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Machzor Blog: Piyyutim and the Machzor

There was a time, more than century and a half ago, when piyyutim were seen largely as a kind of cultural burden to be cast aside in order to make the service shorter and more meaningful.  Early liturgical reformers argued that the siddur and machzor had grown too lengthy and no longer inspired modern Jews.  Piyyutim – medieval poetic extensions of the traditional prayers, with allusions incomprehensible to the average congregant – were first on the chopping block. The irony, however, lies in the fact that the piyut was itself a sort of liturgical reform.  While earlier generations of Jews were unable to change the statutory service itself, piyyutim allowed for an imaginative embellishment of that service.  It highlighted and expanded particular parts of the liturgy.  It added additional opportunities for congregational singing.  It was, in short, an early version of the “creative service.”

Over the past decade, there has been a growing phenomenon in Israel centered around the rediscovery and revival of medieval piyutim – not just in the synagogue (in fact, largely not in the synagogue), but rather in the cultural realms largely controlled by self-defined “secular” Jews.  Once seen primarily as an impediment for the modern worshiper, piyyutim are now being studied and sung by local “kehillot sharot” / singing communities that gather weekly in homes and community centers.  These groups combine community building, ethnomusicology, history and text study.  New CDs by popular artists are constantly being released with new musical settings to these piyyutim. Piyyut festivals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have drawn hundreds of people of all ages.  The interest in reviving piyut is fueled in part by the small but significant programs and projects that driven by native-born self-described “secular” Israelis rediscovering the Jewish bookshelf, and reclaiming Jewish heritage on their own terms and in their own way.

There is an amazing website that has a staggering collection of recordings of piyyutim from dozens of different communities, explanations of the piyyut’s authorship and history, and the lyrics.  One piyut alone might have a dozen recordings made from paytanim, chazanim and congregations.  The most robust part of the site is in Hebrew only, but a significant selection of materials is available on the English language part of the site.  Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York convened a conference a few years back aimed at bringing the piyyut phenomenon to America, and some materials that emerged from that effort are also on the English language part of the site.

Creating a new Reform machzor that will be used for the next 30-40 years requires us to pay attention to this growing piyyut revival. From these creative efforts, our congregations may find new models for re-introducing this classic poetry to the Reform synagogue.

The new openness to expanding the number of piyyutim is found in several places within the machzor, but most especially with the selichot prayers of Yom Kippur, particularly the most fully developed version in Kol Nidre.

So here are two piyyutim that we have included in the draft of the new machzor, and a link to one traditional and one contemporary recording of each.  Enjoy.

Here is Yonatan Razel singing Adon HaSelichot (Chatanu lifanecha.)

Here is the same piyyut sung in the traditional style of Jerusalem Sefardi community.

Here is Meir Banai singing his arrangement of Aneinu.

And the same piyyut sung by the Cochin Jews of India.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.



By Rabbi Leon Morris

Rabbi Leon Morris is on the editorial team of the new CCAR machzor, and is the rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY.

6 replies on “Machzor Blog: Piyyutim and the Machzor”

Dear Leon:

I really liked your blog posting on piyyutim in the the new Machzor, which broadened my understanding.

Reading it stimulates me to ask you if you have noticed a formerly unknown piyyut that appears in the new Conservative Machzor, Lev Shalem. It’s on page 418 and is entitled “May We End the Day Fulfilled” (Lech b’Simcha, in Hebrew). The side note explains that it goes back to Ibn Ezra and is included in the Italian rite. I attend a participatory minyan in a Conservative shul, Temple Beth Am, in Los Angeles, and we have been using Lev Shalem for two years — and doing this piyyut, which has been a wonderful experience.

Lech b’Simcha captures the tone of exhilaration and life-affirmation that ideally enters toward the end of Neilah. The guy who’s been organizing HHD services in recent years for the minyan came up with an innovative way of doing this piyyut: he asks a teenage girl (could also be a boy) to read the verses in English with the kahal joining into the Hebrew refrain each time. I have rarely seen a new piece of liturgy, or even many older ones, be as enthusiastically adopted as in this case. People’s faces glow as they sing the piyyut, embodying the positive spirit of the words being read and sung.

It may be that the Hebrew of the refrain is somewhat complex for some Reform congregations, but I think that this piyyut should at least be known about and considered. Were it to be included in our new Machzor, rabbis and cantors could introduce the Hebrew/transliterated refrain earlier in the day so that when the time comes to sing it, the somewhat complex words would flow relatively easily. They are: “Leikh b’simchah ekhol lahmekha u-sh-‘tech b’leiv tov yeinekha: Go forth joyfully, and with full heart, partake of your meal and drink your wine.”

Hi Rabbi Laemmle,
I read your comment with interest, as I’m looking at the piyyut Lekh B’simkha for this year, and attempting to find a tune for it! Might you have a recording or sheet music of the melody to which your congregation sings it? Many thanks and Shanah Tovah!

Thanks so much for bringing this piyyut to our attention. I was familiar with the idea that this quote from Ecclesiastes is often cited at the conclusion of Neilah (I’ve used it myself), but I didn’t know about the piyyut. I was hoping that had it, but I couldn’t find it there. Cantors out there — if you find a link for us, please post it here.

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