Yatziv Pitgam: Poetry as Talmud Commentary

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Tzvi Novick

Piyyutim (liturgical poems) have a well-deserved reputation for being hard to understand. Modern editions of piyyutim are accompanied by commentaries that proceed phrase by phrase in the style of Rashi on the gemara to aid the reader in the act of deciphering. They explain the meaning of obscure words, and they identify the biblical and rabbinic texts to which the paytan (liturgical poet) appears to be alluding. But when commentary proceeds phrase by phrase, it often loses a sense of the whole, in two interrelated senses. First, many piyyutim, like the poems familiar to us from the English canon, are marked by thematic and aesthetic coherences that close reading can bring to light. Second, the allusions in a piyyut can sometimes reveal a programmatic intent. The paytan, in such cases, does not grab randomly at this biblical passage or that rabbinic remark: his choices are governed by an underlying logic that contributes to the meaning of the piyyut.

Below I offer a holistic reading of yatziv pitgam, an Aramaic piyyut written by the fiery 12th century northern French Tosafist, Jacob son of Meir, better known as Rabbenu Tam.[1] At this time and place, there were two occasions in the liturgical calendar, the seventh day of Passover and the second day of Shavuot, when the reading of the haftarah in the synagogue was accompanied by the recitation of the corresponding section from targum Yonatan, the Aramaic rendering of the Prophets attributed to a certain Jonathan son of Uzziel. Paytanim of the period composed introductory poems (reshuyot, or “permissions”) as prefaces to the reading from targum Yonatan.[2] Rabbenu Tam appears to have written yatziv pitgam for the second day of Shavuot. (Today, we no longer publicly recite targum Yonatan at all, but the liturgy retains Rabbenu Tam’s introductory reshut.) What I will argue below is that we cannot appreciate the meaning of this piyyut until we realize that it is a literary reflection on a sugya in Bavli Megillah 28b-29a.

I begin by describing the formal constraints of the piyyut; readers less interested in such technical details can skip to the next paragraph. The first letters of each line, until the final four lines, form an acrostic of the author’s name, ya‘aqov be-rabi me’ir. Every line ends in the same rhyming syllable, -rin. Every line is also subject to the same metrical constraint: the line divides into two halves, where each half has four “feet,” or sequences of syllables determined by vowel length: short-long, long-long, short-long, long-long.[3] (This meter may be familiar to readers from the zemer for Shabbat composed by Dunash ben Labrat, deror yiqra’.) In the first half of each line, the second and fourth feet rhyme. Because all of the lines are formally identical to each other, the poem is not, from a formal perspective, strophic, i.e., the lines do not group into distinct stanzas. In fact, however, the piyyut “thinks” in two-line couplets.[4]

As a prelude to my analysis of the piyyut, I offer the following translation. It seeks to convey the poem’s sense and rhythm; I make no attempt to preserve the rhyme.[5] The original Aramaic text is appended to this article.

  1. Firm is the word / of the Sign and Mark // among myriad myriads of Watchers.[6]
  2. Where does He dwell? / Amid the numbers // that hew four mountains.

  3. In front of Him, / into its basins, // a river of fires extends and streams.
  4. On a mountain of snow / is a flaming light // and flashes of fire and torches.

  5. He made and saw / what is in the dark, // for with Him lights reside.
  6. He spies things distant / without forgetting,[7] // and to Him are revealed hidden things.

  7. I seek from Him / His leave, // and after Him, of these men,
  8. Who know law / and Mishnah, // and Tosefta, Sifra, and Sifre.

  9. May the King who lives / forever and ever // bestow fruit on the people that seek him.[8]
  10. It is said of them, / they will be as sand, // and innumerable be like the dusts.

  11. White as sheep / may their dales become; // may their presses drip with wines!
  12. Grant their desire, / and brighten their faces; // Let them shine like the light of mornings!

  13. And to me give strength, / and raise Your eyes: // See the enemies that deny You!
  14. May they be as straw / inside a brick; // may they be silent as stone, ashamed.[9]

  15. When I arise / and I translate // with the words of the choicest of scribes,
  16. Jonathan, / that most humble man, // we thus render him graces.

The basic structure of the poem is clear enough. Lines 1-6 praise God. Lines 7-8, at the center of the poem, represent its effective essence: the speaker seeks leave from God and from the sages to speak. Having transitioned from God to the sages of Israel, the poem, in lines 9-12, offers a prayer for the redemption of Israel. The last four lines, which exceed the name acrostic, represent something of a postscript: the first-person perspective of the speaker figures prominently as he first calls on God to take note of those who reject God, and then describes his own task, namely, conveying the words of targum Yonatan.

