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.
“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. 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. 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.
The text is ancient and appears in a Cairo Geniza manuscript (T-S 8H.15), beginning: Eli Eliyahu ha-navi havenah. 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
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/
“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) . 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.
A R (= Refrain)
B B B R
C C C R
D D D R
E E E R
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. 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.”