Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yom Kippur: A time of closeness to God - Piyyut of the Week, L'cha Eli T'shukati

Many, including myself when I was younger, have the misconception that Yom Kippur is a sad and somber day on the Jewish Calendar. In fact, our tradition teaches, in Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8, that there were no happy days for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. Unlike Tisha B'av, we do not fast and deny ourselves pleasure out of mourning, but we do so as a way to atone for our sins.
Among the most moving themes of the liturgy of the day is that of closeness to God. Because we are confident that we will be forgiven on this day, the common Ashkenazi melody for the Vidui (confessional) is so happy, and in some communities, dancing takes place during some of the Piyutim, especially Mar'eh Kohen (How beautiful was the High Priest) after the description of the Temple service in Musaf. At least for Ashkenazim, this is the only day of the year that the line Barukh Shem Kevod following the Shema is recited aloud as it used to be in the Temple, and not in our usual undertone.
One of my favorite websites,, features the text and melodies for Jewish liturgical poety from across the spectrum of time, place and tradition, spanning from Greece to France and America to Tunisia. The featured piyyut this week is L'cha Eli T'shukati ascribed to the one of the famous Spanish-Jewish poets, Avraham Ibn Ezra or Yehuda Halevi. Although I had never heard of it before, I was drawn both by the words, in which the individual confesses to God as a lover would for their mate. It contains themes of both love and desire, as well as a poeticized version of the confession, going through our alphabetical laundry list of sins.
Again although I had never heard of this stirring piyyut before, it is one of the most well-known in the Sefardic tradition, recited throughout the world in their tradition as Jews gather in the synagogue to prepare for the recitation of Kol Nidrei. On that note, it is especially significant that in their custom, the dry, legal declaration of Kol Nidrei is preceded by an moving and emotional expression of our feelings of closeness to God which we will experience over Yom Kippur. The following translation is only of a selection from the very long piyyut; if you understand Hebrew, I encourage you to look at the full text, including the detailed confessional here. Below the text and translation, enjoy the music video of the piyyut by popular Israeli artist Meir Banai, whose rendition so moved me. If you are not moved by your high holy day services, imagine this melody as you prepare for this period of closeness, the holiest twenty five hours of the year in which we celebrate our passionate love for God, 'for we are Your children, and You, our parent.'

G'mar Hatima Tova! May you be inscribed for a happy and healthy year.

For You, God is my passion; in You is my love and affection.

Yours are my heart and organs, to You are my soul and spirit.

Yours are my hands and legs, and from You are my very thoughts.

For Yours are my blood and limbs, and my flesh and my essence.

Yours are my eyes and my ideas and my shape and creation.

To You I owe my spirit, my strength, and my hope and trust is in You.

To You I will yearn and I cannot compare, until my darkness will shine brightly.

To You I will shout, and to You I will cling until my return to my land.

To You is the kingship and pride, the direction of my praise.

From You is help at the time of need, be my help in my distress.

בְּךָ חֶשְׁקִי וְאַהֲבָתִי

לְךָ רוּחִי וְנִשְׁמָתִי

וּמִמָּךְ הִיא תְּכוּנָתִי

וְעוֹרִי עִם גְּוִיָּתִי

וְצוּרָתִי וְתַבְנִיתִי

וּמִבְטַחִי וְתִקְוָתִי

עֲדֵי תָּאִיר אֲפֵלָתִי

עֲדֵי שׁוּבִי לְאַדְמָתִי

לְךָ תֵאוֹת תְּהִלָּתִי

הֱיֵה עֶזְרִי בְּצָרָתִי

לְךָ אֵלִי תְּשׁוּקָתִי

לְךָ לִבִּי וְכִלְיוֹתַי

לְךָ יָדַי לְךָ רַגְלַי

לְךָ עַצְמִי לְךָ דָמִי
לְךָ עֵינַי וְרַעְיוֹנַי

לְךָ רוּחִי לְךָ כֹחִי
לְךָ אֶהֱמֶה וְלֹא אֶדְמֶה

לְךָ אֶזְעַק בְּךָ אֶדְבַּק
לְךָ מַלְכוּת לְךָ גֵאוּת

לְךָ עֶזְרָה בְּעֵת צָרָה

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Piyyut of the week: We come finally, with trepidation -- במוצאי מנוחה - As Shabbat Leaves Us

