Wake Up Sleeping One! Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Dramatic Use of Genre and Narrative Voice in the High Holidays’ Most Resounding Call to Action

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Yaakov Jaffe

This essay is the third in a series of essays on the Liturgical Poetry of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi, the 12th-century poet of Muslim Spain. The first two essays in the series appear here and here.

Yehudah Ha-Levi’s liturgical poem for selihot, “Yashen, Al Teradam,” “sleeping one, do not slumber,” is generally recited as part of the liturgy only in a subsection of Sephardic communities, but its distinct tone, emotional power, and command of poetic technique makes it a worthwhile piece for all Jews to study. Written in 12th century Spain, this piece of liturgy captures the modern rhythms and patterns of the High Holiday season, which echo remarkably to our practice today. Familiar descriptions of situations and citations from the liturgy occur throughout the poem, which has a mere six stanzas or verses, each with ten rhyming six-syllable lines.[1]

This essay will pay close attention to the distinct narrative voice this poem takes and the genre to which it belongs, using as a starting point the opening words, which can simultaneously be read literally, as a metaphor, and as an allusion. After a consideration of the poem’s more basic elements and narrative, we turn to the ways the poet uses Biblical allusions to direct the reader to consider his or her self as being in a particular situation or position (the literary technique known as reader positioning), or to shift the attention of the reader in many directions, stimulating and invoking specific feelings and emotions on the part of the reader.

Literal Reading: Call to Prayer

Taken literally, the opening words “sleeping one, do not slumber”[2] serve as a call to prayer, calling upon the addressee, subject, or audience of the poem to wake up in the middle of the night to recite the selihot. Though less prevalent in the United States today, it is a long-standing custom of Diaspora Jewry to awaken in the middle of the night, before dawn, to recite the selihot, and so the addressee, or audience, is asked to wake up, and not sleep deeply, to go out and pray.[3]

An expert poet, Yehudah Ha-Levi includes both explicit and implicit references to the nighttime setting throughout the poem. The first and second verses speak about the stars, comets, and planets, which are visible only at night. Thus, even if the reader recites the prayer during the day, the references to seeing the stars cause the reader to enter the mindset or position of the imagined audience who hears or recites the poem at night.

Like the opening words, the entire poem is in second person (either in the indicative, jussive, or the formal imperative), addressing the reader or listener through imperative, hortatory admonishments. This is an uncommon genre or narrative voice within our prayers, most of which are either written in the first person (where the supplicant speaks about his or her self), or in the third person (where the supplicant speaks about God). Prayers in second person tend to take the perspective of a speaker/petitioner addressing God directly; they almost never speak from the perspective of the hidden or unknown author addressing the reader.

The third of the six stanzas provides the most accessible example of a second person command to the reader, while capturing going out at night to pray: “And go out in the middle of the nights,/ in the footsteps of the famous ones [the sages] [4]/ Who have praises in their mouths/ and inside them there is no deceit or trickery[5]/ their nights are prayers/ and their days are fasting.”[6] It is the High Holiday season, and so the audience must arise for prayer and fasting to prepare.

The stanza continues with a description of the process of repentance and reconnection at this time of year: “In their hearts are paths to God/ and in His throne are places for them[7]/ in their path a ladder[8] to go up/ to Hashem your God.”[9] The last line references Hebrew words that appear twice in the liturgy, in the Haftarah of the Shabbat before Yom Kippur (Hosea 14:2), and the Torah reading of the week before Rosh Hashanah (Deuteronomy 30:2), another example of how the High Holiday echoes in this prayer are consistent with the High Holiday experience today.

Setting the song at night achieves two purposes. We have already addressed how, on a practical level, nighttime causes the audience to arise and end slumber. On a deeper level, setting the poem at night reveals the vastness of the stars and cosmos, more visible at night than during the day, highlighting the smallness of humanity compared to the Creator. The theme of the smallness of humanity is returned to in the second verse “Rise to see His Heavens/and that which His Fingers crafted,[10]/ and see His vaulted tent/ which is hanging by His Arms/ The stars which are His signet,/ the embossment of His ring,/ and fear His awe,/ and pine for His salvation[11]/ Lest the time come when you become high/ And your heart will become high in your arrogance.”[12] And again in the fifth verse “Poor ones [humanity], the dust is their foundation,[13]/ from whence is wisdom/ And humanity is greater/ than animal naught[14]/ But only in seeing their honored Rock/ an emotional ‘seeing’ and not with eyes[15]/ And to find the springs of their secrets/ which are better than wine[16]/ for in that way O Flesh and Blood/ You will find your God.”[17] Even in daylight, the reader can see the stars, appreciate the vastness of the cosmos at night, and turn towards prayer.