A more profound appreciation for how the piyyut works demands attentiveness to its sources, for every line, indeed almost every word, alludes to other texts. The first words present us immediately with a mystery: what is the “firm word” with which the poem begins, and where does this term come from? I have found only one other occurrence of the term, in targum Yonatan to Jeremiah 46:18.[10] The verse is part of an oracle foretelling the fall of Egypt: “As surely as Tabor is among the mountains and Carmel is by the sea, so shall this come to pass (יבוא).” Targum Yonatan reads: “Just as the word is firm (יציב פתגמא) that Tabor is among the mountains, etc.” Line 1 evidently alludes to this passage.

But what drew Rabbenu Tam to the targum to Jeremiah 46:18? The explanation lies in the interpretation given to Jeremiah 46:18 in Megillah 29a. The Bavli takes the verb יבוא in the verse as describing the action of Carmel and Tabor: these mountains came to Sinai from elsewhere in the world to witness the giving of the Torah, and as reward, God fixed them in the land of Israel. By the same logic, says the Talmud, the synagogues and academies of Babylonia, great sources of Torah learning, will be transplanted to Israel in the future. With the first two words of the piyyut, then, Rabbenu Tam implicitly celebrates the sages of his own community, and the redemptive power of their Torah study.

This celebration emerges explicitly, and takes on an especially bold cast, in the continuation of the first couplet. Line 1 speaks of God as surrounded by the “Watchers,” a class of angels: there are thousands upon thousands of them, yet God is the “Sign and Mark,” distinguishable from them. The second line begins by asking: “Where does He dwell?” In answer, we are told that God dwells in the numbers of those who: פסלין ארבעה טורין. Yonah Fraenkel, a great scholar of midrash and piyyut, translates these words as: “render four mountains invalid.” He sees in these words an allusion to the targum to Psalm 68:16-18, which tells of various mountains (טורין) that sought to be the ones on whom the Torah was given, but were disqualified (איתפסילו) by God because of their height. On this approach, line 2 of the piyyut more or less repeats line 1: line 1 describes God’s angelic retinue, and line 2 says that God dwells among the angels who invalidated four mountains.

It is possible that Rabbenu Tam did mean to allude to this targumic tradition. A version of the same tradition appears in Megillah 29a, immediately after the aforementioned comment on Jeremiah 46:18. But I think that Fraenkel’s reading represents, at best, only a secondary sense and not the chief intention of the line, because it suffers from two problems. First, it is God in the targum—or a voice from heaven (bat kol) in the Bavli’s version—that invalidates the mountains; neither version refers to angels. Second, neither the targum nor the parallel tradition in Megillah 29a specifies the number of invalidated mountains.

The second line in fact alludes most immediately to a story that appears earlier in the same sugya, in Megillah 28b. According to this story, the amora Resh Lakish, when traveling along the way, finds his path blocked by a pool of water. A man puts Resh Lakish on his shoulders to traverse the pool. While crossing, Resh Lakish inquires of the man’s Jewish literacy, and discovers that he is well-versed in the Bible and has studied four orders from the Mishnah. At this, Resh Lakish exclaims: “You have hewn four mountains (פסלת ארבעה טורי), and you bear the son of Lakish on your shoulder? Cast the son of Lakish into the water!” (The man declines to do so.) In alluding to this story, the second line of the piyyut means to say that God resides among the sages, who study Torah. Line 2, then, does not parallel line 1, but daringly qualifies it: yes, God is accompanied by His angels, but God’s true dwelling place is among Israel, and in particular, in the synagogues and academies where Torah is studied.[11]

The sugya in Megillah 28a-29a celebrates the synagogue as a place not only of prayer but also and even especially of Torah study.[12] It insists that the synagogue and the academy are the very dwelling places of God: little temples sanctified by the Torah study that occurs in them. I have noted two allusions in the first two lines of yatziv pitgam to this sugya, and there is probably yet a third allusion to it, more delicate but distinctly audible, in the same couplet (for which see the footnote).[13] The poem returns again to the same sugya, for a fourth time, in lines 7-8, when it characterizes the sages whose license the speaker seeks as those “who know law and Mishnah, and Tosefta, Sifra, and Sifre.” This characterization comes from Megillah 28b, which tells the story of the death of and eulogy for “one who had studied law and Sifra and Sifre and Tosefta.”

