Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Love Song on Jewish Self-Identification for the 7th day of Pesah

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Yaakov Jaffe

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

Few poems of Medieval Hebrew have left as lasting an impact on Jewish law, prayer, and custom as Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s “Yom Le-Yabasha,” the geulah piyyut written for the seventh day of Pesah. In the code of Jewish Law Levush Malkhut, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe discusses the recitation of this piyyut on five different occasions: the seventh day of Pesah, on Shabbat Shirah, on the eighth day of Pesah (either each year, or at least when a circumcision is held), on Yom Kippur which coincides with a circumcision, and on any Shabbat that coincides with a circumcision (490:6-9, 584:3, 621:2, 685:1, 698:4,11; see also Mishnah Berurah to these locations). Though today the recitation of this piyyut has fallen out of favor in many congregations, it remains the most commonly recited of all the mostly forgotten piyyutim, still printed in many Birkonim, and in many editions of the standard daily siddur.[1]

“Yom Le-Yabasha” is a fine example of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s poetic genius. The greatest poets can write and operate within conventional and previously established genres, while also breathing new life into those genres by changing expectations and opening new avenues of expression within them. For example, though the Sonnet as a literary form obviously existed before William Shakespeare was born, the greatness of the bard lain in his ability to craft the Shakespearean Sonnet, which conforms to but also adapts the expectations of the Petrarchan Sonnet. This essay considers Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s advancement and development of the geulah genre of Hebrew poetry. We will consider the expectations of the form, and the way “Yom Le-Yabasha” transforms and revitalizes the genre by adding a dimension of passionate Jewish self-identification to the preexisting themes of passive longing for return and love.

The Genre of the Geulah Piyut

Hebrew liturgical poetry contains many sub-genres based on when specifically in the prayer service the poem was designed to be recited in  synagogue. For example, a selihah is recited as part of the selihot prayers on fast days or the start of the year, a yotzeir is recited in the Shaharit blessing of “Yotzer ha-Meorot,” and a mussaf poem is recited at Mussaf. The geulah genre is a specific type of liturgical poem which conventionally contains four elements: (a) the song is written and designed to be recited on Pesah, (b) the song’s theme is redemption and is intended to be recited as part of the blessing of redemption just before the Amidah, (c) the song’s tone is one of intense longing for that redemption, addressing G-d directly, frequently in the Vocative, (d) the song quotes extensively from “Shir Ha-Shirim,” the original song of the Jewish people’s longing, love and yearning for a renewed, redemptive relationship with our Creator.

Most Mahzorim and some siddurim print three major geulah piyuttim for the first three holy days of Pesah (the first day, second day, and Shabbat Chol Ha-mo’eid), written by three major tenth century Rabbis, Rabbi Shlomoh Ha-Bavli of Rome, his student Rabbi Meshulum of Lucca, and Shimon Hagadol of Mainz, respectively. All three quote from Shir Ha-Shirim, as is fitting for the holiday of Pesah, and begin with the words “Berah Dodi,” “Run O My Beloved!,” a quote from Shir Ha-Shirim.

Writing in twelfth century Spain, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi makes sure to follow all four elements of the ge’ulah genre in his poem, but then adapts the genre and thereby maximizes the impact of the poem.

  • The poem is designed to be recited on Pesah. Ha-Levi deftly begins the poem by connecting it to the seventh day of Pesah with the words “On the day on which the depths were turned to dry land, the redeemed ones [the Jews] sang a new song.” The imminence of the phrase “on the day” signals that the intended time for the recitation of the poem is the seventh day of Pesah. Later quotes from Shir Hashirim further cement the poem to this holiday.
  • The song’s theme is redemption and is designed to be recited just before the Amidah of Shacharit. Ha-Levi locates the song within the redemption blessing in two ways. The first is through the refrain of the poem, “shira hadasha shibehu geulim,” which is a quote from the blessing of redemption. The second is through the final stanza, which ends with the phrase from the Song of the Sea, “Who is like you Hashem,” a phrase which also appears in that blessing of redemption. The content of the song also focuses on the plea that G-d redeem His people.
  • The song’s tone is one of longing for redemption and uses the second person or the Vocative. The poem directly addresses G-d in the second person, and asks Him to redeem His people
  • The song quotes from Shir Ha-S The penultimate verse of the nine verses ends with poetic image from Shir Ha-Shirim “and the shadows will run away” (2:17 and 4:6), which also operates as a metaphor for redemption, when the shadows of exile flee. Also, the song’s seventh verse begins with the rare phrase from Shir Ha-Shirim “Mi Zot” (“Who is she” 3:6 and 8:5), the song refers to the Jewish people as the Shulamit[2] in the second verse (Shir Hashirim 7:1 [twice in that passuk]), and the song makes allusion to the verse “feet that looked nice in shoes” (7:2).[3]

