Piyut Curiosities

Piyut Curiosities

Question #1:

“Many people tell me that the lengthy recital of kinos on TishaB’Av does not inspire them because they do not understand thepassages. Is the mourning of Tisha B’Avintended to be simply a day of much tedium?”


Question #2:

“I once heard a ravgive a running commentary to the kinosof Tisha B’Av, and he mentionedthat the first kinah is acontinuation of the piyut recitedduring the repetition of the shemoneh esrei.But I never saw anyone recite piyutimduring the repetition of Tisha B’Avshemoneh esrei and do not evenknow where to look for them.”


Question #3:

“As a child I remember that all the shullen recited piyutimduring Maariv on Yomim Tovim, and many did during Kedushah on special Shabbosos. Now, I see piyutim recited only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What has changed?”


Although these questions seem unrelated, they all focus on a central subject:the additions of piyutim andother special passages in our davening,of which the kinos we recite on Tisha B’Av are one example. After anintroduction explaining the background to the piyutim,I will return to answer the first two questions.


What are Piyutim?

During the period of the Rishonim,the Geonim, and even earlier,great Torah scholars wrote prayers and other liturgical works that wereinserted into many different places in the davening,particularly during the birchos keriyas shema(between borchu and shemoneh esrei) and during the repetitionof the shemoneh esrei. Standard shul practice, particularly amongAshkenazic Jewry, was to recite these piyutimon all special occasions, including YomimTovim, mourning and fast days, and special Shabbosos (see Rama, Orach Chayim 68:1; 112:2). These piyutim express the mood and the theme ofthe day, often recall the history of the day, and sometimes even provide the halachic background for the day’sobservance. At times, they served as a means for teaching people the halachos germane to the day or season. Studyingthese piyutim not only gives ustremendous appreciation for these days, but sometimes provides us with certain aspectsof mystery, as I will explain.

There is also a humbling side to the study of piyutim. All the piyutim predate the printing press andbring us back to the era when all works had to be painstakingly handcopied.Most communities could not afford hand-written manuscripts of all the piyutim, and therefore part of the job ofevery chazzan was to commit all the piyutim to memory.


Some of the more common “piyutim”

We are all aware of the selichosrecited on Fast Days and during Elul and AseresYmei Teshuvah, which are a type of piyutim.Another famous part of daveningthat qualifies as piyut is Akdamus, recited prior to keriyas hatorah on Shavuos. Thisintroduction to the keriyas haTorah forShavuos was written by RabbeinuMeir ben Yitzchak of Worms, Germany, who was one of the great leaders of AshkenazicJewry, pre-Rashi. Other examples of piyutimthat are commonly recited include TefillasTal and Tefillas Geshem,the poem dvei haseir — authoredby Dunash ibn Labrat, an early poet-grammarian cited by Rashi in several places, which is recited before bensching when one will be reciting Sheva Berachos — and nodeh lishimcha, which takes the same slotat a bris milah.


Double Duty

Some piyutim are used intwo different contexts. For example, the song frequently chanted at a bris, ShirahChadashah, originatedas a piyut recited immediatelybefore the close of the brachahof Ga’al Yisrael in birchas keriyas shema on the Seventh Dayof Pesach. This piyut, written by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi,refers both to the splitting of the Yam Sufand to bris milah and is thereforeappropriate on both occasions.


Teaching Torah through Piyutim

Many times, the rabbis used poetry as a means of teaching Torah. Forexample, a very extensive literature of piyutimlists and explains the 613 mitzvos.Most of these pieces date back to the times of the Geonim; indeed, the famous count of mitzvos by Rav Saadia Gaon is actually apoem.

Other examples include piyutimthat instruct us in different special observances throughout the Jewish calendar.Among the most famous is the Seder Avodahof Yom Kippur, which is alreadyreferred to in the Gemara,although the text they used is long lost. Dozens of different piyutim were written in the period of the Geonim and Rishonim describing the SederAvodah in detail. The Rishonimdevote much halachic discussion tothe technical accuracy of several of the versions they received from earliergenerations, often taking issue and making corrections to the text of the piyut.


