“Eli Eliyahu:” The Havdalah Piyyut and its Melodies

“Eli Eliyahu:” The Havdalah Piyyut and its Melodies
August, 2017

By: Adi Koren, Or Dotan, Avigail Harel, Nave Klil Hachoresh, Clement Robert, Courtney Blue, Yaniv Dery, Noam Peleg, Sonja Wiedemann

English translation: Courtney Blue

 

The piyyut “Eli Eliyahu” is attributed to Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, considered one of the last great poets of the Spanish “Golden Age” of Hebrew poetry. Ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, Spain in 1089 and died around 1164. During these years there were wars and vicissitudes in Spain which greatly affected the Jewish communities there. In 1140 Ibn Ezra immigrated to Italy, and from there to France and to other parts of Christian Europe. Toward the end of his life he wandered to England, and most likely passed away there. Throughout his traveling years in various locales, Ibn Ezra wrote Biblical commentary, poetry, research on Hebrew grammar, writings concerning Jewish thought (including philosophy and various scientific fields) and also translated important books of the time into Hebrew.[1]

Performance Context

“Eli Eliyahu” is sung on Saturday night as part of the havdalah (separation) ceremony. Havdalah is a liturgical event which includes four consecutive blessings, the final one being the central blessing officially ending the Sabbath. The ceremony symbolically “separates” between the Sabbath and the following weekdays, “separating between sacred and mundane (ha-mavdil bein kodesh le-hol),” (a formula that also appears as an addition to the fourth blessing in the Amidah prayer of the Arvit (evening) service following the Sabbath). The nusah (prayer style) of the blessing, as it is printed today in siddurim (prayer books), was formulated among the Babylonian sages during the Talmudic period.[2] Before the Havdalah blessings it is customary to add a sequence of verses, and to occasionally add free and impromptu baqqashot (requests) for the success of household members.

Like other Jewish liturgical rituals, the havdalah ceremony is embellished by piyyutim (religiously-themed poems) that are sung after the recitation of the blessings. These piyyutim often contain themes such as the yearning for redemption, which sharpens with the coming of the Sabbath and with the departure of the additional “soul at rest,” which is traditionally granted to believers during the Sabbath. Therefore, a prominent motif in these songs is the figure of Elijah the Prophet (Eliyahu), whose arrival symbolizes the coming of the Messiah.[3] Here it is also possible to interpret the requests for redemption on Saturday night (Motzaei Shabbat) as a reward for observance of the Sabbath. As Rabbi David Abudraham writes, “Therefore we say to the Lord, we have observed the Sabbath, now send us Elijah the Prophet.” In addition, it is accepted that Elijah will not arrive on the evening of the Sabbath; therefore Saturday night is a time for renewed expectations. These piyyutim also soften the transition from the Sabbath to the six days of the week, an aid in extending the special atmosphere of the Sabbath through to the beginning of the “secular” weekdays.

Like most havdalah piyyutim, “Eli Eliyahu” is concerned with the coming of Elijah the Prophet and the redemption of Israel from its enemies. The paytan (poet) pictorially describes the suffering of his people, Elijah the Prophet among them, in contrast to the success of those who despise the people of Israel, and includes a prayer for revenge and salvation. Through artistic means, the author integrates Biblical references within the piyyut:

“Beautiful fat-fleshed / and graze” (v.5) -- “[...] and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass.” (Genesis 41:2); “Our Rock, give them poisonous water” (v. 6) -- “See, I will make this people eat bitter food and drink poisoned water.” (Jeremiah 9:14); “they raise / their voices and weep” (v.9)  -- “Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud.” (Genesis 29:11); among others.

Thus, this piyyut suits the atmosphere of a baqqasha for Motzei Shabbat. It is performed by Sephardic and Eastern (Oriental) Jews in a variety of melodies and textual variations.

Text Sources

The text is ancient and appears in a Cairo Geniza manuscript (T-S 8H.15), beginning: Eli Eliyahu ha-navi havenah.[4] It is worth noting that these ancient sources do not explicitly attribute the piyyut to R. Abraham Ibn Ezra.

Geniza manuscript (T-S 8H.15)

A testimony to the wide dispersion of Eli Eliyahu is its assiduous printing in prayer books and piyyut collections published in many diverse locations and periods. Among the early printings that should be emphasized is “Seder Tefillah” (Amsterdam, 1661). Another proof of the piyyut's wide dispersion is its appearance in “Ne’imot be-Yeminkha Netzah” (Jerusalem 1902), a collection compiled according to the custom of the Jews of Crimea[5]

Following is the piyyut text as printed in “Sefer ha-Shirim” (Book of Songs) which was published in Baghdad in 1906. This publication is the main source for piyyutim sung by the Jews of Baghdad.