The greatness of Ha-Levi lain in his adaptation of the genre to maximize the appeal of the liturgical poem. In typical Spanish style, Ha-Levi adds a meter to the song (five major long syllables per line[4]) and also switches to the complicated double-rhyme system of the Shir Ezor, or belt song, with the first three lines of each stanza rhyming with each other, and the last line rhyming with the refrain (as well as the last two lines of the first stanza). In contrast, the other examples of the geulah genre had a simple rhyme for each stanza, without rhymes interlocking with the refrain.  The addition of meter and rhyme are not necessitated by the geulah genre; they are additions by the master poet.

Also, rather than continuing the now well-used introduction of the other geulah piyuttim, “Berah Dodi,” Ha-Levi begins his poem with “Yom Le-Yabasha,” words that bring to mind the specific focus on his unique topic, the seventh day of Pesah. Rather than focusing merely on the longing of the Jews for their beloved, the song expands the range by also invoking the splitting of the sea. This line also doubles as a pun of Tehilim 66:6, “He turned the ocean (yam) to dry land” – with the Hebrew “yam” (sea) turning into “yom” (day). Thus, the expert poet has begun the poem with a line that is simultaneously (a) a pun and allusion to a Biblical verse, (b) a clear entry into the theme of the past and future redemption, and (c) a clue to the intended liturgical setting for the poem. The initial letter yud also forms the acrostic for the name of the poet “Yehudah Ha-Levi.”

The biggest advancement and change to the genre lays in the fact that while other entrees to the genre focus on the current exile and a desire to return to the Temple, this poem focuses on the initial redemption celebrated on Pesah and the desired future redemption that the speaker longs for. Formulated slightly differently, the connection between the past redemption of Pesah and the future redemption that the poet longs for is implicit in the other geulah piyuttim but is explicit in Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s version.

A Song of Two Redemptions

The content of the song, as well as the quotations and allusions that are part of its form, serve to invoke the theme of two redemptions – the past one of Pesah, and the future one predicted by the prophets. A chiastic thematic structure for the poem focuses the first stanzas and last stanza on the past redemption, and the fourth and penultimate stanzas on the future redemption. The initial redemption from Egypt celebrated on Pesah becomes an archetype for the redemption we hope for today. 

The connection in the song between the hope for the future redemption and the past redemption is magnified through the way the poem would be sung in synagogue, as intended by the author.  The song begins with a citation from the blessing of the past redemption: the first line reads, “On the day that to dry land the depths[5] were turned, the redeemed ones sang a new song.” The words “the redeemed ones sang a new song” is a quote from the redemption blessing, and thus sets the song with the context of the original prayer. At the end of the song, it returns to citing the redemption blessing, this time using the blessing’s immediately preceding phrase: “Beloved ones praised you, in song they greeted you ‘who is like you – Hashem – among the powerful!’”[6] Thus, the person reciting the poem ends with the very same section of the blessing of past-redemption where he or she started.  The prayer for a future redemption is not recited in a vacuum, it is recited within the context of the prayer of thanks for the past redemption; it makes the argument: if we were redeemed once, we can surely be redeemed yet again.

