Jewish liturgical poem

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A piyyut or piyut (plural piyyutim or piyutim, Hebrew: פִּיּוּטִים / פיוטים, פִּיּוּט / פיוט .mw-parser-output .IPA-label-small{font-size:85%}.mw-parser-output .references .IPA-label-small,.mw-parser-output .infobox .IPA-label-small,.mw-parser-output .navbox .IPA-label-small{font-size:100%}pronounced [piˈjut, pijuˈtim]; from Greek ποιητής poiētḗs “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”). 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 recitation of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin phylacteries. Another beloved piyyut is Yigdal (“May God be Hallowed”), which is based upon the Thirteen Principles of Faith set forth 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, payetan or payyetan (פייטן); plural paytanim (פייטנים).


The Eretz Yisrael school[edit]

The earliest piyyutim date from the Talmudic (c. 70 – c. 500 CE)[citation needed] and Geonic periods (c. 600 – c. 1040).[citation needed] They were “overwhelmingly from the Land of Israel 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.”[1] 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.[2]

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 piyyut’s 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 for 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[edit]

In the later Middle Ages, however, Spanish-Jewish poets such as Judah Halevi, Ibn Gabirol, Abraham ibn Ezra and Moses ibn Ezra 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. Although Luria himself would go to Ashkenazic communities at times when they would recite piyyutim in order to recite those from the Eretz Yisrael school, no Sephardic community reinstituted these piyyutim, presumably because these had already been eliminated from the service and 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.

Well-known piyyutim[edit]

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[3] Poetic scheme Recited on
Adir Hu אַדִּיר הוּא Alphabetic acrostic Passover
Adon Haselichot אֲדוֹן הַסְּלִיחוֹת Alphabetic acrostic Every day during the month of Elul and during the Ten Days of Repentance
Adon Olam אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם Hazaj metre (based on short-long-long-long foot) Daily
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” [he] Shavuot
Anim Zemirot/Shir haKavod אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת Double alphabetic acrostic Shabbat and Festivals
Barukh El Elyon בָּרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן Acrostic spells “Baruch Chazak”, or “Blessed be he, with strength”, written by Baruch ben Samuel Shabbat
Berah Dodi בְּרַח דּוֹדִי Every stanza begins with the word “Berah” Passover
Devai Haser דוי הסר Acrostic spells “Dunash,” the name of author Dunash ben Labrat. Weddings and Sheva Brachot
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)
Eli 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
Kol Meqadesh Shevi’i כל מקדש שביעי Shabbat
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
Mipi El מִפִּי אֵל Alphabetic acrostic Shabbat and Simchat Torah
M’nuha V’Simha מְנוּחָה וְשִׂמְחָה Acrostic spells name of author, “Moshe”, likely Moshe ben Kalonymos [he] Shabbat
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 Silluq of Musaf for these days Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (in the Eastern Ashkenazic and Italian rites). In some Italian communities, also on Hoshana Rabbah. In the Western Ashkenazic rite, Rosh Hashanah only.
Yah Ribon יָהּ רִבּוֹן Acrostic spells “Israel“, the author’s (Israel ben Moses Najara) first name Shabbat
Yedid Nefesh יְדִיד נֶפֶש Acrostic spells Tetragrammaton Shabbat
Yigdal יִגְדַּל Metre Daily
Yom Shabbaton יוֹם שַבָּתוֹן Acrostic spells “Yehudah“, written by Yehudah Halevi Shabbat
Yom Ze L’Yisra’el יוֹם זֶה לְיִשְׂרַאֵל Acrostic spells “Yitzhak“, written by Yitzhak Salmah Hazan, although commonly misattributed to Rabbi Isaac Luria Shabbat
Yom Ze Mekhubad יוֹם זֶה מְכֻבָּד Acrostic spells “Israel Shabbat


Piyyutim have been written in many different genres and subgenres. Most of these are defined by the function that the given poem fulfills in the context of Jewish prayer service; but a few are defined by other criteria, such as content.

Yotzer sequence—a series of poems, which adorn the blessings surrounding the morning recitation of the Shema. Note that the Shema itself is always kept in its statutory form, and not adorned with poetry, because it is made up of passages taken straight from the Bible.

1. Guf yotzer (or just yotzer)—the first poem of the sequence, coming at the very beginning of the blessing Yotzer ohr. In a sequence written for a weekday, this is a very short poem, of one stanza, and leads straight to the conclusion of the blessing; parts 1a, 2, 3, and 4 are skipped.[4] In a sequence written for a Sabbath or festival, this poem can be anywhere from about 12 lines to several hundred lines.[5]
1b. Silluq le-yotzer. A “conclusion” to the guf yotzer, forming a bridge to the Qedusha in the middle of the blessing on the heavenly luminaries.[6]
2. Ofan. A poem bridging between the first and second verses of the Qedusha.[7]
3. Me’ora. A poem forming the bridge between the second verse of the Qedusha and the conclusion of the blessing on the luminaries.
4. Ahava. A poem leading into the conclusion of the blessing regarding God‘s love for the Jewish people.[8]
(The Shema itself is recited here.)
5. Zulath. A poem leading from the beginning of the blessing after the Shema (about the truth of the Shema‘ and God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt) to the verse “Mi Khamokha” (“Who is like unto Thee?”), Exodus 15:11.[9]
6. Mi Khamokha. A poem leading from the verse “Mi Khamokha” (Ex. 15:11) to the verse “Adonai Yimlokh” (Ex. 15:18).
7. Ge’ulla. A poem leading from “Adonai Yimlokh” (Ex. 15:18) to the conclusion of the benediction about the truth of the Shema‘ and the redemption from Egypt. In 9th-11th century Middle Eastern yotzer sequences, the Ge’ulla is usually split into two smaller poems, the “Adonai Malkenu” and the “Ve‘ad Matai”.[10]

