Shnei Zeitim: A Hanukkah Piyyut About the Separation of Powers

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Yitzhak Szyf


These days, if one walks into the average synagogue on Shabbat Hanukkah, the tefillot would not feel all that different from those of any other Shabbat—other than the additions of Hallel and Al ha-Nissim. But this was not always the case. Not so long ago, the prayers of special shabbatot and yomim tovim were marked by unique poetic compositions, or piyyutim. This article sheds light on the once famous and beautiful Shabbat Hanukkah piyyut of Shnei Zeitim written in the eleventh century by Solomon ibn Gabirol. Shnei Zeitim, in fact, predates Maoz Tzur—whose tune actually originated from it—by roughly 200 years. As I will explain, this piyyut comforted worshippers in medieval Europe despite the darkness of the exile and helped them understand the haftarah of the day. Its critical lesson in leadership remains as relevant today as it was 1000 years ago when it was composed.

Just as on many special shabbatot, the tefillot of Shabbat Hanukkah[1] were traditionally beautified by special yotzerot piyyutim recited in the blessings of the Shema. The piyyut of Shnei Zeitim takes the form of a meorah, which is a piyyut meant to be said right before ohr hadash and the blessing of yotzer ha-me’orot. Despite its Spanish origins, which explain the relative simplicity of its Hebrew, it was widely accepted in Ashkenaz and remained part of the Shabbat Hanukkah prayers long after the Sephardim ceased to recite piyyutim in the blessings of Shema.

While the yotzerot recited throughout the year differed by community, those of Shabbat Hanukkah—including Shnei Zeitim—are part of the liturgy of both minhag Ashkenaz (German and Western European custom) and minhag Polin (Polish and Eastern European custom). The piyyut is printed in Siddur Otzar Ha-tefillot (296-297)which follows minhag Polin—as well as in many other siddurim that include all of the piyyutim. Despite the fact that minhag Polin forms the basis of the liturgy of most Ashkenazi synagogues, the yotzerot of Shabbat Hanukkah (as well as those of other special weeks such as Shabbat Bereishit) have disappeared from the vast majority of synagogues today that follow the Eastern European tradition and are still recited only in a handful of places.[2] Shnei Zeitim and the other yotzerot are more commonly recited today by synagogues that specifically follow the Western European traditions.[3]

While most of the yotzerot tend to be mumbled quickly—a reality that led many people to dislike them and eventually led most synagogues to drop them—Shnei Zeitim, to this day, is sung to a variety of beautiful melodies. Many of these tunes—from varying traditions—can be listened to on the Attar Ha-piyyut Ve-hatefillah website.[4] Interestingly, it is believed that the tune currently used for Maoz Tzur was originally used on Shabbat Hanukkah for Shnei Zeitim.

Here is a simple (but not exact) translation of the piyyut’s first stanza:[5]

Shnei Zeitim Nikhratim / Be-gan na’ul yatz’hiru: The “two olives trees”—king and high priest—are now severed, but they will once again be a source of light for the Jewish people;

Le-rosh kehati ve’efrati / sh’tei atarot yakhtiru: At this time, the king (efrati) and high priest (kehati) will both wear their respective crowns/headplates (these are the two atarot);[6]

Ve-al menorah ha-tehorah / ke-mo nerot yazhiru: And they will face the menorah and shine upon the Jewish nation (likened to the menorah) like candles;

Hen be-mahaneh el mul pe-nei ha-menorah ya’iru: Within the camp, they will shine toward the middle of the menorah.

At first glance, the piyyut appears obscure. Why is it talking about olive trees, the king, and the high priest? The key to understanding the piyyut lies in the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah.

