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Thoughts on a Medieval Piyyut for Chanukah

We have seen in past essays piyyutim, liturgical poems, written for the various holidays of the Jewish year.  Aside from poems that have been incorporated into the ongoing liturgy of the year, we’ve seen special poems added into the service for the High Holidays in particular, but also on other festivals as well.  Most modern prayerbooks, however, have cut back on this poetry partly because its language and allusions are often beyond easy comprehension even by Hebrew readers, and perhaps, by a desire not to unduly lengthen the services.  I find it interesting, however, to explore and uncover some of the poems that earlier generations of Jews included in their worship.

I went looking online for piyyutim that might have been written for the holiday of Chanukah, aside from the well-known Maoz Tzur and discovered several of them on a Hebrew site, run by the Israeli National Library at the Hebrew University, that specializes in Piyyut and prayer.  I found a poem by the well-known Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher of the 11th century, Solomon ibn Gabirol, some of whose poetry is still found in our High Holiday liturgy.  This poem, entitled Sh’nei Zeitim, Two Olive Trees, a reference to our haftarah this week from the prophet Zechariah, was adopted by some Ashkenazic congregations to be recited on Shabbat Chanukah.  It wasincluded in the first blessing before the Sh’ma, the blessing of Yotzer Or, which praises God for creating light and darkness.  Strangely enough, it is not part of any other tradition, but only that of Germany and France, Ashkenaz.  It is mentioned by the 17th century rabbi, Yair Bachrach, who writes that he was surprised to be shown a copy of this poem, missing the opening lines.  The elder who had shown this copy to Bachrach explained that in the time of the terrible destruction of theJewish community of Worms by the Crusaders, all the siddurim and machzorim in the community had been burnt and eventually, once the community was re-established, they found only a portion of this piyyut among the surviving manuscripts.  Nonetheless, because they had made it part of their tradition, they had continued to chant what they had in the absence of the full text.  Bachrach refers to this remnant in the words of Zechariah in the haftarah as “Ud mutzal mei-eish,” “a firebrand saved from the fire.”

The haftarah that we read on Shabbat Chanukah concludes with a vision by the prophet Zechariah of a seven-branched golden menorah.  On either side of the menorah is an olive tree, providing a continuous supply of oil to keep the lamp burning.  The angel of the Lord who appears in this vision informs theprophet that this vision is a reminder from God that “Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit,” will they accomplish their sacred tasks.  The leaders of the return from Babylon of Zechariah’s day, at the end of 6th century BCE. are urged to get on with the work and complete the building of the new Temple.  Later in the same chapter, the prophet asks the significance of the two olive trees in the vision and is told that they represent the two leaders of the people at that time, Joshua, the high priest, and Zerubavel, the descendant of King David, the governor,both anointed with olive oil and designated to rule the people.

It is with these two “olive trees” that Ibn Gabirol begins his poem, one that speaks of hope for the ultimate future redemption of the Jewish people:

Sh’nai zeitim nichratim b’gan naul yatzhiru, Two olive trees cut off in a locked garden shine forth. – It is not clear to what the “locked garden,” an expression from Song of Songs, refers.  It may represent the land of Israel closed off for most Jews at this time, or perhaps it is a reference to the end of days still hidden away in the future.

L’rosh kehati v’efrati shtei atarot yaktiru. We crown the Kehati(referring to the high priest of the family of Kehat) and the Efrati (referring to the royal descendant of David from Bethlehem of the Efratim), the priest and the king, the leaders of the Jewish people.

Mul menorah ha-tehorah k’mo nerot yazhiru, Opposite the pure menorah, like lamps they will shine.

Hein b’masat kol ish et rei-ehu yazoru. Each one will help hisfellow bear the burden.

Hein b’machaneh el mul p’nai hamenorah yairu.  At the resting place they will shine upon the face of the menorah. The machaneh is apparently the final goal of the ultimate redemption.  The root of machaneh, chet, nun, hay, appears in the word Chanukah and, midrashically, Chanukah is read as two words combined, Chanu, they encamped, kah, the numerical value of kaf and hay equalling 25, the 25th of Kislev, the date on which the Maccabees rededicated the Temple and rested from their warfare. – This last line is repeated as a chorus at the end of each of the four stanzas of the poem.

Each line in this first stanza rhymes, thus we have yatzhiru, yachtiru, yazhiru, yazoru, and yairu in this first stanza.  Also, in each of the first three lines, one hears the first two phrases rhyming as well: zeitim/nichratim, Kehati/Efrati, menorah/hatehorah.