It is within the framework of invoking the power and majesty of the past redemption that Ha-Levi makes his appeal for the future redemption, in the fourth and eighth verses:

Raise my Flag

On the Remnant (nisharim)

And gather the dispersed ones

As one gleans grain

And return a second time (shenit) to marry her

And do not continue to divorce her[7]

And raise the light of her sun

And the shadows will flee[8]

For Ha-Levi, the new, longed-for redemption is not de novo; it is instead a repeat of the old redemption. The new redemption is like a second marriage, continuing the relationship first cemented in the original time of redemption from the Egyptian exile. The poet deftly works keywords into these stanzas to draw the connection to the Haftarah of the eighth day of Pesah, which is the prophetic paradigm of connecting the two redemptions that he already invoked by using the word “ne’alim” in the poem’s second verse. Yeshayahu reads:

And on that day, the Lord will a second time (sheinit) send His Hand to acquire the Remnant (she’ar) of His people … And He will raise a banner[9] to the nation[10] and gather[11] the banished of Israel, and the dispersed of Judah He will gather from the four far-reaches[12] of the Earth… And G-d will wave his Hand on the Euphrates[13] with the Strength of His Wind, and He will beat it into seven streams, so that it can be tread upon with shoes (ne’alim). And it shall be a highway to the remnant (she’ar) of His nation that remains (yisha’er) from Assyria, just as it was for Israel, on the day that he came up from the land of Egypt. (Yeshayahu 11:11-16)

The prophet Yeshayahu directly compares between the future redemption of the Jewish people dispersed in exile, and the past redemption of the Jews from Egypt, even going so far as to predict that a similar splitting of the waters will take place as part of the future redemption. Similarly, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi alludes to this prophetic prediction in his own song, building upon the Haftara’s message.

Thus, though this song is about redemption, it is not merely a plea for redemption. Instead, it focuses on the past caring relationship and past redemptions between God and Israel, as a launching point for the plea of return to the way things were in the past, and to a reunified “marriage” between G-d and His people.

Jewish Self-Identification

The three verses of the poem which serve as the vertex of the chiasmus and the crux of the song (verses five through seven), are perhaps the most critical to understanding Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s broader message about the reason the Jew argues he or she deserves to be redeemed. As is expected for a poet of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s caliber, these three verses climax at a line which is designed to be read simultaneously in three ways: (a) as a metaphor for the ways we self-identify as Jews, (b) as an allusion to the promise of the reconciled marriage, and (c) as a hint to the Messianic era which the song hopes for.

The fifth and sixth verses identify two critical commandments which both involve the Jew proactively identifying as a member of G-d’s people: circumcision and tzitzit.  These commandments are unique to the Jewish people, and they serve as signs that we identify with our Creator and have a relationship with the Divine.  The reference to these commandments, which at first glance may seem irrelevant to the poem, serve as an argument for why the nation should be redeemed. Each of these commandments involves the number eight,[14] which serves as yet another connection to the liturgical setting of the poem: the historical events (ie, the splitting of the sea)[15] and Haftarah of the eighth day of Pesah. These two commandments, circumcision and tzitzit, are singled out because they both accompany the Jewish male at all times.[16] The rhyme for the fifth verse is the second person suffix (“with You,” “Your seal,” “Your Name,”) in order to further convey and cement the closeness that the nation feels with God. Lastly, the sixth verse begins with the direct imperative addressing the second person “Show their sign[17] to all those that see them!” further reinforcing the connection to G-d.

It is because of this passion and consistency in identifying themselves with the sign and seal of their relationship that G-d should redeem His people. And so, the climactic verse argues:

To she[18] that is so inscribed

Recognize please the word of Truth

To whom is the seal (circumcision)

And to whom[19] are the fringes (tzitzit)?

The rhetorical question asks G-d to recognize the nation through the seal and fringes of their relationship, and thereby redeem them. On the surface level, we see how an expert poet, Ha-Levi, uses a line which conveys the content of the message through a metaphor (Glance, O G-d, at our seal and fringes), which fits neatly into the rhyme of the song (petilim rhyming with geulim) and which also happens to be a quotation of a Biblical verse (Bereishit 38:25).

