After the experiencing the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel were given seven weeks to prepare for the watershed moment in the development of our people, the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. Today, in commemoration of these biblical events, we meticulously count the Omer, the days and weeks from Pesach, the occasion marking our physical freedom to Shavuot, the festival celebrating our transformation from a band of escaped slaves into a holy nation.
Indeed, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai constitutes not only a revelation of the Divine word, but a revolution in contemporary culture. The Book of Exodus (19:23-20:21) describes how the entire nation was present as the Torah was revealed. In fact, tradition maintains that not only did the generation that left Egypt witness the pyrotechnic revelation of the Law, but the soul of every Jew that would ever exist was present at Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Edwin Farber of North Miami Beach Florida, points out that this public revelation is unique among all contemporary cultures. Rather than having the most Sacred of all of our texts and writings reserved for an ecclesiastical elite, the Torah is open and available to each and every one of us.
Thus Moses began a chain of transmission of the teaching of Torah that links every generation from the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness,through Joshua, through the prophets, through the residents of ancient Israel , through Babylonia and throughout the diaspora to the present day and beyond.
In the Fifth Century B.C.E. Ezra, the leader of the community of exiles who returned to the Holy Land from Babylonia, instituted the public reading of the Torah on Sabbaths, festivals and market days. This public reading meant that all could have easy access to the teachings of their sacred heritage. Dr. Max Margolis, a renowned Judaic scholar notes in The History of Bible Translations that the practice developed to alternate each line of the Hebrew Text of the Torah, with a translation into the vernacular language of Aramaic. The task of providing this simultaneous translation was often relegated to a professional called the M’Turgaman. At first the Rabbis were against the writing down of these translations fearing the translator might color the meaning of the Biblical text with his interpretation. Moreover, the Rabbis insisted on a clear distinction between the written text of the Torah and the “Oral Torah” consisting of legal, homiletic and exegetical material. Initially, some of the Targum texts were codified but remained for a long time the personal property of a few individuals. Eventually, as Dr. Margolis notes, perhaps due to the waning of the skills of those who memorized text coupled with the sheer of volume of material, the Rabbis relented and allowed the “oral texts” to be preserved in written form.
Today, while the Bible has been translated and interpreted into a myriad of languages, the Targum, or Aramaic translation, remains an essential tool of Biblical exegesis. Targum Onkelus, an eponymous work attributed to a well know convert of Babylonian origin is the most popular Aramaic translation of the Torah mostly because of its fidelity to the original texts. The authorship of Targum Jonatan, the Aramaic translation of the Books of the Prophets is attributed to the Jonathan son of Uzziel, one of the followers of the great Talmudic sage, Hillel.There are other Aramaic translations that are still available, these like translations into other languages, provide a valuable tool to the Biblical scholar – not only due to the insight of the translator, but also because the translation may suggest the existence of a variant original text on which the translation was based.
After having discussed the importance of the Targum, we are ready,at last, for the subject of this writing,the Piyut or liturgical poem know as Yetziv Pitgam. Recited immediately following the chanting of the first verse of the Haftara of the second day of Shavuot, Yetziv Pitgam is a beautiful composition written in Aramaic, the language of the Targum. Thematically, Yetziv Pitgam is similar to Akdamut, the Aramaic panegyric performed immediately prior to the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot; the inadequacy of human language to praise God, the beauty of creation and a plea for God’s support and salvation. Also similar to Akdamut, this poem is an acrostic of the name of its author, in this case Yaakov ben Meir Levi. There is some controversy as the identity of Yaakov Ben Meir. Ismar Elbogen, the celebrated authority on Jewish liturgy, identifies the Yaakov Ben Meir of our poem as the twelfth century Talmudic luminary Rabbenu Tam, a foremost scholar and arbiter of Jewish Law. He was the grandson of the most well know of all Biblical and Rabbinic commentators, Rashi. Others such as the author of the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Rabbeinu Tam, claim that there was a different poet named Yaakov Ben Meir who was in fact the author of our poem.
The Piyut has a very strict metrical structure with the second and fourth word of each line rhyming and each line ending with the syllable “een.” Yiziv Pigam is chanted according to a unique ancient melody that can be found in Chanting The Hebrew Bible by Joshua Jacobson. Here is a link to a quick recording of Yetziv Pitgam I made on my iPhone.
Not only is it an inspirational liturgical poem, but the placement of Yetziv Pitgam is reminiscent of the ancient practice of interleaving the chanting of the biblical text with the Aramaic Targum as mentioned above. In fact as Rabbi Richard Wolpe notes Yitziv Pitgam pays tribute to Jonathan son of Uzziel, the author of the Targum on the Prophets:
“…explicit in the passage “Yehonatan gvar invetan” [for Jonathan, meekest of all men] where the translator is mentioned by name. … Yetziv Pitgam is in the language of the Targum because it serves as a poetic segue into the Targum.”
On Shavuot, when we are so mindful of the place of the Biblical text in our lives, we remember that our great scholarly ancestors built a vernacular translation into the process of reading the Bible so all could clearly understand its Holy message. As we gather in synagogues on Shavuot to celebrate the giving of the Torah, we are cognizant of the tradition that every Jewish Soul was present to receive the Torah personally. What a wonderful time to affirm this connection by learning to read the Torah according to the ancient art of cantillation or by embarking on a corse of Torah study! Yetziv Pitgam reminds us in structure and in content that having a clear understanding of the language of the Torah enables us to comprehend the blueprint that provides the possibility of a close personal relationship with the God that loves us so much that He gave us our most precious possession, the Torah.
Hag Shavuot Sameiach
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Hazzan Michael Krausman