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  • The Fathers of Piyyut
  • Elisabeth Hollender
Menahem H. Schmelzer , ed. Avot hapiyyut, by Shalom Spiegel. New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1996, 434 pp.

Although research on classical piyyut began in the early days of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, it got off to a slow start. The first Palestinian payyetan who received scholarly attention was Eleazar berabbi Kallir, who was the subject of a short monograph by S. Rapoport, published in 1829.1 In 1836, Franz Delitzsch devoted a few pages of his Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Poesie to what he considered to be old Italian and old French liturgical poetry, in the course of which he included a discussion of the same classical payyetan. In this discussion, Kallir merits altogether seven lines, and not one of his piyyutim is even mentioned.2

In the introduction to his Literaturgeschichte der synagogalen Poesie (1865),3 Leopold Zunz recounted his search for unknown piyyutim in old printed maḥzorim and manuscripts. Starting with 200 seliḥot, by the time he published his magnum opus, he had collected more than 400 in addition to more than 3,000 other items of Hebrew liturgical poetry. Yet, as he says in the first chapter, knowledge of payyetanim was scanty in the nineteenth century. The description of early and classical piyyut in Zunz's Literaturgeschichte includes, besides anonymous piyyutim, the names of only three payyetanim: Yose b. Yose, Yannai, and Eleazar Kallir. Of Yose b. Yose, whom Zunz identified as the earliest payyetan known by name, he knew six compositions (compared with twelve in the edition by A. Mirsky). Of Yannai, Zunz knew only one kerova (compared with more than 140 weekly kerovot published by Zulay and many more published since), and this kerova had been identified as being the work of Yannai only as recently as 1859, in Zunz's Die Ritus des synagogalen Gottesdienstes; until then, Yannai's work had been considered completely lost. All that was known of this important and productive poet had been [End Page 229] three medieval references: Gershom b. Judah Meor haGola and Judah b. Sheshet cite him as having written kerovot for all the sabbaths of the triennial cycle, and Ephraim b. Jacob of Bonn relates that he heard from the sages of Lombardy that Yannai had killed his disciple Eleazar berabbi Kallir out of jealousy by putting a scorpion in his shoe. Zunz's list of compositions by Kallir contains thirty-three items, including a list of fifty-five kinot for the ninth of Av. In 1884, Frankl was still convinced that this list would not be much lengthened by new discoveries.4

The discovery, in 1898, of the geniza of the Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Cairo) revolutionized the study of the early and classical piyyut. A list of piyyutim by Yannai was published as early as 1910, and the first publication of his piyyutim, by Israel Davidson, appeared in 1919. As more and more piyyutim from the geniza were published, the need arose for a tool for identifying piyyutim that would be better suited to modern scholarship than Zunz's Literaturgeschichte and its separately published indices. Davidson's four-volume Thesaurus of Medieval Hebrew Poetry, published between 1924 and 1933, included references to more than 24,000 piyyutim, not including those extant in manuscript only. As the number of deciphered geniza fragments increased, the number of known Kallirian piyyutim grew far beyond the number of piyyutim known to Zunz. To this day, it remains impossible to estimate the oeuvre of this productive poet, as almost every year sees the publication of at least another unknown Kallirian piyyut. No doubt, many fragments not yet identified also are his work.

In the 1920s, Shalom Spiegel announced to the scholarly community his intention to bring out an edition of the works of Eleazar berabbi Kallir.5 Spiegel collected material until his death, in May 1984, while the slowly growing community of scholars of Hebrew poetry waited more or less patiently. Menahem Schmelzer has now produced from the materials found in Spiegel's literary estate a volume entitled Avot hapiyyut (The fathers of the piyyut). In his foreword, he mentions these expectations, as well as the...


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