Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur

Michael D. Swartz
Joseph Yahalom
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur is the first major translation of one of the most important genres of the lost literature of the ancient synagogue. Known as the Avodah piyyutim, this liturgical poetry was composed by the synagogue poets of fifth- to ninth-century Palestine and sung in the synagogues on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Although it was suppressed by generations of rabbis, its ornamental beauty and deep exploration of sacred stories ensured its popularity for centuries. Piyyut literature can teach us much about how ancient Jews understood sacrifice, sacred space, and sin. The poems are also a rich source for retrieving myths and symbols not found in the conventional Rabbinic sources such as the Talmuds and Midrash. Moreover, these compositions rise to the level of fine literature. They are the products of great literary effort, continue and extend the tradition of biblical parallelism, and reveal the aesthetic sensibilities of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity. Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur is the first volume in The Penn State Library of Jewish Literature, overseen by Baruch Halpern and Aminadav Dykman. This series will constitute a library of primary source material for the Jewish and Hebrew literary traditions. The library will present Jewish and Hebrew works from all eras and cultures, offering both scholars and general readers original, modern translations of previously overlooked texts.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05450-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-42)

    every year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in synagogues around the world, congregations recall the biblical sacrifice of purification and expiation that formed the basis for the original Yom Kippur. This recollection takes the form of a service known as the Avodah, designated by the Hebrew term for sacrificial worship. In this service, the prayer leader describes the sacrifice in detail, but not before recounting the history of the world from creation to the erection of the Tabernacle. The text of the service is a long liturgical poem. Within this poem the leader repeats a confession that, according...

  5. 1. Atah Barata “You Created”
    (pp. 43-52)

    Atah Baratais perhaps the earliest poetic treatment of the themes of the Avodah. It is an introduction to the Avodah service and therefore ends not with a comprehensive description of the sacrifice but with the statement that God “informed [Aaron’s sons] so that they might serve before [Him].” This leads naturally into the description of the sacrifice, which presumably takes place in a separate composition. In two manuscriptsAtah Baratais used as the introduction toShiʿvat Yamim, indicating a close relationship.¹ However, it is difficult to know if they were composed together. The main evidence for its antiquity...

  6. 2. Shivʿat Yamim “Seven Days”
    (pp. 53-68)

    This text is the earliest extant version of the Avodah service. It does not take the form of poetry but is rather a liturgical reworking of Mishnah Yoma. It gives us a reasonable picture of what kind of recitation of the Mishnah the Talmud might be describing.¹ The text is one of those Avodah services mentioned in the ninth-century rabbinic prayer manual of Rav Amram Gaon.²

    AlthoughShivʿat Yamimfollows the Mishnah closely, it omits much and introduces some changes. Most significantly, it omits minority opinions of individual sages and much legal detail. It also adds details found in the...

  7. 3. Atah Konanta ʿOlam Me-Rosh “You Established the World from the Beginning”
    (pp. 69-94)

    This anonymous composition is the earliest true Avodah piyyut extant. It contains all the elements that became characteristic of the genre: the historical preamble, selection of Aaron, praise of the priesthood, and the reworking of Mishnah Yoma into a poetic narrative. It is popular in the Sephardic and Middle Eastern liturgies, but not Ashkenaz and France. In the eighteenth century the Hasidic liturgy, which was based in part on the Sephardic liturgy, took it up. The piyyut is printed in Daniel Goldschmidt’s edition of the Maḥzor and in the liturgical handbook of Saadia Gaon.¹ This translation is based on Goldschmidt’s...

  8. 4. Az be-ʾEn Kol “When All Was Not”
    (pp. 95-220)

    This massive composition is one of the most comprehensive of the extant ancient Avodah piyyutim. It is distinguished for its thorough treatment of every major theme in the Avodah, for its extensive use of poetic figures such as metonymy, alliteration, and parallelism, for its use of mythology in its retelling of the history of the world, and above all for its ingeniousness in formulating poetic figures and forms. As described in our Introduction, above, this composition abounds in legends and details known to us from Apocrypha and other nonrabbinic sources. Unlike most of the other Avodah piyyutim,Az be-ʾEn Kol...

  9. 5. Azkir Gevurot Elohah “Let Me Recount the Wonders of God”
    (pp. 221-290)

    Yose ben Yose, who most likely lived in the fourth or fifth century c.e., is the first payetan known to us by name. However, nothing else is known about him except that he composed several important early piyyutim, including at least four Avodot. This composition, Yose ben Yose’s masterpiece, is perhaps the most influential Avodah piyyut and was probably the best known of the ancient Avodah piyyutim. Although it may have been influenced byAz be-ʾEn Kol, it seems to have set the pattern for subsequent Avodah compositions.

    Azkir Gevurotis distinguished by an elegant style, which describes its subjects with...

  10. 6. Atah Konanta ʿOlam be-Rov Ḥesed “You Established the World in Great Mercy”
    (pp. 291-342)

    This composition is a fully formed Avodah and provides another example of Yose ben Yose’s handiwork. It is close in language and structure toAzkir Gevurot, and like it, this piyyut helped set the structure and themes of subsequent Avodah piyyutim. However, it varies in content and some of its emphases within the set themes. For example, this poem emphasizes not only that God created animals, including the Leviathan, for food but also that God embedded anatomical signs in kosher animals so they could be recognized as such. AlthoughAtah Konanta ʿOlam be-Rov Ḥesedmay not attain the elegance of...

  11. 7. Emet Mah Nehedar “Truly, How Beautiful”
    (pp. 343-348)

    This poem, simple in structure but vivid in its use of imagery, has its origins in the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus, which served as perhaps the most influential model for the Avodah genre.¹ In chapter 50, a seminal composition in which Ben Sira describes the service of Simeon, the son of Yoḥanan, the high priest in the Temple, he includes a twelve-line passage describing the beatific radiance that overcame the high priest as he emerged from the sanctuary.² Several poems dating from late antiquity and the Middle Ages expand on Ben Sira’s rhapsody, using acrostic and extravagant...

  12. 8. En Lanu Kohen Gadol “We Have No High Priest”
    (pp. 349-366)

    This poem, attributed to Yose ben Yose, is one of several laments of its kind and is meant to be recited in the confession of sins for Yom Kippur. The poem has a strict form and repeats verbs and motifs for the sake of the literary structure and the acrostic. Its literary and historical value lies in its constant wordplay, using clever puns and alliterations, and in its tone, which combines bitter lament with an almost ludic preoccupation with the details of the cult and their relationship to Israel’s tragic fate. It is impossible to convey the full impact of...

  13. CONCLUSION The Avodah: Poetry, History, and Ritual
    (pp. 367-372)

    in this volume, we have presented the most important examples from the early history of the Avodah genre. In doing so, we hope to have conveyed something of the range, variety, and literary and historical significance of this poetry and, indeed, of ancient piyyut in general. These examples demonstrate considerable continuity of form and theme; on the other hand, the individual poems differ in how they handle forms and themes.

    In many ways the Avodah is a very stable genre, preserving a basic form, structure, and set of themes since the first poetic preamble to the recitation of the Mishnah...

    (pp. 373-380)
    (pp. 381-382)
    (pp. 383-388)
    (pp. 389-390)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 391-391)