Shiur #02: The Vilna Gaon and Piyyutim

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

            In the previous shiur we traced the Gra's fundamental analysis of our issue. We paid particular attention to how he masterfully applies several of his regular principles: Striving to understand a text according to its plain sense, relating to the entire range of rabbinic literature, including the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi, the fundamental belief that all of these sources confirm and are consistent with each other, and great independence from and readiness to stand up to the leading medieval authorities. The conclusion that he reaches from the sources is based on the Yerushalmi, and he seems to be the first authority issuing a ruling on this subject who relied on the Yerushalmi as the cornerstone of his ruling.


As may be recalled, according to the Gra, there are blessings that should be "shortened" and others that should be "lengthened"; but many blessings do not fall into either category, and regarding such blessings there is no prohibition to add to them. Nevertheless, even with respect to such blessings, one who shortens them is praiseworthy, whereas one who lengthens them is reprehensible. How are these principles translated into actual practice?


The answer to this question developed in two stages. The final stage is the manner in which the Gra actually conducted himself on a personal level. But before we get to that, let us dwell on the previous stage – the stage of the Shulchan Arukh.


Even though in his analysis of the relevant passages the Vilna Gaon took an independent path, it should be remembered that his words are written in a work which is a commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, and therefore we should first examine what is found there. In general, the Gra's mission in his commentary is to point to the sources that underlie the positions of R. Yosef Karo and the Rema. Sometimes he adopts the position of one of them. At other times he disagrees with both of them and rules in accordance with his own unique opinion. What does he do in our case? Ostensibly, since he adopts a novel approach to the matter, nothing like it being found among the Rishonim, one might have expected that he would present his view as different from that of the authorities who preceded him. This, however, is not the case, as we shall see later in the shiur.


Rabbi Yosef Karo rules in the Shulchan Arukh:


There are places where they interrupt the blessings of Shema in order to recite piyyutim. But it is proper to prevent them from reciting them as they constitute an interruption. (Shulchan Arukh 68:1)


The Rema elaborates on this ruling:


Others say that there is no prohibition governing the matter, and indeed, it is the common practice in all places to recite them. One who is lenient and does not recite them has not lost out. In any case, one should not engage in any other activity, even Torah study, as long as the congregation is reciting piyyutim, and all the more so is it forbidden to engage in idle chatter. Nevertheless, for one who studies by meditating on what he sees in a book, there is no prohibition, for meditating is not considered speech, only that from meditating he will come to talk, and there will be an interruption. Therefore one must not separate himself from the congregation in a place where it is customary to recite piyyutim, and he should recite them with them.


The difference between the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Rema lies not only in the fact that the Rema is more verbose. Rabbi Yosef Karo expresses himself directly and concisely; whereas the Rema's response is enveloped in a cloud of ambivalence. In general, the Rema tends to rule in accordance with Ashkenazi practice. But here he vacillates: in favor of piyyutim, against them, and then back in favor. The Rema's gloss opens with a justification of the practice, shifts to an allowance not to observe it, continues with a discussion of halakhic problems that may arise when part of the congregation does not recite the piyyutim, and concludes with a final recommendation that in such a case everybody should recite them with no exception. There is also ambivalence regarding the grounds for the final conclusion. On the one hand the ruling comes to avoid halakhic pitfalls (idle chatter during prayer), as it would appear from the beginning of the gloss. But he immediately shifts to a fundamental argument: one must not separate himself from the congregation. What is the basis for this wavering?


The Rema's Sources


The complicated course taken by the Rema can be understood in light of the sources available to him.[1] Despite the ancient custom of reciting piyyutim, in the generations preceding that of the Rema, there was an important turning point: Prominent Ashkenazi voices began to express reservations about the custom. Rabbi Yaakov, author of the Tur, writes:


Regarding the interruption that people make in the blessings of the Shema in order to recite Krovitz,[2] it would be fitting not to make such an interruption. Rabbi Meir Abulafia was asked about this and he answered as follows: We see that it is forbidden to interrupt. Surely we have explicitly learned: "Where they said that a short blessing should be recited, it is not permitted to recite a long one." And furthermore we learned: "If one alters the formula laid down by the Sages in benedictions, he has not performed his obligation." And so writes the Rambam:   "These blessings, along with the other blessings, a person is permitted neither to detract from them, nor to add to them." However, it is customary in all places to recite Krovitz. The early authorities who established them were great authorities…. Even Rabbeinu Tam gave a forced explanation of: "Where they said that a short blessing [should be recited]," in order to justify the practice. Nevertheless, it is good and fitting to abolish it where possible, as it leads to interruptions with idle chatter. Also Rabbeinu Tam's explanation to justify the practice is not persuasive in the eyes of my late father. (Tur, Orach Chayyim 68)


