Piyyut: The Story of the Poetry of Jewish Prayer
Jewish prayer is caught between the two poles of keva and kavvanah, the fixed nature of prayer, and the role of intentionality in one’s prayer. While Jewish law ultimately prescribes fixed formulas of liturgy, the dialogue between keva and kavvanah continues to echo and evolve. The role of piyyutim, poems of prayer or liturgical poetry, perhaps best embodies this continuous dialogue within Jewish thought and practice. Piyyutim have ancient roots, tracing as far back as the early first century CE. Payytanim, Jewish poets who authored piyyutim, composed prayerful poems that expressed ideas beyond the ones within the statutory prayers. Thus, piyyutim came to represent the voice of the personal, dynamic, and creative within Jewish prayer. Piyyutim often feature anthropomorphic ideas, the presence of angels, midrashic themes, and the unique voices of the payytanim, echoing the historical and personal realities of their lives. Yet, with time, these creative piyyutim were integrated into prayer services, and often served as a source of keva, rather than kavvanah. The development of piyyutim throughout Jewish history reveals the interplay between keva and kavvanah, between halakha and minhag, and the way that these seemingly opposing ideas overlap and speak to one another.
Piyyut as an Eretz Yisrael Creation
While piyyutim have been composed across oceans and centuries, it is in the land of Israel, or Byzantine Palestine, between the fourth and sixth centuries that piyyutim became ingrained into Jewish prayer. Though some piyyutim were recited as additions to the fixed prayers, Ruth Langer, a scholar of piyyutim, explains, “The most important early genres [of piyyutim] were created as alternatives to the standard texts of the prayers, to be presented by the sheliah tzibbur as the public prayer of the synagogue on particular days.” Thus, Langer writes, “Instead of a fixed and totally predictable liturgy, the Palestinian synagogue had a vehicle that allowed for change and artistic expression through the modes of poetry, and especially in later periods, choral music.” Similarly, Lawrence Hoffman, a scholar of liturgy, explains that piyyutim are not only a product of Palestine in the geographic sense, but perhaps more importantly, in the cultural and spiritual sense. Hoffman writes, “Of course national borders did not really exist then, at least not in the sense that we define the term. There were, rather, spiritual spheres of influence, cultural traits that marked one as basically Palestinian or Babylonian.” These cultural markers included choices such as whether one depended upon the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud, which legal responsum one chose to follow, and what cycle of readings from the Torah one observed. Thus, Hoffman explains that one could live as a Palestinian in Egypt, or as a Babylonian in Palestine. In this sense, Hoffman defines Piyyutim as a “Palestinian phenomenon,” and the payytanim as “Palestinians by spiritual proclivity.” Additionally, most of the piyyutim and poetic texts found in the Cairo Genizah were of Palestinian rather than Babylonian origins, pointing to the Palestinian roots of early piyyutim.
Halakhic Objections to Piyyut:
The birth of piyyut, prayer-poetry, in the geographic and cultural soil of Palestine reflects that within the dialogue between keva and kavvanah, it was kavvanah that the Palestinian Jews sought within prayer. Unsurprisingly then, the Babylonian Geonim strongly objected to the integration of piyyutim into the prayer service, arguing that it threatened the statutory prayers they were attempting to establish within the Jewish community. Langer writes, “In their struggles to establish the predominance of their own customs, early Geonim introduced many of the halakhic arguments that would echo against piyyut over the next millennium and more.” The earliest responses that are recorded come from the school of the mid-eighth-century Rav Yehudai Gaon. In a letter found in the Cairo Genizah, Rav Yehudai’s student, Pirkoi ben Baboi, describes his objections to piyyutim. Based on Rav Yehudai’s teachings, ben Baboi writes that “anyone who alters a talmudically ordained blessing fails to fulfill his prayer obligations” and that “to add to the text is blasphemous.” Ben Baboi also argues that the Palestinian custom of reciting piyyutim developed as a result of Christian persecution, when the Palestinian Jews were forbidden from praying. However, under Islamic rule, which allowed the recitation of formalized prayers, ben Baboi explained that the Palestinian Jews were “forbidden to recite anything other than the proper texts established by the sages in the right places in the right order.” This argument reflects the Babylonian wariness of the creation and integration of piyyut; by attributing its creation to the external forces of persecution, ben Baboi attempts to mark piyyutim as foreign to ideal modes of Jewish prayer.
