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SBL e-journal

Abraham J. Berkovitz





Dramatizing Torah Reading with Aramaic Liturgical Poetry





APA e-journal

Abraham J. Berkovitz





Dramatizing Torah Reading with Aramaic Liturgical Poetry








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Dramatizing Torah Reading with Aramaic Liturgical Poetry

In late antiquity and medieval times, the reading of the Torah and haftara was often accompanied with an Aramaic translation and Aramaic poems. Akdamut Milin and Yatziv Pitgam are the remnants of a once vibrant collection of Shavuot poems, some of which connect specific laws of the Decalogue with biblical stories, while others dramatized the revelation at Sinai with tales of Moses’ experiences in heaven.


Dramatizing Torah Reading with Aramaic Liturgical Poetry

Initial-word panel of the Receiving the Law with Moses stretching his hands for the tablets and Aaron (shown as a Christian bishop) and the Israelites (divided according to sex) waiting at the foot of the mountain, at the beginning of a liturgical poem for the first day of Shavuot. Additional 22413, origin: Germany, ca. 1322. British Library

The siddur measures the pulse of Jewish life. As a collection of prayers from antiquity through the modern period, it safeguards memory. Yet, as a living entity, it changes with its users. It grows through accretion and shrinks by shedding once-cherished text. Even when losing mass, however, a remnant may be left behind, a hint to a world long-forgotten. Such is the case for the traditional liturgy of Shavuot.

Akdamut Milin and Yatziv Pitgam: Two Aramaic Shavuot Poems

Two strange texts appear as part of the Torah service on Shavuot: Akdamut Milin (“The Introduction of Words”), historically recited after reading the first verse of the Torah portion on the first day of Shavuot,[1]  and Yatziv Pitgam(“Firm is the Statement”), historically recited after reading the first verse of the haftara on the second day of Shavuot.[2]

Unlike other prayers, these texts directly intrude upon the Torah reading service. Moreover, with complicated rhyme and meter, and written in Aramaic instead of Hebrew, they stand apart from the liturgy that surrounds them and from the modern siddur as a whole.[3] Though they seem odd now, they are remnants of a lost world of liturgical expression.

Part of the Lost Targumic Tradition

Ancient and medieval Jews did not merely read the Torah in Hebrew. They explained and embellished it with what is called Targum (literally, “translation”), an Aramaic overlay. The Aramaic Targum that followed a Hebrew verse could be spartan and literal, with the goal of making the verse comprehensible to a listening audience; or it could be expansive, using a verse as a platform for education, theology and drama.[4] Akdamut Milin and Yatziv Pitgam during the medieval period introduced the Targum to the Shavuot Torah and haftara readings, respectively, which explains their location (near the first Hebrew verse) and why they were composed in Aramaic.[5]

Akdamut prefaced the reading of Exodus 19:1-20:23, Israel’s journey to Sinai and God’s revelation of the Decalogue. The poem gestures to this setting in its concluding line:

מְרוֹמָם הוּא אֱלָהִין בְּקַדְמְתָא וּבַתְרָיְתָא צְבִי וְאִתְרָעִי בָן וּמְסַר לָן אוֹרָיְתָא.
Exalted is our God first and last, He desired and favored us and gave us the Torah.[6]

Yatziv Pitgam introduced the Aramaic translation of Habakkuk 3. It describes the majesty of God’s revelation and concludes with two sentences that makes its introductory function explicit:

כְּקָאֵמְנָא וְתַרְגֵּמְנָא בְּמִלּוֹי דִּבְחִיר סָפְרִין
While I stand (here) I (will) translate the words of the greatest of all books.
יְהוֹנָתָן גְּבַר עִנְוְתָן בְּכֵן נַמְטִין אַפְרִין
God gave (the Torah) (through) the humble one (Moshe), therefore to Him let us express gratitude.[7]

A clever pun operates in the final line: The phrase “God gave” translates יהונתן, which can also be rendered as “Jonathan,” the figure who tradition credits with authoring the Targum to the Prophets (b. Meg. 3a). The final lines may thus be re-read as follows:

כְּקָאֵמְנָא וְתַרְגֵּמְנָא בְּמִלּוֹי דִּבְחִיר סָפְרִין
While I stand (here) I (will) translate the words of the greatest of all books.
יְהוֹנָתָן גְּבַר עִנְוְתָן בְּכֵן נַמְטִין אַפְרִין
(With) Jonathan, a humble man, therefore to him let us express gratitude.