 

 

Eli Eliyahu Text

Transliteration from Hebrew

Eli Eliyahu Eli Eliyahu / Eli Eliyahu HaNavi haveh na

 

Bo yirtom richbo / Na bashevi ki bo

Lo shachav libo / Gam lo ra’ah shenah

 

Rav machli bir’ot / Kach’shi u’msanot

yafot u’vriot / Bassar vatirena

 

Hashkeh tzur mei rosh / Tzar einav yiltosh

yom einai likdosh / Yisrael tish’ena

 

Matai tar’eh ot / Yesha el kor’ot

Lacha u’lecha nos’ot / Kolan vativkena [vatarona]

 

Hamalach hago’el / Lifnei dal sho’el

Ana haEl El / Avraham hakreh na

Translation from Hebrew

Eli Eliyahu Eli Eliyahu / Eli Eliyahu the Prophet please come

 

He will lead his chariot / restless in captivity

His heart did not rest / nor envision sleep

 

My illness grows as I see / my leanness while my enemies

Are beautiful fat-fleshed / and graze

 

Our Rock, give them poisonous water / while the enemy shall glare

My eyes to the Holy One / of Israel will be raised

 

When will You give a sign / of redemption to those who call out

To You, O to You they raise / their voices and weep

 

Angel of Deliverance / come before this poor seeker

O Lord, God of / Abraham call him forth

Transliteration and Translation from B’nai Jeshrun: http://www.bj.org/spiritual-life/music-of-bj/invitation-to-piyyut-na/el-eliyahu/

Literary Structure

“Eli Eliyahu” is a simple shir ezor (also: muwashshah, or “girdle poem”), where each strophe is comprised of two verses and each verse is divided into two short units. In each strophe, the first three units rhyme with one another, and the fourth, closing unit rhymes with the endings of the other strophes, on the syllable “na.” The first strophe is short and includes only one line, in which the final unit also ends with “na.” In performance the opening line acts as a refrain repeated after every strophe.

The opening letters of each stanza create an acrostic of the author’s name, “A-B-R-H-M” (Abraham). The poetic meter is fixed according to the Hebrew method regarding full and short vowels: five syllables for every unit, and six in the final unit of each stanza (not including the shva and the hataf)[6] [6]. This creates a parallelization of the literary and rhythmic structures. Additionally, it is possible to see that the recurring meter and rhyme scheme is of a higher priority than the syntactic and semantic structure of the words, as the division into lines and units creates an unnatural fragmentation of sentences.                         

Rhyme Scheme:

A R (= Refrain)

B B B R

C C C R

D D D R

E E E R

Literary Interpretation

Stanza A: Bo yirtom…ra’a shenah, “He will lead...envision sleep” - in context of the content of the opening stanza, the next verse hints at the chariot of fire in which Elijah was taken to heaven (“[…] a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared […]” II Kings 2:11). Although he was away for a long time, this stanza expresses Elijah’s condition during the era when the people of Israel were in exile, unable to rest for a moment, and working toward Israel’s redemption.        

Stanza B: Rav mahali…vatirena, “My illness grows...and graze” - this stanza alludes to Pharaoh’s dreams about the thin and fat cows (the dream that Joseph solved). As during the drought in Egypt, the people of Israel once again look forward to future redemption.

Stanza C: Hashkeh Tzur….Yisrael tish’ena, “Our Rock...Israel will be raised” - the appeal to God (the Rock (Tzur) of Israel) who will mercilessly persecute nations that were not merciful to Israel.

Stanza D: Matai tar’eh…kolan va-tarona, “When will You give a sign...and weep” - in continuation of the previous stanza, this is a request to God to show His people a sign of redemption so that they can rejoice.

Stanza E: Hamalakh hago’el, “Angel of deliverance:” - the poem’s conclusion offers room for a very personal expression from the poet, revealing his own personal prayer. This is by way of Abraham’s servant's prayer, who was sent to take a wife for Isaac, son of Abraham. “And he said: ‘Lord my God, my master Abraham, read it before the day, and do kindness with my master Abraham’” (Genesis 24:12). The servant asks God to reveal Himself before him and to show Abraham grace, similar to the primary theme of the poem, in which the speaker asks for a revelation from God or from the Messiah.

Music: Origins and Performances

The piyyut “Eli Eliyahu” is sung only among Sephardic Jews and those from the Middle-Eastern communities. It is possible to distinguish between two branches of melodic traditions associated with this piyyut: the Ottoman/Iraqi traditions and the Maghrebi traditions from Algeria and Morocco. Additionally, the piyyut has been set to new tunes by contemporary Israeli composers.

