A piyyut (also spelled piyut; plural piyyutim) is a poem created to substitute for, adorn, or preface a passage from the Jewish liturgy or a liturgical rite. The Hebrew term derives from Greek (e.g., ποιητής [poet] and ποίημα [poem]) and is related to the English word “poetry.” Unlike biblical poetry, piyyutim typically employ end rhyme, quote explicitly from textual sources, allude to midrash, and consist of complicated multipoem forms. Piyyutim display deep familiarity with rabbinic traditions of interpretation, and many rhetorical features, such as metonymy, resemble midrashic methods of reading. Originally, piyyutim occupied the place of statutory prayers; poems were interwoven with liturgical formulas as well as allusions to the weekly Torah portion and contemporary events. As the texts of the prayers became fixed, poems were used to frame the standardized wordings rather than replace them. The earliest piyyutim (c. 5th century CE) were composed primarily for the Ninth of Av, fast days, and the High Holidays; these poems embellished specific liturgical moments, such as the Avodah service, or they developed topical themes, such as penitence or mourning. In the classical period (c. 6th–7th centuries CE) the majority of piyyutim adorned the blessings of the Sabbath and Festival Amidah (Shiv’ata and Qedushta poems). These poems assume the so-called triennial cycle of Torah readings typical of the Land of Israel. As the Babylonian (annual) lectionary became more widespread and the text of the Amidah became standardized, Yotzer piyyutim embellishing the Shema and its blessings became increasingly popular. As the liturgy became standardized, local selections of piyyutim often distinguished various rites from one another. Although the Babylonian geonim initially resisted the liturgical variation and diversity typical of piyyutim, over time they came to accommodate the extremely popular practice. In the Middle Ages piyyutim developed along distinctive trajectories in Ashkenaz and Sepharad. Ashkenazic poetry amplified the complex styles typical of the classical piyyutim. These works emphasized ornate forms, opaque allusions to the Bible and rabbinic traditions, and clever but artificial grammatical constructions. Sephardic poets rejected the conventions of the classical piyyut in favor of a more lyrical, neobiblical aesthetic, and they innovated by introducing Arabic meter. Piyyutim are not only beautiful literature in their own right, but they also shed light on numerous aspects of Jewish culture through the centuries and are now studied using the tools of a variety of related fields.
Monographs and Anthologies
While scholarly fascination with piyyutim can be traced to the dawn of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement in Europe, in many ways the field remains young, with much work yet to be done. The volumes presented here include classic works by fathers of the field, Fleischer 2007, the magisterial Shirat ha-kodesh, and Habermann 1970–1972, Toldot ha-piyut; anthologies of writings, such as Mirsky 1990 and Zulay 1995; and more recent works, notably Lieber 2010, Yahalom 1999, and the Yahalom Festschrift (van Bekkum and Katsumata 2011), which give some indication of the current status of piyyut studies. Weinberger 1998 remains the only attempt to write a comprehensive survey of piyyut in English. Pedaya 2012 offers a convenient and nuanced point of entry into the vibrant world of the “piyyut renaissance” in modern Israeli popular culture.
Fleischer, Ezra. Shirat ha-kodesh ha-ivrit bi-yeme ha-benayim. Jerusalem: Magnes, 2007.
This volume remains the definitive work in the field. It provides a comprehensive overview of the topic organized along historical and geographic lines. Fleischer’s periodization of piyyut has become commonplace. The focus of this work is on the internal, formal development of piyyut; little attention is paid to content or context. In comparison to more recent works, it is insular. Originally published in 1975 (Jerusalem: Keter).
Habermann, Abraham Meir. Toldot ha-piyut ve-ha-shirah: Erets Yisra’el, Bavel, Sefarad u-sheluhot ha-shirah ha-Sefaradit. 2 vols. Ramat Gan, Israel: Masada, 1970–1972.
While somewhat dated, these two volumes offer a comprehensive history of Hebrew poetry, secular as well as religious. It remains important, and there is no comparable work that is either more recent or in English.
Lieber, Laura. Yannai on Genesis: An Invitation to Piyyut. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2010.
While the focus of this work is on the poet Yannai, the introduction offers a general overview of early (classical) piyyut. The second half of the volume is a bilingual (Hebrew-English) edition of thirty-one poems by Yannai (his compositions embellishing Genesis) with commentaries. A useful volume for undergraduate and graduate courses.
Mirsky, Aaron. Ha-piyut: Hitpathuto be-Erets Yisra’el uva-golah. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990.
This volume collects many of the most important essays by Mirsky. His analysis emphasizes continuity from the biblical period into the classical period of piyyut and stresses the interrelationship between piyyutim and other genres of rabbinic writing. He tends to downplay issues of the larger societal context in which these poems were composed, but he is a sensitive literary reader of the texts.
Pedaya, Havivah. ha-Piyuṭ ke-tsohar tarbuti: kiṿunim ḥadashim la-havanat ha-piyuṭ ule-havnayuto ha-tarbutit. Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Me’uchad, 2012.
This anthology emerged from the “piyyut renaissance” in Israel, as reflected in the website An Invitation to Piyyut. It includes both scholarly and popular works, and particularly stands out for its engagement with contemporary creative engagement with piyyut in the modern Israeli context.
van Bekkum, Wout, and Naoya Katsumata. Giving a Diamond: Essays in Honor of Joseph Yahalom on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.
This Festschrift for one of the outstanding contemporary scholars of piyyutim contains a selection of essays by many of the foremost senior and up-and-coming scholars in the field. Topics range from the linguistic to the sociocultural and span from the early period of piyyut to neo-Aramaic compositions. A valuable anthology indicating where the field of piyyut studies stands in the early 21st century.
Weinberger, Leon J. Jewish Hymnography: A Literary History. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998.
This volume is the only work in English that attempts to offer a comprehensive survey of piyyutim from the preclassical to the late medieval world. It offers a condensed summary of Fleischer 2007 as well as other Israeli works and is a useful, if incomplete, reference for those unable to access scholarship in Hebrew. Its treatment of Romaniote poetry is distinctive and particularly valuable.
Yahalom, Joseph. Piyut u-metsi’ut be-shilhe ha-zeman he-atik. Tel Aviv: Ha-kibuts ha-Me’uhad, 1999.
Yahalom’s approach in this volume emphasizes the contextual and historical significance of piyyutim, establishing their significance as sources for understanding Jewish culture writ large in Late Antiquity.
Zulay, Menahem. Erets yisra’el u-fiyuteha: Mehkarim be-fiyute ha-genizah. Edited by Ephraim Hazan. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995.
This volume reprints many of Zulay’s most important articles. It is organized into sections on general background, history, genre studies, language/linguistics, and discoveries from the Cairo Genizah. In addition to the academic essays included here, the general material offers some insights into the history of piyyut studies, including the world of the Schocken Institute in the early 20th century.
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