The reader would then recite the Habakkuk 3:1-3:19 in both Hebrew and Aramaic.

Poetic Targum on Shavuot

Akdamut Milin and Yatziv Pitgam are lonesome testaments to the once-vibrant tradition of embellishing the reading of Scripture with Aramaic translation. Time passed and the siddur shed Targum (and much poetry [piyyut]) from its pages, leaving only a handful of surviving testimonies to ancient and medieval Jewish creativity in dramatizing liturgy.[8]

In medieval times, the Torah reading service for Shavuot included Aramaic poetry not only as an introduction to the Targum, but as Targum. Highly charged verses throughout the Torah portion were outfitted with elaborate poems that dramatized the verse by exploring its hidden contexts and by connecting it with other biblical characters and events.

The poems explored below pertain to the Decalogue.[9] Each poem frames one specific commandment and was  recited directly before reading the Hebrew text of that commandment. Some of these poems likely started their life as a liturgical accompaniment to the Decalogue (such as No Idolatry [#2] and Adultery [#7]), while others likely were composed independently from it (such as Honoring Parents [#5]), only later being adopted into (and then eventually falling out of) the liturgy. The poems are in Galilean Aramaic, and each was written sometime between the 4th–7th centuries in the Land of Israel. 

No Idolatry (#2): A Dispute between Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel’s Three Friends

An Aramaic poem structured as a dispute between Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel’s three friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, embellishes the commandment prohibiting idolatry. The thematic connection makes sense. The three companions refused to worship the king’s golden image and survived being thrown into a fiery furnace (Dan 3).

The poet concretizes the abstract prohibition against idolatry by providing a biblical example and by dramatizing the encounter between Nebuchadnezzar and the recalcitrant Judeans (Poem 13, Lines 29–32):

חי וקיים
הוא פטרון דידן
He lives and endures,
he is our protector[10]
אמר חנניה
Said Hananiah.
חבל על בנין
דכפרין באבוהון
Woe upon the children
who renounce their father,
אמר מישאל
Said Mishael.
חס לן דנכפור
בנעשה ונשמע
Alas for us, should we renounce
“We will do and we will hear” (Exod 24:7).
אמר עזריה         
Said Azariah
אנן לא כפרין
בלא יהוי לכון
We did not renounce
“You shall have no others…” (Exod 20:3).

The poet explicitly connects his imagined dialogue to the second commandment, with the three friends quoting a portion of it, albeit in Aramaic. He also employs a key-word in this stanza: “renounce” (כפר), which appears three times and demonstrates the resolve of the speakers.  

Unlike the biblical narrative, each would-be martyr receives his own voice. Each independently rejects Nebuchadnezzar’s demands and highlights instead his reasons for faith.  With Azariah’s line, a direct quotation of Exodus 24:7, the poet strengthens the connection between the story of Daniel’s companions and the narrative of revelation.

Honoring Parents (#5): The Binding of Isaac

The commandment of honoring one’s parents also received poetic elaboration through a retelling of the binding of Isaac. To accomplish this, the poet spends 44 lines creatively retelling the binding of Isaac from Isaac’s perspective, which is absent in the biblical text. This imaginative endeavor unmutes Isaac, creating a voice for an otherwise silent character (Poem 14, Lines 13–16):

זריק דמי 
על גבי מדבחא
Dash my blood
upon the altar,
וכנוש קטמי
ואוביליה לאימי
Gather my ashes
and bring them to my mother;
חיי ומותא
כולה בידיה
Life and death:
all is in His hand,
ומודה אנא ליה
דהכדין בחר לי
And I am grateful to him
that thus He has chosen me.

