The Piyyut (Poem) Akdamut Milin
אקדמות מלין ושריות שותא
An introduction of words and a beginning of speech:
אולא שקלנא חרמן ורשותא
From the first, I request authority and permission…
(Listen to the poem here.)
Thus opens the famous and enigmatic piyyut—liturgical poem or hymn—of the Shavuot festival, Akdamut Milin. This lengthy Aramaic poem, ninety mono-rhymed lines in all, now functions as an extended poetic preface (reshut) to the first aliyah to the Torah on the morning of Shavuot (the first day, in the Diaspora). Its forty-five couplets do not offer listeners a linear narrative but rather elaborate variously on God’s power and majesty, God’s Torah and its significance, and God’s people Israel, with a recurring thematic focus on Israel’s enduring loyalty to the covenant symbolized by the Torah. Even its rhyme-scheme, in which each of its ninety line ends with –תא (“-ta”), the last and first letters of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabet, itself suggests totality.
While its composition in Aramaic may suggest great age, its author gives us his name, which tells us that in fact the poem was composed during the Middle Ages: it is signed, by means of an acrostic, by Meir ben Isaac Nehorai, a rabbi and precentor (sheliah tsibbur) who lived in Worms (Germany) in the eleventh century. Akdamut Milin thus emerged not during Amoraic antiquity but rather to the world of medieval Ashkenaz.
A Short Background on Piyyut
The term piyyut (פיוט) comes from the Greek word poesis (“something done, made”), and is thus cognate with the English words poet and poetry. The coinage of a new term for this style of writing suggests that the rabbis themselves were aware of the innovative nature of piyyut; its aesthetics are distinctly non-biblical (unlike the biblicizing poetry of the Hodayot from Qumran, for example) and its content often reflects a deep engagement with rabbinic modes of biblical interpretation.
Piyyut as Alternative, Creative forms of Prayer
The term piyyut describes poetry that was embedded in the statutory prayers—originally substituting for the texts of the prayers and, after the texts of the blessings were standardized, embellishing the service. Indeed, as the material from the Cairo Genizah has made clear, the synagogue of the Land of Israel in Late Antiquity was a place of tremendous variety and dynamism, with the prayers, hymns, biblical translations, and even the Torah readings themselves varying tremendously.
In stark contrast to the present day, where prayer texts are fixed and predictable, in Late Ancient Palestine (ca. 4th-7th centuries CE), the prayers varied from week to week, embodying a dynamic alchemy between prayer rubrics, lectionary, calendar, and poetic creativity. Most likely, as Joseph Heinemann argued, initially it was the order and themes of the prayers that became “fixed,” and only later did specific wordings (benedictions and, finally, full texts) become standardized.
Piyyutim arose in a period when the benedictions were set but the texts of the prayers were not and, in fact, varied from week to week based on the calendar and the lectionary. Thus, the first poetic unit of a Qedushta, a popular variety of poem composed for the weekly Shabbat service, weaves together the language of the first verse of the parashah with the idea of God as the “shield of Abraham” because it introduces the first benediction of the Amidah. Other piyyutim take their cue from the liturgical (or lifecycle) occasion for which they were composed but can be read as “free standing” compositions.
It thus seems that it is precisely because of its unusual setting—inserted between the first verses of the festival Torah portion (a practice that, while historically explicable, caused great controversy as those reasons faded from memory)— that Akdamut Milin was retained for centuries. By contrast, piyyutim more closely aligned with the rites of the Palestinian synagogue (and, in particular, its triennial lectionary, in which the entire Torah was read over the course of three to three-and-a-half years) became outmoded when the annual Babylonian cycle of Torah readings was adopted.
Ancient Controversies surrounding Piyyut
Piyyutim first appear in the 3rd or 4th century CE in the Land of Israel, and by the seventh century payyetanic compositions were extremely popular; the Babylonian Gaonim, however, resisted it until the time of Saadia Gaon, who was himself a skilled payyetan (composer of piyyutim). By the early Middle Ages, piyyutim were common elements of the liturgy and payyetanim (often themselves rabbis) were accorded great respect.
In the Sephardic world, however, with the rise of neo-classical, Arabic-inspired Hebrew poetry (such as the lyrics of Solomon ibn Gabirol and Yehudah ha-Levi), the Palestinian-Ashkenazi style of poetry was rejected in favor of a more lyrical style of composition, as vehemently attested by Abraham ibn Ezra (himself a master in the new fashion) in his commentary on Eccl. 5:1. This new style of poem employed Arabic meters and strove for a more explicitly biblical style of Hebrew, compared to the earlier piyyutim whose language was full of new coinages and rabbinic idiom. Poetic aesthetics, as a consequence, became a distinguishing feature of liturgical rites, with the Sephardic Jews including the new-styled hymns in their prayer books and the Ashkenazim retaining the “classical” (Land of Israel) poems in their rites, even as they composed new works in variations on the old styles.