The haftarah presents, in its final verses, the prophet Zechariah’s striking vision of a menorah with olive trees on its two sides, just as we have in the piyyut:

There is a menorah [made entirely] of gold with its bowl on its top; its seven lamps are upon it, and there are seven ducts for [each of] the lamps on its top. There are two olive trees over it, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left. (Zechariah 4:2-3)

Zechariah inquires as to the symbolism of the menorah. At first, the angel acts surprised that he doesn’t know the answer and asks: “You don’t know?” to which Zechariah responds that he really does not. Then the angel invokes the famous phrase, “This is the word of God to Zerubbavel, saying, ‘Not through army and not through strength, but through My spirit’ said God” (Zechariah 4:6).

The haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah ends after just one more verse. Zechariah’s question remains unanswered. The explanation only comes in the verses that follow, which we do not actually read on Hanukkah. In a separate vision, Zechariah again asks, “What are these two olives, on the right of the menorah and on its left? What are the two clusters of olives that are next to the two golden presses, which are pouring golden [oil] from themselves?” (4:11-14). Now the angel finally explains, “These are the two anointed men who are standing by the Lord of all the land.”

As Radak and other commentators point out, the two “anointed men” in the time of Zechariah are Zerubbavel himself (scion of King David) and Joshua the high priest (from the family of Aaron).[7] Both the king and the high priest were anointed, and both are critical pillars in Zechariah’s prophecy of the future redemption. Just like the olives provide the oil to light the menorah, the king and the high priest provide “light” to the nation. In this hopeful vision of redemption, the menorah will be rekindled, and both the high priest and the king of Israel will rule again.

The prophecy was indeed fulfilled. The Second Temple was built, and for years, the kings and priests filled their roles. Yet in the aftermath of the story of Hanukkah, a different kind of leadership emerged. The Hasmoneans—a noted family of kohanim—took control of the political leadership of Jerusalem. Political leadership in Israel had traditionally been a task reserved solely for descendants of King David and the Tribe of Judah, to the exclusion of everyone else (including the kohanim). The extraordinary circumstances of the situation may have justified the Hasmoneans’ usurping of a role that was not designated for them. Nevertheless, once they were safely in power, it was expected that the political leadership would have been immediately transferred back to the descendants of King David. This did not occur.

Hatam Sofer explains that this is in fact the reason that Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi did not include a tractate on Hanukkah as part of the Mishnah. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi himself was a descendant of the Davidic Dynasty and was not in favor of the actions of the Hasmoneans. As kohanim—and not descendants of King David—they had no right to create a royal dynasty. They should have focused on their own unique roles without overstepping their boundaries.[8]

Ramban, when discussing the verse “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Genesis 49:10), explains that the usurping of the role of political leadership is what led to the downfall of the Hasmoneans. Despite the fact that they were righteous, and it is only thanks to them that the Torah was not forgotten by the Jewish people, they were punished severely. All four Hasmonean sons who ruled one after the other died by the sword of the enemies, and their descendants were lost as well. Ramban adds that the fact that they were kohanim made their sin graver, since they should have focused on their particular method of religious service rather than ruling over the nation.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes this one step further. In his commentary (as found in the Koren Sacks Siddur) to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:13) about the three separate crowns of Torah, priesthood, and kingship, he writes that the crowns represent “the Judaic principle of the separation of powers. Kingship is the crown of government; priesthood, the crown of religious worship; and Torah is the crown of Jewish study and education.” He explains that “the Sages were critical of the Hasmonean kings, some of whom appointed themselves as high priests, thus breaching the separation of the crowns of kingship and priesthood.” Religious leadership is in the hands of the priests, and the political leadership belongs to the king.

Perhaps this insight about the separation of powers is implicit in Zechariah’s vision as well. In it, the priest and king are on separate sides of the menorah. Zechariah’s vision suggests that each will serve in their defined roles, not breaching any boundaries. However, the role of the Hasmoneans in the aftermath of the Hanukkah story was not consistent with this ideal.[9]

If Zechariah’s vision indeed drops hints about the separation of powers, that makes it particularly appropriate to recall on Hanukkah when we commemorate the Hasmoneans. But the haftarah ends before the meaning of the two olive trees is revealed, cut off right before the complete answer to Zechariah’s question. One might suggest that this is intentional, so as not to put a negative spin on the miracle of Hanukkah which lacked this critical element of Jewish leadership (separation of powers) that the two olive trees represented. By ending with the stirring phrase “‘Not through army and not through strength, but through My spirit’ said God,” the haftarah celebrates the restoration of the Temple brought about by God. The focus is not on our earthly role, but on God’s spirit.