In this reading, Isaac actively supports his father in fulfilling God’s command. The poet does not work from scratch, but draws upon strains of thought found in earlier Jewish traditions, such as the Palestinian Targumim to Genesis 22:10.[11] But the poet—or a later reader—develops here a connection to the fifth commandment: Isaac is not only obedient to the divine will but is attempting to honor his parents with the sacrifice.

Adultery (#7): Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

A more obvious example of tying a story to a commandment appears in a poem that connects the prohibition of adultery with the narrative of Joseph’s refusal to be seduced by his master’s wife, which earns him the name of “Joseph the righteous” (יוסף הצדיק) in rabbinic literature. The poet innovates in choosing to tell this story by inhabiting the persona of Potiphar’s wife describing her failed attempts to interest Joseph in a dalliance (Poem 16, Lines 1–4):

אית לי חד טליא
זעיר ומיינוק הוא
A certain youth belongs to me
fit and fabulous is he;[12]
זיויה דעבראי
זביתיה מן ערבאי
He looks like a Hebrew
I got him from some Arabs;
בעיא אנא ליה למירדי
בגינתי ולא צבי
I want him to plow
my garden, but he doesn’t want to 
אמר לי לית רדי
תורא עם חמרא
He says to me, “One doesn’t yoke
an ox together with an ass!” (Deut 22:10)

The poet reiterates details found in the biblical narrative with poetic flair. Each half of the second line, for example, begins with the letter zayin and concludes with the sound -aye. Graphically as well, the ethnic term for “Hebrew” עבראי pairs well with that for “Arab” ערבאי.

Afterwards, the poet deviates into innuendo and satire. The wife of Potiphar propositions Joseph for sex, imagining herself as a garden ready for plowing.[13] Joseph twists this agricultural metaphor to his advantage. He responds by satirically quoting the prohibition of yoking an ox and a donkey to same plow in Deuteronomy 22:10. Joseph, metaphorically imagined as an ox in Scripture (Deut 33:17), cannot be paired with an ass, a woman of foreign stock.

Later, the poem describes others attempting to convince Joseph to sin, and his steadfast refusal to listen (lines 43–44):

תיעול עמה
אמרין ליה
למעבד ריעותה
והוא לא צבי
Have sex with her
They advised him
To do her will
But he was unwilling

For the poet and his audience, the seventh commandment becomes an opportunity for exploring the psychology of illicit attraction.[14]

Moses’ Ascent to Heaven

Aramaic poems not only adorn each individual commandment, but also introduce and dramatize the revelation at Sinai as a unit, including an embellished description of Moses’ ascent. These poems were often recited between Exod 19:25, Moses’ descent from the mountain, and Exod 20:1, Moses informing the nation of God’s speech.

In the biblical text, Moses goes up the mountain, speaks to God, and comes back down (Exod 19:20–25). Later, Moses does this again when he enters a cloud or fog, receives a set of laws (the Covenant Collection), and writes them down on a scroll (Exod 20:18, 24:3–4). He does this a third time, when he goes up on the mountain, waits six days before entering the cloud on the seventh, and remains there for forty days and nights (Exod 24:15–18). On this third trip up the mountain, Moses receives the tablets (Exod 31:18).

Other than a cloud and the appearance of God, we hear about nothing else miraculous or unearthly about the top of Mount Sinai, and this is true of the further descriptions of Moses going up the mountain as well. This is likely due to how Exodus tells the story, according to which Moses does not ascend into God’s realm. Rather, God descends from his realm onto the mountain, and calls Moses up, to meet God halfway.

Jewish interpreters from the Second Temple period an onwards, however, envisioned God bringing the heavens along with him onto Mount Sinai, and thus Moses ascends into heaven itself, a dangerous realm for mortals to visit. Thus, a tradition developed that depicted Moses’ ascent as fraught with danger.

Only by fighting with the ministering angels could he secure the possession of the Torah.[15] A 44-line Aramaic poem that prefaces the Decalogue dramatizes this tension. It narrates the story of Moses overcoming angelic interference and acquiring the Torah with God’s aid.