U’neshalmaParim Sefaseinu

Reciting the Seder Avodahalso fulfills the concept of “U’neshalmaParim Sefaseinu,” “And let our lips replace the(sacrificial) bulls” (Hoshea14:3). The Midrash teaches thatwhen we are unable to offer korbanos,Hashem accepts our recital of theprocedure as a substitute for the korbanos(Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim 4:3). This implies that we canachieve kapparah (atonement) byreciting these piyutim with kavanah. Therefore, a person who recitesthe viduy of the Seder Avodah and truly regrets his sinscan accomplish atonement similar to that achieved through the viduy recited by the Kohen Gadol.


Other “Substitute” Prayers

The same idea of U’neshalmaParim Sefaseinu is followed when we recite piyutim that describe other korbanos, such as, for example, thekorban omer, the water libation (nisuch hamayim) of Sukkos, or the korban Pesach. We can achieve the drawing close to Hashem that korbanos achieve by discussing them and by longing for theirreturn. This broadens the rationale for reciting piyutim.


Educating in Observing Mitzvos

Some piyutim serve notonly to teach Torah, but also to educate people how to correctly observe mitzvos. For example, the piyut ElokeiHaRuchos, recited on ShabbosHagadol contains a lengthy halachicdescription of all the preparations for Pesach, including detailed instructions for koshering andpreparing the house. This halachic-liturgicalclassic was authored by Rav Yosef Tuv-Elem, the halachic leader of French Jewry prior to Rashi’s birth. Tosafos and other Rishonim devote much debate to the halachic positions taken by Rav YosefTuv-Elem in this poem, and later Rishonim,such as Rabbeinu Tam, edited Elokei HaRuchosto reflect their opinion of what is the correct halachah. Since this piyutserves to teach people the correct way to observe Pesach, the Rishonimfelt it vital that the text be halachicallyaccurate. It is obvious that this piyutwas meant to be read, studied, and understood.


Who Authored Them?

You might ask how we know who wrote the different piyutim, particularly when many are over athousand years old!

In general, most piyutimfollow an alef beis acrostic inorder to facilitate their memorization. (Remember that they were written with theassumption that the chazzan wouldrecite them for the community from memory.) In many, if not most, instances,the author completed the work by weaving his name into the acrostic pattern heused for the particular piyut.Thus, Elokei HaRuchos begins withstanzas following an alef beis pattern,but closes with stanzas that spell YosefHakatan bar Shmuel Chazak, which is the way Rav Yosef Tuv-Elem choseto “sign” this piyut.


An Old Controversy

Early controversy surrounded the practice of interrupting the berachos of keriyas shema or the repetition of the shemoneh esrei to recite the yotzros, the word frequently used as ageneric word for all piyutiminserted into the regular davening.(The word “yotzros”originally referred only to those piyutiminserted after borchu, shortlyafter the words “yotzeir ohr uvoreichoshech.” However, in standard use, the word yotzros refers to all piyutim inserted into the berachos of keriyas shema or the repetition of the shemoneh esrei). The Shulchan Aruch, reflecting accepted Sefardicpractice, rules: “There are places that interrupt the birchos keriyas shema to recite piyutim, but it is correct not to say them,for they constitute an interruption” (OrachChayim 68:1). On this point, the Rama,reflecting early Ashkenazic practice, adds: “Others say that this is notprohibited, and the practice in all places is to recite them.” Eachcountry and community had its own special customs concerning what was said andwhen; often, this was recorded in a community ledger.


Misod ChachamimUnevonim

To acknowledge that these piyutiminterrupt the regular repetition of the shemonehesrei, an introductory request, beginning with the words misod chachamim unevonim (Based on the tradition of the wise and understanding)is recited prior to beginning the piyutimof the repetition of the shemoneh esrei.These words mention that early great Torah leaders advised the introduction ofthese praises.


Why piyutim have recentlyfallen into disuse

The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to ShulchanAruch (ibid.), explains both the position of those who encouragedthe recital of yotzros and thosewho discouraged them. For the most part, the Lithuanian Yeshivos followed the personal practice ofthe Gra not to recite piyutim during the birchos keriyas shema, and did not recite yotzros during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei (Maasei Rav #57). (The Yeshivosrecite yotzros duringthe repetition of the shemoneh esreion Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) With the tremendous spreadingof shullen that follow thepractices of the Yeshivos ratherthan what was previously followed by the Ashkenazic communities, it is increasinglydifficult to find a shul cateringto yeshivah alumni that recites the piyutim. This answers the question askedabove: “As a child I remember reciting piyutimduring Maariv on Yomim Tovim and during kedushah on special Shabbosos. Now I see piyutim recited only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What has changed?”

