By Rabbi Leon A. Morris

There was a time, more than century and a half ago, when piyutim were seen largely as a kind of cultural burden to be cast aside in order to make the service shorter and more meaningful. Early liturgical reformers argued that the siddur and machzor had grown too lengthy and no longer inspired modern Jews. Piyutim – medieval poetic extensions of the traditional prayers, with allusions incomprehensible to the average congregant – were first on the chopping block. The irony, however, lies in the fact that the piyut was itself a sort of liturgical reform. While earlier generations of Jews were unable to change the statutory service itself, piuyutim allowed for an imaginative embellishment of that same service. It highlighted and expanded particular parts of the liturgy. It added additional opportunities for congregational singing. It was, in short, an early version of the “creative service.” 

In last week’s “Delving into T’filah,” Rabbi Richard Sarason analyzed the most famous piyut to be retained (at least in part) by Reform machzorim, Unetaneh Tokef, composed as an introduction to the kedushah of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service, and later included on Yom Kippur as well. This piyut became for many one of the most distinctive and memorable pieces of liturgy for the High Holy Days.

Over the past decade, there has been a growing phenomenon in Israel centered around the rediscovery and revival of medieval piyutim – not just in the synagogue, but also in the cultural realms largely controlled by self-defined “secular” Jews. Once seen primarily as an impediment for the modern worshiper, piyutim are now being studied and sung by local “kehillot sharot” (community singing groups) that gather weekly in homes and community centers. These groups combine community building, ethnomusicology, history and text study. New CDs by popular artists are constantly being released with new musical settings to these piyutim. “Piyut festivals” in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have drawn hundreds of people of all ages. The interest in reviving piyutim is fueled in part by the small but significant programs and projects driven by native-born Israelis rediscovering the Jewish bookshelf, and reclaiming Jewish heritage on their own terms and in their own way.

Fueling this phenomenon is an amazing website that has a staggering collection of recordings of piyutim from dozens of different communities, explanations of each piyut’s authorship and history, as well as the lyrics. One piyut alone might have a dozen recordings made from paytanim (composers of piyutim), chazanim (cantors) and congregations. The most robust part of the site is in Hebrew only, but a significant selection of materials is available on the English language part of the site. Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York convened a conference a few years back aimed at bringing the revival of piyutim to America, and some materials that emerged from that effort are also on the English language part of the site.

Creating a new Reform machzor that will be used for the next four decades requires us to pay attention to this growing piyut revival. From these creative efforts, our congregations may find new models for re-introducing this classic poetry to the Reform synagogue.

The new openness to expanding the number of piyutim is found throughout Mishkan HaNefesh, but most especially with the Selichot prayers of Yom Kippur, particularly the fullest version that appears in the Yom Kippur Evening service.

Here are two piyutim that we included in the new machzor, and a link to one traditional and one contemporary recording of each. Enjoy this confluence of creativity and retrieval.

The piyut, Adon HaSelichot (Chatanu Lifanecha) sung in the traditional style of Jerusalem Sefardi community.

Here is the same piyut, arranged and recorded by the contemporary Israel singer, Yonatan Razel.

The piyut, Aneinu, sung by the Cochin Jews of India.

Here is the same piyut, arranged and recorded by the contemporary Israeli singer, Meir Banai.

Rabbi Leon A. Morris is the spiritual leader of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY, and is one of the editors of the forthcoming new Reform machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh.  He was the founding director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.