The Minhag of Reciting Yetziv Pitgam

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May 13, 2015
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One common Ashkenazi minhag on Shavuot is to recite the piyut (poem) of Yetziv Pitgam on the second day of Shavuot. The first letter of each line forms an acrostic, spelling out the name of the author, Yaakov BeRabbi Meir Levi, who is commonly identified as Rabbeinu Tam.1 The text of the piyut, which originated in France,2 is brought in the Machzor Vitri, and the minhag to read it is also mentioned in the Sefer HaMinhagim of both R. Isaac Tyrnau and R. Avraham Klausner, in the Sefer Maharil, in the Levush, and others.


Yetziv Pitgam is read after the first verse of the haftarah. The timing of the reading is the context in which Yetziv Pitgam appears most often in halachic discussions. This is because there is a halachic problem with reading the piyut between the brachah on the haftarah and the haftarah, because it would constitute an interruption. This problem is resolved for the piyut of Akdamot, which is recited at the Torah reading on the first day, by reading it before Birkot HaTorah. Since Yetziv Pitgam is read during the haftarah, one may be more lenient, and it can therefore be read in the middle.3


The placement of Yetziv Pitgam makes sense when considering the purpose of the piyut. The piyut is written in Aramaic, and was once said by the meturgaman. In ancient times, the Torah was read a few verses at a time, in Hebrew, and then it was the job of the meturgaman to translate those verses into Aramaic, the common vernacular. In this piyut, the meturgaman asks Hashem and community members for permission to conduct this translation. This purpose of Yetziv Pitgam is stated explicitly in the last line of the piyut, “Keka’imna vetargimna, bemilui debahir safrin,” (As I stand and translate with the words the sofrim chose).4  Once the Torah and haftarah were no longer translated, this last line was deleted from the piyut, which is why it is not said today.5 The connection between Yetziv Pitgam and the Targum helps explain what is now the last line of the Piyut, “Yehonatan gevar invetan bechain namtei lei apirin,” (Jonathan the humble, let us give to him praise). This line is likely a reference to Yonatan Ben Uzziel, who wrote the Targum Yehonatan, one of the earliest Aramaic translations of the Neviim.


Yetziv Pitgam is not the only Aramaic piyut that was ever written for the meturgaman. Akdamot, which is also still extant, likely served the same purpose, but it is also probable that there were other such piyutim as well. So why have Yetziv Pitgam and Akdamot survived, while the others have not? I would like to give a few suggestions.


First, a piyut focused on the meturgaman makes sense for the holiday of Shavuot. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. However, in order for the common man to learn Torah, it was important that it would be in a language he could understand. The celebration of the role of the meturgaman makes sense for Shavuot, then, because it was through him that the common man could appreciate the Torah that he was given on that day. Furthermore, in addition to simply translating the text, the meturgaman would also add in his own thoughts and explanations about what was being read.6 On Shavuot, there is a focus on Talmud Torah, so we applaud the learning that the metugaman would do throughout the year.


Another important aspect of the meturgaman which relates to Shavuot is his job as the middleman. The meturgaman would act as the intermediary between the one reading the Torah and the people. In Mishnaic times as well, the meturgaman was in charge of taking the Hebrew outline of the shiur given quietly by the Tanna, and explaining it loudly, in more detail, and in Aramaic for those present to hear. The Torah, too, was given to the Jewish people through a middleman, Moshe. Following the narration of the Aseret HaDibrot, The Torah, Devarim 5:20-28, describes the request that the Jewish people had of Moshe, that they would hear the Torah from him instead of from Hashem directly, because they were afraid. Hashem’s response to this request was “Heitivu bechol asher dibeiru,” (they did good with all that they said), that He was pleased with their fear of Him and was therefore supportive of their request for a middleman. On Shavuot, then, when we commemorate matan Torah, we retain the piyut that was given by the meturgaman, a later-era middleman who is replicating what happened at matan Torah. The connection between the meturgaman and Moshe acting as a middleman on Har Sinai is supported by the Yerushalmi, Megillah 4:1, which states explicitly that the Targum of the Torah during Torah reading corresponds to giving of the Torah through a middleman.


A final suggestion for why the practice of reading Yetziv Pitgam on Shavuot has been maintained is based on an alternate reading of the last line. Instead of reading the word “Yehonatan” as the name Jonathan, it can alternatively be translated as “God gave,” and then the phrase “Yehonatan gevar invetan” would be translated as, “God presented [the Torah] to [Moses] the epitome of humility.”7 In fact, the piyut as a whole praises Hashem who gave the Torah, and the people who learn it.8 This idea relates to the theme of Shavuot as a day of matan Torah and talmud Torah. Therefore, although there were once many piyutim recited by the meturgaman, it is the one about Shavuot, which is closely connected to the spirit of the day, which is the one that has remained.


Notes


1. Schiffman, Lawrence. “Yatziv Pitgam, One of Our Last Aramaic Piyyutim.” Shavuot To Go, 5771.


2.  Ibid.


3.  Ibid.


4.  Nulman, Macy. “Yetziv Pitgam.” The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD, 1993.


5.  Ibid.


6.  “Meturgaman (‘Interpreter’).” Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906. Retrieved on April 1, 2015, from http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10742-meturgeman.


7. Gold, Avie. The Complete Artscroll Machzor Shavuos. Zlotowitz, Meir, and Nosson Scherman, ed. Mesorah Publications: New York, 1991.


8.  Ibid.

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