For the past few weeks, we have been examining piyyutim - poetry from the Sefardi tradition of selichot, which are recited early each morning beginning on the first of Elul. This coming Saturday night we will finally arrive at the appointed hour when the Askhenazi tradition will also begin reciting these petitions for forgiveness as we lead towards Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
(As an aside, the differing lengths of time for which Selichot are recited is not based on greater or lesser piety, but two different explanations. Sefardim recite these prayers for forty days, paralleling the time that Moses spent on Mount Sinai petitioning to God before receiving the second set of the Aseret Hadibrot. According to tradition, he ascended on Rosh Hodesh Elul and descended on Yom Kippur, at which point God granted forgiveness to the people. The Ashkenazi custom is based on the idea of having a series of ten days of fasting leading up to Yom Kippur. Since there are four days during the Aseret Y'mei Teshuva (Ten days of Repentance) when it is forbidden to fast - the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, and Erev Yom Kippur, these four days of fasting would be brought forward, prior to Rosh Hashanah. The tradition of the ten days of fasting, on which we now recite selichot even if we do eat, is combined with the idea of the end of Shabbat being a time of special favor before God. Thus, Ashkenazim begin to recite Selichot on the Saturday night at least four days before Rosh Hashanah.)

Although Selichot are generally recited before dawn, on this first night of Ashkenazi selichot, the practise has grown up to recite the service close to midnight. Some shuls offer special lectures or educational programs prior to selichot, and others accompany the service with a cantor, choir (or even a band at the Carlebach Shul). At the center of each day's order of Selichot is the piyyut known as a pizmon, or chorus, since each stanza of this genre concludes with a repeating chorus.

On the first night of Selichot, the featured pizmon is entitled B'motzaei M'nucha, As Shabbat Leaves Us. It is appropriate on many levels at be recited/sung at this point in the season. Besides for speaking of the ending of Shabbat, the poem also contains many images of the Jewish people standing in reverence before God. This is especially appropriate as it is very often recited close to the week of Parashat Nitzavim, which opens with the verse, "You, all all of you are standing before Adonai your God, the leaders of your tribes, elders, officials, and each individual in Israel." (Devarim 29:9). I hope you enjoy the following translation and commentary on this beautiful, moving (and anonymous) poem which has taken such a central place in the Ashkenazi liturgy

As Shabbat leaves us we first come before You,

Open Your ear from above, One who is enthroned upon our praise

To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

בְּמוֹצָאֵי מְנוּחָה קִדַּמְנוּךָ תְּחִלָּה

הַט אָזְנְךָ מִמָּרוֹם יוֹשֵׁב תְּהִלָּה

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

Put out Your valorous right arm to display might,

For with justice a ram was bound and scarificed in his [Isaac's] place

Please protect his desecendants who cry out to You while it is still night.

To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

אֶת יְמִין עֹז עוֹרְרָה לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל

בְּצֶדֶק נֶעֱקַד וְנִשְׁחַט תְּמוּרוֹ אַיִל

גְּנוֹן נָא גִזְעוֹ בְּזַעֲקָתָם בְּעוֹד לָיִל

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

Seek, please, those who seek You when they seek Your face

Be accepting of them from the heavens, Your dwelling place

And from the cries of their pleas do not turn away Your ear,

To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

דְּרוֹשׁ נָא דוֹרְשֶׁיךָ בְּדָרְשָׁם פָּנֶיךָ

הִדָּרֶשׁ לָמוֹ מִשְּׁמֵי מְעוֹנֶךָ

וּלְשַׁוְעַת חִנּוּנָם אַל תַּעְלֵם אָזְנֶךָ

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

[They, Israel] Tremble and quake from the day of Your arrival [to judge them, on Rosh Hashanah]

They are fearful like a woman, pregnant for the first time, from the passion of Your judgment.