Unfortunately, due to this change in custom, this vast, treasured literature of the Jewish people isquickly becoming forgotten.


Who was the First Paytan?

The title of being the earliest paytanmay belong to Rabbi Elazar HaKalir, often refered to as the Rosh HaPaytanim, who authored the lion’sshare of the kinos we recite on Tisha B’Av as well as a huge amount of ourother piyutim, including Tefillas Tal and Tefillas Geshem, the Piyutimfor the four special Shabbosos (Shekalim, Zachor,Parah and HaChodesh),and many of the yotzros we reciteon Yomim Tovim. We know virtuallynothing about him personally — we cannot even date when he lived with anyaccuracy. Indeed, some Rishonimplace him in the era of the Tanna’im shortlyafter the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash,identifying him either as Rabbi Elazar ben Arach (Shu’t Rashba 1:469), a disciple of Rabbi Yochanan benZakai, or as Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s son Elazar, who hid in the cave with hisfather (Tosafos, Chagigah 13as.v. Veraglei; Rosh, Berachos 5:21); others date RavElazar HaKalir much later and even during the time of the Geonim.

We do not know for certain what the name “Kalir” means. Sincethere are several places where he used the acronym “Elazar berabi Kalir,” it seems thathis father’s name was Kalir. However, the Aruchexplains that “kalir” meansa type of cookie, and that he was called hakalirbecause he ate a cookie upon which had been written a specialformula that blessed him with tremendous erudition (Aruch, eirech Kalar III).


Kalirian Curiosities

Rabbi Elazar Hakalir’s piyutimand kinos require studying ratherthan reading. They are often extremely difficult pieces to read, relying onallusions to midrashim and historicalevents. Many commentators elucidated his works, attempting to illuminate thedepths of his words. Also, he sometimes employs extremely complicated acrostics.This is sometimes cited as proof that he lived later, when such poetic writing becamestylish, but, of course, this does not prove his lack of antiquity.

It is universally assumed that Rav Elazar HaKalir lived in Eretz Yisrael, based on the fact that wehave no piyutim written by him forthe second day of Yom Tov (Tosafos, Chagigah 13a s.v. Veraglei; Rosh,Berachos 5:21. Tosafos[op. cit.] uses this evidence to prove that he lived at the time that the Beis Din determined Rosh Chodesh on the basis of visual evidence.).However, the yotzros recited immediatelyfollowing Borchu on the secondday of Sukkos clearly include hissignature and follow his style. This, of course, would imply that Rav ElazarHaKalir lived in a time and place that the second day of Yom Tov was observed. If that is true, whywould he have written special piyutim onlyfor the second day of Sukkos andnot for any other Yom Tov?

Perhaps Rav Elazar HaKalir indeed wrote this particular piyut for the first day of Sukkos, but subsequently Diaspora Jewsmoved the yotzros the he wrote forthe first day of Yom Tov to thesecond day! This approach creates another question, since the yotzros recited on the first day of Yom Tov were also written by him: Would hehave written two sets of yotzrosfor Shacharis on Sukkos? There are other indications that,indeed, he did sometimes write more than one set of piyutim for the same day.


Why is Es Tzemach David Ignored?

There is another mysterious practice in some of his writings. The piyutim he wrote for the weekday shemoneh esrei (such as for Purim) includea paragraph for every brachah of shemoneh esrei except one, the brachahEs tzemach Davidthat precedes Shema koleinu.

Why would Rav Kalir omit this brachah?Perhaps the answer to this mystery can help us understand more about when helived.


Answering the Mystery

Our use of the words shemoneh esreito identify the focal part of our daily prayer is actually a misnomer, datingback to when this brachah indeedincluded only eighteen berachos.In the times of the Mishnah, anineteenth brachah, Velamalshinim, was added, and the Talmud Bavli notes that this increases theberachos of the “shemoneh esrei” to nineteen.

