazami, Yishai Kiel, and I were drawn to it – mainly  on account of its legal sophistication. This is a work that bears some as yet undefined relationship to the Pahlavi Videvdad – a Zoroastrian Middle Persian translation and “midrash” on an Avestan book of that name largely concerned with the laws of ritual impurity. Aside from its rabbinic-like legal conceptualization and reasoning, I have already written about its great potential for illuminating the way in which Middle Persian texts were redacted during the Sasanian and early Islamic period, and perhaps even the Bavli. Before anything, however, we need to carefully read through all 250 pages of it.

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