The Ottoman/Iraqi Tradition

A. Z. Idelsohn first published the Ottoman/Iraqi melody in 1922-23, with two versions published in two different volumes of the Thesaurus, one devoted to the Babylonian (Iraqi) Jews and the other to the Eastern Sephardic Jews, as he calls the Jews from Ottoman Salonica from whom he heard this melody in Jerusalem.[7] While the Babylonian version (which means primarily Baghdadi) appears among songs for the Sabbath, the Sephardic version is included in a chapter of pizmonim (religious songs with refrain) not associated with a particular time, and specified as a melody in the Turkish mode makam husseyni. Characteristic of this version is the deviation from the original text in the refrain: “El Eliyahu, bi-zhut Eliyahu ha-navi have na.”

Eli Eliyahu Husseyni

The Ottoman melody consists of one phrase, four measures long, which is performed with the refrain and with the stanzas. In the Babylonian version the opening of this phrase differs in the refrain, in contrast to the stanzas.

The Babylonian melody as published by Idelsohn

In an Iraqi version from the National Sound Archives (Item number Y-00067-REL_A_01), the refrain has a cadence on F in the second measure (instead of D, as in Idelsohn) as the phrases of the stanzas.

The Sephardic versions from Idelsohn (informants from Salonica)

In addition, it is important to note that Idelsohn listed the Iraqi version of the piyyut “Ein k-eloheinu” with the melody of the stanzas from “Eli Eliyahu.”[8]

The Babylonian version is also documented among the Iraqi Jewish immigrants of Calcutta, India.[9] Unique to this version is the opening note on the third scale degree (F) beneath the final note, instead of on the fifth (D) or the tonic (A) in the other versions. The chromatic melodic movement in the stanzas is similar to that of “Ein K-Eloheinu” as documented by Idelsohn.

The Ottoman version is also documented by Itzhak Levy in his Antología de la Liturgia Judeo-Española as sung by Moshe Levy, a Cairo-born singer. [10], Similar to many Jews from Cairo in the twentieth century, it is reasonable to assume that this informant belonged to a family of immigrants from Iraq or Syria. 

Eli Eliyahu Turkish version

It should be noted that the Jews of Kurdistan sing a very similar version to the one from Baghdad, especially the single-phrase version, such as the “Ein K-Eloheinu” that we saw above, but with one significant change: the melody ends in descent (on D) and not on the fifth note (“husseyni”) like in the Babylonian version (National Library of Israel catalogue item Y-00033-REL_A_01).

Eli Eliyahu Kurdish version

Historical Recordings of the Ottoman/Iraqi Melody

This Ottoman/Iraqi melody is likely ancient. It was recorded by Jewish artists from the East in very early recordings. Cantor Yitzhak Algazi recorded the Ottoman Turkish version in 1929. Algazi’s label clearly states that this is a song for Saturday night.[11] Algazi’s performance is characterized by a repetition of the word “Eli” in the opening of the refrain. The Iraqi version was recorded in the same year (1929) by the company Odeon by the famous payytan Salim Daoud Dargi, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble.[12]

Another Sephardic Version

Isaac Levy documented another version from the Ottoman region, from Salonica. It is substantially different from the more common Ottoman/Iraqi version that we analyzed above, as the entirety of the melody remains above the tonic (in this case D). Moreover, the second degree (E) is lowered (flat) shifting the modal feeling towards makam bayyati. Additionally, in this version the refrain is in Judeo-Spanish (“Eli Eliyahu, por nuestras casas venga”; “Eli Eliyahu, may he come to our homes”).[13] Another version of this melody was found in Ghardaia, Algeria (see below).

North African Traditions

The song has a number of North African versions that differ from the Ottoman/Iraqi family of melodies. One of these melodies has a strong Andalusian character and is known in Morocco and in Algeria. This melody is also associated with the piyyut, “Yom Leyabasha” by Rabbi Yehuda Halevy.[14]

image.png

Another North African melody is unique to the city Algerian city Oran. This melody is divided into two parts: AB for the opening line and AAB for the verses, where part B contains two lines and part A one. Part A of the melody corresponds with the first two lines of each stanza (bb/cc/dd/bb) and that they end on Si#, while part B corresponds to the end of the stanza, and ends on the note Sol in an open/close cadential format. It is also possible to see that there is a musical rhyme matching the textual rhyme of each section of the first line of verses, by way of double repitition. It is difficult to construct meanings of words in the melody because of the strophic repetition, but it is possible to note that the common interval of Sol-Si# (augmented third) creates a sense of supplication, as a resolution is expected from the leading tone to do#, a resolution that does not occur, just like Elijah the prophet (who does not “show a sign”).

image (1).png

Eli Eliyahu Oran version

Gardaya (Algerian) Version

The version from the desert town of Gardaya in Algeria, recorded only once, is unique in that it includes additional verses that do not appear in the original poem. The following table shows the sequence of their appearance: the refrain “El Eliyahu” {R}; the stanzas of the original poem {C}; and between them there is also an additional set of stanzas {A} in Judeo-Arabic and another refrain in Hebrew {B}.