It is a major poetic accomplishment to use a Biblical verse which simultaneously perfectly folds into the rhyme scheme and which doubles as a metaphor for the content of the verses,  but Ha-Levi intends this Biblical verse to do much more. The selection of a verse from Bereishit 38 is not coincidental. The chapter Ha-Levi quotes discusses an attempt to salvage a broken marriage; the poem is alluding to the relationship of Yehudah and Tamar, who had separated after their first fateful encounter. Tamar uses these exact words to remind Yehudah of their previous relationship, and that she had remained dedicated and truthful throughout (by not pursuing another man, and by not embarrassing him).[20] By using these exact words Ha-Levi calls to mind the story of Tamar, and the dedication of the bride to her future husband; the reader knows that the outcome of the story is that the couple reconciles and returns to each other.[21] Thus, if the Shir Ha-shirim model and the discussion of marriage and divorce run throughout the song as a larger parable for exile/divorce and redemption/reconciliation, this line serves as the fitting climax of when a couple does return to each other and continues the relationship.  Ha-Levi is audacious, in that the typical Biblical vision of the marriage relationship focuses on the Jewish people abandoning and forsaking G-d. but situating the relationship within the Yehudah and Tamar story instead places G-d in the Yehudah position of having wrongly abandoned His beloved.

One could argue that Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi even adds one final layer of meaning into the story. This reconciled marriage is not just any marriage; it is the relationship that gives birth to Peretz, the progenitor of the Messianic figure. Peretz’s great-great-grandson Nahshon was the proto-Messianic figure and Judaic flagbearer who led the charge into the sea on this very day of Pesah (Sota 37a). Nahshon’s ultimate descendent will be the Messiah of the Davidic line, whom Yeshayahu referenced in this holiday’s Haftara as the redeemer of the people from this very exile.

A Message for Today

The poem’s key line about the fringes and seal should speak to us today as well. For as the Jew glances about while in exile, separated from our Beloved for so long, the Jew asks from whence the merit will come to spark the redemption. Especially today, Jews might look at their own actions, and question whether the nation meets the standard to merit a redemption.

But Ha-Levi gives the firm, confident answer, wrapped with passionate longing. “G-d,” we ask, “recognize the truth! Which is the only nation that continues to bear the seal and the fringes?” Who remains connected and continues to wear the mark of our relationship? For that reason, if for no other, we ask G-d to return to His nation and to our relationship, and to redeem the Jewish people, just as He had on this very day so many years ago.  It is not merely an empty hope and prayer for the sea to split again; we now argue that we in truth deserve it.

On the very day when we crossed the sea the first time, we read and pray in synagogue about G-d’s promise that in a future day we will once again cross the sea. And it is through the continued adoption of the seal and the fringes, recollections and signs of the relationship that should usher forward the redemption, speedily in our days.

[1] For example, it is printed in the standard Artscroll Kol Yaakov Siddur (1984) on page 214 and 712. It is also the only piyyut given prominence in the Koren Pesah Mahzor (pages 486-497), and included in all three editions of the Rabbinical Council of America siddur. The author has attended congregations where Yom Le-Yabasha is recited on the seventh day of Pesah his entire life, and it is still sung at the Maimonides Kehillah each year on the seventh day of Pesah, [see Mendi Gopin Davening with the Rav, (Ketav:2006), 119]. It is a prominently sung song at Yeshivat Har Etzion.

[2] Rhyming “shulamit” – the Jews, “anamit” – a new poetic name for the Egyptians to fit the rhyme based on Bereishit 10:13, and “tarmit,” deceit (see Yirmiyahu 8:5). The nature of the deceit is unclear. Note that for Ha-Levi, the rhyme includes two consonants and the intervening vowel (mit), and not just one vowel and one consonant.

[3] The use of the word “ba-nealim” is pure poetic genius, as the word appears only twice in the entire Tanakh. Once is in Shir Ha-shirim (7:2) as mentioned, and once is in the Haftarah for the 8th day of Pesah (Megillah 31a), describing the splitting of the sea and the Jews crossing the waters on dry land, with shoes. Thus, Ha-Levi has found the one word that links the Shir Ha-shirim element of the song and the seventh day of Pesah element, and uses it prominently in the beginning of the song. The fact that this word also happens to rhyme with “geulim,” the last word of the refrain, is icing on the cake.