Rabbi Yaakov, author of the Tur, is an Ashkenazi authority who together with his father, the Rosh, moved from Germany to the city of Toledo in Spain.[3]In his adopted country, the author of the Tur learned of the responsum of Rabbi Meir Abulafia, the rabbi of Toledo, in the generation following that of the Rambam, in which he prohibits the recitation of piyyutim. Of course, this is reinforced by the opposition of the Rambam. The Tur does not bring an early Ashkenazi decisor who objected to the practice, and it stands to reason that he was not aware of such an authority. The most important novelty in his words is his recruitment of his father, the Rosh, to the opposition camp. Among the prolific writings of the Rosh, we do not find even a hint to such a position (apparently we are dealing with an oral ruling that the Tur had heard from his father).


The Rema cannot ignore the Tur and present the custom as universally accepted among Ashkenazi decisors. On the other hand, the Tur's ruling does not nullify the force of the practice. This is especially true in light of another source, later than the Tur, that enjoyed great weight in the eyes of the Rema: the collection of the customary practices of the greatest Ashkenazi authority of his generation, the Maharil.[4]


One of the Maharil's most important accomplishments was the crystallization of the liturgy, and in his book of customs we find the order of piyyutim to be recited on each occasion spelled out in great detail. In addition we find his fundamental position on the matter:


[The Maharil] was very meticulous about saying Krovitz, and he was angry with the young men who would study Tosafot or other matters in the synagogue while the congregation was reciting Krovitz, and not take care to recite them. He would regularly take the Tur with him to the synagogue, and study it while the cantor prolonged his singing… but when the congregation recited Krovitz, he was careful to recite them with them. (Maharil, Hilkhot Tefila)


He said that that it was improper for people to sing at banquets, "I will give You thanks, for You have answered me" (Tehilim 118:21), and similarly piyyutim at social celebrations, for then the Torah girds itself with sackcloth and laments before the Holy One, blessed be he, saying: My children have treated me like a secular air. But in synagogues on the festivals and special days, it is a mitzva to sing songs and praises in honor of the great and awesome King, blessed be He. (Likkutei Maharil)


The Maharil was undoubtedly familiar with the words of the Tur, and he rejected them outright, despite the fact that he does not explicitly mention them. The Rema brings the Maharil's position in his commentary to the Tur, the Darkhei Moshe.


To summarize, the Rema's gloss here reflects the rise of Ashkenazi opposition to the recitation of piyyutim at the beginning of the fourteenth century.[5] The Rema tends toward the position of the Maharil, who vigorously upheld the ancient custom, but the Tur's authority brings him to grant fundamental approval to the opposing view. From here he concludes: "One who is lenient and fails to say them has not lost out."


The Gra's Explanation of the Rema's Position


In his usual manner throughout his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, the Gra approaches the Rema with the intention of pointing to the sources of his position, but he does not accept our explanation above (which is based on the words of the Rema himself). The Gra does not attribute the ambivalence in his words to a difficulty deciding between the various authorities, but rather to ancient rabbinic sources. The Gaon maintains that the root of the uncertainty lies in the passage from the Yerushalmi that we saw in the previous shiur. According to the Yerushalmi (following the Gra's explanation), one is permitted to add to the text of the blessings, but in general it is regarded as reprehensible.


The Gra now adds another layer to his understanding of the Yerushalmi, explaining that since we are dealing with an issue of "preferences," in certain situations the recitation of piyyutim and lengthening of the blessings is not considered reprehensible. The Gaon does, however, argue that even in cases where this is not considered reprehensible, one who shortens is praiseworthy. The Gra spells out what is liable to influence the various assessments of the situation, and the practical ramifications:


They only said: "It is reprehensible." And this is specifically [when the blessings are lengthened] for no purpose, but when [the added text] relates to the [special nature of the] day, it is fine. As they said in the first chapter of Avoda Zara (8a): "One should pray for his personal needs at the Shome'a Tefila blessing… If he is disposed to add to any of the blessings [personal supplications] relevant to the subject of each particular blessing, he may do so." And we said at the end of the fifth chapter of Berakhot (34a): "Is he drawing it out any more than our master Moshe, of whom it is written: 'The forty days and the forty nights [that I fell down]'"?[6] But nevertheless, one who shortens is praiseworthy, as they said in the aforementioned Yerushalmi. This is what [the Rema] says: Others say that there is no prohibition governing the matter… One who is lenient and does not recite them has not lost out. See the Tosafot, there, who answer that Krovitz are different, because they are a communal need.


