It Came to Pass at Midnight—From the Amidah to the Passover Haggadah
The Passover Haggadah concludes with a series of songs, the first of which is וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, Vayhi BeChatzi HaLayla, “It Came to Pass at Midnight” (Exod 12:29). The song, however, was not written for Pesach night, nor is it an independent composition. Instead, it was part seven of the poem אוֹנֵי פִטְרֵי רַחֲמָתָיִם (The Vigor of the Openers of Wombs),” composed by Yannai (late 5th–early 6th cent. C.E.), the first Hebrew poet to use end-rhyme and to sign his works with a signature acrostic.
Most of Yannai’s poems, including this one, belong to the genre known as qedushta’ot because they embellish the first three benedictions of the Amidah, culminating in the Qedushah. They contain nine parts:
- Part 1 ends in the Amidah’s first blessing, מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם (“…shield of Abraham”),
- Part 2 ends with the Amidah’s second blessing, מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים (“…who revives the dead”).
- Parts 3–9 then lead into the Qedushah, the Amidah’s third blessing.
In the synagogues of the Land of Israel (up until the 7th c. CE or so), the Torah reading was divided up into sedarim, much smaller units than the Babylonian parashiyot that we use today, and the Torah was completed not yearly but roughly twice every seven years. Yannai composed a different qedushta for each sidra, to be recited on the Shabbat when the sidra was read in synagogue.
The poem אוֹנֵי פִטְרֵי רַחֲמָתָיִם, “The Vigor of the Openers of Wombs,” was composed to be recited for the sidra וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, “And It Came to Pass at Midnight” (Exod 12:29–51). The sidra tells the story of the death of the firstborn and Israel’s escape from Egypt, and the piyyut embellishes these themes, which are central to the Passover story; these affinities explain why Yannai’s poem became connected to the Passover liturgy. Indeed, because of its association with Passover, this composition ended up as Yannai’s only surviving poem until his voluminous and revelatory body of work was rediscovered in the Cairo Geniza (see postscript).
Six of the first seven units (of the original nine) appear, somewhat truncated, as part of the morning Amidah in the Ashkenazi service for Shabbat ha-Gadol (the Sabbath prior to the start of Passover), while the seventh unit, as noted above, was included as a freestanding hymn, וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה (and it came to pass at midnight),” in the Passover Haggadah in Ashkenazi and Italian tradition.
Addressing God Directly
Jewish prayer makes extensive use of the second-person (“you”) as it speaks directly to the deity. We see this in the conventional blessing formula, which opens: 'בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה “Blessed are You, O LORD…” In keeping with this convention, Yannai’s composed his qedushta almost entirely addressing God in the second-person, which contrasts with the style of the sidra, written in the usual third person narrative style of the Torah.
While the Torah’s narrative speaks about God’s actions, Yannai directs his discourse—and that of his congregation—explicitly and exclusively to God.
Retelling the Story to God—In several units, Yannai describes the exodus story as if retelling it to God. For example:
א הֵן רֶגַע יָמוּתוּ דִּבָּרְתָּ // וּגְאוֹנָם בַּדֶּבֶר הִדְבָּרְתָּ // זְרוֹעַ צַר בִּבְכוֹרָיו שָׁבָרְתָּ // חֲצוֹת לַיְלָה שָׁם עָבָרְתָּ
1 You decreed that they should die in an instant // You subdued their pride with pestilence // You shattered the enemy’s strength through their firstborn sons // You passed through there at midnight (ll. 3–4)
ב פְּגָרִים מֵתִים לָמוֹ עָשִׂיתָ // צוּרַת כָּל בְּכוֹר גַּם בְמֵעֵיהֶם לֹא חַסְתָּ // קוּמִי לָךְ לִבְכוֹרָךְ שַׂחְתָּ // רָפוֹא וְנָגוֹף שָׁמָּה שַׂמְתָּ
2 You made of them dead corpses // You did not spare the firstborn embryos in their wombs // To Your firstborn [i.e., Israel] You said, “Arise!” // You wrought both healing and affliction there (ll. 14–15)
ד לְיֵשַׁע עַמָּךְ בַּחֲצִי לַיִל יָצָאתָ / וּבְעֶצֶם הַיוֹם אוֹתָם הוֹצֵאתָ
4 In order to rescue Your people, You went forth at midnight / And that selfsame day, You led them out… (l. 35)
Requesting God’s Involvement—Yannai also takes the opportunity to make requests of God:
ה תִּצְמַח וְתִצְנַח / תִּצְלַח וְתִרְכַּב / תִּתְקַע וְתִתְקַף / תִּצְרַח וְתִצְוַח
5 May You flourish and mow down / May You make thrive and ride aloft / May You sound [the shofar] and empower / May You slay and roar (l. 39)
ז רָם הוֹדִיעַ כִּי לָךְ יוֹם וְגַם לָךְ לָיְלָה / שׁוֹמְרִים הַפְקֵד לְעִירָךְ כָּל הַיּוֹם וְכָל הַלָּיְלָה
7 O Most High, announce that Yours is the day, and Yours is the night! / Set watchmen to guard Your city all the day and all the night! (ll.72-73)
This line is very much in keeping with the placement of this poem as part of the prayer service. The poet here speaks to God—but the voice in which he speaks seems simultaneously his own and also that of his community.