While the machzor for Shavuot contains a tremendous number of piyyutim in Hebrew and Aramaic, Akdamut Milin—with its haunting “from Sinai” melody that itself likely originated in the medieval Rhineland—remains the most recognizable. The liturgical durability of Akdamut Milin despite its dense allusiveness and opacity in both language and imagery remains an enigma that has puzzled scholars for generations. While once it was simply one among many similar piyyutim, only this text (along with its counterpart for the second day of Shavuot, Yetziv Pitgam) endured—outlasting even the archaic performative-translational practice which it once celebrated.
Purging the Piyyut
In this ancient practice, which persisted in Ashkenaz for centuries after Aramaic ceased to be a vernacular, the opening verse of the festival portion (Exod. 19:1) would be read in Hebrew, followed by Akdamut Milin, and then the next few verses were also read in Hebrew, followed by the Aramaic translation (the Targum). The remainder of the Torah portion was completed in that same pattern, several Hebrew verses followed by their Aramaic translation. Yet, while Akdamut Milin was rejected as a relic of ossified tradition and purged from early Reform prayer books (and is unlikely to return in unmodified form), and despite Ismar Elbogen (the dean of the study of Jewish liturgy in the early 20th century) questioning its “right to exist” in the absence of living targumic tradition, this Aramaic piyyut stubbornly persists in practice as well as in print. The composition of an elaborate Aramaic poem in the medieval Rhineland is challenging enough to understand; its persistence through the centuries since can seem baffling.
Across the Mystical River Sambatyon
Jeffrey Hoffman has argued persuasively that some of the communal attachment to the hymn may derive from the folkloristic “backstory” the poem and its author acquired by the 17th century, which connected the piyyut to the persecution of Jews during the period of the Crusades. This story, preserved in Yiddish, describes how a wicked “monk” has murdered over thirty thousand Jews in the Rhineland through black magic. Seeking royal protection, the Jewish community of Worms approaches the king, who in turn summons the monk. The monk promises to cease his attacks on the Jews for one year, on the condition that at the end of the year, the Jews produce a champion to compete in a sorcery-contest. Should the Jewish champion win, the monk will never again attack the Jews; should the Jewish sorcery lose, the monk would kill them all.
Alas, despite searching for almost the entire year, no Jewish champion comes forward. One night, however, a certain scholar learns in a dream that the savior can be found among the Lost Tribes, across the river Sambatyon. Rabbi Meir—the leader of the Jewish community of Worms—is asked to head the delegation that will seek to find the champion. With only eight days to spare, the search party reaches the shores of the river. Because the river can only be crossed on Shabbat (otherwise its waters are too fierce to endure), Rabbi Meir crosses alone, so that only he incurs the guilt of violating the prohibition against initiating a boat journey on Shabbat.
While, in the end, he locates a champion—who does in fact succeed in defeating the evil monk—Rabbi Meir must remain on the far shore of the river among the Lost Tribes rather than violate Shabbat again. Lost forever to his community, Rabbi Meir composed a poem as a gift to the Jews and asked that they recite it every year on Shavuot “for the sake of his name”—a name he ensured would endure because he embedded it in the acrostic. That poem, of course, was Akdamut Milin, and the fact that Rabbi Meir sent this poem from across the mystical river Sambatyon takes the idea of the shaliah tsibbur—usually a title that simply describes the prayer leader but, literally, “a messenger of the community”—quite at face-value, as Hoffman notes.
Piyyutim that were too popular to Fail
In this “acquired mythology,” Akdamut Milin recalls the traditions around the most famous Rosh Hashanah piyyut, Unetaneh Toqef, a poem which in many machzorim is given an origin story crediting it to a martyr named Rabbi Amnon of Mainz but which, in reality, dates back to Late Antiquity. Perhaps an even better parallel, however, is Kol Nidre—another Aramaic text (albeit one that is short and comparatively comprehensible) which has persisted more because of its musical qualities (also a “from Sinai” melody that originated in medieval Germany) than its language or content, but which also carries with it an aura of persistence despite persecution. Between story and song, Akdamut Milin was too potent to fade away, no matter how obsolete its language and original setting may have been.
The theme of Shavuot is “revelation” and the piyyut, Akdamut Milin, illuminates how complicated “Torah” is. In the language of this piyyut we find the archaic language of targum honoring the still-living Torah, its divine author, and the loyal community in whose midst the Torah and poem stubbornly persist. In the performance of this poem, we find ourselves borne aloft on a melody “from Sinai” and into the company of the Jews of medieval Germany who articulated deep truths through magical legends.
The themes of the poem—the enduring covenant between a majestic God and a devout people, represented by the marvelous gift of Torah—speak to the occasion for which it was written, while its obscure language and liturgical location hint at its original use. But, as centuries passed and the poem became more obscure and less explicable, legends, memory, and the deep pull of tradition kept it anchored in place. In the end, this poem is more than words, more than prayer, more than music, more than memory but rather a delicate, enduring fabric woven from them all.
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May 17, 2014
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Prof. Rabbi Laura Lieber is professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, where she directs the Duke Center for Jewish Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in the History of Judaism from the University of Chicago and rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. Her research focuses on Jewish liturgical poetry.
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