Calming Moses

The tale begins with God bringing heaven to earth and assuring Moses that no harm will befall him (Poem 11, Lines 1–4):

ארכין יוי
שמיא לסיני
The Lord brought down
to Sinai the heavens
ואמר למשה
מהימני תא סוק
And said to Moses:
“My faithful one! Come, ascend!
בני פלטין
לא יבהלונך
My courtiers
shall not make you tremble
דנצח יתהון
סבך מן רישא
For he defeated them
Your ancestor, long ago

Revelation starts when heaven and earth touch. It is relational and bilateral: God’s descent must be reciprocated with Moses’ ascent. After joining the earth and sky, God commands Moses to rise up. But, the poem implies, fear dwells in his heart.

The content of the Torah does not produce trepidation, God’s court—the angels—do. God allays Moses’ anxiety by reminding him that humans have bested angels in the past. The final line of this stanza likely refers to Jacob, who wrestled with an angel and emerged victorious (Gen 32:22-21; Hos 12:4).

Arming Moses

The poem progresses and Moses remains silent, unconvinced by arguments from the past. God attempts to calm Moses’ nerves in another manner (lines 9-12):

הא אנא מלביש לך
פורפירין דידי
Indeed, I shall clothe you
in My purple garment
דלית גבר אחרן
דתקרב לותך
So that no other
may approach you
וקבעית קרני הודא
והדרא ברישך
And I have placed horns of glory
and splendor upon your head
דאי קריב מלאכא
תנגשיניה בהון
Should an angel approach you
you should gore him with them!

God invests Moses for combat with ethereal accoutrements that will allow him to traverse heaven unscathed. The purple garment acts as armor against potential aggressors. In the ancient world, wearing purple signaled to others high social status. By donning God’s purple garment, Moses should be perceived as inviolable.[16]

And should that fail, God equips Moses with an offensive weapon, “horns of glory” with which to gore interfering angels.  The poet read the Bible’s קרן אור as “horns of light” instead of “beams of light” well before Michelangelo carved his sculpture of Moses.[17]

The Faithful One of God’s House

After arming Moses, God offers further assurances. The anticipated moment then arrives. The angels see Moses from above and are baffled that (line 19):

יה יהיב רישו
לבשרא למקרב הכא
Yah gave His permission
for mortal flesh to approach here.

God, in response, introduces Moses as (line 24):

רעוהון דבניי
מהימנא דביתי
My children’s shepherd,
the faithful one of My house

The line alludes to Numbers 12:7:

לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא.
Not so with my servant Moses, of all my house, he is [the most] faithful.

The allusion is meant to communicate that Moses is worthy enough to approach the divine throne.

Moses Approaches: Angels Tremble

The drama reaches its apogee when Moses finally approaches (lines 25-8):

מכון שמיא
ורמת ארעא
The heavens descended
and the earth rose up
ואשכח קאים
בין חיותא
And he appeared, standing
among the Hayyot (Beasts)[18]
נעו מלאכין
לקביל אופנין
The angels trembled
in front of the Ofanim (Wheels)[19]
כד חמון למשה
קריב לערפליא
When they saw Moses
approach the dark cloud

Inversion marks this stanza. Its opening line alludes to the first line of the poem. This time, however, Moses crosses when earth and heaven touch. Additionally, the human once scared of the denizens of the divine realm now enters it without fear; and the angels, once objects of dread, are now cowed by Moses. They tremble as Moses approaches the “dark cloud,” a reference to “where God was” in Exodus 20:17. God’s words and weapons prove effective.  

Making the Tablets

Moses then enters the throne room, the section of the divine palace where God resides, and his hair stands on edge as sees the image of Jacob on display before him. He is told to come close and create the two tablets (lines 33-6):

פסול לך לוחין
[מן] סמפרינון
Hew yourself tablets
of sapphire,
מן כרסייה
דמלכא חייא
From the throne
of the Living King
צהיל הוה ליביה
דמשה וחדי
Exultant was the heart
of Moses, and he rejoiced
דהוה רחמנא
אפילוגוס דידיה
For God was merciful
and the Merciful One was his advocate

This stanza begins the downward arc of the drama. The poet releases some tension by describing Moses’ emotions. Joy replaces fear as Moses exults in God’s advocacy. This stanza also adds texture to the narrative of revelation by revealing the origins of the two tablets.