Instead, the piyyut of Shnei Zeitim comes to make Zechariah’s point about the separation of powers that the haftarah omits. In at least three distinct places it acknowledges the critical place of both separate forms of leadership as part of the prayer for the future redemption.

Immediately in the first stanza, the piyyut alludes to the redemption promised in Zechariah’s prophecy: Shnei zeitim nikhratim / be-gan na’ul yatz’hiru: The “two olives trees”—the king and high priest—are now severed but will once again be a source of light for the Jewish people. It then notes that this redemption involves two separate crowns (for the king and priest): Le-rosh kehati ve’efrati / sh’tei atarot yakhtiru: At this time, the king (efrati) and high priest (kehati) will don two distinct (i.e., only their respective) crowns/headplates.

The third stanza, similarly, argues for the restoration of the two key roles of priesthood and kingship. Two of its lines read as follows:

Ve-hagevirah ve-hatzefirah / be-rosh David / te-simenah;

U-mitznefet me-ulefet / be-rosh Aharon /te-kimenah.

It begs for the crowns/hats to be placed on “Rosh David” (the head of David, i.e., the king) and “Rosh Aharon” (the head of Aaron, i.e., the priest). We are pleading for both, as there cannot be a proper redemption without the return of both distinct roles.[10]

Finally, each stanza of the piyyut concludes with a powerful refrain: Hen be-mahaneh el mul pe-nei ha-menorah ya’iru: the two olive trees will spread their light toward the front of the menorah. This line alludes to the second verse in Parashat Be-ha’alotekha, which states: El mul pe-nei ha-menorah ya’iru shiv’at ha-nerot (toward the center of the menorah, the seven candles shall shine). Yet rather than the candles facing the rest of the menorah as in the pasuk, the piyyut speaks of the “olives trees” (king and high priest) facing the “menorah” (the Jewish nation). The imagery of the menorah is indeed fitting for the Jewish people since, like the menorah, we are a mikshah ahat, a single unit, but with many branches. The payyetan points out that these two “olive trees,” the king and the high priest, will “light” the entire nation and will serve as a unifying force even though they are each on their respective branches.

The piyyut of Shnei Zeitim, with its extensive focus on both the priesthood and the kingship as separate components in the leadership of the Jewish nation, thus subtly acknowledges the failure of the Hasmoneans to adhere to the separation of powers. The piyyut directly builds upon the imagery of the “two olive trees” described in Zechariah, which portrays the king and priest on the two separate sides of the menorah. It then describes the fallen state of these two leaders today and presents a vision of a future in which these two key leaders each observe their unique roles.

In this way, the piyyut complements the haftarah. After reciting the piyyut, congregants would know exactly what the two olive trees in Zechariah signify, even though the haftarah ends before the matter is addressed. And they now know that by observing the separation of powers, the next redemption can in fact be even more complete than the one in the days of Hanukkah.

The piyyut’s optimism is particularly appropriate to Shabbat Hanukkah. In the darkness of exile with the Temple in ruins, the lights of Hanukkah are not shining at their fullest. When the congregation is about to recite the blessing over the lights, yotzer ha-me’orot, it feels devoid of the true lights of Hanukkah. Solomon ibn Gabirol felt that the darkness must be addressed. The piyyut begins by describing the two olive trees, or Shnei Zeitim, signifying the priesthood and kingship as nikhratim—severed—but then offers that they will once again shine in their unique ways. The priests will once again serve, and the kings will yet reign. What is meant to remain separate will indeed remain separate, and in this manner, both can flourish. In its prayer for redemption, the piyyut promises hope.