Metaphorically: Sin as sleep

The opening hortatory imperative to arise and wake up is intended metaphorically as well, to wake up from the slumber of sin, and turn towards repentance. The sinner is unaware, but the repentant person is truly awake. Though the earlier stanzas of the poem speak more generally about awakening and realizing God’s greatness and grandeur, the penultimate verse focuses more specifically on the process of recanting sin and provides a recipe for repentance based upon the Talmudic teaching of Rebbi Yitzchak (Rosh Hashanah 16b). Rebbi Yitzchak taught that four things (later summarized into three things in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer) can rip the bad decree: charity, prayer, change of name, and change of action.

Though the order is changed, Yehudah Ha-Levi advises that the repentant embrace the same four things: “Your eyes should flow tears/ and you should regret your sins [=repentance, change of action],/ And pray opposite your Creator [=prayer]/ and do not copy the wicked[18]/ and lower your pride greatly [=change of name/reputation]/ and take the good[19] for it is pleasant[20],/ Honor God from your wealth [=charity][21]/ until such time that the saviors rise[22]/ And they will raise their voice your multitude[23]/ Prepare to meet your God!”[24]

We are told to awaken from the slumber of sin, to contemplate the contrast between the smallness of humanity and the vastness of the Almighty, and then be driven to change our ways and turn to charity to refashion ourselves at this time of year.

As an Allusion: The Story of Jonah

The hallmark of a great poet is the ability to use one short line to convey three different things. In this vein, the initial words of the song function not just as a literal call to the sleeping Jew to wake up and pray, and not just as a metaphorical call to repentance, but also as an allusion to one of the more prominent stories of repentance in the Jewish tradition, the story of Jonah, read each year on Yom Kippur since the times of the Talmud (Megillah 31a).

In the story of Jonah, the stormy ocean waters were ready to break the ship the prophet had embarked upon, and all the sailors respond by entreating their false gods for salvation. At that time, Jonah is sleeping in the lower deck of the ship, and is awoken by the captain with the words “Why are you slumbering? Get up and call out to your God!” These words are directly quoted in the last line of the first stanza of the poem, and are echoed by the first line.

By speaking to the reader with the same words that the captain had spoken to Jonah, the poem instantly positions the reader in exactly the same situation as the prophet Jonah to dramatic effect. Jonah is a sinner, hiding from God, and the reader instantly feels as a sinner hiding from God as well. Jonah was sleeping at a time he should have engaged in prayer, and the addressee is likely also fighting off sleep at a time of prayer. And thus, just as Jonah had the choice to repent or to face disaster, so too the reader also must wake up, in both ways, or face the disaster of an unfortunate judgment: “Sleeping one, do not slumber./ And forsake your follies[25]/ Make human ways far [from you]/ And see[26] the ways of the one higher than you/ And run to serve an eternal rock[27]/ like the running of the stars of your brightness/ Enough! ‘Why are you slumbering?/ Get up and Call out to your God!’”

This initial verse invokes all of the themes and ideas that will recur later in the song: physically running towards the prayer house while watching the stars at night, focusing on repentance, and forsaking the follies of humanity, and appreciating the eternity, strength, and greatness of the Almighty, in contrast to lowly humanity. Even if the reader is personally content, being positioned as the Jonah figure causes the reader to see his or her self as the sleeping sinner, motivating a turn towards prayer and repentance.

Upwards and Downwards

The reader or audience of the poem is also asked to shift the direction of his or her attention throughout the poem, through references both to things above and to things below. Indeed, the addressee is asked in virtually every verse to first look up and then to look down, or the reverse. In the first two verses the reader is asked to look up and then down: Verse #1 first asks the reader to “see the ways of the one higher than you,” and invokes the stars, but then ends with the allusion to Jonah in the lower-quarters of the boat; verse #2 begins with a lengthy description of looking at the heavens and stars but ends by asking the reader to lower his or herself lest they become arrogant or high-spirited. In the next three verses, the reader begins on earth or looking down, and is then asked to move up: Verse #3 begins on Earth with the famous people going to pray, but then directs the addressee towards the ladder and paths up to God; verse #4 begins with the tears running down and the addressee lowering his or her arrogance, but ends with the raised voice; and verse #5 begins with a reference to dust but ends by speaking about seeing their Rock above.