On the one hand, the Yerushalmi says that if one lengthens the blessing, he is reprehensible, but it stands to reason that there is no reprehension when the addition is not for naught, but rather it is connected to the day, that is to say, it gives expression to an idea that is connected to the unique nature of the day. The Gra supports his position with several sources, which attest to the possibility of a justified addition to the blessings and prayers, and do not mention any halakhic prohibition, e.g., adding a personal prayer in the appropriate place of the Amida prayer, a chazzan who draws out the prayer in exceptional manner, or the communal need of reciting Krovitz, according to the Tosafot. All of these are permitted outright, and they involve nothing reprehensible, but nevertheless the Yerushalmi asserts: "If one shortens, it is praiseworthy." The Gra argues that there is an intermediate situation between "reprehensible" and "praiseworthy" – in a case where there is good reason to draw out the blessing, drawing it out is not reprehensible, but at the same time it is not praiseworthy, and it is preferable to shorted it in any case. This is the basis for the two practical possibilities mentioned in the Rema's gloss.


Thus, the Vilna Gaon brings an ancient source for the Rema's ruling, a source that apparently did not occur to anyone before him. The question certainly rises: Is it legitimate to veer from the intentions of the Rema himself, to explain his remarks?


This method of the Gra was already noted by his disciple, R. Israel of Shklov, in the introduction that he wrote to the Gra's commentary:


It is his way to write the source of every custom found in the Rema's glosses, and to indicate its place in the Gemara or in the Tosefta or in the other works of the Tannaim which the eyes of the authors have never seen. Even that which the Rema wrote based on his reasoning in his great work, Darkhei Moshe, and in the gloss it says after the remark "his own opinion," the Gaon points to an explicit Gemara or to something hidden in the wording of a Mishna.


In other words, the Vilna Gaon cites sources even for laws that the Rema wrote based on his own reasoning, sources that were completely overlooked by other authors. Such a source might be a subtle inference from the wording of a Mishna, or even an explicit Gemara to which no attention had been previously paid.


Whatever our position on this question, there is no doubt that we are dealing here with an interpretive principle: Referring the reader to the most ancient source – the words of the Rabbis themselves – is the preferred route, which should be given priority over rational arguments. To our great surprise, when this approach is followed, everything works out. This ancient wellspring issuing forth from the Yerushalmi sought a practical mode of expression. It became embodied in a ruling recorded in the Shulchan Arukh, and it is irrelevant whether or not the authors were aware of it.


The Gra's Personal Practice


Now that we have seen the theoretical foundation that the Gra built for the Rema's ruling, we must examine the manner in which the Gra conducted himself in actual practice with respect to this issue. The Gra's custom is brought in Ma'aseh Rav as follows:


They did not say by him the Krovitz on any Shabbat all year long. Only on the four special Shabbatot and on Shabbat ha-Gadol would they say the Krovitz after the Shacharit service, before Ein Kamokha… (Ma'aseh Rav, 127)


The Krovitz of the festivals they recite after Hallel, before Ein Kamokha. And it recited with a melody…. And the Mussaf of the first day of Pesach and of Shemini Atzeret, and the Shacharit and the Mussaf of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur they recite in the course of the prayer. (ibid. 163)


The Gra, then, has no reservations about the piyyutim themselves, but generally he moves them from their usual place in the blessings themselves. His alternative is to recite them after Shacharit, before reading the Torah. This is true on the festivals and on the special Shabbatot. There are, however, exceptions. The most striking exception is the High Holy Days, on which the Gra apparently left the piyyutim in their accepted and respected place in the middle of the prayers. The second exception is the piyyutim added to Mussaf on the first day of Pesach and on Shemini Atzeret, the prayers for dew and rain. Many may already have noticed that the accepted practice in Ashenazi communities in Israel follows the Gra, with one exception – on the days that the piyyutim are not recited in the middle of the prayer service, they are omitted altogether, and not recited even after the service.


