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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Bible in “The Literature of the Synagogue”: Translation, Sermon, Piyyut

The regular reading of Torah, Prophets, and the Scrolls served as a permanent basis for relating to Scriptures within the framework of synagogue life. We can point to three types of literary activities which accompanied the Bible as it reached the synagogue congregation (as noted, besides the prayers): (1) translation of Scripture into the vernacular (in the ancient context, primarily into Aramaic); (2) homilies and explication of the passages read; (3) extensive use of their themes and content for composition of piyyutim (liturgical poems).

The Translation

Once part of the synagogue congregation had a limited command of Hebrew, and especially once the Rabbis began to find multiple and varied halakhic and aggadic meanings in Scriptures, it became impossible to separate the reading of the holy texts (the Torah and probably the haftarot and scrolls as well) from their fixed companion: the translation into Aramaic (in its various dialects) in the land of Israel and Babylonia, or into Greek in Hellenistic centers such as Alexandria. The Aramaic translations (the Targumim), as described below, preserved the vitality of the ancient texts and prevented them from becoming merely a fossilized heritage of the past (regarding the translation of Scripture, see also “Jewish Translations of the Bible,” pp. 2005–2020).

Based on the sources (e.g., m. Meg. 4:6), it appears that next to the readers of the Torah a man stood translating the reading into Aramaic: the meturgeman (translator). The reader and the translator alternated, verse following verse (but in the haftarah several verses could be translated together). They were required to respect each other by not beginning to speak before the other had concluded his words (b. Sot. 39b). This ensured that there was no overlap or confusion between the Torah text and its translation. The meturgeman may possibly have been a professional who earned his living from this work, but he could also have been a learned member of the congregation who knew how to fulfill the religious duty of translation.

In the same way that there was a difference between the land of Israel and Babylonia regarding the customs of Torah and haftarah readings, there was a difference concerning the translations into Aramaic that were customary in both places. The Targum that was customary in Babylonia (Targum Onkelos on the Torah and the Targum by Yonatan ben ‘Uzi’el on the Prophets) tended to be a literal translation, adhering as closely as possible to the biblical text. In passages containing poetry (such as Gen. ch 49 ), in ambiguous verses, and in a few other cases, the Babylonian Targum permitted minor additions or even deviations from the Scriptural source, for exegetical or theological purposes, such as the removal of what seemed to be contradictions in the biblical text and anthropomorphic expressions relating to God or the need to preserve the honor of the fathers of the nation. But even more important is the fact that these two translations were the exclusive, authorized translations of Scripture, and on every Sabbath those attending the synagogue would be exposed to their single, fixed text. Although there was a clear risk of monotony and routine, this was the way in which the Babylonian rabbis sought to present the biblical text to its listeners.

Such was not the practice of Jews in the land of Israel. The meturgeman wove into the words of the Torah a long series of exegetic, literary, haggadic, and halakhic traditions, remonstrations or words of encouragement for the congregation. He thus brought to their ears the biblical text, readapted and refashioned in many ways, in accordance with the intellectual competence of different congregations, current and local occurrences, and the meturgeman’s own tendencies. It is also worthy to note that in the land of Israel—as opposed to Babylonia—no single biblical verse was translated in an identical, uniform manner in every place or at all times. The meturgeman was permitted to choose the manner of translation that seemed proper to him, to add his own comments to the traditions he had imbibed from his teachers, to omit or to expand on words, and thus to emphasize one or other aspect of the translated text. This picture of variation and flexibility is clearly reflected in the Aramaic translations of the Torah and Prophets that have come down to us from the land of Israel. They are referred to by name, such as the “Targum Yerushalmi,” “Targum Yonatan ben ‘Uzi’el on the Torah” (even though its composer is not the same person of similar name who composed the Targum on the Prophets), and so on. If we recall that in the land of Israel a reading of about forty verses was deemed adequate for any occasion, it would seem that ample time remained for the meturgeman to expand on the passage. Indeed, the amount of material inserted by the meturgeman is often greater than the text it‐ self. The translator would sometimes even weave a long poem into his translation, if he thought that it would add majesty and beauty to his words and enhance their dramatic potential (e.g., within the narrative of the Parting of the Red Sea [Exod. chs 14–15 ], or the Binding of Isaac [Gen. ch 22 ]). The aggadic traditions embedded in the various translations are frequently colorful and exciting, with a distinct educational and popular tone, and shed new light on the text that was just read. These traditions stress the importance of prayer or extol the patriarchs of the nation, describe in bold colors the days of redemption or emphasize the principle of reward and punishment, and so forth. Not only was the length of the passages read from the Torah and Prophets variable and flexible, but even the manner in which these passages were presented to the congregation by way of the Aramaic translation was constantly changing. The audience in the land of Israel could not then be lulled by feelings of familiarity and routine.

The Sermon

Besides the Torah reading and its translation, there was often a public sermon, given on various occasions, festivals, and Sabbaths, usually during the Shaπarit (morning) prayer or in the afternoon, sometimes prior to the Torah reading and sometimes afterwards. The preacher, either a local sage or a guest, an elder of the congregation or one of their teachers, dealt with various and sundry topics, educational, academic, and issues of contemporary concern, according to his understanding of the task at hand.

