The discovery of a new inscription like that from Zincirli, of a site like Khirbet Qeiyafa, of missing pages of Hebrew Ben Sira – all these things cannot fail to create excitement in the minds of students of the biblical world. But what about the massive piyyut, one of the most ancient Avodah in our possession, that has come to light thanks to finds from the Cairo Geniza and the Firkovitch collection housed in St. Petersburg? The very existence of this composition is unknown to all but a few specialists. Fragments were published by Zvi Malachi in 1974. Joseph Yahalom reconstructed and published an annotated version of the composition from Genizah fragments in 1996. Since then, more fragments have been discovered. I base myself on the 2005 edition published by Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom (bibliography at the end of this post).
An Avodah piyyut like אז באין כל ’Az be-’En Kol is of enormous interest to anyone with a passion for the history of reception of the Hebrew Bible, the diachronic development of ancient Hebrew poetry, and the theology and theological anthropology of Judaism in Greco-Roman antiquity. For the student of ancient Hebrew, furthermore, reading piyyut is an excellent exercise. Phrase after phrase of piyyut goes back to the biblical corpus. Continuities and transformations are all worth noting.
אז באין כל ’Az be-’En Kol, furthermore, is a stunning witness to a religious synthesis in which biblical, “apocryphal,” and rabbinic elements congeal to form a portrait of a loving, merciful God. The God of the piyyut is the Creator of the cosmos and elector of a people and a priesthood. The world and the cult are understood as a theatre of glory, holiness, and divine lovingkindness.
Below the fold, I provide and translate strophe by strophe the letter א of the opening acrostic of the composition. My translation differs in details from that offered by Swartz and Yahalom. I cite their translation as well, for comparison’s sake, when the differences are particularly salient. I would love to have some back-and-forth with the authors on-line about problems of interpretation, but that is a tall order. I sincerely hope that fellow Hebraists will challenge my interpretation if such seems necessary. For pedagogical reasons, I quote the Hebrew without vowels to begin with. If you are able to read the piyyut correctly without vowels, it is a sign that you are proficient in Hebrew. If not, you might consider mastering Hebrew at a higher level. In the end, you will be glad if you do.
אז באין כל
אתה כל הייתה
אתה כל נמלאתה
(1) When there was nothing at all,
you were all that was,
and when you established all,
you filled all.
אָז בְּאֵין כֹּל
אַתָּה כֹּל הָיִיתָה
אַתָּה כֹּל נִמְלֵאתָה
Note: סוּסָךְ instead of סוּסְךָ is, so far as I have noted, the only significant variation from Masoretic Hebrew convention in terms of vocalization of the piyyut as presented in Swartz and Yahalom
[אז בברא]ך כל
אתה חדש לחדשו
כי ישושיך בראשית
(2) [When] you [created] all
you possessed newness so as to renew it,
for your senescence was in the beginning
and your youthfulness in the ending.
S & Y: line 2: you are ever renewing,
[אָז בְּבָרְאָ]ךְ כֹּל
אַתָּה חָדָׂש לְחַדְּשׁוֹ
כִּי יְשׁוּשֶׁיךָ בְּרֵאשִׁית
אין עין לשור
כי על אדירים
אז מקדם חניתה
(3) No eye can spy
the comforts of your tabernacle,
for above the Majesties
you tabernacled from of old.
אֵין עַיִן לָשׁוּר
כִּי עַל אַדִּירִים
אָז מִקֶּדֶם חָנִיתָה
S&Y vocalizeאִוֻּי and חֲנִיָּיתֶךָ. Note pausal form. אדירים=המים
או איזה שכוי
יחקור מקום שכנך
ואש אוכלה אש
בלבת מים החתיתה
(4) Or what of the rooster?
He might search for your dwelling place,
but fire devouring fire
you put down in the flaming waters.
S&Y: line 1: Or perhaps some rooster; lines 3-4: you have snatched up a fire consuming fire from the fiery waters.
אוֹ אֵיזֶה שֶׂכְוִי
יַחְקוֹר מָקוֹם שִׁכְנֶךָ
וְאֵשׁ אוֹכְלָה אֵשׁ
בְּלַבַּת מַיִם הֶחְתֵּיתָה
So the piyyut begins. Its protology is a mirror image of God filling the Temple and his glory overflowing from there to fill the entire earth (cf. Isaiah 6).
The first strophe confesses two things: (1) Prior to any thing existing there was nothing besides God. The tautological statement expresses God’s absolute priority. (2) God filled all from the moment of creation. The first thought recalls the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. The second is reminiscent of the Christian confession according to which the exceeding greatness of divine power is found in “him (the Christ) who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). In the piyyut, it is God who fills all in all, not the Messiah.
The second strophe affirms that God is old and young simultaneously, always new in himself, and always renewing. The inaccessibility of God is stressed in the third strophe. The Majesties are probably the waters mentioned in Genesis 1. The waters are reported to be laced with fire in the fourth strophe. The source of this tradition is unknown to me.
With respect to ancient Hebrew, שור consistently replaces ראה in the piyyut. חנייה appears to be a substitute for משכן / אהל. אדירים is an example of a circumlocution used in place of a simple noun (probably המים ‘the waters’ above and below the heavens according to Gen 1:7). Poetic substitutions abound in piyyut.
To be continued.
Zvi Malachi, העבודה ליום הכפורים ׃ אופייה תולדותיה והתפתחותה בשירה העברית, (2 vols.; Ph.D. diss.; Hebrew University Jerusalem, 1974; Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, Avodah: An Anthology of Ancient Poetry for Yom Kippur, Penn State Library of Jewish Studies; University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005; Joseph Yahalom, אז באין כל׃ סדר העבודה הארץ ישראלי הקדום ליום הכפורים, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996.