A piyyut or piyut (plural piyyutim or piyutim, Hebrew:
פִּיּוּטִים / פיוטים, פִּיּוּט / פיוט
pronounced [piˈjut, pijuˈtim]; from Greek ποιητής
poiētḗs "poet") is a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to
be sung, chanted, or recited during religious services. Piyyutim have
been written since Temple times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or
Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic
following the order of the
Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of
Many piyyutim are familiar to regular attendees of synagogue services.
For example, the best-known piyyut may be
Adon Olam ("Master of the
World"), sometimes (but almost certainly wrongly) attributed to
Solomon ibn Gabirol
Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain. Its poetic form consists of
a repeated rhythmic pattern of short-long-long-long (the so-called
hazaj meter), and it is so beloved that it is often sung at the
conclusion of many synagogue services, after the ritual nightly saying
of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin.
Another well-beloved piyyut is
Yigdal ("May God be Hallowed"), which
is based upon the
Thirteen Principles of Faith
Thirteen Principles of Faith developed by
Important scholars of piyyut today include
Shulamit Elizur and Joseph
Yahalom, both at Hebrew University.
The author of a piyyut is known as a paytan or payyetan (plural
1.1 The Eretz Yisrael school
1.2 The medieval Spanish school
2 Well-known piyyutim
3 See also
5 External links
The Eretz Yisrael school
The earliest piyyutim, dating from the
Talmudic and Geonic periods,
were "overwhelmingly [from] [Eretz Israel] or its neighbor Syria,
[because] only there was the
Hebrew language sufficiently cultivated
that it could be managed with stylistic correctness, and only there
could it be made to speak so expressively." The earliest Eretz
Yisrael prayer manuscripts, found in the Cairo Genizah, often consist
of piyyutim, as these were the parts of the liturgy that required to
be written down: the wording of the basic prayers was generally known
by heart, and there was supposed to be a prohibition of writing them
down. It is not always clear from the manuscripts whether these
piyyutim, which often elaborated the themes of the basic prayers, were
intended to supplement them or to replace them, or indeed whether they
originated in a time before the basic prayers had become fixed. The
piyyutim, in particular those of Eleazar Kalir, were often in very
cryptic and allusive language, with copious reference to Midrash.
Originally, the word piyyut designated every type of sacred poetry,
but as usage developed, the term came to designate only poems of hymn
character. The piyyutim were usually composed by a talented rabbinic
poet, and depending on the piyyut’s reception by the community
determined whether it would pass the test of time. By looking at the
composers of the piyyutim, one is able to see which family names were
part of the Middle Eastern community, and which hachamim were
prominent and well established. The composers of various piyyutim
usually used acrostic form in order to hint their identity in the
piyyut itself. Since prayer books were limited at the time, many
piyyutim have repeating stanzas that the congregation would respond to
followed by the cantor’s recitations.
The additions of the piyyutim to the services were mostly used as an
embellishment to the services and to make it more enjoyable to the
congregation. As to how the origin of the piyyut's implementation came
about, there is a theory that this had to do with the fact that there
were prayer restrictions on the Jews. Samau'al Ibn Yahya al-Maghribi,
a Jewish convert to
Islam in the twelfth century, wrote that the
Persians prohibited the Jews from holding prayer services. "When the
Jews saw that the Persians persisted in obstructing their prayer, they
invented invocations into which they admixed passages from their
prayers (the piyyut) … and set numerous tunes to them". They would
assemble at prayer time in order to read and chant the piyyutim. The
difference between that and prayer is that the prayer is without
melody and is read only by the person conducting the service, whereas
in the recitation of the piyyut, the cantor is assisted by the
congregation in chanting melodies. "When the Persians rebuked them for
this, the Jews sometimes asserted that they were singing, and
sometimes [mourning over their situations]." When the Muslims took
over and allowed Jews dhimmi status, prayer became permissible unto
the Jews, and the piyyut had become a commendable tradition for
holidays and other joyous occasions.
The use of piyyut was always considered an Eretz Yisrael speciality:
Geonim made every effort to discourage it and restore
what they regarded as the statutory wording of the prayers, holding
that "any [hazzan] who uses piyyut thereby gives evidence that he is
no scholar". It is not always clear whether their main objection was
to any use of piyyutim at all or only to their intruding into the
heart of the statutory prayers.