[4] Excluding sheva’s, hataf’s, or the prefix “u” beginning a word.

[5] Hebrew metzulah, an allusion to the song of the sea, Shemot 15:5; but the female word (metzulot) is converted to a male form (metzulim) to conform with the rhyme geulim and the aforementioned ne’alim.

[6] The same four words as the prayer and the Biblical verse, but with the order of the words inverted to fit the rhyme, “Ba-eilim” with metzulim and geulim.

[7] The parable of G-d divorcing His people and eventually reconciling is a common one in the prophets; see Hoshea Chapters 1-2 and Yeshayahu chapters 49-50. Fittingly to the genre of the song, it is also the central parable of Shir Ha-shirim, as well.

[8] Perhaps the poet has in mind the vision of the new light in Yeshayahu chapter 60.

[9] The image of the banner matches the image of the raising of the flag in the poem, although the flag (degel) of the poem is referred to by the Biblical Hebrew “neis” or banner in the prophecy, so it is likely the poet did not intend to connect the two images. The use of the word “degel” or flag in the poem may connote the banner of Yeshayahu, but may also hint to the degel or flags of each tribe which accompanied the desert Jews just after the redemption from Egypt and the splitting of the sea.

[10] Throughout the Tanakh, the word goyim can refer to the Jewish people (see Bereishit 35:11). Indeed, for this reason, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik cautioned that the morning blessing should read “nochri” and not “goy.”

[11] Yeshayahu’s verb is the common “gather” (lekabeitz), but Ha-Levi changes it to “u-telakeit,” the verb used for one who carefully gathers stalks of grain (as per the simile in Yeshayahu 17:5). The image of gathering stray pieces of grain conveys a greater care and connection between G-d and the people He gathers than does the verb lekabeitz. See also Yeshayahu 27:12 and Rut 2:2.

[12] Translating kenafot as “far reaches” not “corners”; see my essay in Hakirah volume 17.

[13] At the time of Yeshayahu, most of the exiled Jews lived on the other side of the Euphrates; today obviously the Jews exiled live all over the Earth.

[14] With circumcision taking place on the 8th day, and tzitzit involving 8 strings.

[15] It is unclear if Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi was also aware of the Midrashic interpretation that the splitting of the sea took place on the eighth day of Pesach, found in Rashi Bamidbar 15:41.

[16] Menachot 43b; that Gemara also has two other mitzvot in this category: Tefillin – which are not worn on a holiday, and Mezuzah – which remains in the home and not with the Jew. These are also the commandments of Love which Rambam includes in his Book of Love, the commandments which help us recall the loving relationship between the Jewish people and the Divine.

[17] In the context of the song, it appears that the tzitzit are considered the sign, although in truth the Torah never calls them a sign, only tefillin and circumcision. See Menachot 36b, and Semag positive commandment #3. It is possible that this line refers to the circumcision, although this song tends to keep the theme of each verse separate from the others, and also the tzitzit are shown (Bamidbar 15:39) but circumcision is not. It is not possible to argue that the sign here refers to the tefillin since the critical verse that follows only speaks about tzitzit and circumcision. See also Menachot 35b.

[18] Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi converts the Jewish people to the female to be consistent with the marriage relationship, by using the quote from Shir Ha-shirim (“mi zot”). It is somewhat ironic that the mitzvot described in the song are performed by Jewish males, while the nation is now referred to in the female.

[19] The second, redundant “to whom” is absent in the Biblical verse but is added for the sake of the meter. As a result, three of the four lines in this verse have the word “le-mi”. The words from the verse in Bereishit that this line reworks are bolded in the translation above.

[20] In the Biblical original the seal is Yehudah’s signet ring and the fringes his garment; and so the seal is literal and not a metaphor for the circumcision.

[21] Although the exact outcome is under dispute (see Rashi to Bereishit 38:26), this reading fits most within the larger poem.