Synagogue liturgy is intrinsically participatory, and much of Yannai’s poem relies on performance as well as words to draw the community into the conversation. First, the poems were scaffolded by fixed liturgical phrases, such as the “shield of Abraham” and “reviver of the dead” benedictions. The congregation knew these phrases, and could join their voices to that of the prayer-leader:
א בְּיָד וּבְיָמִין תִסְמְכֵנוּ / וּמִנֶּגֶף תְּחַסְּכֵנוּ / וּבְצֵל מָגִינָּךְ תְּגוֹנְנֵנוּ / בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם
1 With Your right hand, may You support us / And from pestilence, may You protect us / And in the shadow of Your shield, may You shelter us / Blessed are You, O Lord, Shield of Abraham! (ll. 10-11)
ב שׁוֹאָה וּמְשׁוֹאָה / תַּפִּיל צַר לְשׁוּחָה / וְנִחְיֶה בְּגֶשֶׁם יְשׁוּעָה / בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים.
2 (Into) desolation and destruction / May You hurl the oppressor, into the pit / But may we be revived with the rains of salvation / Blessed are You, O Lord, Reviver of the dead! (ll. 24-25)
The poet’s use of “You” and “we” here anticipates the dialogical nature of the liturgy itself. Yannai also made use of fixed-words and simple refrains as a means for engaging listeners and enabling them to add their voices to the chorus. These features appear most commonly unit seven, where a single word or very short phrase typically structures the short phrases of the unit—this came to be known as a רָהִיט [rahit] “runner” due to its rapid pace.
The rahit of this piyyut—וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, preserved in the Passover Haggadah—ends every line with the word “night” (לָיְלָה). It is likely not coincidental that the most-commonly known passage of Yannai’s writings (to this day) is one of his rahitim, a participatory poem now embedded in the seder, a participatory occasion.
Vividness of Violence
Yannai brings to his poem all the rhetorical flourish one would expect of a writer living in an era when orators were trained in the technique of ekphrasis—“setting before the eyes,” or simply vivid visual descriptions in speech. The biblical text describes the plague of the death of the firstborn briefly, implying horror, but not dwelling on it:
שמות יב:כט וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה וַי־הוָה הִכָּה כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ עַד בְּכוֹר הַשְּׁבִי אֲשֶׁר בְּבֵית הַבּוֹר וְכֹל בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה. יב:ל וַיָּקָם פַּרְעֹה לַיְלָה הוּא וְכָל עֲבָדָיו וְכָל מִצְרַיִם וַתְּהִי צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּמִצְרָיִם כִּי אֵין בַּיִת אֲשֶׁר אֵין שָׁם מֵת.
Exod 12:29 And it came to pass at midnight, YHWH struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. 12:30 And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.
