Themes and Variations: Yannai on Exod. 3:1 and Deut. 6:4
Piyyutim–Hebrew liturgical poems–represent the rebirth of the epic impulse in Hebrew writing. These poems, often well over two hundred lines in length, are typically composed of multiple individual units: some highly patterned works, dense with acrostics and intricate rhymes, while others are more narrative, and others verge upon prose. In practice, however, most readers encounter only excerpts of piyyutim and the complex integrity of these compositions is thus obscured. This article presents annotated translations of two complete piyyutim by one of the most important early synagogue poets, Yannai (6th century CE, Galilee), as a way of exploring the compositional rhetoric of piyyutim and exemplifying the complexity of this particular genre of piyyut. In particular, the article considers techniques by which the poet creates unity across the components of these works; and it identifies ways in which patterns of repetition cumulatively develop narrative trajectories which are both elliptical and linear. The presentation of two complete piyyutim (those embellishing the Torah portions beginning with Exod. 3:1 and Deut. 6:4) facilitates comparison.
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