[1] When referring to “Shabbat Hanukkah” in this article, in a case where the first day of Hanukkah is Shabbat and there are two shabbatot on Hanukkah, we are always referring to the first one. The second Shabbat has a different haftarah and piyyutim, and this is beyond the scope of this article.

[2] There are just a handful of places that I am aware of where the authentic minhag Polin, including the recitation of yotzerot throughout the year, is practiced. One such place is the Kazinczy Shul in Budapest. Another is GGBH (Munk’s) in Golders Green, London.

[3] For example, the piyyut is recited by K’hal Adath Jeshurun (Breuer’s) in Washington Heights, New York, K’hal Adas Yeshurun in Jerusalem, and Beis haKnesses k’Minhag Ashkenaz in Bnei Brak.

[4] In addition, a rendition of Shnei Zeitim—or “Les Deux Oliviers,” as it is known in French—is available on the website of the Alsace Lorraine Jewish community in the Strasburg tune as it is sung today (with background and translation in French).

[5] For a line-by-line English translation of the piyyut, see Feldheim’s Piyyutim Le-shabbatot Ha-shana Le-fi Minhag Ashkenaz. For a more conceptual explanation in Hebrew, which also includes the relevant background midrashim, see Moshe Rosenwasser’s book “Ha-shir Vehashevah” (which provides an excellent line-by-line explanation of the piyyutim). The explanations in this article borrow from both, as well as from other sources.

[6] The term kehati relates to Aharon who is a descendant of Kehat. Efrati relates to King David as seen in 1 Samuel 17:12.

[7] Based on the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:16), commentators express that since oil does not have children, the words “eleh shnei be-nei ha-yitzhar” (these are the two anointed men) in the verse must be referring to those who were anointed by oil and are thus like its children. The verse is thus referring to Aharon (and the family of kohanim) and to David (and the family of the kings).

[8] See Ta’amei Ha-Minhagim U-Mekorei Ha-Dinim, 847. 

[9] The same midrash that explained that be-nei ha-yitzhar referred to those anointed by oil brings an interesting twist to the word “yitzhar” (oil). It points out that Korah, whose father’s name was also Yitzhar, used that term to “prove” his supremacy. Just as oil always rises on top, Korah, the “true” son of Yitzhar, thought he should be on top. What is particularly noteworthy in the Midrash, however, is its emphasis on the fact that Korah aimed to serve two distinct roles, that of a priest and that of a king. He was the first to break the tradition of “separation of powers” that began with Moshe (the “King”) and Aharon (the “Priest”) accepting two separate and clearly defined roles. If so, the sin committed by the Hasmoneans of overstepping roles can be compared to the sin of Korah, one of the most divisive figures in the Torah.

[10] Interestingly, however, just days before this article was published, another article on this same piyyut was published on the Seforim Blog. It provides an interesting read of the piyyut, but comes to the opposite conclusion on this specific issue. The author of that article explains: “they will be crowned with 2 (royal) wreaths, but the sense is of combined authority uniting the priesthood and kingship. Note how this unity is presented as the ultimate achievement of the Maccabees, unlike in classical rabbinic thought where the priestly Maccabees were criticized for (also) usurping kingship.” I respectfully disagree with that reading. If that were the case, the piyyut (and the haftarah) would not be discussing “two olive trees” but one. It would say that a single olive tree (i.e., leader) would don two crowns. Instead, it says that the two trees (the kings and priests) will don two crowns. The piyyut also specifically points out that one hat/crown will be placed on David and the other on Aharon. Each leader has its distinct role and only then can they shine together in unity toward the center of the menorah.

Yitz Szyf is a musmakh of RIETS (Yeshiva University) and holds graduate degrees in both Modern Jewish History and International Relations. He lives in Maryland and works as an economist in Washington, D.C. He has visited and served Jewish communities around the world and has a particular interest in bringing new life to liturgy and traditions that have been forgotten in recent generations. You can find out more at his site: You can also contact him at with any comments or questions.