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:

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