Take a survey of the most common adjective used to describe the Jewish High Holidays and the word might just be “long.” One reason for the long services is that in addition to the usual sections of prayer, the services are also embellished with a host of piyyutim, liturgical poems.
The inclusion of piyyutim in the prayer service is a tradition that goes back to ancient Israel. These inspirational poems not only served as a means of religious expression for the paytan (the poet), but in some communities they actually served as alternatives to the set liturgy in times and places where Jewish prayer was outlawed.
Piyyutim carry distinctive styles depending on the time and place they were composed. Those included in the service come from such a variety of places as Israel, Spain, Germany and France, all countries with distinct traditions.
An excellent example of a piyut is L’Ayl Oraich Din, which is recited on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. L’Ayl Oraich Din helps us understand God’s role as Judge, King and Father. In the following sample (the first several verses of the piyut), note the repetitive alternating ending:
And all shall ascribe the crown to You:
To God Who prepares man for judgment
To the One Who tests hearts on the day of judgment
To the One Who reveals the depths in judgment
To the One Who speaks fairness on the day of judgment
Another well known piyut is Hayom T’amzeinu. The piyut as it is recited today is only seven verses long. However, it is believed that is was originally composed as a full alphabetic acrostic. As can be seen from even just the first three verses (below), this piyut celebrates the completion of the main prayers of the day and the firm belief that these prayers have been accepted:
Today, may you strengthen us…Amen
Today, may you bless us…Amen
Today, may you make us great…Amen
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