Naturally, the sermons differed from one Sabbath to the next and from festival to festival, adding another dimension to the use of the Bible in the synagogue. In nearly every case the preacher dealt with the subject of the Torah reading, together with the haftarah or the scroll for that day, contributing his part to what the congregation had learned from the reading and its Aramaic translation.

There are thousands of literary units in the literature of the Sages, especially in midrashic literature (e.g., Gen. Rab. or m. Tanπ.) that originally served as public sermons offered prior to scriptural readings. These literary units demonstrate the remarkably rhetorical character of the public sermon, relating various topics that would be of concern to its audience: the reason for suffering, the nature of religious life without the Temple, relations between Jews and Gentiles, the difficulty of observing the commandments, the hope for redemption, and others. Such sermons were studded with innumerable biblical verses, together with their explication, so that the realm of Scriptures was broadened to include excerpts from texts that were not read on that Sabbath or festival.

In the land of Israel—but seemingly hardly ever in Babylonia—the preachers would often expound on an issue arising from the biblical reading, through the use of a widespread literary pattern referred to as petiπta (usually translated as “proem”). According to this pattern the preacher would first choose a verse from the Prophets or the Writings, a verse that appeared to have no connection whatsoever with the topic in the Torah, haftarah, or scroll read that day. He would then spiral from this verse, from topic to topic, until he arrived at the opening verse of the reading and by that gave closure to his sermon. This pattern, which connected two unrelated verses, allowed the preacher to illuminate different issues while piquing the congregation’s curiosity. The listeners knew from the outset what the preacher’s concluding verse would be, and they must certainly have attempted to surmise how the preacher would eventually make the connection between the opening and the concluding verses of his sermon. The choice to open the sermon with verses from books that were usually not read in the synagogue (those Prophets that were not used as haftarot, the book of Proverbs, the book of Job, etc.) was another way to expose all portions of Scripture to the synagogue congregation, and to emphasize that the entire Bible is interconnected. On Sabbath and festivals they would then read from the Torah and the Prophets, and would hear a sermon based to a large extent on the Writings. Thus all portions of Scripture would be reviewed once again, and the audience would see the full extent of Scripture.

The Piyyut

Piyyut refers to the poetical religious compositions, nearly all in Hebrew, recited in liturgical contexts in the synagogue or outside it, such as at wedding ceremonies or at festive meals. These compositions maintain the various characteristics of poetry in general, such as rhythm, meter, refrains, and acrostics of various kinds.

During the era of the Sages and the geonic period, the piyyut blossomed primarily in the land of Israel, mainly for use in the synagogue. The piyyutim were not composed as adornments for the prayers or as supplements to them, but rather, first and foremost, as lyrical alternatives for the fixed and obligatory prayers. If the congregation or its leaders desired, the standard prayer would be recited by the cantor in prose (as it is recited to this day), but if they wished to vary the expression of their feelings through a piyyut, this option was also open to them. For this reason hundreds and even thousands of piyyutim were composed by many poets, only some of whom are known to us by name: Yose ben Yose (4th to 5th century); Yannai (5th to 6th century); Rabbi Elazar Ha‐Kalir (6th to 7th century); and others. Those attending synagogue could occasionally hear, for example, a one‐time lyrical substitution for the ‘Amidah or for the blessings enveloping the reciting of the Shema. At times, the poet was accompanied by a small choir, contributing a further dimension to the experience the piyyutim brought with them.

Since the piyyut was essentially a lyrical substitute for prayer, its themes were primarily drawn from that realm, but it appears that the poets frequently dealt as well with the topics of the Torah reading, the haftarah, or, when appropriate, one of the five scrolls. Thus we can also view their words as a kind of poetic sermon on the themes associated with that day. For example, through his poetic substitute for the second blessing of the ‘Amidah, the blessing of “He who revives the dead,” the poet could relate in his own way to the story of the Binding of Isaac, who according to a rabbinic tradition was slain by Abraham, but revived; or through his poetic version of the blessing before reciting the Shema, the blessing of “Who creates the heavenly lights,” he could relate to the story of the creation of the world and the heavenly lights in his own way. Within the piyyutim, the poet was also permitted to introduce explicit quotations of verses from the entire Bible, as many did. Since the number of poets and piyyutim was virtually unlimited, the person listening to them in the synagogue could on nearly every occasion sample another new composition, different from those he recognized, and in this way he would also come to know many varied scriptural passages.

As time went on, and in no small part due to the opposition of Babylonian Sages to the use of the piyyut in the synagogue, the status of the piyyut as a substitute for prayers was reduced to a mere embellishment, recited in various Jewish communities primarily on Rosh Ha‐Shanah and Yom Kippur, and in a minority of congregations on festivals and other occasions as well. We see, therefore, another example of the triumph of the Babylonian view over that of the land of Israel in regard to the reading of Scripture in the synagogue and to matters associated with it (Targum, sermon, and piyyut).

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