Yet, despite this rejection of piyyutim, by the ninth century, R’ Natronai Gaon permitted the inclusion of piyyutim in prayer services under the limitations that the piyyut relate to the content of the blessing or the occasion it was being recited for, and that it includes the themes of the beginning and ending of the standard blessing it supplemented. This halakhic response opened the floodgates for Babylonian Jews to begin embracing piyyutim within their own prayers. Langer suggests that this halakhic shift toward permitting piyyut relates to the cultural exchange between Palestinian and Babylonian Jews. The Palestinian institution of piyyut reached Babylonian Jews in various ways, slowly becoming a part of the Jewish Babylonian culture as well. Piyyutim so greatly infiltrated the Jewish Babylonian culture that, according to the Israeli poet and scholar of piyyut, Ezra Fleischer, by the postclassical period, the center of piyyut composition migrated from Palestine to Babylonia. Ironically, the very place that had initially resisted the institution of piyyutim later became the hub of their continued creation.
However, though piyyutim had become a universal element of Jewish prayer by the medieval period, their role within Jewish prayer continued to be questioned. While piyyutim were originally instituted as a source of kavvanah, and creative expression within prayer, with time, as ancient piyyutim were integrated into the prayer service, they ceased to stir inspiration; rather, many halakhic authorities claimed that piyyutim caused a loss, rather than increase of kavvanah. For example, Maimonides maintained that the “improper” content, poetic meters, and melodies of many piyyutim served as a source of “amusement” within the prayer service, causing a loss of kavvanah among the congregation. Similarly, the Tur argued that piyyutim should be abolished from the prayer service because congregants would often resort to talking during the recitation of the piyyutim. One of the main objections to piyyut was that congregants often did not understand them, and that they therefore failed to serve as a meaningful part of prayer services. Abraham Ibn Ezra, an influential payytan himself, described this as one of the main problems with piyyut. He wrote that if a congregation does not understand the piyyutim integrated into statutory prayers, this deemed the entire prayer halakhically invalid. This argument was employed by French and German Jews as well, and the Hasidei Ashkenaz responded to this problem by writing commentaries on piyyutim.
Another key factor in shaping attitudes toward piyyut was the influence of Lurianic kabbalah. In Shaar Hakavvanot, one volume of Rabbi Hayyim Vital’s codification of the Arizal’s teachings, Rabbi Hayyim Vital records that the Arizal only recited piyytuim attributed to Tananim like Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, and Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakanah because they knew the secrets of kabbalah; according to the Arizal, these piyyutim could even be added into the text of the statutory blessings. However, the Arizal rejected the piyyutim of later payytanim because they were unfamiliar with kabbalah, and therefore their piyyutim were “filled with errors.” Kabbalistic ideology further influenced acceptance of piyyut when Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, known as the Hida, ruled that the insertion of piyyutim into statutory prayers interfered with the divine names and secrets hidden within the precise numbers of letters and words of the fixed prayers. Yet, at the same time, both the Arizal and the Hida maintained that individual Jews should maintain their ancestral prayer minhagim, even if this included the recitation of certain piyyutim.
By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Western Europe, the role of piyyut within Jewish prayer became a political, as well as halakhic question. On the one hand, some leaders attempted to maintain the role of this ancient custom within prayer. For example, Rabbi Abraham Lowenstamm argued that especially in the age of the printing press, when piyyutim could be printed in the siddur and studied by the congregation, they should not be abandoned. Other rabbis saw piyyutim as representative of the role of minhag within prayer, which was being threatened by the creation of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements. Thus, in 1892, Rabbi Yosef Zekharia Stern wrote that despite legitimate reasons to eliminate the integration of piyyutim, they must be maintained because of their status as a minhag. Langer explains, “Sages who might have otherwise jettisoned the custom felt that such a move was dangerous in a world where traditional practice was being increasingly challenged.” However, while some opinions argued to preserve the institution of piyyutim—for their own sake, or for political motives—others argued that they no longer played the same role for the Jewish community as they once did. For example, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes wrote that piyyutim were no longer being recited by many communities, and no longer held meaning. Yet, rather than formally eliminating them from Jewish prayer and causing division over the issue, Chajes argued that with time, they would become organically extinct from Jewish prayer. These various dissenting voices led to the gradual loss of piyyut from most Ashkenazi communities. While some deeply ingrained piyyutim continued to be recited and printed in siddurim, many piyyutim quietly slipped out of Jewish prayer services.
