Poetry, Music, and the Shabbat

April 8, 2016

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, April 8, 2016.

Poetry, Music, and the Shabbat

Those of you who attended last Tuesday’s concert at the JCC were in for a treat. Two performers, Yair Dalal, an Israeli Jew, and Mira Awad, an Israeli Arab, gave a Middle Eastern concert with a style of music rarely heard in Milwaukee. Yair played the Oud, a Middle Eastern lute, and Mira sang and played the guitar, a drum, and even a conch shell! For us in Milwaukee, this sort of Middle Eastern music isn’t what we typically associate with “Israeli Music;” however, it is actually the most popular Jewish music in Israel! Ashkenazic Jews (Jews of European descent) are about 45% of the Jewish population in Israel according to the last census, and Sephardic/Middle eastern Jews (Jews who trace their ancestry to the Mediterranean and the Middle East) are 55%! In fact… Yair began the entire concert with a Piyyut: a liturgical poem/song which began “Avinu ba-shamayim… Our father in heaven.” This type of religious prayer was very popular in the Middle Ages in Spain (an Arabic realm), the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. For Jews in those regions, a common practice was inserting such a religious prayer into the religious prayer service on Sabbaths and holidays. In fact, Shabbat would be inconceivable without piyyutim!

There were all kinds of piyyutim (piyyutim = the plural of piyyut). Before printing and mass produced published prayerbooks, there was a basic structure of fixed prayers in the synagogue, but they would add additional piyyutim to the service… you never knew exactly what would be added to the fixed prayers. Sometimes the piyyut would be about an event in the community attributed to God, or someone would write one as an opportunity to thank God for God’s protection. These were usually elaborate poems which would be sung. They were meant to be sung – there was no such thing as a “pure” poem. In fact, even in Modern Hebrew there’s no great word for “poem.” The Hebrew word “Shir,” which means poem, actually means “Song.” The “song” was considered inextricable from the poem that it embellished. And the keys and modes of those Middle Eastern piyyutim were exactly like those that Yair played on his oud on Tuesday night.

So, “Sephardic” Shabbat prayers were different than the Ashkenazic ones. There are still remnants of the Sephardic piyyutim in both Askenazic and Sephardic prayers: “Adon Olam” is a perfect example of a medieval piyyut that has become standard in Jewish communities all over the world. The High Holidays liturgy is full of piyyutim. Over the last decade, there has been a remarkable revival of the piyyut in Israel – it has been a source of Sephardic pride. Every year between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, there is a huge Piyyut Festival in Jerusalem. For many Ashkenazic American Jews, however, this type of music SO popular in Israel is an acquired taste. And, among the Sephardic Jews, Shabbat would be unthinkable without Piyyutim.


Shabbat Shalom