Three things require explanation: 1) the general practice of not reciting the piyyutim; 2) reciting them elsewhere in the liturgy; and 3) why there are still cases where the Gra follows the tradition of reciting piyyutim in the format that had been accepted for generations. There is no need to elaborate on the first point, as it is self-evident based on the discussion above. While there is no prohibition to add piyyutim in the prayer, the Gra follows the preferred practice as he understands the Yerushalmi: If one shortens it is praiseworthy. To reach this end, he prefers not to rely on the allowances of "additions related to the day" or "communal need."


Reciting  Piyyutim at the Conclusion of the Service


            The second point is very interesting in itself. Reciting piyyutim before taking the Torah out was a novelty introduced by the Gra, and apparently, the practice was very short-lived. This new practice of the Gra was not accepted. It is not difficult to understand why. The piyyutim were intended from the very beginning to give new life to the prayers and blessings; this is of course not possible when they are detached from their natural environment. Nevertheless, we must try to clarify what moved the Gra himself to recite the piyyutim elsewhere in the liturgy. If the custom is not observed in its original format, what reason is there to create a new format? Is this evidence of the power of an ancient custom, which continues to survive even after a decision was made to reject it? Are we dealing merely with conservatism that refuses to detach itself altogether from ancient custom, and is meticulous about maintaining it in some other form?


The relevant passages in Ma'aseh Rav allude to a deeper connection. It would seem from these passages that, according to the Gra, the piyyutim embody a world steeped in profound meaning, which he was not willing to forego.


The Experience of Piyyutim


For example, regarding the festival of Shavuot we read:


The Yotzer, "Ve'ata banim shiru lamelekh,"[7] is sung verse by verse. And the piyyut, "Hashem kanani reshit darko" and the piyyut relating to the Ten Commandments is recited in a solemn and melodious tone. And the prayer leader interrupts the melody for each matter. (ibid. 195)


Similarly regarding the piyyut for Sukkot:

The piyyut, Az chanita sukko – the prayer leader and the congregation, verse by verse, with a melody and song. (ibid. 225)


The recitation of piyyutim reaches a climax on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah:


Since they very much draw out the Hallel of Simchat Torah, verse by verse, with joy and song, therefore they do not say the piyyut of Simchat Torah, except for Sisu ve-simchu and Agil va-esmach. The Gaon, of blessed memory, greatly rejoiced on the festival of Sukkot, and even more so on Shemini Atzeret… They say piyyutim with joy and song: Ha-Aderet ve-ha-Emuna, Veye'etayu, Titbarach ve-tishtabach after Ani ma'amin, and the like from among the piyyutim… He would go before the Torah scrolls exceedingly happy, with great strength and joy, and human wisdom would light up his face like a burning torch of fire, and he would clap his hands… And after the singers would complete the line, he would repeat it after them… And after the Torah scrolls were returned to the Holy Ark, he was not that happy any more, but only as he was on other festivals. (ibid. 232-233)


The repeated emphasis on the concepts of "melody," "song" and "verse by verse," stresses that contrary to what we might have thought, the world of piyyut and poetic expression fulfilled a significant role in the Vilna Gaon's spiritual life. Some of the depictions in Ma'aseh Rav are indeed laconic, but even they do not conceal the profound impression left by the sight of the singing of piyyutim in the Vilna Gaon's synagogue. It is even possible to surmise that the removal of the piyyutim from the framework of the Yotzer blessings and the Amida prayer "liberated" them. From now on they stood on their own, as a channel for emotional and religious expression that penetrated to the depths and stirred up fiery zeal.


Here is the place to mention that the Gra viewed himself as strongly connected to the world of music, and even boasted about that connection. Let us mention the Gra's own words that were recorded by the person who heard them, R. Israel of Shklov, in the introduction to the Pe'at ha-Shulchan:


He greatly praised the science of music. He would then say that many of the reasons of the Torah and the mysteries of the songs of the Levites and the secrets of the Zohar cannot be understood without it. Its melodies could cause one to die of yearning, and they can resurrect the dead with its secrets that are hidden in the Torah.


Music is connected to the Torah and its deepest mysteries, to the point that they cannot be understood without it. "Its melodies" (the term that we saw above is used again here) leads to intense "yearning of the soul." It would appear that some of this high regard for music is reflected in the depictions found in Ma'aseh Rav.