The Rebirth of Piyyut in Eretz Yisrael Today
Though piyyut had transformed over time from a symbol of kavvanah and poetic creation to one of minhag, and perhaps even keva, recently, piyyutim have once again begun to serve as a source of renewed inspiration within the Jewish community. It is in Israel, the place where they were first created, that piyyutim have become most powerfully re-integrated into Jewish prayer and culture. Popular Israeli music artists, such as Ehud Banai, Yishai Ribo, Amir Benyon, and others, feature piyyutim in their music; piyyutim like “Yedid Nefesh,” “Okhila L’El,” and “El Adon,” are regularly broadcasted on public radio, especially before Jewish holidays. “The Piyyut Ensemble,” of the Ben Zvi Institute is an Israeli band that performs North African and Middle Eastern piyyutim and melodies. The groundbreaking project Hazmana Le-Piyyut, or the Invitation to Piyut website, founded by the Israeli Avi Chai Foundation, features an archive of ancient and modern piyyutim and their melodies. It presents the historical background, commentary, and varying perspectives of each piyyut, along with a list of melodies used for each piyyut. The website’s homepage states, “The piyut purifies and refines key components of Hebrew culture into a totality: language, music mysticism, history, legend, philosophy, and prayer, as well as personal, family, and national stories and emotions. The singing of piyut makes it possible to experience this totality in its deepest sense.” In a way, the piyyut was exiled together with the Jewish people from the land of Israel, and the return of Jewish people to the land where piyyutim were first created has released a new meaning and life within Jewish prayer-poetry. Especially with the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language and culture, piyyutim have once again become a source of kavannah within prayer.
Just as piyyutim were a product of the Eretz Yisrael culture that slowly spread to the Babylonian and diaspora communities, Israeli culture’s renewed connection to piyyutim is slowly spreading to Jewish communities around the world. For example, Piyut North America is a joined project of Hazmana L’Piyyut in Israel and B’nai Jethrun in New York which works to spread knowledge of piyyutim to American communities. Like Hazmana L’Piyyut, The Open Siddur Project provides an archive of piyyutim, but it also features various Jewish prayers composed throughout history that model the dynamic, creative, and personal initiative of piyyutim. As Jewish communities across the world find relevance and meaning in the prayer-poems written throughout Jewish history, the dialogue between keva and kavvanah, between halakha and minhag, and between Eretz Yisrael and Diaspora continues to flourish and grow.
Leah Klahr is a junior at Stern College, majoring in English literature and Jewish studies
 For a formative discussion of this tension within Jewish prayer, see BT Berakhot 29b: “R’ Eleazar said, ’If one makes one’s prayer fixed [keva] it is not true supplication [takhanunim].’” While the meaning of the word kavvanah is interpreted in various ways, this article uses it in the sense of takhanunim, or prayer that emerges from the heart. See also Rabbi Shimon’s statement in Mishna Avot 2:13: “…When you pray, do not make your prayers fixed [keva], but rather prayers for mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be He.”
 The word piyyut stems from the Greek word for poem, poites.
 Wout Jac. Van Bekkum, “The Hebrew Liturgical Poetry of Byzantine Palestine,” in Prooftexts, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spring 2008): 232-246.
 For example, the 12th century piyyut attributed to Rav Yehuda Ha-Chassid, “Anim Zemirot,” or formally called “Shir Ha-Kavod” deviates from the form and content of the statutory prayers through its poetic structure and elaborate anthropomorphism.
 The halakhic opinions presented here are all drawn from Ruth Langer, To Worship God Properly (Cincinnati, Ohio: Hebrew Union College Press, 1998), 117-187. More direct sources of these opinions can be found in Langer’s endnotes.
 Langer, 113.
 Lawrence Hoffman, The Canonization of the Synagogue Service (Notre Dame, London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 66.
 Hoffman, 67.
 Langer, 117.
 Hoffman explains that Rabbi Natronai Gaon’s halakhic stance stems from the talmudic concept of me’ein ha-berakha [the essence of the blessing]; Rabbi Natronai Gaon expanded this concept to permit the inclusion of thematically appropriate piyyutim within statutory blessings, as long as the piyyut incorporated transitions out of and back into the statutory blessings.
 Wout Jac. Van Bekkum, “The Hebrew Liturgical Poetry of Byzantine Palestine,” in Prooftexts, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spring 2008): 232-246.
 At the same time, Maimonides encouraged the preservation of certain piyyutim, and even ruled that some of the Shabbat piyyutim should be maintained in order to prevent dissention within the Jewish community.
 Tur on Shulkan Arukh, OH 68.
 Langer, 150.
 Yet, ironically, for the Conservative and Reform movements, the institution of piyyut served as the inspiration for further additions and changes to the statutory prayers.
 Langer, 184.
 For example, the website features the full texts and English translations of Yiddish tkhines, personal prayers for various occasions, composed by Ashkenazic women mostly between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.