Yannai, however, expands upon the vivid violence. He reflects his society’s larger interests and assumptions by amplifying the violence of that night with graphic language suggestive of awareness of popular spectacles and games. In the first unit alone we find the terms:
- בִּתַּקְתָּ (“You amputated”),
- שָׁבָרְתָּ (“You shattered”),
- מִצִּיתָ (“You drained [of blood]”).
In that same unit, death comes “in an instant” (רֶגַע) for the firstborn, and God causes plague to “rain down” (דֶּבֶר לְהַמְשִׁיל) upon the Egyptians.
Yannai even evokes gladiatorial combat when he writes in the first unit:
א טְמֵאִים זֶה בָּזֶה נִצִּיתָ / יְדִידִים זֶה לָּזֶה רִצִּיתָ
1 You set the impure ones, this one versus that one, against each other / friends, this one versus that one, you caused to fight (ln. 5).
The second unit intensifies the violence:
ב מֵתִים בְּכָל בַּיִת בְּנוֹף כְּנֶחֱנָקוּ / נַאֲקוֹת חֲלָלִים נָאָקוּ / סֻכְּרוּ וְלִבּוֹתָם נָמָקּוּ / עֻלְּפוּ וְרוּחוֹתָם נָבָקוּ
2 The dead in every house in Memphis resemble the strangled / and the groans of those struck down they groaned / they are smothered and their hearts rot / they swoon and their spirit was drained. (ln. 12–13)
ב פְּגָרִים מֵתִים לָמוֹ עָשִׂיתָ / צוּרַת כָּל בְּכוֹר גַּם בְּמֵעֵיהֶם לֹא חַסְתָּ
2 Dead corpses you made from them / even upon the firstborn fetus in the womb you had no sympathy. (ln. 14)
Yannai’s repeated use of “all/every” (כל) conveys overwhelming destruction—even unborn firstborn children die—as does the clustering of terms in the final stanza of unit two:
ב שׁוֹאָה וּמְשׁוֹאָה וּבֶהָלָה / שַׁמּוֹת וְשָׁאוֹן וְחַלְחָלָה / תָּקְפָה בָהֶם הַיְלָלָה / תִּמָּהוֹן קָמוּ וְיָצְאוּ בַלָּיְלָה
2 Desolation, destruction, and confusion / Ruin, tumult, and panic / Wailing seized them / Aghast, they arose and ran out into the night (ll. 16–17)
Unit five, which rehearses the ten plagues, stresses the totality of the Egypt’s losses:
ה הִכִּיתָ כָּל בְּכוֹר וְכָל רֹאשׁ מִשְׁפָּחָה / כָּל בְּכוֹר לָאִישׁ וְכָל בְּכוֹר לָאִשָּׁה / וּבְכוֹר לְכָל בְּהֵמָה וּבְכוֹר לְכָל דָּבָר / בַּבַּיִת וּבַחוּץ דֶּבֶר שַׁתָּה לְכָל דָּבָר
5 You smote every firstborn and every head-of-house / Every firstborn to a man and every firstborn to a woman / And the firstborn to every cow and the firstborn to everything / Inside and outside, You afflicted everything with plague! (ll. 45–46)
The term “all/every” (כל) occurs seven times in those two lines, at the center of the ten-line unit. God, the subject of both verbs, wreaks ruin and it is total.
Yannai also anticipates similarly violent ends will meet the oppressive empire of his day. His pun in this section on רְאֵמִים—meaning “wild beasts” but sounding rather like “Romans”—carries with it a suggestion of the animal spectacles of antiquity, the cruel entertainments in which wild beasts would be pitted against each other or human fighters.
וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה: The Climax of the Poem
The heaping up of terms for devastation climaxes with unit seven, the rahit (“runner”), which offers a synopsis of Israel’s history that centers violence—protective and defensive, and full of the miraculous. Its terse, concise summation of the past, driven by the rhythm of the unit’s short lines and the fixed-word refrain, creates a sense of inevitability, even as it focuses on the line of conflict that runs through Israel’s past and into the future. God, directly addressed as “You”:
- Grants Abraham victory (נִיצַחְתָּה),
- Sentences the king of Gerar (דַּנְתָּה),
- Frightens (הִפְחַדְתָּה) Laban;
- Crushes (מָחַצְתָּה) Egypt’s firstborn,
- Terrorizes Midian (חִילְחַלְתָּה),
- Levels (סִילִּיתָה) Sisera’s hosts;
- Turns Sennacherib’s army into rotting corpses (הוֹבַשְׁתָּה פְגָרָיו),
- Has Belshazzar slain (נֶהֱרַג),
- Will trample (תִדְרוֹךְ) Rome, someday in the future.