Qerova—a series of piyyutim, which adorn the blessings of the Amidah. There are a few types of these:

Shiv‘ata: A series of seven poems, of even length, to adorn the Amidah of a Sabbath or festival. Such Amidot have seven blessings, so there is one poem per blessing. (Note that these were written only for the amidot of Musaf and Minhah and Maariv; for the Shacharit service of a Sabbath or festival, the Amida would be adorned with a Qedushta. See below.)[11]
Shemone Esreh: A series of eighteen poems, of even length, to adorn the Amidah of a weekday. Such Amidot have eighteen blessings, so there is one poem per blessing.[12]
Qedushta: A series of poems adorning the first three blessings of the Shaharit) Amidah of a sabbath or festival. (Or Musaf of Rosh Hashana, or any of the four Amidot of the daytime of Yom Kippur. The Qedushta consists of several parts, each with their own names.

1. Magen
2. Mehayye
3. Meshallesh
4. “Piyyut 4” (“El Na”)
5. “Piyyut 5”
6. Qiqlar
7. Rahit. (There may be several rahitim, in which case they are numbered 7a, 7b, 7c, et cetera.)
8. Silluq. A long piyyut, often closer to rhyming prose than to any kind of metrical poetry. The silluq, at its conclusion, leads into the first verse of the Kedushah prayer.
9: Qedusha-piyyutim. These poems, often absent from Qedushta’ot, were written to be recited between the verses of the Kedushah.
Qedushat Shiv‘ata
Qedushat Shemone Esreh

Some Shiv‘atot, almost exclusively for great festivals, have expansions:

Guf — an expansion in the fourth blessing of a festival Amidah. This is the central blessing of the festival Amidah, and the only one whose theme is the festival itself.
Dew (Tal) or Rain (Geshem) expansion: inserted into the second blessing of the mussaf Amidah of the first day of Passover or of Shemini Atzeret, which are the first days that prayers for dew and rain are recited in the summer and winter respectively.

Other types:

Purim expansions
Selihot (many later communities moved these out of the qerova, or out of the Amidah entirely, and recited them in less formal liturgical contexts)
Zemer (usually for the Sabbath).
Ketubba for Shavuot
Targum piyyutim
Bikkur (also known as Tosefet Le-ma‘ariv — an expansion at the end of a sequence of ma‘ariv piyyutim; found only in Ashkenaz and Romania.)
Magen Avot piyyutim
Piyyutified blessing
Piyyutified Birkat Hamazon
Siyyum Le-hallel
El Adon and Shevaḥ Notnim[13]

See also[edit]


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  1. ^ Goldschmidt, D, “Machzor for Rosh Hashana” p.xxxi. Leo Baeck Institute, 1970
  2. ^ .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free.id-lock-free a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Lock-green.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited.id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration.id-lock-registration a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription.id-lock-subscription a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Wikisource-logo.svg”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#2C882D;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}html.skin-theme-clientpref-night .mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{color:#18911F}html.skin-theme-clientpref-night .mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error,html.skin-theme-clientpref-night .mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{color:#f8a397}@media(prefers-color-scheme:dark){html.skin-theme-clientpref-os .mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error,html.skin-theme-clientpref-os .mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{color:#f8a397}html.skin-theme-clientpref-os .mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{color:#18911F}}Baskin, Judith (2011). The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. New Yoek: Cambridge University Press. p. 479-480. ISBN 0521533392. Retrieved 27 April 2023.
  3. ^ An Invitation to Piyut
  4. ^ Ezra Fleischer, The Yozer: Its Emergence and Development (Hebrew), Magnes Press: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1984. Pp. 336-350.
  5. ^ Fleischer, The Yozer, pp. 199-230.
  6. ^ Fleischer, The Yozer, pp. 245-251.
  7. ^ Fleischer, The Yozer, pp. 252-267.
  8. ^ Fleischer, The Yozer, pp. 268-279. (Deals with both Me’ora and Ahava.)
  9. ^ Fleischer, The Yozer, pp. 280-307.
  10. ^ Fleischer, The Yozer, pp. 308-335 (deals with the Zulath, Mi Khamokha, and Ge’ulla).
  11. ^ Fleischer, Hebrew Liturgical Poetry in the Middle Ages (Hebrew), Keter Publishing House: Jerusalem, 1975. (Hereafter: Shirat Ha-qodesh.) Pp. 182-198.
  12. ^ Fleischer, Shirat Ha-qodesh, pp. 199-211.
  13. ^ Fleischer, Shirat Ha-qodesh, pp. 460

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