They were not hewn from any old stone, but from the sapphire throne of God, a detail that draws upon the description of God’s throne in Ezekiel

יחזקאל א:כו וּמִמַּעַל לָרָקִיעַ אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשָׁם כְּמַרְאֵה אֶבֶן סַפִּיר…
Ezek 1:26 And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire…

Ezekiel’s verse, in turn, is likely based upon the description in Exodus, in which Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and the elders ascend the mountain together,

שמות כד:י וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר.
Exod 24:10 and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.

By depicting Moses fashioning the tablets himself from the divine throne, the poet actualizes Moses’ victory over the angels. They could not stop him. Perhaps uncoincidentally, Ezekiel 1 was part of the Haftarah for the first day of Shavuot (b. Meg. 31a).

God Reassures Moses

After Moses hews the tablet, the angels approach God’s throne and lodge one final complaint: They ask that Moses not be allowed to rule over them. God ignores them and offers one final assurance to Moses (lines 41–44):

שדי אמר ליה
לא תדחל משה
The Almighty said to him,
Fear not, Moses,
דמימירי יהא
לך בסעדך
For My word shall be
your help;
תיסב אוריתא
ותיתוב לך בשלם
Take the Torah
and return in peace
דלא אשכחית
בנביאי כוותך
For I have not found
among My prophets another like you.

Moses’ journey is a success. He has acquired the two tablets, here called Torah, and has been promised safe passage home.[20] The poet settles his story into a peaceful conclusion by acknowledging Moses’s unique place among the prophets. The last line of the poem alludes to Deut 34:10, the final description of Moses:

וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְ־הוָה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face.

In the eyes of the Aramaic poet, Moses’ ascent to heaven was a dramatic scene befitting the revelation of God to Israel. Acquiring the Torah from God was no simple feat. It required Moses to overcome his fear and ready himself for supernatural combat. Moses, however, was not alone. The poet highlights God’s generosity and aid in almost every stanza. He guides Moses along each step.

Poetry, Theology, and Liturgy

We can read this work of art through many lenses.

As poetry, we can appreciate its allusive nature and its dramatic qualities. The poet crafts an epic narrative while drawing upon sources and motifs in earlier Jewish tradition, developing them further in retelling.

As theology, we can note how poem advocates for a particular relationship between God and Israel. The poet argues that God may be sought, but that doing so will always require God’s aid. Approaching God requires God.

As liturgy, we witness how the poem frames the reading of the Decalogue. It heightens the drama of the biblical text that follows by informing its audience of the challenges Moses faced in order to bring God’s words down to earth.

It also shapes the listeners’ perception of God in the story of revelation. The legislating voice of the Decalogue becomes prefaced and inflected by God’s caring protection of Moses. In fact, the poet accords no spoken words to Moses. God’s actions, promises and speeches provide an all-encompassing defense.[21]

Appreciating a Lost Art

Together, these Aramaic poems showcase a lost world and a lost liturgical art. The Decalogue was not merely a text to be recited, but a platform upon which to stage a drama. In the hands of poets, each utterance revealed unknown worlds and events: Moses’ conflict with angels, the individual voices of Daniel’s friends, Isaac’s perspective on his binding and the inner-world of Potiphar’s wife. And each poetic performance, in turn, provided an opportunity for education, a chance to imaginatively retell the past with the purpose of shaping the present.


June 5, 2019


Last Updated

June 11, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. AJ Berkovitz received his Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University for his dissertation, The Life of Psalms in Late Antiquity. He the co-editor of Rethinking ‘Authority’ in Late Antiquity: Authorship, Law, and Transmission in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Routledge, 2018), and the author of several articles. He currently serves as Assistant Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at HUC-JIR in New York.