Only with the final lines about God’s much-anticipated triumph over Israel’s ultimate enemy, does the poet turn to less violent images, and the messianic epoch. The paroxysms of violence that constitute Israel’s history, as recounted in this synopsis, presage an era of radiant, timeless peace—the ultimate miracle. The parallels Yannai consistently draws between past and future—as God redeemed Israel from Egypt, so, too, will God rescue Israel from its present situation—typifies Jewish liturgy as a whole.
All of Yannai’s surviving poems anticipate the future redemption and restoration of Israel; optimism about God’s rescue of Israel conventionally constitutes the theme of the third unit, which introduces the (generally future-looking) haftarah. It often predominates in later units as well, as they pivot toward the present moment and anticipate the transformation of Israel’s fortunes soon to come. Yannai lived during a period of intense messianic speculation, and his poetry reflects complicated dynamics in which impatience is countered with fortitude.
A Focus on Night in a Daytime Poem
Perhaps the most distinctive element of this piyyut, and a reason that it alone was incorporated into the Ashkenazi liturgy and Passover Haggadah, is the interplay of time and space that structures it. Although the poem was written for the daytime Shabbat service, cognizance of “nighttime” (לָיְלָה) runs like a ribbon through the composition’s extant units. Of all of Yannai’s writings, this work has the most natural affinity for leyl shimurim, the watchful night (Exod 12:42), when the past is not simply recollected, but re-lived.
Yannai’s inspiration for this came from the opening words of the sidra—which give it its name— וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה “And it came to pass at midnight.” Thus, the word לָיְלָה “night” became a theme-word running throughout the composition, and the fixed-word refrain of the rahit (unit seven). Unit eight focuses intensely on God’s relationship to time:
ח כִּי אֵין לְפָנֶיךָ לָיְלָה / וְהַכָּל לְפָנֶיךָ יוֹם / וְיוֹם לְיוֹם אוֹמֶר יַבִּיעַ / וְלַיְלָה לְלַיְלָה דַעַת יוֹדִיעַ
8 There is no “night” in Your presence / for everything in Your presence is “day” / and day makes utterance to day / and night shares insight with night
וְחוֹשֶׁךְ לֹא יַחֲשִׁיךְ מִמָּךְ / וּנְהוֹרָה שְׁרֵי עִימָּךְ / בְּקָרִים יַגִּידוּ חַסְדָּךְ / וְלֵילוֹת יְשַׁנֲנוּ אֱמוּנָתָךְ
And darkness does not darken in Your presence / and radiance dwells with You. / Mornings declare Your fidelity / and nights recount Your faithfulness
וְשַׁחַר וְנוֹגַהּ וּבוֹקֶר וְיוֹם וְצָהֳרָיִם וְעַרְבִית וְעֶרֶב וְנֶשֶׁף וָלָיְלָה וְכָל עֵת וְעִידָּן וּזְ[מָן וָרֶ]גַע יַזְכִּירוּ נִיסֵּי פְלָאֶיךָ
And daybreak and dawn and morning and day and noon and eventide and evening and twilight and night and every time and season and moment and instant recalls the miracles of Your wonders… (ll. 76–80)
The poet here revels in his vocabulary for times of day, using words that shade from first light to twilight, noon to night, even as he asserts that God is not beholden to time in the way that mortals are. (The presentation of this litany in a single line suggests a kind of rapid pace or even breathlessness in its delivery.) He stresses that where people find darkness confounding and even threatening, God does not distinguish between the two: everything, in God’s presence, is radiant as daytime.
