Latest update: May 19th, 2013
Question: I read The Jewish Press’s Luach of February 17 with much interest. You write, “We daven Shacharis as usual.” I find it difficult to understand why you don’t mention reciting the special yotzrot for Parshat Shekolim. Are yotzrot a relic of history? I’m a senior citizen who remembers saying yotzrot as a child. But now, they seem to have disappeared from Orthodox synagogues.
Milton M. Adler
Cherry Hill, NJ
Answer: Yotzrot (often referred to generically as piyutim) have disappeared from many, but not all, congregations. Rabbi Yosef Grossman (in Otzar Erchei HaYahadut, ot peh, 377) defines piyutim as prayers, poetic refrains, or sanctified songs written by venerable authors (beginning with geonim in Babylonia) and added as optional additions to the liturgy for special occasions. Many of these authors served as shluchei tzibbur themselves and were capable of effecting a unique spiritual arousal on the part of the congregation. Piyutim include words of rebuke, reproof, and lamentations and yearning regarding the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Divine Presence. We continue our answer with more information from Rabbi Grossman’s work.
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One of the earliest (and most famous) paytanim is Yosi b. Yosi, whose compositions have found their way into the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers. Also well known are the compositions of Yanai and his disciple Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir, who is considered one of the “fathers” of Jewish liturgical poets.
In the Middle Ages, liturgical poetry reached the height of its development in both Sefarad – Spain, North Africa, and the oriental lands – and Ashkenaz – Germany, France, and other European lands. Among the liturgical composers in Spain were Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Rabbi Moshe ibn Ezra, known as “Ha’Salach,” and Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Levi. Famous liturgical composers in Ashkenazic lands included Rabbenu Gershom Me’or Ha’golah, Rashi, and Rabbenu Tam.
Yemen also possessed many composers, the greatest of which was Rabbi Shalom Shabazzi. Yet, for the most part, piyutim were generally more accepted (and included in the liturgy) in Ashkenazic lands than in the Sefardic lands.
With the passing of time, more compositions were added from the works of such able composers as Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (the author of “Lecha Dodi”) and Rabbi Yisrael Nidgara (the author of “Kah Ribon Alam V’almaya”).
Piyutim are at times referred to by more specific names. As delineated by Rabbi Grossman at the conclusion of his discussion in Otzar Erchei HaYahadus, they are:
Yotzrot – piyutim accompanying the blessing of “yotzer or” in birkat Kriat Shema.
These are added to the liturgy during the Days of Awe and on specific Shabbatot.
Ofanim – piyutim recited before “ha’ofanim v’chayot ha’kodesh,” also found in birkat Kriat Shema of Shacharit.
Zulatot – piyutim recited before ezrat avoteinu after Kriat Shema.
Geulot – piyutim recited right before the blessing ga’al yisrael.
Avodah – piyutim accompanying the Avodah service of Yom Kippur.
Ma’aravit – piyutim especially composed to accompany the Ma’ariv service of festivals.
Havdalot – piyutim for Motza’ei Shabbat (traditionally sung at Melave Malka).
Hoshanot – piyutim sung throughout the course of Sukkot and climaxing in the Hoshanot ceremony of Hoshana Rabbah.
Selichot – piyutim in the form of confessionals that are recited on public fasts, throughout the month of Elul, and during Aseret Yemei Teshuva.
Kinot – lamentations recited on Tisha B’Av.
Numerous factors contributed to the widespread decline in the recitation of these piyutim. One factor is the comprehensibility of the piyutim. Prose, no matter how beautiful, is often hard to understand. Furthermore, often Aramaic words found their way into the compositions. (To their credit, ArtScroll and other publishers of siddurim and machzorim often offer excellent English language translations of piyutim, thus affording people the opportunity to enjoy their beauty.)
I think one of the most obvious reasons for their omission nowadays is their length. The olam ha’yeshivot – the yeshiva world – for example, does not recite them because their roshei yeshivot believe them to be rather lengthy. Yeshivot generally daven at a slower pace and reciting piyutim would greatly lengthen the services and cut into study time.
Regular synagogues also likely omit them for the same reason. Many people do not wish to remain in shul past midday. This sentiment is based upon the following: The Gemara (Pesachim 68b) notes that one verse (Deuteronomy 16:8) states, “atzeret laShem Elokecha – an assembly to the L-rd” while another one (Numbers 29:35) states, “atzeret tiyeh lachem – an assembly for you.” Which is it: an assembly to the L-rd or to us? The Gemara replies that the day is both – “chetzyo lachem v’chetzyo laShem – half for [us] and half for the L-rd.” Even though the verses concern the end of Pesach and Shemini Atzeret, R. Yehoshua applies this rule to all festivals. In our time, many people extend this rule to Shabbat as well.
Yet, we should be aware that our present day practice of omitting yotzrot would not be looked upon favorably by the Rishonim. Rashi in Parshat Terumah (Exodus 26:15) asks where the Jewish people in the desert were supposed to get the shittim wood that G-d commanded them to use to build the Mishkan. He answers by citing a midrash (Tanchuma Shemot 9) that Jacob foresaw that the Jews would need wood in the desert and therefore planted shittim trees in advance in Egypt. Rashi notes that this midrash is the source for the piyut of R. Shlomo bar Yehudah which we recite in birkat yotzer or of Shacharit on the first day of Pesach: “Tas mata mezorazim korot bateinu arazim – Rapidly did the plantings of [the Jewish people] grow to become the cedars used for the beams of our House.” It is thus obvious that Rashi and his contemporaries would, without fail, recite these piyutim.
May the piyutim and yotzrot that we say inspire us to spiritual growth and bring melech haMoshiach speedily in our days.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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