Through its sustained engagement with the sugya, the poem elevates students of Torah—and the people Israel as a whole, insofar as they are led by the sages—above the angels, and makes them second only to God. Their proximity to God emerges explicitly in line 7: the speaker requests the permission, first of God, then of the sages. This relationship is reinforced implicitly through the similarities between the description of God’s throne room in lines 3-4, and Israel’s reward in lines 11-12. Lines 3 and 4 depend heavily on the eschatological vision in Daniel 7:10 (“A river of fire streamed forth before Him”) and 7:9 (“His garment was white like snow … His throne was tongues of flame”), respectively.[14] In lines 11-12, the piyyut envisions a future of plenty for Israel. Line 11 is nearly a direct quotation of the targum to Genesis 49:12, from God’s blessing to Judah (“His mountains will grow red with his vineyards; his presses will drip with wine; his valley will become white with grain and his flocks of sheep”), while line 12 introduces a simile that targum Yonatan uses (at 2 Samuel 23:4; Amos 4:12) for the reward of the righteous, “like the light of morning” (כנהור צפרא). What logic underlies Rabbenu Tam’s choices here? I think it likely that we are meant to see lines 11-12 as echoes of lines 3-4. Israel’s land will be white, like God’s snowy mountain, and both will shine with light. Unstated elements from the verses to which the poem alludes generate additional bridges: the mountains of the targum to Genesis 49:12 (“His mountains will grow red with his vineyards”) recall God’s mountain in line 4 (“a mountain of snow”), and the sheep of line 11 (“White as sheep / may their dales become”) are anticipated by Daniel 7:9, which depicts God’s hair as white like clean wool.

The notion of composing a poem about a sugya might seem distinctively modern, a novel way of making meaning from the Bavli. And yet Rabbenu Tam did something very much like this in yatziv pitgam. Megillah 28b-29a is woven through yatziv pitgam, and through this sugya, the poem gives expression to the redemptive power of Torah study, and especially Torah study in the synagogue. The very recitation of yatziv pitgam and the targum in the synagogue represents a performative realization of the power of Torah study. Through such study, the assemblies of Israel become God’s home, and in the future, through study again, the land of Israel will be transformed into something like the divine throne room. The piyyut is thus a fitting paean indeed for Shavuot, the day on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah.

יַצִּיב פִּתְגָם לְאָת וּדְגָם בְּרִבּוֹ רִבְוָון עִירִין

עֲנֵה אָנָא בְּמִנְיָנָא דְּפָסְלִין אַרְבְּעָה טוּרִין


קֳדָמוֹהִי לְגוּמּוֹהִי נְגֵיד וּנְפֵיק נְהַר דְנוּרִין

בְּטוּר תַּלְגָּא נְהוֹר שְׁרַגָא וְזִיקִין דִּנוּר וּבָעוֹרִין


בְּרָא וּסְכָא, מַה בַּחֲשׁוֹכָא וְעִימֵּיהּ שָׁרְיַין נְהוֹרִין

רְחִיקִין צְפָא בְּלָא שִׁטְפָּא וּגְלַיִין לֵיהּ דְּמִיטַּמְרִין


בְּעֵית מִינֵּיהּ יָת הוּרְמָנֵיהּ וּבָתְרוֹהִי עֲדֵי גּוּבְרִין

יָדְעֵי הִילְכְתָא וּמַתְנִיתָא וְתוֹסֶפְתָּא סִפְרָא וְסִפְרִין


מְלַךְ חַיָּיא לְעָלְמַיָּיא יְמַגַּד עַם לֵיהּ מְשַׁחַרִין

אֲמִיר עֲלֵיהוֹן כְּחֹלָא יְהוֹן וְלָא יִתְמְנוֹן הֵיךְ עַפְרִין


יְחַוְּורוּן כְּעַן לְהוֹן בִּקְעָן יְטוּפוּן נַעֲוֵוי חַמְרִין

רְעוּתְהוֹן הַב וְאַפֵּיהוֹן צַהֵב יְנַהַרוּן כִּנְהוֹר צַפְרִין


וְלִי הַב תְּקוֹף וְעֵינָךְ זְקוּף חֲזִי עָרָךְ דְּבָךְ כַּפְרִין

יְהוֹן כְּתִבְנָא בְּגוֹ לִיבְנָא כְּאַבְנָא יִשְׁתְּקוּן חָפְרִין


כְּקָאֵימְנָא וְתַרְגֵימְנָא בְּמִלּוֹי דִּבְחִיר סַפְרִין

יְהוֹנָתָן גְּבַר עִינְוְותָן בְּכֵן לֵיהּ נַמְטִין אַפְרִין

[1] On the poetic oeuvre of Rabbenu Tam see Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013), 393-95. For the poems themselves see Isaac Meiseles, ed., Shirat Rabbenu Tam: The Poems of Rabbi Jacob ben Rabbi Meir (Jerusalem: Leshon Limudim, 2012).

[2] In the world of the Geonim, the recitation of targum Yonatan on the haftarah was more prevalent, and reshuyot composed for it did not specify a particular liturgical occasion, but were evidently meant to be used on any occasion when targum Yonatan was recited. See Michael Klein, “Introductory Poems (R’shuyot) to the Targum of the Hafṭarah in Praise of Jonathan ben Uzziel,” in Avigdor Shinan et al., Michael Klein on the Targums: Collected Essays 1972-2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 167-76; Peter Sh. Lehnardt, “The Role of Targum Samuel in European Jewish Liturgy,” in Alberdina Houtman et al., A Jewish Targum in a Christian World (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 44-51.

