Setting the Stage: The Theatricality of Jewish Aramaic Poetry from Late Antiquity


In this article, various elements of late ancient theatrical practices are used to inform the subject of the theatricality of Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut). Evidence from handbooks of ancient oratory and declamation (the progymnasmata), discussions of Late Ancient theater (particularly mime and pantomime), and material artifacts suggest ways in which piyyutim were both performed and received. By viewing piyyutim through this lens, this paper sheds light on performative elements of Jewish religious poetry even as it situates these works in Late Ancient culture more broadly. The importance of this approach is illustrated through a study of four Aramaic poems associated with the festival of Shavuot that expand and retell biblical narratives: the binding of Isaac, the death of Joab, Moses' ascent of Sinai, and Potiphar’s wife. (Translations of the poems constitute an appendix to the article.)