In the earlier verses the reader is asked to shift attention once per verse. The effect is even more dramatic in the final verse. The central lines read “Stand for His judgment[28] and live/and leave rebellion and treachery”; here the addressee is asked to stand, physically rising from a sitting (or sleeping) position.

The first four lines of the verse describe God, again using references to both up and down “Hashem,[29] ‘I will be that I will be’[30]/ Who did all that He Wished/ ‘Who kills and gives life/lowers to the underworld and raises,’” and uses yet another prominent quotation (I Samuel 2:6) from the High Holiday liturgy, the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah since Talmudic times (Megillah 31a). Saying that God gives life and also death also serves a third purpose, to further encourage the reader to be shaken up and feel the urgency of repentance.

Somewhat slyly and ironically, the poet also engages in misdirection with these lines to further unsettle the reader. The reader is the addressee of the entire poem, although these lines at first glance seem to indicate a change in audience, where God, Himself, is addressed as the first words of a prayer. Yet, the following line (“stand for His judgment”) reveals to the reader that he or she is mistaken; the first lines are merely an appositive for the pronoun “His,” not the vocative for a new addressee. The focus of the song is not to address words of prayer to God; its purpose is to address words of admonishment to the reader to stand before God, effectively shifting the burden or onus of responsibility at times of repentance and prayer to what we can do for God, and not what God can do for us. Put differently, Yehudah Ha-Levi shifts the readers expectations to caution: we are still not yet standing before Him, and still not ready to issue a request.

The last four lines contain an even more dramatic reversal. For in a poem where the reader has been encouraged to look up and down, the poem concludes that we must forsake the treachery of “Saying when and where?/ And what is below and what is above”[31]/ Rather, “Perfect you shall be/ with Hashem your God.”[32] The poet has forced us to look up and then down the entire poem, and then indicates that if we truly want to begin to pray, we must stop looking up and down, and instead focus instead on improving the relationship with the Almighty. After forcing us to look up and down, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi tells us that it is precisely having done that thing, which now indicates our need to repent.

As we approach the High Holiday season, perhaps the greatest thing we need from our poets and prophets is to be shaken out of our zone of comfort and reminded of the need for introspection and change. The reader of this song can imagine Yehudah Ha-Levi coming to their home and shaking the reader up at midnight to wake up! The deft use of second person voice, the constant disorienting shift from up to down, and the reversals of the last paragraph serve to leave the reader unsettled, but thereby fully awake and ready to follow the 4-part counsel of the sages to repent and change his or her ways. After reading this selihah we walk away, if we might borrow from an English poet: “He went like one that hath been stunned, /And is of sense forlorn: /A sadder and a wiser man, /He rose the morrow morn.”

[1] Counting only the long vowels, not the Sheva-vowels or the Chataf-vowels.

The five odd lines in each verse rhyme with each other, as do the first four even lines. As we shall see, in the first (line 7-8), fifth (line 3-4), and sixth (line 3-4) stanzas, a single long Biblical quote spans two lines in both halves of the rhyme scheme and provides the words that will rhyme both with the odd column and with the even column of that verse. All three of these long quotes are Biblical citations which appear prominently in the High Holiday liturgy, and were clearly chosen intentionally by Yehudah Ha-Levi.

[2] Taking the root rdm as a deeper form of sleep, based on Pesakhim 120b, and elsewhere in the Talmud.

[3] The practice is mentioned in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon, written after the close of the Talmud but centuries before Yehudah Ha-Levi was born.

[4] Though in the Bible the phrase anshei sheimot refers to famous military figures (I Chronicles 5:24 and 12:31), it would seem from context that it refers to the sages.

[5] From Psalms 10:7.

[6] The practice of fasting during the ten days of repentance antedates Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi. See the collection of Geonic and early Post-Geonic responsa “Shaarei Teshuvah” 64. For the modern practice, see Orah Hayim 581:2.

[7] The syntax of these two lines are parallel in the Hebrew, beginning with a word with a dative prefix (lamed) indicating whom the subject is for, continuing to a word with a locative prefix (bet) indicating where the subject is found, and then concluding with the subjects, both beginning with mem: mesilot and mekomot (alliteration). The parallel syntax cements the sense of the relationship between these famous ones and God, who each have something ready nearby for the other, and thus even if the words are repurposed from Psalms 84:6, the poet’s restructuring of the syntax is amazingly original. The ideas of special paths to God and places for the righteous in God’s throne are found in Yoma 86a and Shabbat 152b.