[3] To state the rule in a somewhat oversimplified form: a “short” vowel is a shewa or a reduced vowel, while a “long” vowel is any other vowel. There are exceptions to this metrical pattern throughout yatziv pitgam, including in the very first syllable, which has a long vowel rather than the expected short vowel. Another poem by Rabbenu Tam composed in the same meter, and with similar rhyming constraints, is the selihah, שמך אירא (poem 18 in Meiseles’ edition). The system of metrical constraints for Hebrew poetry arose in medieval Spain, and achieved a certain limited popularity in Ashkenaz in the 11th century forward.

[4] The formal constraints of yatziv pitgam resemble in part those of another Aramaic piyyut, an alphabetical acrostic published in Rimon Kasher, Targumic Toseftot to the Prophets (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1996) (and intended as a preface for the haftarah for the first day of Passover?), אגברא חסינא. I have not had the opportunity to study this piyyut closely, but accessed it only through the online Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon. The rhyme scheme is the same as that in yatziv pitgam, and the two piyyutim even share the same terminal rhyming syllable, -rin. There are also verbal overlaps, especially in the gimel and yod lines. Note in particular the yod line: יציבא ממריה דברומה מדוריה בגו נור ביעורין “Firm is the word of Him who dwells on high in the midst of fire of torches,” recalling lines 1 and 4 of yatziv pitgam.

[5] Unless otherwise indicated, I depend on the Aramaic text provided in Yonah Fraenkel’s Mahzor Shavuot (Jerusalem: Koren, 2000), 570-72.

[6] “Sign” and “Mark” are references to God, drawn from Deuteronomy 33:2 and Song of Songs 5:10, as interpreted in Hagigah 16a.

[7] Or: unhurriedly. For the root shataf in the sense of forgetting see Genesis Rabbah 81.

[8] I translate here a variant reading: ימגד … ליה, rather than ימגר … להון.

[9] For “silent as a stone” see targum Onkelos to Exodus 15:16.

[10] But see n. 4 above.

[11] Note should be taken in this context of a reshut for Shavuot written by Rabbenu Tam’s student, R. Yom Tov b. Isaac of Joigny. In this piyyut (published in Fraenkel’s Mahzor Shavuot, 573-75), the student borrows from his teacher the phrase פסלין ארבעה טורין, but rearranges it to so that טורין can appear at the beginning of the line (line 10), and the initial letter tet can serve in the name acrostic. In R. Yom Tov’s poem, the phrase clearly refers to sages, not angels. R. Yom Tov seems to borrow two other elements of his name acrostic from yatziv pitgam: the very first word, יציב (but filtered through an allusion to Daniel 7:16), and בעי “I seek” in line 16, taken from בעית “I sought” in line 7 of yatziv pitgam.

[12] The foundation of this sugya is a baraita quoted on 28a-b (and paralleled in Tosefta Megillah 2:18), which prohibits certain behaviors in the synagogue, like entering it for the sake of shelter from rain, but ends with a license: “But one studies Torah and Mishnah in them.” Reflecting on this baraita, the Bavli and even more so the Yerushalmi (Megillah 3:3 [77a]) transform this license into an exhortation: the synagogue is in fact the proper place for study, and thus for the sages. In the Yerushalmi, R. Joshua b. Levi goes so far as to say: “Synagogues and academies are for the sages and their students.” The reception of the baraita in the Talmuds presumably reflects the expansion of the rabbinic movement in the amoraic period and its greater influence in places of public assembly.

[13] In line 2, the word ענה “He dwells” probably derives, as Fraenkel notes in his commentary, from the word מעון “dwelling.” Why did Rabbenu Tam choose this word? In Megillah 29a, just before the exegesis of Jeremiah 46:18, the gemara cites Rava’s and Abbaye’s interpretations of the instances of the word מעון in Psalm 90:1 and Psalm 26:8 as references to the synagogues and academies in which God dwell. I venture that ענה in line 2 depends on this passage.

[14] Daniel 7:9 is also the immediate source of the “myriad myriads” in line 1. In adverting to Daniel 7, Rabbenu Tam draws on an ancient tradition of liturgical engagement with the mysteries of the divine throne. One notable deviation from Daniel is that, while Daniel 7:9 describes God’s garment as white as snow, the piyyut speaks of a “mountain of snow,” probably to echo the mountains hewn by the sages in line 2. The phrase “mountain of snow” is drawn from rabbinic literature, wherein it refers to Mt. Hermon. See, e.g., Sifre Numbers 131.

Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic Judaism and on Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) from late antiquity.