In the second stanza, the first six lines all rhyme with the sound -vel at the end, novel, chovel, bavel, Zerubavel, yovel, and teivel.  The last two lines also rhyme with the same ending as in the first stanza: yasiru/yairu.  The first six lines also have that internal rhyme as well.  The poet follows a similar scheme in the third and fourth stanzas, with seven rhyming lines in the third stanza and six in the fourth.  In both, he finds a rhyme in the penultimate line to match the end of the recurring chorus.

In the second stanza, the poet recalls the wilted flower of the Kohen Gadol, a reference to a mention in Isaiah of tzitz novel,and the downfall of the anointed king, leaving the land like a ship without a captain (rav chovel) to direct it.  He calls upon God to remember the vision granted to Zechariah regarding the returning exiles from Bavel and as You remembered them and saved them through Zerubavel, remember (we pray) their descendants to save them at the time when You declare the Jubilee, the yovel, the time of the redemption.  Place them in the place of their ancestors, ruling over all the world (moshlimb’chol teivel), an expression from the El Adon hymn on Shabbat.  From the hand of Esau, ish tzayid, the man of the hunt,(referring to the other nations, successors to Rome) remove the signet ring, the symbol of authority, as in the book of Esther. Then in the resting place, in the camp, they will shine toward the menorah.

The third stanza continues this theme, calling upon God to restore a long-lasting sovereignty (mamlachah memushachah) to the city of Zion and to bring the “honored daughter,” bat kevudah, the people of Israel, with great wealth (rov avudah) to her mother’s house. Sovereignty and the crown shall be placedupon the head of her Beloved (the Holy One) and the decorated headdress (mitznefet) shall be put on the head of Aaron.  Then the daily offering (tamid) will be brought, the meal-offering(minchah) will be lifted up, and the anointing oil that was taken away and not seen until now and the incense (ketoret), will ascend on high through the high priest, Aaron.  The lamps in the menorot of the children of Aaron will burn once more. “In the resting place, they will shine toward the menorah.”

The final stanza returns to the here and now.  The oppressed and broken, thirsting, are always crying out to You.  Support their hand through the beloved son (the anointed Messiah) who is called “dark-eyed” (a reference to Jacob’s blessing of Judah, the ancestor of the Messiah.)  Bring them into the Garden of Spices (the holy land) and surround their chuppah with splendor.  Lead them and rule over them on Mount Zion and in the Galilee  Then Your upright law will be sung upon the harp and the flute. Show anger to those who have deserted Your name, lovers of false visions and lies, and idolatry.  A broken people shall be blessed and all who see them will recognize it. All of this will be when “bamachaneh el mul p’nei hamenorah yairu, in the resting place, they will shine toward the menorah.”

If one opens the history books or simply looks on Wikipedia at the history of the once flourishing Jewish communities in the Rhine valley, that were massacred by the mobs of the Crusadersat the end of the 11th century, one can see why this poem was embraced by the survivors of that time.  Recalling the oppression of our people at the time of Antiochus and the glorious victories under Judah Maccabee, these later communities in Ashkenaz, more than a millennium later, looked for a day of redemption, a time when they too would overcome their oppressors and be able to celebrate their own Chanukah.  At that time, the two great olive trees, spoken of by Zechariah,the trees of the priesthood and the monarchy, would flourish once more, and the past glory of Israel would be restored under the ultimate kingship of the Almighty.  We would return to our homeland, restore the central shrine in Jerusalem, and bring the appropriate offerings once more.  Once again, we would offer our praise and song to God and we would sing of His righteous law.

In our day, we may not necessarily embody our messianic hopes in a Davidic monarch or a Levitical priesthood of Aaron, the two olive trees, but we too cherish hopes for a better future, for a “messianic age,” when the world will be filled with justice and peace, when all will live in harmony and plenty, and we will reach that encampment, that resting place, when the lights of the menorah will symbolize the lights of redemption for all the world.  On Chanukah, such visions appear as we ascend in holiness, lighting one more light each night, adding to the holiness of the season.  On this weekend when our neighbors speak of their own visions of light and their hopes for peace on earth and good will among all people, we pray that we all may transcend the horrors of the past and the terrors of the present and build together a world of peace and harmony for all.

Chag Sameach, a happy holiday to all.


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