Laura Lieber

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:

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A piyyut (also spelled piyut; plural piyyutim) is a poem created to substitute for, adorn, or preface a passage from the Jewish liturgy or a liturgical rite. The Hebrew term derives from Greek (e.g., ποιητής [poet] and ποίημα [poem]) and is related to the English word “poetry.” Unlike biblical poetry, piyyutim typically employ end rhyme, quote explicitly from textual sources, allude to midrash, and consist of complicated multipoem forms. Piyyutim display deep familiarity with rabbinic traditions of interpretation, and many rhetorical features, such as metonymy, resemble midrashic methods of reading. Originally, piyyutim occupied the place of statutory prayers; poems were interwoven with liturgical formulas as well as allusions to the weekly Torah portion and contemporary events. As the texts of the prayers became fixed, poems were used to frame the standardized wordings rather than replace them. The earliest piyyutim (c. 5th century ce) were composed primarily for the Ninth of Av, fast days, and the High Holidays; these poems embellished specific liturgical moments, such as the Avodah service, or they developed topical themes, such as penitence or mourning. In the classical period (c. 6th–7th centuries ce) the majority of piyyutim adorned the blessings of the Sabbath and Festival Amidah (Shiv’ata and Qedushta poems). These poems assume the so-called triennial cycle of Torah readings typical of the Land of Israel. As the Babylonian (annual) lectionary became more widespread and the text of the Amidah became standardized, Yotzer piyyutim embellishing the Shema and its blessings became increasingly popular. As the liturgy became standardized, local selections of piyyutim often distinguished various rites from one another. Although the Babylonian geonim initially resisted the liturgical variation and diversity typical of piyyutim, over time they came to accommodate the extremely popular practice. In the Middle Ages piyyutim developed along distinctive trajectories in Ashkenaz and Sepharad. Ashkenazic poetry amplified the complex styles typical of the classical piyyutim. These works emphasized ornate forms, opaque allusions to the Bible and rabbinic traditions, and clever but artificial grammatical constructions. Sephardic poets rejected the conventions of the classical piyyut in favor of a more lyrical, neobiblical aesthetic, and they innovated by introducing Arabic meter. Piyyutim are not only beautiful literature in their own right, but they also shed light on numerous aspects of Jewish culture through the centuries and are now studied using the tools of a variety of related fields.

Article.  16047 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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