The Many Roles of Night
Night plays many roles in the poem. It is a time of stealth and secrecy, when senses are confounded and confused—even our ability to tell time fails us at night. The timing of Egypt’s affliction itself signified God’s central role. More generally, night is a time of danger and vulnerability (as we see in Song 3:8), concerns highlighted by some of Yannai’s intertexts, such as the verse in Job which supplies Yannai with not only images but specific phrases employed in the poem:
איוב לד:כ רֶגַע יָמֻתוּ וַחֲצוֹת לָיְלָה יְגֹעֲשׁוּ עָם וְיַעֲבֹרוּ וְיָסִירוּ אַבִּיר לֹא בְיָד.
Job 34:20 Some die suddenly in the middle of the night; people are in turmoil and pass on; even great men are removed—not by human hands.
The image of the watchman from Isaiah (quoted after unit three and in unit seven) similarly reflects the association of nighttime with danger—watchmen protect and inform those who feel blind and vulnerable—even as it evokes the fact that the keen eyes of the scout may perceive glad tidings, too.
ישעיה כא:יא מַשָּׂא דּוּמָה אֵלַי קֹרֵא מִשֵּׂעִיר שֹׁמֵר מַה מִלַּיְלָה שֹׁמֵר מַה מִלֵּיל. כא:יב אָמַר שֹׁמֵר אָתָה בֹקֶר וְגַם לָיְלָה אִם תִּבְעָיוּן בְּעָיוּ שֻׁבוּ אֵתָיוּ.
Isa 21:11 The “Dumah” Pronouncement. A call comes to me from Seir: “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?” 21:12 The watchman replied, “Morning came, and so did night. If you would inquire, inquire. Come back again.”
On the evening before the Exodus, all Israel was “on watch”—and so is Passover a לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים “night of watchfulness” (Exod 12:42). Night is a time of subtlety, when humans become still or stealthy, but God acts—dramatically.
Unit Nine—The Qedusha
Indeed, while much of the poem focused on the dramatic events of midnight in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus, the poem culminates in unit nine with a qedusha structured on the triad of “morning” (בוקר), “night” (לילה), and “dawn” (שחר), each parsing out a facet of the threefold “holy” of the Qedushah (Isa. 6:3).
קָדושׁ. קָדושׁ. קָדושׁ ה' צְבָאות. מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ: [קָדושׁ] מֵאַשְׁמוֹרֶת בּוֹקֶר / [קָדושׁ מִמַחֲ]צִית הַלָּ[יְלָה / קָדושׁ מֵ]עֲלִיַּית [שָׁחַר].
“Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!” (Isa 6:3) Holy from the morning watch / holy from the middle of the night / holy from the rise of dawn.
The Seder Night
According to Exodus, the deaths of all the firstborn of Egypt, and the sparing of the children of Israel, occurred at midnight on the eve of the exodus. Yannai’s qedushta for the sidra of וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, with its temporal consciousness, its relentless appeals to God, and its confidence in divine redemption in the future as in the past, uniquely suits the setting of the Seder, even if that was not the occasion for which it was originally composed.
This particular poem endured because Yannai’s vision of nocturnal redemption and revenge, and its succinct argument that past is prologue and its discernment of patterns in history that assure new rescues yet to come, resonated with Jews in later centuries, especially because the singing of “And it came to pass at midnight” might well come to pass at midnight.
The Lost Poetry of Yannai
In his essay, “רבם של הפייטנים” [The Master Hymnist], Menahem Zulay (1901–1954) reflected on the significance of his painstaking work piecing together liturgical poems from the scraps and fragments discovered in the Cairo Genizah:
Each photostat is a prayer congealed. Each page is a poem frozen in place. The dust of the generations must be shaken from them; they have to be woken up and revived; and the workers are busy; and a day doesn’t pass without resurrection… And at the center of [it all] stands Yannai.
Yannai is the master hymnist of the essay’s title, and Zulay’s work resulted in the publication of The Liturgical Poetry of Yannai (פיוטי יניי) in 1938, among the last Hebrew books published in Nazi Germany. With the publication of Zulay’s stunning and lovely volume, the poetry of Yannai emerged from darkness into light: a body of Hebrew writing, pivotal in its own age and influential in centuries after, yet essentially lost to the world for a millennium, could be heard—or at least read—once again.
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March 31, 2023
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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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