[8] The modern translation of the word, even if not the Biblical translation. The use of a ladder in a poem set at night instantly also invokes the ladder of the Patriarch Jacob.

[9] The last line of each stanza is a quote, ending in “kha.” Each thus rhymes with the final word of each other stanza, but not with any of the previous 9 lines in that particular stanza.

[10] Psalms 8:4, adjusted to fit the meter and rhyme.

[11] Lamentations 3:26, another text that invokes the setting of nighttime, given the prominent references to night in the book.

[12] Ezekiel 31:10, adjusted to fit the rhyme. The entire chapter speaks of the great arrogance of Pharaoh, and his great destruction as a consequence. Ezekiel echoes the Biblical verse Deuteronomy 8:14, which predicts the arrogance of Israel as well.

[13] Based on Job 4:19; a description of humanity which also appears prominently in the High Holiday liturgy in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer.

[14] These two lines are one long quote from Ecclesiastes 3:19, which is the centerpiece of the confession in the Neilah service. Yehudah Ha-Levi deftly began his composition of this verse with this quote, which does double-duty, both servicing the theme of the poem and also serving as yet another echo for the liturgy of this time of year, and then rhymed all the odd lines in this verse with the first half of the quote (dam), and the even lines with the second half of the quote (ayin).

[15] Because of the incorporeality of God. See Kuzari, start of section 4.

[16] For more on the use of wine in Yehudah Ha-Levi’s poetry, see Yaakov Jaffe, “This 9th of Av: Do We Sing with Yehudah Ha-Levi, or on Account of Yehudah Ha-Levi?Lehrhaus, July 18, 2018.

[17] Genesis 31:32, although in that context referring to false gods.

[18] A direct quote from Psalms 37:1, although the meaning of this verse is unclear, see Rashi and Ibn Ezra.

[19] Yet another quote from the liturgy of the High Holiday period: Hosea 14:3.

[20] Psalms 135:3 and 147:1.

[21] Proverbs 3:19, see Kiddushin 32a.

[22] The final verse of Ovadiah (21), which is one of the verses of God’s kingship in the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah.

[23] A pun (hamonekha) with the earlier wealth (mehonekha).

[24] Amos 4:12, either to meet Him by fulfilling the literal meaning of the song and going to pray (as it was understood by Berakhot 23a), or meet Him in the metaphoric sense, by reaching Him in repentance.

[25] Based on Proverbs 26:18 but adapted to fit the key rhyme of the key final line. In this first verse there are only eight lines, with the odd ones rhyming with the first half of the key quote from Jonah, and the even ones rhyming with the end of the quote. Here too, Yehudah Ha-Levi deftly began his composition of this verse with this quote, which does double-duty, both servicing the theme of the poem and also serving as yet another echo for the liturgy of this time of year, and then rhymed all the odd lines in this verse with the first half of the quote (dam), and the even lines with the second half of the quote (ekhah).

[26] The word shur is a rare verb meaning to look at or see in Biblical Hebrew.

[27] These words carry philosophical resonance, that God is eternal and antedates the entire world. See the discussion in Kuzari 2:54.

[28] Numbers 35:10 about a human court, also in Psalms 119:91 about the Divine Court, a verse that is often cited in the High Holiday prayers. In Ashkenazic circles it is one of the introductory verses to the Pizmon on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and the first image of the “Hayom Harat Olam” prayer after the Shofar blowing in the Hazan’s repetition. In the Biblical context, the defendant is asked to stand (amad) when being judged; although in the context of the poem, the meaning of waking up or praying (Berakhot 26b) may also be intended.

[29] The first letter of this two-letter name of God is the letter yud, which leaves an acrostic of Yehuddai, not of Yehudah, the author’s name. Perhaps the hortatory call “Dai!” “enough!”, is intended by the acrostic not just the name of the author, given the prominence of the word “Dai” as the initial word of the final section of the first verse, which also bears a partial acrostic.

[30] A different name of God. Yehudah Ha-Levi discusses both names of God at length in the start of the fourth section of the Kuzari.

[31] An example of a question whose asker is better to not have been born (Hagigah 11a), although the order is reversed to fit the rhyme. Admittedly, unlike the rest of the song, this above and below are metaphysical, not physical. Compare Kuzari 5:14.

[32] Deuteronomy 18:14. In its original context, the verse asks the Jewish people to have perfect faith in their Creator, and not in idols or other forms of Divination. Yehudah Ha-Levi reuses it here that one should have perfect faith, and not consider other forms of philosophy that question about the eternity of the world, or the physical whereabouts of an incorporeal Creator.


Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.