Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim: A guide to Passover piyutim

Jewish liturgical poetry dates back to the Bible and the rabbinical sages that came after. In honor of Passover, Café Gibraltar presents a primer to traditional Jewish religious singing for the holiday and the Jewish month of Nisan.

By Patia Hana

Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim: A guide to Passover piyutim
Rabbi Haim Louk, originally from Casablanca, who studied under the great Moroccan singer Abdessadek Chkara. The fourth Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques was dedicated to the memory of Chkara. Louk recently resided in Los Angeles, and presently lives in Ashdod, Israel. November 3. (tsweden/CC BY-NC 2.0)

The holiday of Passover summons a plethora of piyutim (Jewish liturgical poetry usually sung, chanted or recited during religious services). Not just on the night of the seder, but also throughout the Jewish month of Nisan, on the last night of Passover. Of course, piyyutim are designated for the Shalosh Regalim (the three Jewish Pilgrimage festivals), the Hallel (a prayer used for praise and giving thanks, recited on holidays), Tikkun Hatal (a Sephardic prayer for “dew” rather than “rain”), etc. Passover is undoubtedly one of those holidays associated with a vast array of piyutim. The following is a selection of piyutim for Passover and the month of Nisan.

Firstly, we have the piyutim from the Hagadah (the text that sets forth the order of the Passover seder). These include both authentic piyutim as well as parts of the Hagadah that over time have become associated with collective singing or chanting and are well known to most Jews. For instance, “Ma Nishtana,” “Avadim Hayeenu,” “Ve’He She’Amda,” “Ve’Ha Lahma Anya” are not considered standard piyutim, but rather pieces from the Midrash (a body of texts and stories told by Jewish rabbinic sages to explain passages in the Bible) and the Mishnah (a tome of Jewish oral traditions). So why do they sound like piyutim to the average person? There are likely two reasons: their ceremonial feeling and their unique melodies. The melodies of Avadim Hayeenu and Ve’Ha Lahma Anya are likely newer melodies – the kind that every Jewish Israeli learns in pre-school. These two melodies are absent from the traditional seders.

Between Ashkenazi and Sephardi

So what are the piyutim in the Passover Hagadah? It depends who you ask, or more precisely, the question is whether one is reading an Ashkenazi or Sephardic Hagadah. At the end of the Ashkenazi Hagadah, one can find seven piyutim – the first five were likely added to the Hagadah after the 12th century, despite the fact that some are far older. The last two (“Ehad Mi Yodea” and “Had Gadya”) were added after the 15th century. Their origins are likely in non-Jewish folks songs and one can safely assume that they were integrated in the Hagadah in order to entertain children. Over the past 200 years, these two piyutim have permeated Sephardic traditions, and in Israel they have become songs integral to Passover and the Hagadah. It is important to note that the Sephardic communities didn’t merely adopt Had Gadya into their seders, some of them sing the lyrics in their traditional language rather than in the original Aramaic (see videos):

Other piyutim from the Hagadah worth mentioning are two of the most ancient ones: one is “Dayenu,” a well-known piyut which can be found in all Jewish traditions and appears in the Hagadah of the Rabbi Saadia Gaon (9th-10th century).

The second ancient piyut found in the Hagadah is “Ata Ga’alt,” which was likely written during the days of the Geonim HaRishonim (7th-8th century). This piyut is built according to the Hebrew alphabet, and lays out the story of Jewish freedom after slavery in Egypt. This piyut is preserved solely in the Baghdadi and Yemenite traditions. By the way, the Babylonians (Iraqis) traditionally sing every sentence of this song in Hebrew followed by its translations into Judeo-Arabic.

These three piyutim – Dayenu, Ata Ga’alt and Emunim – are integrated into the Hagadah itself and are sung during its reading, as opposed to the other aforementioned piyutim, which are sung at the end of the seder after finishing the Hagadah, the meal, Birkat Hamazon (a prayer said after meals) and the Hallel.

Out of all the piyutim at the end of the seder, “Hasel Sidur Pesach Ke’Halachato”(“the end of the Passover seder according to Jewish law”) has a special place – it signifies the end of the seder in Ashkenazi traditions. After all, the piyut’s name suits it perfectly, and its melody is accompanied by a feeling that the seder is over and one can go a bit crazy with the other piyutim.