For these reasons, scholars classifying the liturgies of later periods
usually hold that, the more a given liturgy makes use of piyyutim, the
more likely it is to reflect Eretz Yisrael as opposed to Babylonian
influence. The framers of the
Sephardic liturgy took the Geonic
strictures seriously, and for this reason the early Eretz Yisrael
piyyutim, such as those of Kalir, do not survive in the Sephardic
rite, though they do in the Ashkenazic and Italian rites.
The medieval Spanish school
In the later Middle Ages, however, Spanish-Jewish poets such as Judah
Ibn Gabirol and the two ibn Ezras composed quantities of
religious poetry, in correct Biblical Hebrew and strict Arabic metres.
Many of these poems have been incorporated into the Sephardic, and to
a lesser extent the other, rites, and may be regarded as a second
generation of piyyut.
The Kabbalistic school of
Isaac Luria and his followers, which used an
Sephardic liturgy, disapproved of the Spanish piyyutim,
regarding them as spiritually inauthentic, and invoked the Geonic
strictures to have them either eliminated from the service or moved
away from the core parts of it. Their disapproval did not extend to
piyyutim of the early Eretz Yisrael school, which they regarded as an
authentic part of the Talmudic-rabbinic tradition, but since these had
already been eliminated from the service they regarded it as too late
to put them back. (The Kabbalists, and their successors, also wrote
piyyutim of their own.) For this reason, some piyyutim of the Spanish
school survive in their original position in the Spanish and
Portuguese rite but have been eliminated or moved in the Syrian and
other Oriental rites.
Syrian Jews preserve some of them for
extra-liturgical use as pizmonim.
What follows is a chart of some of the best-known and most-beloved
piyyutim. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it tries to
provide a flavor of the variety of poetic schemes and occasions for
which these poems were written. Many of the piyyutim marked as being
Shabbat are songs traditionally sung as part of the home
ritual observance of
Shabbat and also known as zemirot
Hazaj metre (based on short-long-long-long foot)
Double alphabetic acrostic
Shabbat and Festivals
Double alphabetic acrostic, then spells out "Meir, son of Rabbi
Yitzchak, may he grow in
Torah and in good deeds. Amen, and may he be
strong and have courage." The author was Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak
Barukh El Elyon
בָּרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן
Acrostic spells "Baruch Chazak", or "Blessed be he, with strength", or
possibly "Baruch" is the author's name
Every stanza begins with the word "Berah"
Acrostic spells "Dunash," the name of author Dunash ben Labrat.
First letters of first 3 stanzas spell "Amen"
Shabbat and Festivals (Daily in the
Shabbat and Festivals as part of first blessing before the Shema
El Nora Alila
אֵל נוֹרָא עֲלִילָה
Refrain: "At this hour of Ne'ilah".
Acrostic spells Moshe chazak,
referring to Moses ibn Ezra
Ne'ilah (conclusion of Yom Kippur)
Hazaj metre; alphabetic acrostic; each stanza begins with the word
alei; each line ends with the suffix -eiha (meaning "her" or "of
hers", referring to Jerusalem)
Alphabetic acrostic; each stanza ends with standard alternating line
היום תאמצנו also called הַיּוֹם הַיּוֹם
Alphabetic acrostic, each line ends "Amen"
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Ki Hineh Kachomer
כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹמֶר
Refrain: "Recall the Covenant, and do not turn towards the Evil
Ki Lo Na'eh
כִּי לוֹ נָאֶה
Acrostic spells name of author, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz.
Acrostic spells Menucha ("rest"); refrain
Acrostic spells name of author, "Mordechai"
Acrostic spells name of author, "Moshe"
Shabbat and Simchat Torah
Shir Kel Nelam
שִׁיר אֵ-ל נֶעְלָּם
Alphabetic acrostic spells name of author, Shmuel.
Purim Only recited by Polinim.
Reverse alphabetic acrostic; each stanza ends with "Tal"
First stanza is the refrain
Musaf for these days
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Acrostic spells "Yisrael"
Acrostic spells Tetragrammaton
Acrostic spells "Yehudah"
Yom Ze L'Yisra'el
יוֹם זֶה לְיִשְׂרַאֵל
Acrostic spells "Yitzhak"
Yom Ze Mekhubad
יוֹם זֶה מְכֻבָּד
Acrostic spells "Yisrael"
^ Goldschmidt, D, "Machzor for Rosh Hashana" p.xxxi. Leo Baeck
^ Song Index
^ Jewish Virtual Library
^ An Invitation to Piyut
Piyut site - audio recordings of piyyutim, along with corresponding
lyrics in Hebrew
Jewish Encyclopedia article on piyyutim
Center of Jewis