However, there is evidence that even after Velamalshinim was added, not everyone recited nineteen berachos. A Tosefta implies that they still recited eighteen berachos in the shemoneh esrei, and that two berachos, UveneiYerushalim and Es tzemach David, were combined. This would explainwhy someone would not write a piyutfor the brachah Es tzemach David, since it was no longer anindependent brachah. Thus, if wecan identify a place and time when these two berachoswere combined, we might identify more precisely when Rav Elazar HaKalir lived. Itwould seem that this would be sometime between the introduction of the bracha Velamalshinim and the Talmid Bavli’s practice of a nineteen brachah “shemoneh esrei” became accepted.


Kalirian Controversies

The antiquity of Rabbi Elazar’s writing did not save him fromcontroversy. No less a gadol thanthe Ibn Ezra stridently opposes using Rav Kalir’s works, arguing that prayersand piyutim should be written veryclearly and be readily understood (Commentaryto Koheles 5:1). After all, the goal of prayer is to understand whatone is saying. Ibn Ezra recommends reciting piyutimwritten by Rav Saadia Geon, which are easy to understand, rather than those ofKalir.

None of these criticisms should be taken as casting aspersion on RavElazar HaKalir’s greatness. ShibboleiHaLeket records that he heard that when Rav Elazar wrote his piyutim, the angels surrounded him withfire (quoted by the Magen Avrahamat the beginning of Siman 68.)

Rav Kalir’s piyutim in general,and his kinos in particular, arewritten in an extremely difficult poetic Hebrew. Often his ideas are left as allusions,and the story or midrash to whichhe alludes is unclear or obscure. They certainly cannot be understood without carefulscrutiny and study. Someone who takes the trouble to do this will be awed bythe beauty of the thoughts and allusions. The Arizalrecited all of the Kalir’s piyutim,because he perceived their deep kabbalistic allusions (Magen Avraham at the beginning of Siman 68).


The Kinos

Having completed my general introduction to the role of piyutim in Judaism, I want to paraphrasethe first question mentioned above: Why are the kinos so difficult to comprehend?

Most of the kinos werecite on Tisha B’Av are authoredby Rav Elazar HaKalir, whose works are typically written in a very poetic anddifficult Hebrew. Many commentaries have been written on the kinos, and the only way to understand his kinos is either to study them in advance,to read them together with a translation, or to hear a shiur from someone who understands them.Furthermore, I recommend reading each kinahslowly so that one can understand what the author meant. This may entail someonereciting only a few kinos for theentire morning of Tisha B’Av, buthe will understand and experience the meaning of what he read.


Other parts of Kinos

Kinos includesseveral pieces that describe specific historical events, including the death inbattle of the great king Yoshiyahu, the personal tragedy of the children ofRabbi Yishemael Kohen Gadol, the burning of the twenty-fourwagons of manuscript Talmud and commentaries in Paris, and the destruction of Jewishcommunities during the Crusades. These kinosare not as difficult to understand as Rav Kalir’s are, but, still, they aredeeply appreciated by those who prepare them, or attend a kinos presented by someone who understandsthem.



We see that liturgical poems enhance our appreciation of the day andprovide a background for our mourning. This is borne out even more with theseveral kinos that begin with theword Tzion,which all bemoan our missing the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael and our desire for thereturn of Hashem’s Shechinah. Another kinah that stands out, Az Bahaloch describes how Yirmeyahu HaNavigathered the avos and the imahos to pray on the behalf of the exiledJewish people. This story is described greater in the moving midrash which quotes how our mother Rachelbeseeched Hashem on behalf of theJewish people. Rachel points out the extent of sacrifice that she underwent tosave her sister from humiliation. In the midrash,Rachel closes her prayer: “If I, who am flesh and blood, dust and ashes,felt no jealousy towards another woman married to my own husband, and went outof my way to guarantee that she would not be embarrassed, You, the living King,All-merciful… why were You zealous against idolatry, which has no basis,and why did You exile my children… allowing the enemies to do with themas they desired?” As a result, Hashemresponded with great mercy, replying: “For your sake, Rachel, I willreturn the Jews to their home” (EichahRabbah, end of Pesichtah 24).