R

A1

B

C1

R

A2

B

C2

R

A3

B

C3

R

A1 A4

B

C4

R

A5

B

C5

R

A6

B

A7 B A8 B R

It is interesting to note the striking similarity between the melody of this version and the one from Salonica analyzed above. In both cases, the melody remains entirely above the tonic.

Eli Eliyahu Gardaya version

Israeli Variations

“Eli Eliyahu” is known in Israel among immigrants from all the diaspora locations mentioned above who included this song in their repertoire. In addition, however, new melodies were composed in Israel for this piyyut, or traditional melodies were arranged in a new style. For example, the Jerusalemite composer Rahamim Amar wrote a new melody for Eli Eliyahu in a traditional style. His version of the piyyut was recorded live by a children’s choir with orchestral accompaniment conducted by the composer. It seems that Amar based his melody on the traditional Ottoman/Iraqi version discussed above.      

The choir “Renanim” recorded another melody with instrumental accompaniment, conducted and arranged by Arieh Levanon for Kol Israel (Israel Radio) in the 1950’s. This is a very Westernized version of the Ottoman melody and is very similar to the version which Yitzhak Levy documented from Mr. Moshe Levy of Cairo (see above).

It is also interesting to note that the song is included in the book “Elef zemer ve-‘od zemer,” a practical collection of modern and old Hebrew songs intended for Israeli singing communities.[15] Its inclusion in such a book attests to the wide adoption of “Eli Eliyahu” in Israel as a song for Shabbat/Havdalah. 

The song was also included in a commercial recording by the singer Lior Amadi in the Mizrahi (Eastern) popular music style and by the band, Tzlil Ha-rag.[16]

 


[1] Abraham Ibn Ezra, Shirim. Ed. Israel Levin. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2011, 29-35.

[2] Naphtali Weider, The Formulation of Jewish Liturgy in the East and West. Vol. 1. Jerusalem, Yad Itzhak Ben Zvi, 1998, 114-115. (in Hebrew)

[3] Rappel, Yoel. The Jewish Holidays. 210; Greenberg, Irving (Yitzhak). The Jewish Way. (Reuven Mass 2010), 148.

[4] We would like to thank Ms. Sarah Cohen of the Ezra Fleischer Geniza Research Institute of Poetry for the help in locating the text in its earliest source.

[5] For references to additional sources see, Israel Davidson, Otsar ha-Shira veha-Piyut (Thesaurus of Medieval Hebrew Poetry) from the time of the signing of the Holy Writ until the beginning of the Enlightenment, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society Press, 1933), 256.

[6] In a few places there is a deviation from the Hebrew grammar in favor of the meter, when shva nah is performed as shva nah, in accordance with the metric structure.

[7] Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Thesaurus of Oriental Hebrew Melodies (Berlin; Jerusalem: B. Harz, 1922/3), Vol. 2 (Berlin; Jerusalem: B. Harz, 1922), p. 122; Vol. 4 (Berlin; Jerusalem: B. Harz, 1923), p. 250.

[8] Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Thesaurus of Oriental Hebrew Melodies (Berlin; Jerusalem: B. Harz, 1922/3), Vol. 2, No. 72.

[9]  Musleah, Rahel. Songs of the Jews of Calcutta: [be-ḳol ʻarev]. Cedarhust, N.Y.: Tara Publications, 1991.

[10] Volume 10 (1980), pp. 122-123,

[11] Eli Eliyahou, Pathé, X 4056, ca. 1929. Prière du samedi soir.

[12] This version appears in the CD Shbahoth, Iraqi-Jewish Songs from the 1920s, produced by Julian Futter & Dr. Sara Manasseh. 

[13] Isaac Levy, Antología de la liturgia judeo-española, Volume 1 (1965), pp. 147-148, sung by Mr. Michael Molcho (b. 1890).

[14] אל אליהו מימון כהן," [n.d], video clip, accessed May 1, 2017, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tg6UUdnTGwE

[15] Volume 4, Ramat Gan, 1985, p. 39.

[16] ״ליאור עמדי - אל אליהו״, Youtube Video. Date Accessed: January 17, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8l63xd4U86k