The Exodus

One of Passover’s essential components is the “Hallel” (a collection from the Book of Psalms which are spoken and sung during holidays and on the first of every month). Out of all the Hallel psalms, the most well-known one in the context of Passover is “B’tzet Israel Mi’Mitzraim”(“When the Israelites Left Egypt”), which is said by Sephardic communities during the evening prayer on the evening of Passover. The Hallel is sung in various melodies, from ancient and traditional to “modern,” as well as in the different melodies of Rabbi Carlibach. Almost every part of the Hellel has various melodies, from uplifting and upbeat to dabke to Tahnunim (part of the morning prayers).

A prayer for dew

We have another opportunity for singing on the night after the seder, when we say the “Tikkun Ha’Tal” (the prayer for dew, recited in  spring), from a series of prayers that commemorate the transition from winter to summer. Once more, we find differences between the religious practices of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. The Sephardim sing, in melodies which vary from community to community several piyutim of Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol – “Shzufat Shemesh” and “Leshoni Konenet,” while the Ashkenazim sing an ancient piyut of Rabbi Elazar Hakilir, “Tal Ten Lirtzot Artzecha.” Both these dew-related piyutim have taken on new melodies in recent years.

Song of the sea

We arrive at the seventh day of Passover, the day that marks the end of the holiday. On this day, according to tradition, it is believed that Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Jews into the Promised Land while singing the song of the sea. Thus, it is customary to read the song of the sea, perhaps the first ever piyut, from the Torah. Hundreds of piyutim have been inspired by the song – some of them are sung in different synagogues before the actual reading of the song of the sea, in order to give the occasion a more festive feeling. Some of them include: “Yom L’Yabasha” by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, which also appears in several Sephardic communities, “Malachi Mekadem”by Rabbi David Hassin, which is sung amongst Moroccan Jews and “Ashir L’El Ge’e Ge’e” from the Babylonian tradition.

Redemption in Nisan

Poetry in honor of Passover begins at the start of the month of Nisan, which is considered the month of redemption. In the words of the sages of the Mishna and the Talmud: “In Nisan our forefathers were redeemed in Egypt, in Nisan we will be redeemed.” It seems that the generational longing accumulates in Nisan and Passover. Thousands of piyutim on redemption, written over generations, find their place during this month.

Egyptian Jews have a unique tradition – on the first of Nisan they hold the “Tawahid” ceremony in both Hebrew and Arabic, including reading parts of the Torah that discuss the exodus from Egypt, chanting passages from Psalms, lighting candles and saying prayers.

Babylonian Jews begin the month of Nisan with two piyutim written by two Baghdadi rabbis – “Melech Goel U’Moshia” by Rabbi Moshe Chutzin (from the 18th century) and “Nachon Libo” by Rabbi Nissim Matsliach (18th-19th century), while adding a song by Rabbi Israel Najara, “Yarom Va’Nisa,” which focuses on a messianic character.

The days in between the seder and the last day of Passover have become, over the past several years, a time for piyut events, where one can hear piyutim in honor of Nisan and the three pilgrimage festivals, including “Yachid Nora” by Aleppian Rabbi Raphael Antebi, Asher Mizrahi and Rahamim Amar’s “El Aviv,” and “El B’Yado,” which is sung in a Turkish-Urfalim melody.

Making the pilgrimage

Passover is one of the three holidays in which Jews are called to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and which have their own set of piyutim. Naturally, the main subject in these piyutim is the pilgrimage and the aspiration to national renewal and the re-establishment of the Temple. These piyutim are sung on all three holidays – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. We have, for example, Antebi’s “Maozi” or the famous “Habibi Ya Habibi” by Asher Mizrahi and Rahamim Amar.

Some of the Asheknazi communities sing “Ya Eli V’Goeli,” which recently was given a new twist by Nitzan Chen Razel.

Song of Songs and Pirkei Avot

And we finish off with a less piyut-related topic, but in the same spirit nonetheless. Another tradition having to do with Passover is that of the Sephardic communities to read the Song of Songs (one of the shortest books in the Bible) and Pirkei Avot (a compilation of the ethical teachings of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period) in the mornings and evenings of the Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuot (also known as the “counting of the Omer”), respectively. Ashkenazi communities traditionally read Pirkei Avot on the first Saturday after Passover up until before Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year). It is important to remember that each and every community has their own version and melody. The Song of Songs served as an inspiration to thousands of piyutim over many generations, and many of its passages continue to serve as texts for different contemporary Israeli artists.

Patia Hana, daughter to a family of Rabbis and Babylonian (Iraq) Kabbalists, focuses on Jewish music and piyutim. She is an editor on the Invitation to Piyut website and is a content consultant for different projects on piyutim. This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Café Gibraltar.