The World of Piyut* at BJ

By Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon | Issue Date: March 2011

Piyut Website 2012

A few years ago, I spent half of a 40-day sabbatical in a cabin on a farm in Vermont in the middle of the freezing winter. I used some of the time to study holy books, some practicing my oud (Arabic lute), and a lot of time exploring on my laptop the Hazmanah LePiyut/Invitation to Piyut website. What I discovered amazed me and filled me with deep joy: a trove of thousands of liturgical poems and devotional prayers in musical renditions from all over the Jewish world. There are piyutim that follow the yearly cycle such as Shabbat songs and piyutim for holy days and festive occasions, and piyutim that follow the human lifecycle, from birth—piyutim for brit milah and for the birth of a daughter—through bar and bat mitzvah, to marriage. And there are psalms and songs of supplication.

Some of the best-known and most widely used piyutim, such as Lekha Dodi or Adon Olam, appear in dozens of melodies from all over the world, both old and contemporary. Other piyutim are used only by specific communities and appear in just one or a couple of melodies.

The poetic and musical creativity of the Jewish people during the past two millennia in various Diaspora communities, and at times also in the Land of Israel, has been enormous. Many of these textual and musical traditions have been lost, but since the founding of the State of Israel and the arrival of many of these ancient Diaspora communities to Israel there has been an effort to preserve, record, and restore as much as possible of the these traditions. There is currently a strong interest on the part of Israelis—both traditional and so-called “secular”—to rediscover and reconnect to this heritage as an essential part of Jewish identity and Jewish culture.

For the past few years we at BJ have been exploring the world of piyutim, in special classes and at services, in collaboration with Hazmanah LePiyut, which was founded in 2005 and is one of the leading projects in making the world of piyut accessible and alive. This collaboration has expanded BJ’s musical horizons, and it has been a productive and enriching experience.

In our wish to share our experience and to introduce the world of Piyut to synagogues, schools and communities throughout North America, we created a four-day experience in partnership with Hazmanah LePiyut and with the generous support and guidance of the Charles H. Revson and Avi Chai foundations. Eighty rabbis, cantors, synagogue musicians, and educators gathered last November for a retreat at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore. The group included the BJ rabbis, hazzan, musicians, rabbinic fellow, and cantorial intern, as well as seven leaders of our partner congregations in Israel and seven of our rabbinic fellowship alumni. It was a glorious experience of learning and reflection. We prayed, we learned about the characteristics of the main piyut traditions—particularly of the Sephardic, North African, and Middle Eastern communities, which have been largely overlooked—we sang, we experimented. Most important, we discovered that the piyutim can open the door to new possibilities in the experience and expression of prayer: They bring us into the full range of emotions and to a universe of nuance, grace, refinement, and elegance, as well as a profound connection to the roots of Jewish culture and Jewish peoplehood.

There will be a lot more piyutim at BJ in the coming months and years. The piyutim will allow us to encounter and penetrate the subtleties of prayer: the inner spirit of the words, their rhythm and cadence, here their power, there their softness, the silences, the array of emotions they evoke in us. And they will bring our prayers, Shabbat, holy day, and life cycle celebrations to new levels of depth and meaning.

* Piyut: from the Greek poietes, poet