Blot out their shortcomings so that they can bear witness to Your wonders,

To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

זוֹחֲלִים וְרוֹעֲדִים מִיּוֹם בּוֹאֶךָ

חָלִים כְּמַבְכִּירָה מֵעֶבְרַת מַשָּׂאֶךָ

טִנּוּפָם מְחֵה נָא וְיוֹדוּ פִלְאֶךָ

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

You are the creator for every being that was created

You then established a remedy to bring them back from the depths of sin

To have baseless mercy upon them from the hidden store

To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

יוֹצֵר אַתָּה לְכָל יְצִיר נוֹצָר

כּוֹנַנְתָּ מֵאָז תֶּרֶף לְחַלְּצָם מִמֵּצָר

לְחוֹנְנָם חִנָּם מֵאוֹצָר הַמְּנוּצָּר

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

Dweller on high, if the sins of Your people have multiplied so much

Please give them forgiveness from the storehouse ready in Your abode

For Your witnesses approach You, even though they are unworthy,

To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

מָרוֹם אִם עָצְמוּ פִשְׁעֵי קְהָלֶךָ

נָא שַׂגְּבֵם מֵאוֹצָר הַמּוּכָן בִּזְבוּלֶךָ

עָדֶיךָ לָחֹן חִנָּם בָּאִים אֵלֶיךָ

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

Please turn to the suffering and not the sins
Bring justice to those who cry out to You, O maker of wonders
Hear now their petition, God, Lord of Hosts
To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

פְּנֵה נָא אֶל הַתְּלָאוֹת וְאַל לַחֲטָאוֹת

צַדֵּק צוֹעֲקֶיךָ מַפְלִיא פְלָאוֹת

קְשׁוֹב נָא חִנּוּנָם אֱלֹהִים יְיָ צְבָאוֹת

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

Accept their prayer-offering as they stand before You in the night

Hear and find it pleasing, like meal offerings and sacrifices

Show them wonders, God, who exhibits greatness,

To hear the pleasantness and the prayer.

רְצֵה עֲתִירָתָם בְּעָמְדָם בַּלֵּילוֹת

שְׁעֵה נָא בְרָצוֹן כְּקָרְבַּן כָּלִיל וְעוֹלוֹת

תַּרְאֵם נִסֶּיךָ עוֹשֶׂה גְדוֹלוֹת

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה

The paytan who composed this Pizmon most likely lived in the later piyyut period, as the poem features a rhyme in each stanza, epithets such as those referring to Isaac and Israel, and vocabulary unique to piyyut. Part of what makes the words so stirring and appropriate for this first night of selichot, is the tying together of a number of themes: Our approaching God late at night - a time of favor, our doing so with sweet words and melodies, and in contrast our appeal to God despite our unworthiness and sinfulness. As this Pizmon speaks in somewhat general tones about these ideas, it fittingly introduces the themes that will be discussed and grappled with through the ever-changing piyyutim of the Ashkenazi liturgy.

I hope that you take the time to appreciate the beauty of this ancient, yet timely poetry, especially if you attend any of the various selichot services that will take place around the world this Saturday Night, במוצאי מנוחה, at the close of Shabbat.

As a treat I hope readers will enjoy this rendition of B'motzaei M'nucha by Hazzan Moshe Stern and choir from the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

אדון הסליחות - Adon Haselichot & Parashat Ki Tavo: Because we should always serve God with Joy!