Piyyutim, however, are obviously more than just music. We are dealing with poetic texts. It may be presumed that part of the Gra's positive attitude to piyyutim stems from his positive assessment of the paytanim and their works. The medieval Ashkenazi authorities spoke admiringly about the early piyyutim written in the Land of Israel, and viewed their authors as great authorities, almost like Tanna'im. In their time as well, it was customary to entrust the task of writing piyyutim into the hands of great Torah scholars, who were the community leaders. This stands in contrast to what we find among some of the scholars of Spain. The Rambam often expressed his lack of admiration for the religious poetry with which he was familiar. For example:


Sometimes these piyyutim are the words of poets, and not Torah scholars with whose words it would be fitting to supplicate before and draw close to God. (Responsa ha-Rambam [ed. Blau], no. 254)


In conclusion, despite his halakhic ruling to remove the piyyutim from the prayers themselves, the Vilna Gaon was careful to assign them a distinguished place and framework, as part of the experience of serving God and the existential relationship with Him.


The Gra's halakhic position of removing the piyyutim from the blessings of Shema and from the prayer leader's repetition of the Amida service has been widely accepted. The second half of his position, which involved assigning them a new place, did not take hold. The removal of the piyyutim from the blessings themselves led to their total disappearance from the synagogue service and the congregants' consciousness.


We must still address the third issue in our mosaic – the piyyutim that the Gra decided to leave in their place. What was different about those piyyutim? We will, God willing, deal with this question in our next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The sources are noted in parentheses at the end of the Rema's gloss: the Maharil and the Darkhei Mosheh (the Rema's commentary to the Tur). What follows is based on these sources.

[2] Krovitz is the Ashkenazi designation for the piyyut that is recited in the prayer leader's repetition of the Amida service. The word is apparently a corruption of the original term, Kerova in the plural (Kerovot). The appostrophe found in the Hebrew term alludes to a homiletical interpretation of the word as an acronym for: The voice of rejoicing and slavation is in the tents of the righteous" (kol rinah vishu'a be'ohalei tzadikim; Tehilim 118:15).

[3] R. Yaakov, author of the Tur, lived in the first half of the fourteenth century.

[4] R. Yaakov Halevi Molin Segel died in 1427.

[5] What lies behind this change? One could, of course, argue that we are dealing here with an internal halakhic development. Regarding the Rosh and the Tur, it is also possible that exposure to the Sephardi positions in their new land contributed to this. But it is also possible that the key lies in the Tur's comment, that the practice leads to idle chatter. This alludes to a decline in the standing of the piyyutim in the eyes of the community. Active participation in the recitation of the piyyutim, with their special language and their literary-midrashic allusions, demands great investment and also study. The Maharil demanded that the congregation devote time and effort to the study of the piyyutim and their explanations, but it may be presumed that the effort was not easy, and many abandoned it. This found practical expression in mental detachment from the piyyutim and turning to idle chatter. In addition, the reference to Torah study while the congregation was occupied with the piyyutim is instructive as well. During this period (the period of the later Rishonim) there was a rise in halakhic consciousness, which seeped down to the more common strata of society, far beyond the scholarly elite. This found expression in intensified Torah study, in the dissemination of collections of customary practices and halakhic summaries, in the writing of aids for the study of Gemara (for example, the Meiri's Bet ha-Bechira), and in enhanced observance of the mitzvot. It seems that for many interest in Halakha competed for the place of honor assigned from time immemorial to song and piyyut in the synagogue. The sight of Torah students occupied in Torah study while the rest of congregation was singing the piyyutim, and this with the approval of the Rabbis, reflected an opinion as to what was more important and what less so. This too contributed to the decline in the standing of the piyyutim.

[6] The context: "Our Rabbis taught: Once a certain disciple went down before the ark in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and he span out the prayer to a great length. His disciples said to him: Master, how longwinded this fellow is! He replied to them: Is he drawing it out any more than our Master Moshe, of whom it is written: 'The forty days and the forty nights [that I fell down]'?" (Berakhot 34a).

[7] A yotzer piyyut for Shavuot written by one of the early Ashkenazi paytanim, Rabbi Shimon Hagadol. The words are well-known today thanks to a popular Chassidic melody that was composed for it.