Piyyut

During the month of Elul, religious Jews recite religious poems called Selihot, prayers specifically composed for the Days of Penitence during the month of Elul and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A piyyut (Heb. פִּיּוּט; plural: piyyutim; from the Greek ποιητής) is a lyrical composition that embellishes a prayer or any religious communal or private ceremony. Piyyutim often replaced parts of the set prayer and ensured variety on Sabbaths and festivals, beautifying the prayer experience.

Piyyut literature began in Palestine, and some remnants of piyyutim appear already in talmudic sources, with some texts perhaps composed during this period entering accepted versions of the various rites of prayer.

The earliest paytan known to us by name is Yose b. Yose, who lived and worked in Palestine in approximately the sixth century or even earlier, and the most important of the early paytanim are Yannai, Simeon b. Megas, Eleazar b. Kallir, Joshua ha-Kohen, and Joseph b. Nisan, who all lived before the Muslim conquests of the seventh century.

In medieval Europe, the center of religious poetry was to be found in Germany where important composers and poets such as Moses b. Kalonymus,  Meshullam b. Kalonymus as well as Simeon b. Isaac and Meir b. Isaac were active. But in Sefarad, too, outstanding paytanim, Joseph Ibn Abitur, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Isaac Ibn Ghayyat, Moses  Ibn Ezra,  Judah Halevi, and Abraham  Ibn Ezra created prayers still sung in synagogues today.

Piyyutim exist in dizzying variety, and at different times, certain types were more popular than others. The earliest types of piyyut are the kerovah and the yozer. The kerovah was included in the Amidah prayer, while the yozer belonged to the benedictions before and after the Shema during the morning prayer. Kerovot are particularly popular during Shabbat or major holidays. For more information see Abraham David’s article on Piyyut.

One of my favorite religious poems  is Adon Olam (Master of the World). Often sung at the closing of Shabbat morning services, and during Kol Nidre, on the Eve of Yom Kippur. It is also read in the presence of one who is dying. Here is Uzi Hitman’s famous rendition:

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