Probably the most extraordinary feature of this week's parasha of Ki Tavo, though not necessarily the most positive, is the listing of curses at the conclusion known as the tokhekha, or admonition. Chapter 28 begins with fourteen verses of blessings that will take effect if the people of Israel follow God's commandments when they enter the land of Israel. This relatively brief description of blessing is followed by a detailed, disturbing, fifty four verse long section of curses. Because of their R-rated nature, a number of special customs have grown up around the reading, including reading the section in at a fast pace and in an undertone, giving the aliyah to the Torah reader or communal leader (so as not to make it look like one is putting a curse on a member of the community), and even changing two words, in verses 27 (from ובעפלים to ובטחורים) and 29 (from ישגלנה to ישכבנה), because the words in the Torah are considered too sever to read in public.
Beginning in verse 46, we are told of the reasons that we are punished. The first is expected, "for you did not heed the voice of God to to keep and do His statutes and commandments." The second may seem a bit odd at first -- "because you did not serve God with joy and gladness of heart, on account of the abundance that you were given." One might think that while being joyful is a nice idea, it is albeit merely an enhancement to the need to perform mitzvot to the letter of the law. But this is not the case, as it is written here, as well as in may other places, such as regarding the upcoming Holiday of Sukkot (Deuteronomy 16:13). The idea of enjoying ourselves and being glad is not a new, 21st century practice, but has been part of Judaism from the very beginning. In fact, even less obviously joyful occasions, like Selichot and Yom Kippur, can be enhanced when we express our joy that God has given us the opportunity to be forgiven and start anew each year.

This idea is expressed in both the words and music of one of the most popular Sefardi selichot, אדון הסליחות, which is sadly absent from the Ashkenazi tradition. Below you will find the text, my translation and commentary, and two different ways that singers and hazzanim have joyously performed this piyyut:

אֲדון הַסְּלִיחות.
בּוחֵן לְבָבות.
גּולֶה עֲמוּקות.
דּובֵר צְדָקות.
חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ:
הָדוּר בְּנִפְלָאות.
וָתִיק בְּנֶחָמות.
זוכֵר בְּרִית אָבות.
חוקֵר כְּלָיות:
חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ:
טוב וּמֵטִיב לַבְּרִיּות.
יודֵעַ כָּל נִסְתָּרות.
כּובֵשׁ עֲונות.
לובֵשׁ צְדָקות:
חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ:
מָלֵא זַכִּיּוּת.
נורָא תְהִלּות.
סולֵחַ עֲונות.
עונֶה בְּעֵת צָרות:
חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ:
פּועֵל יְשׁוּעות.
צופֶה עֲתִידות.
קורֵא הַדּורות.
רוכֵב עֲרָבות.
שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלּות.
תְּמִים דֵּעות:
חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ:
Ruler of forgiveness
[who] examines our hearts
Revealer of depths
Speaker of justice.
>>We have sinned before you; have mercy upon us.

Majestic with wonders
From times of old, comforting us
Remembering the covenant with our ancestors
Weighing our insides.
>>We have sinned before you; have mercy upon us.

Good and beneficent to His creations
Knower of all that is hidden
Conquering sin
Clothed in righteousness.
>>We have sinned before you; have mercy upon us.

Filled with giving merit
Raised with praises
Forgiving for those filled with sin
Answering when we call.
>>We have sinned before you; have mercy upon us.

Actualizing salvation
Seeing into the future
Calling upon the generations
Riding upon the heavens
Hearing our prayer
Perfect in words.
>>We have sinned before you; have mercy upon us.

While we are pouring out our hearts regarding our shortcomings during Selichot, this piyyut reminds us that while God is filled with Justice, He is at the same time filled with love and compassion for us. We are grateful, and even joyful that we are given the gift of being able to return and start over again each year. Thus, in both renditions below, the chorus, beginning חטאנו לפניך - We have sinned before you in recited in a joyful stride, for although we are ashamed of our sins, we come with love for God because of the love He has for us.

The first rendition uses probably the most common Sefardi melody for the piyyut, but does so with a techno beat. It is definitely full of confidence in our relationship with God, and ecstatic joy.

The second rendition was composed by Israeli artist Yonatan Razael. It has a very different tune and mode, much slower and more contemplative. However, it is clearly not mournful, and is still sung in a major key.

Adon Haselichot - Yonatan Razael

Shabbat Shalom, and best wishes for a joyous and meaningful Elul!